Half-wracked prejudice leaped forth, “rip down all hate,” I screamed
Lies that life is black and white spoke from my skull, I dreamed
Romantic facts of musketeers foundationed deep, somehow
Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now
— Bob Dylan, My Back Pages
Bob Dylan was in his early 20s when he wrote the song “My Back Pages”, which is usually interpreted as a statement of the singer-songwriter’s disenchantment with the burgeoning protest movement, whose boy wonder he was in the early Sixties.
Featured on the 1964 album Another Side of Bob Dylan,“My Back Pages” did, as advertised, offer a candid look at Robert Zimmerman’s other side — a more private and less strident one, revealing a young man less sure of his opinions, fearing he becomes his enemy “in the instant that I preach.”
Describing the album at the time to Village Voice columnist Nat Hentoff, Dylan said: “There aren’t any finger-pointing songs [here]. ... Now a lot of people are doing finger-pointing songs. You know, pointing to all the things that are wrong. Me, I don’t want to write for people any more. You know, be a spokesman.”
Infotainment media, cultural critics and commercial star-making machinery have been attaching the marketing label “Voice of a Generation” or “The Next Bob Dylan” to rising artists ever since, going all the way back to Phil Ochs and Barry McGuire. But what Blind Boy Grunt was telling us even then was: It ain’t me, babe. Who needs the aggravation?
Yes, my guard stood hard when abstract threats too noble to neglect
Deceived me into thinking I had something to protect
Good and bad, I define these terms quite clear, no doubt, somehow
Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now
Being younger now than one was then is obviously a logical contradiction. But unless we’re locked into ossified opinions and never change our views when the facts on the ground change or we gain new knowledge — unless we steadfastly refuse to modify our understanding of good and bad, quite clear, no doubt, somehow — all maturing adults experience some form of that back-pages epiphany about feeling “younger than that now.” Dylan, and not for the last time, was merely ahead of the curve.
A foolish consistency, as Emerson warned in that great American bible, Self Reliance, is the hobgoblin of little minds:
With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — 'Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.’ — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.
Which brings me to what I wanted to discuss, which isn’t really Dylan at all. Rather, this has all been a preamble to 10 contradictions that can’t possibly be true because they make no rational sense and yet, like being younger when you’re older, they are all self-evidently true and make perfect sense as time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’, into the future. The past is epilogue. Eheu, fugaces!
1) Man is “a mortal rational animal,” to cite the elegant and concise definition given by Neoplatonic philosopher Porphyry, following Aristotle. But still, as professional wrestling crowds and similarly constituted Trump political rallies have demonstrated time and time again, any irrational claim, “no matter how outrageously and obviously idiotic, could be made to land in an audience and stir people’s terrors.”
Playwright Arthur Miller, whom I just quoted, was talking about McCarthyism when he warned of “the spectacle of intelligent people giving themselves over to a rapture of murderous credibility” and a “ministry of free-floating apprehension.”
However, here we are again, back at the Salem witch trials (dramatized in Miller’s play The Crucible as a metaphor for McCarthyism) as a vengeance-obsessed ex-president gleefully incites violence by fabricating a wickedly inverted lament about his own persecution at the hands of witch-hunting “communists, Marxists, fascists, radical left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country.” A staggering number of MAGA Republicans sincerely believe in the existence of a global cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles that Il Donald Duce was sent by God to stop, which is why it’s only to be expected that the most high-spirited among them would shoot the occasional Muslim in the street, firebomb the occasional synagogue, make death threats to election officials or break into Nancy Pelosi’s house and beat her husband with a hammer. To vanquish the plot against America, you can’t pussyfoot around with “people who hate us” and “enemies of the people.”
Trump’s simple modus operandi, which has served him implausibly yet extraordinarily well in both business and politics, is devastatingly simple: If he’s accusing others of doing it, he’s either doing it or planning it himself. Stacking the courts? Weaponizing the U.S. Department of Justice? Just wait till he regains the Ring of Mordor a year from now. Aside from witnessing the complete evisceration of American democracy, we’ll be in for four more years of a political philosophy that goes no deeper than a derisive, goading, taunting, sneering, ridiculing bully-boy’s “I know you are but what am I?”
In McCarthy’s day (Joe, not Kevin), as Miller scoffed, irrational animals on the American right were blaming the disappointments in their own despairing lives on “foreigners, Jews, Catholics, fluoridated water, aliens in space, masturbation, homosexuality, or the Internal Revenue Department.” Substitute vaccines for fluoridated water, Muslims for Catholics, critical race theory for masturbation and, good golly Miss Molly, we were so much older then, we’re dumber than that now.
