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Bob Dylan and the wisdom of looking back

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Tod Worner - published on 02/12/24

Miraculously, the tired curmudgeon of our former days gives way to the subtle hope of now.
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In recent days, I came across Bob Dylan’s 1964 musical lament, My Back Pages. Now, if you’ll indulge me, stop reading this essay, tee up the song on Spotify, and pour over the lyrics here.

Welcome back.

Now, just consider the first stanza of Dylan’s song:

Crimson flames tied through my ears
Rollin’ high and mighty traps
Pounced with fire on flaming roads
Using ideas as my maps
“We’ll meet on edges, soon,” said I
Proud ’neath heated brow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now

My Back Pages is the song of the hot-blooded, the righteously indignant, the intolerant justice-chasers determined to rid the wider world of its intractable transgressions. You can feel the heat in his ears and the fire in his brow as, pulsating and red-faced, Bob Dylan screams and shakes his fist at the world. 

And what informs his scream? Beyond a rabid self-righteousness, there is a cocksure reliance on ideas as maps. These ideas — these maps — consist of stubborn theories, haughty abstractions, and ill-considered talking points that are rigidly defended first and explored and experienced only later, if at all. And, indeed, the arrogance of untested certainty mixed with bottomless, seething emotion makes for a potent and heady brew.

Dylan’s phrase, “Using ideas as maps,” also reminds me of G.K. Chesterton’s poem, The Convert, which he furiously scribbled after returning home from church on the day he became Catholic. 

The sages have a hundred maps to give
That trace their crawling cosmos like a tree,
They rattle reason out through many a sieve
That stores the sand and lets the gold go free

In writing such words, Chesterton reflects on the wisdom (or folly) of the world — its pompous theories, deceptive abstractions, and pat talking points — that supposedly show us the way when, in fact, they actually muddle everything by too often jettisoning the good and preserving the bad. (“They rattle reason out through many a sieve/That stores the sand and lets the gold go free.”).

In stanza after stanza of My Back Pages, we hear a Dylan who seems battle-ready for the war against 1960s injustice. But, in truth, this song is no battle cry; it is a gentle head-shaking retrospective. Dreaming of “romantic facts,” screaming lies that “life is black and white,” and speaking the word Equality “as if a wedding vow,” pokes fun at the stilted ideals of his former and violently arduous self. 

And that’s when we come to his refrain — a refrain that cools the temper, is more circumspect, and surrenders a bit to the wisdom of experience. 

Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now.

Dylan seems to channel a bit of Mark Twain when the avuncular author quipped, “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” It seems that, in Dylan’s eyes, to have been paradoxically “older then” (in his youth) is to have been cocksure, unmoving, and curmudgeonly defiant whereas being “younger than that now” (in his older age) is to be a little less sure, a bit more humble, and a lot more merciful. Can sense the change in Bob Dylan? His fists slowly unclench and his eyes begin to smile. It is a departure from the violent storm. It is graceful arrival home. 

But not everybody arrives there (especially as young as Dylan was when he wrote this song — he was only 23). On today’s streets and campuses, can’t we all see the younger Dylans raging? There’s no time to listen. There’s only room to shout. To be sure, they demand justice, but it is a pitiless justice. The sardonic Flannery O’Connor nails it, “Conviction without experience makes for harshness.” 

Hopefully (but not always), age and experience chasten. Yes, we become more familiar with the world’s shortcomings (who hasn’t discovered the inhumanity of bureaucracy or the scurrilous state of politics?), but, even more, we acutely discover our own. With dreams of gold and feet of clay, we begin to change. We crave mercy more than justice. As ideologies crumble and programs fade away, we rediscover the freshness of humility — humility that lacks all answers and cherishes simple graces. Miraculously, the tired curmudgeon of our former days gives way to the subtle hope of now. We leave our old selves behind. We become young again. 

Sensing the tumult emanating from human arrogance and appetite in every generation, G.K. Chesterton called for humility and solidarity: “We men and women are all in the same boat, upon a stormy sea,” he reminded. “We owe to each other a terrible and tragic loyalty.” My Back Pages says something about that. Be cool. Be kind. Be merciful.

Perhaps, in an age of hot-bloodedness, we all could afford to be a bit younger.

Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now.

And read how Bob Dylan got this author started on faith in the Eucharist:

~

Tod Worner is a practicing internal medicine physician, Managing Editor of Evangelization & Culture, the Journal of the Word on Fire Institute, and Host of TheEvangelization & Culture Podcast.

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