Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

"An Extreme Sense of Destiny": Bob Dylan, Affect, and Final Causation

Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

"An Extreme Sense of Destiny": Bob Dylan, Affect, and Final Causation

Article excerpt

Finalism is not, like mechanism, a doctrine with fixed rigid outlines. It admits of as many inflections as we like. The mechanistic philosophy is to be taken or left; it must be left if the least grain of dust, by straying from the path foreseen by mechanics should show the slightest trace of spontaneity. The doctrine of final causes, on the contrary, will never be definitively refuted. If one form of it be put aside, it will take another. Its principle, which is essentially psychological, is very flexible. It is so extensible, and thereby so comprehensive, that one accepts something of it as soon as one rejects pure mechanism.

Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution

Dear landlord Please don't put a price on my soul My burden is heavy My dreams are beyond control When that steamboat whistle blows I'm gonna give you all I got to give And I do hope you receive it well Dependin' on the way you feel that you live


Dear landlord Please don't dismiss my case I'm not about to argue I'm not about to move to no other place Now, each of us has his own special gift And you know this was meant to be true And if you don't underestimate me I won't underestimate you

Bob Dylan, Dear Landlord

Both in the first volume of his memoir, Chronicles, and in interviews, Bob Dylan often refers to what he called, in 2001, "an extreme sense of destiny." It is a fact not often explicitly acknowledged about Dylan that this teleological affect has been one of the primary driving factors behind his music and the narratological trajectory that it has performed. Dylan tried to do what he felt in each moment, or, as he told Martin Scorsese in No Direction Home, "I couldn't relate to anything other than what I was doing at the present time" (2005). Dylan's way of aligning himself with what he describes explicitly in numerous instances as "destiny" was apparently to be present to the felt quality of immediate experience. Further, as he frequently suggests, this focus on affective immediacy as a mode of teleological cognizance was his way of participating in something that seemed to him to exceed his volition. When asked at a 1966 press conference, "Why do you sing?" Dylan answered, "Why? Just because I feel like singing" (2005). Although this statement seems rather transparent, it bears unpacking. Dylan did not answer that he sang for any high-minded reasons, to change the world or to create great art, though he certainly did both of these things, but that he sang because he felt like it. There is no simpler or more direct evocation of the supposition that Dylan has been driven primarily by affect; counter to the trivial connotations that this supposition might evoke in the context of a disenchanted modernity (in Weber's sense), Dylan and his narrative of self-becoming prove affect to be a window into the most profound mysteries of human experience.

"Something Metaphysical from a Bygone Era"

Dylan writes in Chronicles that the poet Archibald MacLeish, who had served as librarian of Congress during World War II, told Dylan that he had "seemingly inherited something metaphysical from a bygone era" (111). According to Dylan (2004, 111), MacLeish told him that his "work would be a touchstone for generations after" him. Dylan recounts this conversation with the utterly unique humility of one who has been told since he was in his early twenties that he was the voice of his generation, a prophet, or even the messiah. This is an idea that Dylan has lived with for most of his life, one which he has explicitly denied many times but which seems to keep surfacing in relation to him. Dylan, in his return to metaphysics, such as those described by philosophers like William James, Henri Bergson, and Alfred North Whitehead, does in fact seem to be perceived by many as reenacting a role similar to those of ancient prophets and messiahs, though apparently not by choice. Dylan writes,

   Eventually different anachronisms were thrust upon me--anachronisms
   of lesser dilemma--though they might seem bigger. … 
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