2) American individualism is oxymoronic (the oxy is optional), and Canada’s no different. No country is. What the great Viennese writer Robert Musil observed in 1933 while watching middle-class Germans join the Nazi Party in droves applies equally well in 2023 to the land of the free and the home of the brave, where the proud ethos of give-me-land-lots-of-land-under-starry-skies-above self-reliance and don’t-fence-me-in libertarianism has always been Hollywood hooey: In fact, history shows most people have always wanted “to be led, to take a lead from someone, to be brought together with others, included and enveloped.” Fascism is “indeed a creation that goes unerringly to the core of man’s instincts.” Freedom’s just another word for a caucus of the absurd.
3) Tolstoy nailed this one in War and Peace while encapsulating what he viewed as the frivolous insouciance of Muscovites as Napoléon’s 100,000-strong army bore down on the city:
… there are always two voices that speak with equal power in the human soul: one very reasonably tells a man to consider the nature of the danger and the means of escaping it; the other, still more reasonably, says that it is too depressing and painful to think of the danger, since it is not in man’s power to foresee everything and avert the general course of events, and it is therefore better to disregard what is painful till it comes, and to think about what is pleasant. In solitude a man generally listens to the first voice, but in society to the second. … It was long since people had been as gay in Moscow as that year.
Led astray by that alluring second voice, we scroll through the latest Netflix distractions, shop online for festive bibelots and are easily, heedlessly seduced by trite “common sense” bromides like “axe the tax” while coastal cities and island countries disappear under the waves, quenchless feuds and unceasing wars rage, glaciers recede, deserts encroach, streams dry up, crops fail, coral reefs dissolve, ocean currents shut down and tens of millions of refugees surge from one continent to another, driven by famine, floods, droughts, catastrophic wildfires and ethnic cleansing. Smoke gets in our eyes — half the spring and all summer long. But by fall all we want is to save 15 cents a litre on our gas bills.
Neil Postman had it right back in 1985. Pass the soma. We are amusing ourselves to death.
4) A particularly obscene and oft-cited contradiction: The appeal of bigoted, jingoistic, white supremacist ideology in a country where that radical left colossus, the Statue of Liberty, still proclaims: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
That outdated Liberty Island plaque should be replaced with a No Trespassing sign and a stern warning that violators will be towed away at their own expense and risk. A once-mighty woman, the mother of exiles, has set down her torch, extinguished the lightning and turned her mild eyes toward Fox & Friends.
As John Washington writes in his new book, The Case for Open Borders: “As we deny, cast out, and crack down, we have turned our thresholds into barricades. We lose our own home by denying it to others.”
And as Brexit and the election of an ever-increasing number of anti-immigrant parties and Trump-inspired autocrats across the Western world have demonstrated, this corrosive, self-destructive insularity is hardly limited to the U.S. With British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and hawkish former Home Secretary Suella Braverman clearly in her sights, this is historian and mythographer Marina Warner in an essay published in the Nov. 23 edition of the New York Review of Books:
It is one of the bitterest ironies of the present political uses of xenophobia in Britain that children of Black and brown immigrants, whose right to enter inspired generations like mine to protest against exclusionary government policies, are now eagerly consolidating “the hostile environment,” blocking legal routes of immigration, and stoking the frenzy against “small boats.”
5) OK, Cassandra, that will do for now. Since this has been much too Old Testamentish for we second-voice Moscow party enthusiasts to bear thinking about, how about something a bit less plague-of-boils and deluge-of-frogs?
Well, speaking of the NYRB, I was taken by this quasi-contradiction — more of a conundrum maybe — raised by Zambian writer Namwali Serpell in an essay in the Nov. 2 edition.
Her topic was finding one’s voice as a writer, but really, this applies to everything we do: “Wherever you find yourself straying or tripping out of the groove? That’s where whatever makes your style yours springs into being. What a lovely thought. We become who we are when we fail to become whomever we were trying to be.”
Character Philip Roth, the narrator of novelist Philip Roth’s meta 13th novel Operation Shylock: A Confession, put it this way: “A man’s character isn’t his fate; a man’s fate is the joke that his life plays on his character.”
A kindred incongruity, but perhaps not quite so lovely a thought. Is life worth living? If Roth taught us anything, it’s that the answer depends on the liver.
6) This one channels 18th-century French writer Nicolas Chamfort, as quoted by 20th-century French existentialist Albert Camus: “If you want to succeed in society, you have to let yourself learn a lot of things you already know from people who don’t know anything about them.”
Middle management, anyone?
7) This one channels Camus himself, an existentialist who contradicted anyone who called him an existentialist: Like the devious tyrant Sisyphus, condemned forever to the meaningless task of pushing a boulder up a mountain, only to see it roll down again as he neared the top, human beings are compelled to seek meaning in a world where there is none to be found.
