Bob Dylan's 'Pay in Blood' - an analysis - Part 2
In our first article we discussed the refrain of the song: ‘I pay in blood but not my own’, in this article we start examining the verses of the song. On the internet some have argued that the verses of the song represent a dialogue between a slave and his master; the slave is meant in those verses which speak of pain, suffering and hardship and the master is meant in those verses which speak of revenge, retribution, punishment and violence. Implicitly the whole institution of slavery is tackled and the western nations, including America, are ‘accused of murder’ for so long having kept up a system of human repression, just for financial gain. Although, as we will see, not all verses deal with this issue and the perspective shifts continuously, yet I think there is a lot of truth in the notion that a large part of this song deals with slavery and its horrible consequences. That the song for a large part is about slavery may be backed up by Dylan’s recent RS interview. In this interview Bob Dylan says that stigma of slavery ruined America and he has a hard time believing the country can get rid of this shame because it was ‘founded on the backs of slaves.’ Dylan goes on to say that in America “people are at each other’s throats just because they are of a different color; it will hold any nation back.” Dylan also said: “If slavery had been given up in a more peaceful way, America would be far ahead today.”
At the same time, Dylan would not be Dylan if he would not take the issue of slavery to a deeper and more spiritual level. The poet has the intention to cut to the core of slavery – of human bondage - and in such a situation harsh words cannot be avoided to picture the dark reality of this slavery. Only when we come to understanding what is at the core of human bondage we start coming aware of its terrible consequences and of the only way to get out of it and that is through redemption – payment in blood.
Actually, slavery, human bondage, started at the beginning of mankind when as Dylan says metaphorically ‘Someone slipped a drug in your wine, and when you gulped it down and crossed the line’. This is another way, a poetic way, of expressing what went wrong with man in the beginning, in the Garden of Eden. Wine symbolizes the ultimate communion between God and man. One day this communion will be restored (Mat 26:29). In the beginning, in the Garden of Eden, man deliberately broke this communion and willingly gulped down the treacherous words of Satan and by doing so crossed a fatal line. From that day on mankind became enslaved to Satan. His enemy became his master. Through all ages, in an ill attempt to free mankind from the yoke of slavery we have seen that, in turns, slaves have become masters and masters have become slaves. Only redemption, interference, from above is capable of breaking this morbid chain of events, this deadly cycle. But it goes even further than that. Human sin is the mother of all slavery. Redemption from slavery, initially brought out by the exodus of Israel from the slave house of Egypt, was only the beginning; it was fully materialized when Jesus – through his payment in blood - bought mankind free from the slave house of sin .But it did not stop there. Those bought free are subsequently transformed through the Holy Spirit. This transformation is described i.e. in 2 Corinthians 3:17, 18: ‘For the Lord is the Spirit, and wherever the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. So all of us who have had that veil removed can see and reflect the glory of the Lord. And the Lord—who is the Spirit—makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image’ . By the way, this is quite something else Dylan spoke about in his recent Rolling Stone interview. Dylan did not speak about ‘Transformation’ but he spoke about ‘Transfiguration’ a process which he said he had undergone in the sixties. ‘Transfiguration’ however, is usually reserved to Christ only (see e.g. Mat. 17:2).So when a ‘normal’ human being – no matter who he or she is – assumes that some kind of a ‘Transfiguration’ has happened to him or herself, a lot of alarm bells have to start ringing. When you hear people talk about a ‘Transfiguration’ experience you’d better watch out. ‘Transfiguration’’ imaginations may easily lead to misplaced ‘delusions of grandeur ‘which may ultimately lead to ‘the disease of conceit’.
Transformation – or inward renewal through the Holy Spirit – has two main aspects and we can recognize at least one these aspects in ‘Pay in blood’. The first thing Transformation causes is: pain and suffering. Transformation changes the heart. That is never an easy process. Dylan – in the context of talking about slavery in his RS interview- : “You have to change your heart if you want to change.” The second aspect of Transformation is joy and gratitude but we do not find this in this song. Having said this, we take a look at the first verse:
‘Well I’m grinding my life out, steady and sure, nothing more wretched than what I must endure’ seems partly inspired by the poet Ovid. The Poems of Exile: ‘Tristia and the Black Sea Letters’ Book V says:
‘You write that I should divert these mournful days with writing, stop my wits rotting from neglect. That’s hard advice, my friend: poems emerge as the product of happiness- need peace of mind- but my fate’s shaken by adverse gales, there could be nothing more wretched than what I endure’.
Dylan’s words Well I’m grinding my life out, steady and sure, nothing more wretched than what I must endure’ immediately takes our mind into the realm of slavery. One thinks of hard, strenuous and monotonous slavery work over an indefinite period of time without any prospect of relief and in violation of all basic human rights. Your life is grinded out as if you are in some prison where you are stuck under a millstone, the friction of which pulverizes your life, steady but sure, or like the poet Milton once wrote: ‘send thee into the common prison, there to grind’. ‘Nothing more wretched than what I must endure’ is as it says in Proverbs 15:15: ‘All the days of the oppressed are wretched”. It recalls not only the wretched days of the poet’s ancestors the, the Hebrews, who were enslaved in Egypt as Exodus 3: 7 says: “I have certainly seen the oppression of my people in Egypt. I have heard their cries of distress because of their harsh slave drivers. Yes, I am aware of their suffering” but it is also a bitter complaint of all slaves and oppressed of all ages.
As said, the concept of slavery has not only a social aspect but also a personal, spiritual aspect. Man must be redeemed from his enslavement to sin and set free. It involves the changing of his heart and this is likewise a very painful process. No matter how beautiful the outcome in the end may be, this learning process feels like grinding your life out, and what you come across in this process of renewal, what you endure feels very wretched indeed. The apostle Paul – and any other person going through a process chastening for that matter – is aware of this inner conflict this process evokes and like Paul sometimes has to confess: “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24).
