Sunday, 28 January 2018

Tempest Part One

“The Watchman he lay dreaming

Of all things that can be

He dreamed the Titanic was sinking

Into the deep blue sea”

I recently heard the new releases of Bob Dylan’s ‘Born-Again’ era output (roughly 79-83), and realised in what should perhaps be a bit of a ‘duh’ moment, that whilst the overtly confessional Christianity of those records has faded, his output certainly from the early 90s onwards, has been more or less informed in its more transcendent moments by the Christian mythos, which does not mean that every good thing he’s written since then shows signs of this, but a close listening to the best of it certainly confirms the thesis.

I realise this is actually against a lot of the received wisdom - a recent Guardian article about the film of the Born-again years ‘Trouble No More’ basically says he had 3 years of going weird then forgot about all that Christian stuff. That suits the Guardian narrative. It’s also nonsense.

I would argue that a work like ‘Tempest’ from the 2012 album of the same name is a powerful meditation on the last judgement, revelation, faith and the creative act which itself is entirely incomprehensible outside of the Biblical tradition which informs it through and through.

In this song Dylan references perhaps a key figure from his own song mythos, the Watchman. The song All Along the Watchtower, which Dylan plays at the end of every live show, is itself a Biblically inspired fragment whose sudden abrupt ending and haunting wordplay present us with an apocalyptic scenario. “The hour is getting late” reminds us that the end is approaching. The two riders approaching and the Lords on the Watchtower echo a passage from Isaiah 21:5-9:

“Prepare the table, watch in the watchtower, eat, drink: arise, ye princes, and anoint the shield.
For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.
And he saw a chariot with a couple of horsemen, a chariot of asses, and a chariot of camels; and he hearkened diligently with much heed:
And he cried, A lion: My lord, I stand continually upon the watchtower in the daytime, and I am set in my ward whole nights:
And, behold, here cometh a chariot of men, with a couple of horsemen. And he answered and said, Babylon is fallen, is fallen; and all the graven images of her gods he hath broken unto the ground.”

But whilst the earlier work clearly uses Biblical imagery to create an imaginative environment which acts as a foil to the ‘false talk’ of the joker and the thief, the perspective is still very much a negative one - a rejection of the falsity of modernity in line with ‘Gates of Eden’, but unable to envision an alternative. ‘The wind began to howl’, and in the face of this approaching tempest they remain mute.

On the other hand, in ‘Tempest’ 44 years later, Dylan fleshes out this skeletal narrative with straightforwardly Christian imagery and he does it masterfully. I believe it’s his best work of the last 20 years. I have to add a caveat here: he does reweave an older song to make this one - it is of course a traditional folk standard - The Titanic, a version was recorded by the Carter Family. But that version is more straightforwardly moralistic, less mysterious, than Bob’s, even though there is a moral core to Bob’s version.

Before we get to the repetition of the Watchman imagery, I want to mention a few key themes. First, we’ve already seen that All Along the Watchtower envisions an apocalyptic scenario. Here we are taken deeper into the meaning of apocalypse - a Greek word meaning ‘unveiling’. This is evident in the way the veils are lifted and truth is seen in all sorts of ways in this song. But most directly:

The veil was torn asunder

'Tween the hours of twelve and one

No change, no sudden wonder

Could undo what had been done

Or the Captain reading the Book of Revelation in the gloom, his cup filling with tears. Or take this passage:

Brother rose up 'gainst brother

In every circumstance

They fought and slaughtered each other

In a deadly dance

We can see from these passages why Dylan is interested in the Titanic story: it provides a narrative universe within which to explore the question of imminent doom, judgement and the meaning of one’s actions in the light of eternity. In Matthew 10 we find:

The brother also shall deliver up the brother to death, and the father the son: and the children shall rise up against their parents, and shall put them to death. And you shall be hated by all men for my name's sake: but he that shall persevere unto the end, he shall be saved.

And when they shall persecute you in this city, flee into another. Amen I say to you, you shall not finish all the cities of Israel, till the Son of man come.

Therefore fear them not. For nothing is covered that shall not be revealed: nor hid, that shall not be known. That which I tell you in the dark, speak ye in the light: and that which you hear in the ear, preach ye upon the housetops. “

Dylan alludes to the end times throughout the song, but those times are not considered from a distance but rather seem suddenly all about us - who can deny that part of the horror of the imagery of brother slaughtering brother derives from its familiarity to us from the events of the last century?

