One standard that we judge artists by today is their success in appealing to our emotional nature—their ability to move us to tears or laughter, induce hope or alienation, evoke pity or rage. Painters, writers, actors, and musicians are rarely evaluated in terms of whether or not they challenge our minds. But clearly one aspect of the appeal of an artist like Bob Dylan is precisely this, his capacity to engage our intellectual nature, to speak to that part of ourselves Emerson (who was very well read, it's well known) dubbed “Man Thinking.”
Granted, it's not an aptitude that currently holds much sway. In this age of Oprah, we accept as dogma both that it is not possible to feel too deeply and that it is dangerous to think too much. What is not, regrettably, reflected upon as frequently are the personal and national drawbacks of taking no time to think.
When you gonna wake up!?
Fortunately, attitudes are a-changin'. Perhaps it began a few years ago when an odd book crept its way up the bestseller list, Sophie's World, a novel about the history of philosophy (what next, you might ask, an opera about the development of pipe fitting?). Books like Socrates Cafe, Plato, not Prozac and The Consolations of Philosophy, aimed at the general reading public, have had great success. No small part in this movement was played by Open Court's Popular Culture and Philosophy series, examining shows like The Simpsons and The Sopranos, movies like The Matrix and Lord of the Rings, and even taking a swing at the national pastime, in order to explicate their obvious philosophical elements to a popular audience. As if to enshrine the new status of the discipline, U.S. News and World Report recently named “taking up philosophy” (even counterfeit philosophies?) as one of the fifty things to do to improve your life.
With the re-emergence of an interest in the life of the mind, it's time for an assessment of this aspect of Bob Dylan's work. Even a casual glance at the songs will reveal that Dylan's lyrics