an alternative view -

Arts and Lies?
Hagiography or Autobiography

1326 words about

…this and that...

by Patrick J. Webster


One of my more embarrassing occasions, of the past few years, occurred at a reading the novelist, Jeanette Winterson, gave at Waterstones bookshop, in Leeds, sometime in the spring of 2001. I went along with a group of English students from the University of Leeds - the talk was on Winterson’s then current novel, The Power Book - but as I was currently teaching her earlier book Oranges are Not the Only Fruit - it seemed a good opportunity to see and hear her speak. And, in fact, she spoke very well - reading from her latest novel to great effect. In the Q/A session Winterson was just as engaging - and whilst I don’t usually feel comfortable about putting forward a question in such circumstances I was, against my better judgement, persuaded so to do. 

I won't bore you with the question, it was something to do with poststructuralist implications of the author’s voice within a literary text. It was one Winterson feigned ignorance of, but one she was probably aware of anyway. In any case, her actual response was characteristically astute; it was something like:

“You know the trouble with academics - they just clutter things up.” 

The remark was probably right on the proverbial money. But this is not the point I want to make; in the course of not answering the question Jeanette did come up with a comment pertinent to my view on Chronicles, she said:

“There's no such thing as biography - there's only art and lies.” 

I think Winterson may have been quoting herself, but I recalled the phrase several times as I read Chronicles. Here I think for biography we could easily read autobiography, and this is the way I approached Dylan’s book - it isn't autobiography, it is merely art and lies. 

I am at odds with most of the general critical response to the book. All I can feel when reading the book is a sense of Dylan talking about another universe to the real one we all inhabit. It seems to me that it is art - it is art engagingly written, but it is art that has little to do with the so called real world. Chronicles, it seems to me, is beguilingly disingenuous - so much so that I feel many readers have been taken in. A great majority of readers have taken for granted that Dylan was writing an autobiography - not that he seems to have actually claimed this is so - but it seems to me that this was far from the case. If it is anything this is a text about the complexity and ambiguity of identity. But if Bob Dylan is writing about an identity it is wholly other to the identity we envisage as ‘Bob Dylan.’ 

My reading of the book suggests our author is continually dissembling. I recall Philip Larkin’s phrase, there is a continual sense of:

‘something almost being said.’ 

The book is purposefully incomplete, it is purposefully unrevealing. Andy Gill has described the book as:

‘the most extraordinary intimate autobiography by a 20th century legend.’ 

Bob Dylan is a 20th century legend (and a 21st century one as well) but the book is not intimate, insomuch Dylan offers us almost nothing of his intimate life, in fact he offers us hardly anything of his actual life. 

So why all the adulation? Why has Chronicles been so well received? 

There is much adulation in the course of the book itself. Dylan has a good word for everyone, but this is so at variance with other documentary sources as to become almost risible. We get much detail, there is great graphic description of detail - over things Dylan can have no actual recollection of. But this is just a depiction of the art and the lies - it has nothing to do with what may or may not have occurred in the so called real world. 

Dylan writes well, in a kind of sub Hemingway persona of style. It is a distinctly American memoir, this is one of the most revealing aspects to the text. Other than Hemingway there are intimations of (Henry) Miller and Kerouac - but mostly I think we must look towards Woody Guthrie - and his memoir Bound for Glory - which is surely the kind of voice Dylan was reaching for in Chronicles. (However, how much of this is down to Dylan and skilful editorial hands is open to question; it is somewhat naive to believe a published text, is wholly the work of its author; Dylan writes prose well - or does he?) 

In any case, mention of Woody Guthrie brings up the major problem I have with Dylan’s book. I find the narrative voice both conniving and hypocritical. Take, for example, the section in which Dylan complains about the destruction of his yacht in the Caribbean. This is, to say the least, unimpressive. I find it difficult to feel any sympathy for a man whose wealth stretches into the millions or perhaps close to billions of dollars, worrying about the fact his boat - no doubt maintained by a man earning something like 50 cents a day - has sunk. Who cares - he can buy another - wealth and power have no limits in the world of the author of Chronicles

The difference is this: Bob Dylan bought into the system, whilst Woody Guthrie’s hatred of the system was unwavering. Guthrie’s contempt for excessive private property was also unwavering. It is hard to imagine Woody Guthrie complaining about his $x million yacht sinking? There are elements of integrity here. Woody Guthrie lived one kind of life, Bob Dylan another. 

Ed Cray’s recently published biography of Guthrie, Ramblin' Man: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie, makes this clear - Guthrie was a ‘full blooded Marxist.’ The logo on Guthrie’s guitar may have read, ‘This machine kills Fascists’ but it may just as well have read ‘This machine kills Capitalists.’ Dylan’s book is not able to enter into such a political discourse, it cannot because Dylan - the man -is far from what his songs of social commentary suggest. His book is quaintly non-judgemental, it rarely makes any kind of statement that is in anyway ideologically exacting - it cannot because it is built upon nothing but art and lies. 

In having said all of this, I won't pretend I haven’t intended to be polemical - I have - I think the general reception of the book has been both dishevelled and sentimental. 

However, the book is interesting in its attempt to define the art of the musician and songwriter. Also, I liked Dylan’s insistence (albeit ludicrously transparent) throughout on downplaying any intellectual acuity he may possess. This is exactly the same technique Walt Whitman liked to apply - the pretence of a non-intellectual approach to what was unequivocally intellectual work. 

I also liked the quote from the recent interview Dylan gave to Newsweek:

‘ ... lest we forget; while you’re writing you’re not living. What do they call it? Splendid Isolation? I don't find it that splendid.’

Dylan is likely referring to the late Warren Zevon's song, ‘Splendid Isolation,’ from his 1989 album/record/CD Transverse City. A song - one of Zevon’s most interesting - pertaining to the loneliness of the creative artist. And I think this is what Chronicles is ultimately attempting to express. 

Overall, I find it a wholly disingenuous book - written by a great artist - but something less than a great man. To impress, I am surprised in the implied gullibility of the general response to the book - within Freewheelin' and without it - Dylan is a great artist but all the evidence we have is that he is not a great man. Chronicles is a calculated whitewash, to the point of being a hagiography -the purported life of a saint - not biography - it is, as Jeannette Winterson puts it, mere art and lies.