Iâ€™ve started posting various sorts of lists in this space, inspired partly by Greil Marcusâ€™s collection of columns, Real Life Top Ten, but without Marcusâ€™s hipster edge or focus on popular culture. My knowledge ofÂ popular culture is not nearly so wide, nor my taste so inclusive, as Marcusâ€™s, but I know a thing or two about Dylan, not so much as a figureÂ (or personality), but as a poet. People donâ€™t worry much these days about whether or not Dylan is or is not a poetâ€”whether he meets the qualificationsâ€”but in my younger days it was a question of some importance, at least to some of us who had begun to see poetry (or all things) as a powerful mode of perception. Dylan himself had clearly thought thisâ€”after all, he had dropped in on Carl Sandberg and announced himself, however awkwardly, as a member of the tribe. Later, he seems to have dismissed the question as beside the point, though the songs of his great period are studded with references to poets & poetry.1
I seem to have buriedÂ my thesisÂ in a footnote. Iâ€™m getting ready to teach Dylanâ€™s songs in my Literature of American Popular Music course2 and since I donâ€™t have more than three or four class periods to cover the territory, I have to decide what to focus on. So just pick my favorite tracks, right? If my students were just young friends in my living room, that would be fine, but even at this late stage of my academic career I feel some compunction to heed the institutional imperatives of the classroom. Well, then, choose Dylanâ€™s â€œmost importantâ€ work. But important on what criteria? Historical? Cultural? Musical? I could fake a discussion of the first two; the third would be more of a stretch. In fact, Iâ€™d already decided, though I had quite realized it until this morning. Itâ€™s a Literature course, as I mentioned above: one of the assumptions behind the course is that at least some songs overlap the domains of the literary. Which means that next week I will teach what I take to be Bob Dylanâ€™s three most literary records. It is perhaps a little unfortunate that all these records are from early in Dylanâ€™s career, but perhaps Iâ€™ll be able to fast-forward to a few tracks from Blood on the Tracks & Love and Theft.
I’ve been reading a lot of books about mental illness, the brain, & madness over the last few months in preparation for teaching a course with my colleague Stephen Casper, a historian, called The Literature and History of Madness. I’ve been reading mostly in the “popular” rather than the scholarly literature, which I will get to soon enough. Most recently, I’ve finished Michael Greenberg’s memoir of his daughter’s crack-up, Hurry Down Sunshine. One is not likely to read a less sentimental and more clear-eyed account of psychosis than this. Told with great sympathy for all involved, especially Sally, Greenberg’s daughter, the story is presented without a trace of sensationalism; but what I found most intriguing about Greenberg’s account is his exploration — almost entirely in asides and very brief digressions — of the the paradox of psychosis: that it is born of the basic human need to make sense of the world, often through language, but that when this drive goes wrong, when it seeks totality, madness results. (I still remember my friend B.A. lying on the couch in my Capitol Hill apartment in Seattle in 1975 listening to the radio because it was telling him the meaning of life & how everything made sense.) Greenberg’s daughter Sally, though “learning disabled” is a verbally brilliant teenager, who ultimately gets tangled up in her own twists & turns of language & meaning. There is a moment near the end of I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, which is the ur-text of modern American psychosis, in which the wise psychotherapist who has drawn her patient out of hell vehemently insists that there is no connection between madness and imagination, psychosis & creativity; but if there is no necessary connection, there is a borderland across which the two entities regard each other, that’s clear. It is a borderland into which Greenberg’s sensitive account shines a narrow beam of light, revealing a few salient features of the place, which is perhaps all we can ask.
Sometimes the world hands you a gift. I just found out that I will be spending Christmas and the first ten days of the new year in Hanoi. I’ve been invited to participate in a conference on the translation of Vietnamese literature and its reception abroad, mostly in the English-speaking world. When I came back home from my trip to Vietnam last spring, I thought it would be at least a year before I returned, perhaps longer. I’d been a little disappointed in my failure to make more contacts and get more projects going during my spring trip, but apparently I was planting seeds that will now begin to germinate. I hope so.
I spent Christmas of 2000 in Hanoi, which is when I took the picture of the boy selling Santa Claus decorations. Christmas is not a holiday of central importance in Vietnamese culture except to the 10% of the population that is Catholic, but as in the West it has begun to be a commercial holiday even for non-believers. (In general, Catholics in Vietnam are probably more intensely religious that the followers of Tam Giao, or “triple religion,” the combination of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism that most Vietnamese at least nominally subscribe to and that overlies an even deeper level of animism.)
I am delighted to return to Vietnam, however briefly, and to meet others interested in the diffusion of Vietnamese literature around the world. And as soon as I return, still jet-lagged, I will begin teaching my course, Understanding Vietnam, at Clarkson. Though the course focuses on the history and culture of Vietnam, we use literature to illuminate and illustrate those subjects, so the conference discussions will certainly inform my teaching next semester.