Nothing is covered that shall not be revealed

In Tempest, the Watchman is asleep. This is a delightfully comic image which helps to drive the tragedy. The Watchman had one job, and failed. But also the Watchman stands for all those who are appointed, either through their official position, or through their own work, guardians of culture, morality and reason, those whose job is to ‘stay awake and watch’:

(Matt 24:42: “Watch therefore: for ye know not on what day your Lord cometh. But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what watch the thief was coming, he would have watched, and would not have suffered his house to be broken through. Therefore be ye also ready: for in an hour that ye think not the Son of man cometh.”).

They have succumbed to the forces of the unconscious. And as a result the people are also dragged down into the dark depths. What are the consequences for an age when those whose mission is to be guardians and prophets have failed in their duty? The agony of Christ in the garden of Gethsemane also contains warnings. Discovering his disciples asleep when he returns he says to them “Could you not stay awake and watch with me for even one hour?” The chief mark of the modern age is the choice to anaesthetise and to numb, to fall asleep rather than bear the burden of being awake in the spirit.

As Deacon Lawrence tells us in this post on 'Leaf by Niggle' "Throughout His ministry Jesus reminds us of the importance of preparing for the Kingdom that is to come." So, like Tolkien in Leaf by Niggle, Dylan also takes on this task - he becomes the Watchman, and in his dreamlike vision of the sinking Titanic he alerts us to the truth.

Which is partly the reason why the Watchman's dreams are telling him the truth - he dreams the Titanic is sinking! Normally our dreams are odd fantasies. This inversion of normality adds to the sense of doom and foreboding. The Watchman is trying to tell people in his dream but can’t get the message across.

Some of the most moving moments of the song derive from the actions of the people on the ship. In part 2 I will look at them in more detail.

Thursday, 11 January 2018


“We’re all really worried about you” an old friend recently told me in a message. What had happened? Had I contracted a nasty disease? No. Had I developed mental health issues and become depressed? Not as far as I’m aware. Had I suddenly expressed a desire to give up everything and run off to Rio with some woman of easy virtue I’d met in Ipswich or somewhere? Definitely not.

What had happened was that since I’d become a father and returned to the Church I had started to try and live and witness to my faith in a more solid way. I had started to openly express the view on social media that abortion was wrong. For simply asking for arguments on Facebook to support the view that abortion was wrong, for an A Level revision guide I was writing, I was told by one old friend they were going to ‘stage an intervention’ (presumably akin to the drug addict ones where they gather round and confront you with your addiction) on me. Another person (not someone I’ve ever liked to be honest) called me a nasty bigot and said that my revision guide was probably shit. Others (Australians so we’ll cut them some slack) started commenting about the sex abuse scandal in the Church and essentially said I had no right to an opinion on such matters as I had never been pregnant. “Don’t like it, don’t do it” she said, like that was an argument. A lot of people got very inflamed.

Which is odd. If you have no right to an opinion about something unless you’ve actually undergone it, then most people have no right to an opinion on anything. Or perhaps they meant it in the soft sense that you are not allowed to have an opinion on something unless you can potentially experience it. Now it seems fair that I am very ill-qualified to talk about the experience of racism against black people in England. I would hesitate to pay much attention to something I said on that. But I could still extrapolate from that to make a general moral point about racism. Equally, I am never going to actually experience having a baby within me which I don’t want, but it is absurd to think that because of this I cannot discuss the morality of abortion. In fact, I would have even more claim than this anyway, as I someday may have contributed 50% of the genetic make up of the being whose life is in question.

I’m actually still smiling at the absurdity of “don’t like it, don’t do it” as an argument for anything other than not going on a scary rollercoaster, or eating a particularly hot chilli. It amply illustrates the emotivism which underlies most of what passes for moral discussion now. Either there are some things which we believe it is possible to say ‘you should do this’ or ‘you shouldn’t do this’, or we just cannot talk about what ‘should’ happen at all, in which case, my Australian friend needs to quit telling me I shouldn’t be allowed to have an opinion on abortion.

So if you say “we’re all really worried about you”, what you should really say is “we’re sorry you appear to have gone backward and rejected the only sane position on this issue - there is nothing to discuss until you fall back into line with our view - and until then I will express my arrogance and disdain for your bigotry as concern for you”. That would be much more honest.

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