Hey. It’s a living.
8) As he suggested all his readers do, I’m currently re-reading German writer Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, which, by the way, will turn 100 next year, is one of the great all-time novels and should be on everyone’s must-read bucket list. Mann describes the chief preoccupation of protagonist Hans Castorp — as he settles into what turns out to be a seven-year stay at a tuberculosis sanatorium in the Swiss Alps before being released as fresh cannon fodder for the wholesale slaughter of the First World War — as “getting used to not getting used” to sanatorium living. Even for us flatlanders, getting used to not getting used to things is the sine qua non of mental health.
Line forms on the right.
9) Now that we’re so young that the reverse engineering of our births draws nigh, many of my fellow bleached-bone burnouts, scuffed antiques and crotchety-old gaffers have adopted a resolute, deadly serious commitment to ironic detachment. Oh, if we only had a loonie for every time we’ve heard ourselves say: “I’m so glad I won’t be around to witness (insert current fashionable apocalpytic disaster here) …”.
Furthermore, most of us have opted to achieve courageous personal transformation by embracing the fearless mantra of the protagonist in BBC Antiques Roadshow expert Jeremy Cooper’s terrific new novel Brian: “Keep watch. Stick to routine. Protect against surprise.”
Old age and illness take you into a sort of 3-D Escher lithograph or mezzotint, requiring one to reconnoiter impossible mathematical ventures (like how to get to the bathroom at night when you can’t get out of bed) and rotational symmetry perspectives while navigating challenges posed by mouth ulcers, hyperbolic geometry, cold sores, Moorish tessellations, Rubik’s Cube townscapes with 10,000 roofs glittering in the setting sun while driving at dusk, fatigue, infinity, woodcuts by Dürer, watery bowels, voids, discarded Gaviscon bottles, insomnia opening to magnificently ruched curtains … all while the blood supply that should be (used to be) in our, um, reproductive regions sloshes uselessly through the weedy cart tracks and footpaths of our minds. When everything comes out at eleven-nineteenths or thirteen twenty-sevenths at 3:30 a.m., our calculations with respect to all our troubles (let’s start with how to get off the damn toilet) are completely and irredeemably, as they say in what used to be known as Canada’s Distinct Society, bien trop tout fucké.
My advice? Pay no attention to things that mean nothing to you until they do, such as lichen motifs on cemetery headstones. Study previously indiscernible shapes in the hallway parquet or figures in the bathroom tile. If it helps, channel John Updike’s Harry (Rabbit) Angstrom: “It gives him great pleasure, makes Rabbit feel rich, to contemplate the world’s wasting, to know the earth is mortal too.”
10) Ah yes, mortality. I spoke the word as if a wedding vow. And as every fresh newscast puts paid to any last illusions we might have harboured about our species’ capacity for behaving as rational animals, let us consider the finite portion of Porphyry’s definition of what we are. So far as our being mortal goes, the punchline is that there is no punchline.
William Hazlitt: “To be and to do all this, and then in a moment to be nothing, to have it all snatched from one like a juggler’s ball or a phantasmagoria; there is something revolting and incredible to sense in the transition, and no wonder that, aided by youth and warm blood, and the flush of enthusiasm, the mind contrives for a long time to reject it with disdain and loathing as a monstrous and improbable fiction, like a monkey on a house-top, that is loath, amidst its fine discoveries and specious antics, to be tumbled head-long into the street, and crushed to atoms, the sport and laughter of the multitude!”
Simone de Beauvoir: “I think with sadness of all the books I’ve read, all the places I’ve seen, all the knowledge I’ve amassed and that will be no more. All the music, all the paintings, all the culture, so many places: and suddenly nothing.”
Gord Downie, before being buried someplace he didn’t want to be: “It would seem to me I remember every single fucking thing I know.”
Kafka: “The meaning of life is that it ends.”
Chance: “Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.”
Me: “There are way too many quotations in this blustering blob of bloviation.”
You: “My gorge rises at it.”
Just one more. (Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I am enlarged, prostatically speaking. I contain decrepitudes.)
Something I came across in Mitch Albom’s sentimental (with gusts to maudlin and mawkish) Tuesdays with Morrie resonated with me. The book is about the former sportswriter reconnecting with his old college mentor Morrie Schwartz, who was dying of ALS, the disease that carried away our dear friend Susan Kastner late last week.
Not sure how this would have played with Aristotle or Porphyry, but Morrie had a considerable gift for pithy definitions himself. Like this one: “Love is the only rational act.”
It fell to Albom, though, to deliver the ultimate contradiction: “Death ends a life, not a relationship.”
Thin gruel, but it’s all we have. Live with it.