Bob Dylan’s “Ain’t Talking”- The Old Testament revisited- an analysis by Kees de Graaf - Part 3.
In this part we continue our analysis of this masterpiece.
“The whole world is filled with speculation; the whole wide world which people say is round. They will tear your mind away from contemplation; they will jump on your misfortune when you're down”. Some parts of this verse seem directly taken from Paul’s letter to Timothy. I Timothy 1:4-7 says: “nor to pay attention to myths and endless genealogies, which give rise to mere speculation rather than furthering the administration of God which is by faith. But the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. For some men, straying from these things, have turned aside to fruitless discussion, wanting to be teachers of the Law, even though they do not understand either what they are saying or the matters about which they make confident assertions”.
“The whole world is filled with speculation the whole wide world which people say is round” seems to express a somewhat ambiguous, reserved and skeptical attitude towards science and philosophy. We find this more often in Dylan’s work. In the song “High Water” Dylan says: “You can’t open up your mind boys to every conceivable point of view, they got Charles Darwin trapped out there on Highway Five, Judge says to the High Sheriff, “I want him dead or alive”. Obviously this “Judge” must be God. It sounds as if God is very angry with Charles Darwin, as if Darwin is some kind of a criminal, a wanted man, to be captured dead or alive. The poet seems to suggest that Darwinism must be at the root of God’s anger, maybe not because of the theory of Darwinism in itself, but because of the fact that Darwinism caused so many people to abandon their faith in God. Another example of skepticism towards science, we find in “License to kill”:” Man has invented his doom, first step was touching the moon”.
The poet makes an ironical remark when he says:” the whole wide world which people say is round”. He whimsically suggests that it is in some sort of a way “speculation” when people say that the world is round and not flat. He may say this for two reasons. Not that he does have any doubt whether the world is in fact round, he doesn’t. The first reason may be that the narrator is on a pilgrimage through the ancient times of the Old Testament. That was a time when people did not know that the world is round. The Bible teaches that the earth is basically a sphere in shape; that there are pillars which undergird the world and which we conclude to be the crystalline rock corresponding to what we commonly call the mantle .It looks as if he steps, so to say, back from Modern Times into this ancient world of the Old Testamentary period, in a world where people thought the world was flat and to say that the world is round, was at that time just mere speculation.
The second reason is that he wants an end to all this unbridled speculation. You just can’t go on indefinitely opening up your mind to every conceivable point of view. Continuous, never ending speculation will never bring you certainty and peace but it “will tear your mind away from contemplation”. Dylan was inspired by Ovid’s Tristia, Book 5, Section 7, Line 66 - "tear my mind from the contemplation of my woes" Speculation is the mother of doubt but contemplation, the continuous attention of the mind to a subject, will lead you to God, as Milton once said: “In contemplation of created things, by steps we may ascend to God”. Once you have given up contemplation in favor of speculation,” they will jump on your misfortune when you're down”. The narrator wants to make it clear that there are evil powers working in this world- “the devil is in the alley”-. These powers do their utmost to make you lose yourself in endless speculation; these powers hate contemplation so they do their best to tear you away from contemplation into speculation. Once they have succeeded “they will jump on your misfortune when you're down”. Dylan was here inspired by Ovid’s Tristia 5.8.3-5 who has: “Why jump / on misfortunes that you may well suffer yourself? / I’m down”. In the Bible we read of that in the book of Job. Job was hit hard by the hand of God. When Job thought he had lost everything he found out that he could always lose a little more. Job’s friends blamed Job himself for his utter misery. In their eyes Job must have done some very evil things to end up in a state like this. But later on in the book, it appeared that the conclusions of Job’s friends were highly speculative. It is true, those so-called friends – who looked Job squarely in the eye - succeeded in tearing Job’s mind away from contemplation, into speculation as to why all those bad things happened to him. In Job 30:14 we hear Job saying “They come at me from all directions, they jump on me when I’m down”. (New Living Translation 2007).
“Ain't talking, just walking, eating hog-eyed grease in hog-eyed town, heart burning – still yearning, someday you'll be glad to have me around”. There seems to be a traditional 19th century Bluegrass song called “Hog Eyed Man”. In 1996, a group called the Pope's Arkansas Mountaineers released a variation of "Hog Eyed Man" called "Hog-Eye". There can be no doubt that Dylan was inspired by this song because this song includes the literal line “hog-eye town” and also what was eaten at the table: “hog-eye grease”. An excerpt of the lyrics runs as follows:“I went down to hog-eye town, Dey sot me down to table; I et so much dat hog-eye grease, till the grease run out my nabel”.
Although the image – eating hog-eyed grease - is not Biblical and should rather be placed in a modern Mexican cantina, it is clear that within the context of the song, the Old Testamentary road on which the poet is walking, the eating of “hog-eyed grease”, a humble pie made of swine, is a very unclean activity and strictly forbidden by the law of Moses. The swine (Leviticus 11:7) because it ‘parts the hoof and is cloven-footed and does not chew the cud’ is an unclean animal and should therefore not be eaten. When you are “Walking through the cities of the plague” you may come close to many dead bodies; according to the law of Moses this may make a man unclean, the more so when you are not only walking through a “hog-eyed town” but you are actually sitting down at the welcome table “eating hog-eyed grease”, it multiplies your uncleanliness to its maximum. But “someday”, Jesus now speaking through the mouth of the poet says: “you’ll be glad to have me around” to explain to you that it will not stay that way because one day “there is nothing outside a man which by going into him can defile him”(Mark 7:15). Jesus abolishes the ritual laws of Moses and declares all food, even “hog-eyed grease” as clean food which may be eaten. Let us be glad that we have Him around.
