1101 words on

 Isis, the moon and Molly Bloom

 by Patrick J. Webster


To continue: in the penultimate verse of the song the narrator and Isis have a short, surreal conversation in which the narrator, somewhat unconvincingly it must be said, agrees he will stay and seal his commitment to Isis:

She said, ‘Where ya been?’ I said, ‘No place special.’
She said, ‘You look different.’ I said ‘Well I guess’.
She said, ‘You been gone.’ I said, ‘It’s only natural.
She said, ‘You gonna stay?’ I said, ‘If you want me to, yes.’

The narrator’s final quoted word in the performed version of the lyric is a life-affirming, Joycean: ‘yes,’  which offers the song a further intertextual resonance. The narrator of the song, like Leopold Bloom, has returned to his beginning, and, after a period of wandering, has found no answer, no solution, no meaning with which to confront the sense of futility, frustration and loneliness he had had before he left. Furthermore, Isis, like Molly Bloom, has remained at home waiting for the man to return, as she knew he would. Both Dylan’s unnamed narrator and Leopold Bloom are, in a sense, subjugated by the women they are involved with. There is a sense that both Isis and Molly Bloom have a greater understanding to men’s fears and desires and that, as women, they know how to use this power. 

Isis’s lover and Bloom may possess the universal male signifier, they may travel in the world as women cannot, but for all of this they ultimately seem dependent on the female presence and are continually drawn back to them. 

The tomb was empty, the journey made by the narrator could thus be seen as an allegorical account of a search which ultimately leads only to the place where the journey had begun. John Herdman has commented that the narrator of ‘Isis’ has ... 

... been through hell and back again, has gained nothing and learned nothing, and now finds himself once more in the very situation which drove him forth. We can visualise a nightmare-like eternal recurrence of this cyclic movement. 

Dylan’s hero has found no solution, no meaning, and his only option would seem to be to return and to attempt  to find some meaning in life via  woman’s love. This, I would argue, is the underlying contradiction of the construct of masculinity in this text and also elsewhere in Dylan’s work. 

Aidan Day, one of the few critics of Dylan to have discussed the implications of masculinity within the song in any detail, notes that the narrator’s return ‘with the sun in his eyes’ plays upon the association of Isis with the moon: 

‘In the speaker’s return to Isis is imaged again, as in the opening of the lyric, a sacramental conjunction of sun and moon: a creative union of masculine and female principles. As a parable of a psychic split, the speaker’s journey away from Isis exposes the inadequacies of too one-sided a development of the conventionally masculine aspects of identity. The much prized attributes of the heroic ego - all will and active self-determination - are stripped to expose an aggressive, imaginatively barren and ultimately life-denying acquisitiveness.’ 

Thus the song could be read as an allegorical construct encircling the impossibility of ever reconciling gender differences, the impossibility of man and woman ever fully comprehending one another. The question the song appears to ask is whether Isis, and her reckless, masculine lover, can ever live happily ever after, or indeed, can any man and woman ever truly live happily ever after? The song derives from an album called Desire, and there would seem to be a desire to achieve a union between the masculine and feminine universes. But whether this can ever be achieved within the performative construct of gender in this song, and many others in Dylan’s canon, remains uncertain. 

In the thirteenth and final verse we get this summing up:

Isis, oh, Isis, you mystical child
What drives me to you is what drives me insane.
I still can remember the way that you smiled,
On the fifth day of May in the drizzling rain.

The narrator, forced back into a feminine domain, recalls the contradiction of needing Isis and not needing her, and of risking his life and possibly his sanity in the process of doing this. Thus the song ends, in a completely circular fashion, on the fifth day of May in the drizzling rain.          

To be continued