INcredulity Toward Metanarratives

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1979 Ė Dylan and the Passion

by Patrick J. Webster


I was listening, the other day, to Blood on the Tracks, and thinking about the 1970s; that odd decade from which Blood on the Tracks now seems hardly a part of at all. When I think of the 1970s I immediately think of Nixon and Watergate; and also the abysmal state of music in that decade. It now seems that things were coasting throughout the 1970s, resting from the 1960s, waiting for the next new thing. However, the way the decade ended was more interesting, it seems to me 1979 was the significant year. It was significant for a number of reasons; both within the Dylan world and without it. In terms of politics it was the year Margaret Thatcher came to power in the UK, it was the year the Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in Iran, it was the year Ronald Reagan decided to run for President in the USA. Thus a great deal of the present could be said to find its origins at that time in the past. 

It terms of cultural events it was the year Bob Dylan brought out his record: Slow Train Coming, it was the year the great Stanley Kubrick was putting the final touches to his much misunderstood film, The Shining, and it was also the year Jean Francois Lyotard published his definitive work: The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. 

Jean Francois Lyotard is generally regarded as one of the most significant postmodern thinkers of recent times, and, in fact, the publication of The Postmodern Condition would be regarded by some as the moment when the postmodern age began. 

I donít want to get too bogged down in Lyotardís ideas in the book, but they can be summed up in the following phrase, wherein Lyotard famously defined postmodernism: 

Simplifying in the extreme ... I define postmodernism as incredulity towards        metanarratives. 

By metanarratives Lyotard meant the big stories by which we make sense of the world: religion, science, Marxism and so on Thus, in the same year Lyotard was proclaiming incredulity towards metanarratives, Bob Dylan was holding to one of the biggest metanarratives of all: Christianity. 

One of the main arguments of postmodernism is to suggest a fundamental shift in the human psyche occurred at the end of World War II. The Holocaust and the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan caused our belief and confidence in old traditional values (already shaken) to start breaking down. Our ideas of providence, progress and truth became harder to uphold. Truth became a relative term, there were differing kinds of truth, in a Foucauldian sense truth depended on who had the most power in whatever discourse was in question. We were left with an indifferent universe, or worse, a meaningless universe. A universe that needed no moral character (after Darwin), a universe that required no God (after Einstein), a universe that - according to Freud - presented us as subjective identities with no specific aim or purpose, merely a clutter of conscious and unconscious desires. The path from providence, to progress, to the nihilism of the postmodern world seems to have been a one way street, and Matthew Arnoldís Ďsea of faith,í once Ďat the full,í was now merely Ďa long withdrawing roar.í 

That Dylan chose this same year to hear Ďthat long withdrawing roar,í is suitably eccentric. Things are very clear on Slow Train Coming, it is either the devil or the Lord; there is only one authority and that is the authority on high, and there is a kingdom called heaven - which - if we could only wake up - we would see. 

It is unclear if Dylan still holds so clearly to such fundamental beliefs, it is often assumed he doesnít, but I am not so sure. I wonder if Dylan has seen Mel Gibsonís film, The Passion. It is a film I havenít seen as yet, it opens in the UK on the day after I write this. However, from all I can gather it is a film that very much ties in with a line from the most interesting song on Slow Train Coming, interesting because it links intense passion for a woman along with intense passion for Christ - and I use the word passion deliberately -this is the clue. The song I am thinking of is ĎPrecious Angel,í the line is:

You were telling him about Buddha, you were telling him about Mohammed in the same breath.

You never mentioned the man who came and died a criminals death.

Gibsonís film is based upon a historical fiction, we have no way of knowing if the crucifixion actually happened. We know someone we know as Jesus Christ preached his teachings, simply because they are extant. But whether the gospel stories are fact or just stories is open to question. Herein lies the problem. The sadism and masochism at the heart of the Roman Catholic faith, apparently explicit in Gibsonís film and implicit in Dylanís song is the point at stake (so to speak) here. Gibsonís film probably isnít aware of the damage it will do, not just the anti-Semitic stance Ė Iím talking about the vulgarity of appealing to the baser desires of such a blood-cult version of the Catholic faith. 

The world, at the present time (but wasn't it always such), seems to be filled with people killing each other over an idea - with the idea always traced back to a religious doctrine of some kind. I won't trouble to detail the examples, they are clearly apparent. 

So, back to 1979, Dylanís simplistic born-again view of the world, or Lyotardís studied ambivalence to seeing any meaning in anything? If I had to choose, which I do, let me cope with the nihilism of the latter over the innocently murderous implications of a great road to redemption. All around we see fragmentation, the consumer society rapidly consuming itself, the inability to perceive of media simulations from reality and the general decline in culture and the way society perceives of itself. Give me incredulity - every time!