“I’m drenched in the light that shines from the sun” whereby ‘sun’ may also be understood as ‘Son’ as ‘Christ’. When one is drenched in the light that comes from the ‘Son’, from Jesus, it may mean that one is so enlightened that one becomes the gift of discernment, the trait of judging wisely and objectively in all circumstances. Strictly speaking only God, including the Son, owns this gift to perfection and has the authority to use it. When an adulterous woman was brought to Jesus (John 8:5), Jesus had the perfect right to say “I could stone you to death for the wrongs that you done” but He voluntarily refrained from His right to take up the first stone and to stone her to death and decided to let her go. But in the hands of sinners, oppressors and slave-drivers, this gift of discernment turns into an arbitrary, despotic, illegal means of retaliation and revenge from which there is no escape. ‘Sooner or later you make a mistake, I’ll put you in a chain that you never will break, legs and arms and body and bone” emphasizes once again that there is no escape once innocent people are in the hands of oppressors who have no other objective but to exploit other people for their own gain. The inclination towards revenge and abuse of power is deeply rooted in the human condition, is at the bottom of all our hearts, and is always after complete submission of any opponent, to tie him in unbreakable chains, ‘legs and arms and body and bone’. This chain of events can only be broken if payment in blood is made, but – as outlined in our first article - it cannot be the blood of the human condition itself, that is why it says: ‘I pay in blood, but not my own’.
We move on to the second verse of the song:
‘Night after night, day after day, they strip your useless hopes away,
the more I take, the more I give, the more I die, the more I live.
I got something in my pocket make your eyeballs swim,
I got dogs could tear you limb from limb,
I’m circling around the Southern Zone,
I pay in blood, but not my own”.
In ‘Night after night, day after day, they strip your useless hopes away” we see again that once you’re in the slave-driver’s hands, any hopes of a livable future are reduced to zero. On a deeper, spiritual level, these words refer to the healing power of the Holy Spirit, in a continuous process of inner renewal, the Spirit dashes, strips, any hope the human condition may have to redeem itself from the cycle of death under its own power. Apart from this, also this line seems partly inspired by Ovid Book III of The Black Sea Letters which has: “When I return to this place, gods and heaven are left behind me: the Pontic shore is close – too close to Styx. And if my fight goes against Fate’s prohibitions, then strip me, Maximus, of my useless hopes”.
In “The more I take, the more I give, the more I die, the more I live” the poet alludes to the teachings of Jesus and Paul. There seems to be something paradoxical in these words. These words seem contrary to received opinion and common sense; something which in appearance is absurd, but yet may be true in fact. It all has to do with the process of inward renewal by the Spirit, which is a precondition to get rid of all slavery in its deepest sense. If you surrender to this process, it looks as if you are a loser (confirmed further on in the song by: ‘Low cards are what I’ve got’) when in fact you have a winning hand. When you give more than you take, you end up with nothing. Ending up with nothing because you chose to give instead of take is only absurd when you do not reckon with the blessing of God which ultimately is behind everything, just as it says in Acts 20:35”: “You should remember the words of the Lord Jesus: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’.
The words “the more I die, the more I live” seem equally paradoxical and absurd. These words allude to what Jesus says in Mat. 10:39: ‘If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life for me, you will find it’. The process of change, of inward renewal is a painful process and feels like dying but in the end it leads to life in abundance. In this respect Hebrew 12:, 11 rings true: “No discipline is enjoyable while it is happening—it’s painful! But afterward there will be a peaceful harvest of right living for those who are trained in this way”.
When we hear the words: “I got something in my pocket make your eyeballs swim, I got dogs could tear you limb from limb, I’m circlin’ around the Southern Zone” the swing apparently has moved to the highest point if its opposite direction, but it all happens within the same personality. The slave and the slave-driver are one and the same person. On the one hand, the process of change has softened and humiliated his heart –‘the more I take the more I give’- but on the other hand, the alter ego representing revenge, retaliation, the slave driver’s attitude, is still very much present within himself, lingers at the bottom of his heart, and is ready to lash out mercilessly. But the good news is that the poet is aware of the fact that this dark craving for bloody revenge still lingers at the bottom of his heart. Awareness of these dark feelings is the first precondition to combat those feelings of hatred and revenge, and that is exactly what the Spirit wants to bring about in a man. If you want to combat those feelings it is necessary to look into the mirror, and to become conscious of those feelings. The worst thing that could happen to a man is when he deceives himself and when he thinks that he does not have those kinds of morbid feelings and that he is a better person than anyone else. “I got something in my pocket make your eyeballs swim, I got dogs could tear you limb from limb” proves that he has the weaponry and the means available to strike his opponents a mortal blow and that he is ready to use these weapons in such a way that his enemies will never get up again. The dogs are ready and will tear you apart limb from limb, in the same way as dogs tear apart an escaping slave or prisoner.
” I’m circlin’ around the Southern Zone” at first glance reminds you of the so-called ‘Southern Zone’ which stretches from the South African Cape to the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia, formed by the Zambezi River. It is more likely however, that this is an allusion to the Southern part of America. The South of America held on much longer to slavery than the North. So when it says” I’m circlin’ around the Southern Zone” it may give you the idea of some sort of vulture, a vampire maybe, circling around in the Southern States of America to find new blood, new victims to enslave. For all these ugly things, payment in blood is necessary, but once again we say: it cannot be his own blood, redemptive blood from elsewhere is necessary.
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