“They will crush you with wealth and power, every waking moment you could crack”. The poet tried to love his neighbor and do good to others but had to confess: “Things ain’t going well”. He has to deal with opposing powers, evil powers, which have access to the human heart – in the human heart an evil spirit can dwell”. These powers try to “tear him away from contemplation” into a world full of speculation. These powers also try to tear him away from the correct ethical path: “eating hog-eyed grease in hog-eyed town”. But the Evil Powers have more strings to their bow. If all these things don’t bring down the poet, the next thing they try to do is “crush you with wealth and power”. A good example of this is King Salomon. We read in I Kings 10:23 “Thus King Salomon excelled all the kings of the earth in riches and in wisdom. And the whole earth sought the presence of Solomon to hear his wisdom, which God had put in his mind”. King Salomon was so strong in “contemplation”, he wrote all those beautiful Proverbs and nobody could ever tear him away from contemplation. Yet in the end, wealth and power crushed him, because his riches allowed him to have many foreign women. He had seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines, we read that “his wives turned away his heart after other gods” (I Kings 11:4.). In this respect it is very meaningful what Jesus would later on say: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God” (Luke 18:25). Therefore, it is essential that you keep your eyes wide open because there is always the danger that “every waking moment you could crack”, you have to be on the alert constantly, because if your opponent, the Evil One, catches you sleeping, he’ll slaughter you where you lie. When Dylan wrote: “every waking moment you could crack” he might have had in mind Matthew 26:40, 41 “Then he returned to the disciples and found them asleep. He said to Peter, “Couldn’t you watch with me even one hour? Keep watch and pray, so that you will not give in to temptation. For the spirit is willing, but the body is weak!” Every waking moment the disciples could crack, and indeed they did.
“I'll make the most of one last extra hour, I'll avenge my father's death then I'll step back”
Dylan was inspired here by Ovid’s - Tristia, Book 1, Section 3, Line 68 – which says: "let me make the most of one last extra hour". I read an analysis of this section of the song which suggests that the “one last extra hour” refers to one of Jesus’s last hours in the Garden of Getsemane where, while His disciples slept He prayed: ”Avenge my father’s death when I step back”, reversing the curse brought on by humanities’ “father” Adam. Jesus would then “step back” in time to redeem all humanity from sins past and bringing back spiritual life. True as the latter may be, I don’t think that this interpretation makes good sense. First of all, in the Gospel we do not find Jesus saying the words: I'll avenge my father's death then I'll step back” and secondly, Jesus did not come to avenge Adam’s death. On the contrary, he came to atone Adam’s sins, and through Adam for the sins of all mankind.
I think that Dylan was inspired here by Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”. One can say that Hamlet is a revenge tragedy led by a protagonist who is incapable of committing the act of avenge. It is Hamlet’s inability and delay to avenge the murder of his father that ultimately leads to the deaths of Polonius, Laertes, Ophelia, Gertrude, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. To focus attention to Hamlet’s inability to take action, Shakespeare portrays a number of other characters, like Fortinbras and Laertes, who are capable of taking resolute avenge as may be expected of them. In comparison to these characters, Hamlet’s revenge is half-baked. When at last he decides to take action, he delays any action until the very end of the play. In Elizabethan revenge tragedies this is not so unusual. What makes Hamlet into an outstanding piece of writing is the way in which Shakespeare uses the delay to portray Hamlet’s emotional and psychological complexity. In “Ain’t talking” we find the same complexity. The will to love his neighbor and do good to others is present but there are evil forces at work to delay and prevent him from doing all these good things. Dylan uses this delay in the song too when he says: “I'll make the most of one last extra hour”. The avenge is postponed until the very last hour of his life.
How do we piece all these things together? First of all we have to remember that the poet, expelled from the mystic Garden of Eden, is still walking on the Old Testamentary road. To our modern eyes, to avenge the death of one’s father may seem weird, harsh and wrong. But it wasn’t like that in the days of the Old Testament. The “Avenger of blood” was part of the judicial system. The Avenger is the nearest relative of a murdered person. It was his right and his duty to slay the murderer, if he found the murderer outside a city of refuge. To safeguard this law against possible abuse Moses appointed six cities of refuge (Exodus 21:13; Numbers 35:13; Deuteronomy 19:1, 9). This arrangement applied only to cases where the death was not premeditated. The case had to be investigated by the authorities of the city, and the willful murderer was on no account to be spared. He was regarded as an impure and polluted person, and was delivered up to the avenger of blood (Deuteronomy 19:11-13). If the offence was merely manslaughter, then the fugitive must remain within the city till the death of the high priest (Numbers 35:25).
We conclude that, when the poet, walking on the Old Testamentary road, says: “I'll make the most of one last extra hour, I'll avenge my father's death then I'll step back”, it is as if he says the following: “ Although avenging my father’s death is lawful and something which I see as my duty to do, yet I feel resistance to do it, I keep on delaying it but in my final hour, I will make the most of that hour by doing what I have to do, and when I have done that I’ll step back. My duty is fulfilled. I’ll step back also means that no personal revenge or hatred is involved, I just let the law take its course”.
In the 4th and final part of our analysis we will deal with the remaining verses of the song and we will come to some sort of a conclusion. By any means, let me know how you feel about this article, please feel free to respond.