“Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan – America’s postmodern anthem

In 2004 Rolling Stone Magazine released their list of the “500 greatest Songs of All Time.” First of all, it may have been better titled the 345 greatest songs of the 1960 -70’s. Secondly, I don’t know anything about the selection process, but many wondered if the number one song, Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” from 1965, was a choice largely self serving for the magazine. Thirdly, it was only a #2 song on the charts for 12 weeks.

But it is one of the most memorable songs you’ll ever hear, whether you love it or hate it, with its boisterous in your face music and relentless chorus:

How does it feel

How does it feel

To be without a home

Like a complete unknown

Like a rolling stone?

I was on the fence myself, because I think it is a great song, and perhaps one of the greatest, but the actual greatest song?

Then the other day, I was reading on my kindle and came across the following statement:

“In The Consequences of Modernity, social theorist Anthony Giddens characterises the technological, consumer-driven culture of modernity as a culture of “disembeddedness.” Giddens argues that the cumulative impact of the social, economic, technological, and intellectual transformations of modernization has been to extricate the individual self from the traditional bonds of kinship to community, land, and history. His description of the modern, disembodied self echoes Max Weber’s thesis that secularization and disenchantment are necessary corollaries to the rise of modern scientific culture.” (James R. Peters “The Logic of the Heart: Augustine, Pascal, and the Rationality of Faith.”) 

If this is the case, and I believe it is, then a song that is not only musically and vocally great but is lyrically about “disembeddedness” would seem to be a likely candidate not merely for the greatest song of our day but perhaps the veritable anthem for postmodern man. So I started thinking again about the song, and the lyrics I could remember, and thought “maybe Rolling Stone Magazine was right after all.” Fortunately I had obtained a copy of “Dylan’s Visions of Sin” by Christopher Ricks several years ago, so I figured I should see what the literary scholar had to say about the song. After reading his 14 page analysis of the song I am fairly convinced that Dylan’s song could be our postmodern anthem.

What really amazes me though, is that Ricks’ analysis convinces me that this song is perhaps not merely fitting as the anthem for us postmoderns, but for the entire species Man. Ricks convinces me of this by making the following points:

1) The particular “deadly sin” that the song is revealing is pride. (See Ricks, 179)

2) The song is “a put down – most likely the best Dylan ever wrote” (Footnote quoting Jon Landau, Crawdaddy! 1968); showing that Dylan is portraying pride as something that should be put down. (See Ricks, 186)

3) The reason pride should be put down is because, as the Bible says, “it goes before destruction (or a fall)” (see Proverbs 16:18). In 1978 Dylan said “In the end it wasn’t hatred, it was telling someone something they didn’t know…In your eyesight you see your victim swimming in lava. Hanging by their arms from a birch tree.Hitting a nail with your foot. Seeing someone in the pain they were bound to meet up with. I wrote it, I didn’t fail. It was straight.” (See Ricks, 187)

4) The story in the song  portrays the fall that follows pride. The “pain” in the song is actually showing the ironical way that pride is put down because the old proverb is true that “pride feels no pain.” (see Ricks, 180, 187)

5) The song is also “proselytizing in disguise for Dylan’s own way of life” (Landau), showing Dylan’s belief that the chosen life of “disembeddedness” is somehow a preferable choice, and his choice. (See Ricks, 185-186)

6) The lyric “when you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose” was illumined by Dylan himself in a Rolling Stone interview from January 26, 1978, where he said “You must be vulnerable to be sensitive to reality. And to me being vulnerable is just another way of saying that one has nothing more to lose. I don’t have anything but darkness to lose. I’m way beyond that.” This shows that Dylan seemed to be saying that the chosen life of “disembeddedness” also opens the way to “reality.” (See Ricks, 188)

7) Therefore, there is dialectic here as Ricks notes: “How does it feel?” is a question that has to be answered terrible and wonderful. It is wonderful to be “on your own, with no direction home, like a rolling stone”, but it is at the same time terrible.” (Ricks, 203; see also 185-6)

8) The key to this song’s being of universal application to man the species is in the lyric: “When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose. You’re invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal.” (Invisibility here is not being unseen, but rather being seen, hiding no secrets. Today we commonly call this being transparent.)

To summarize, Dylan’s song seems to be saying that it is better to know the psychological pain of “disembeddedness” through transparency of self rather than to have prideful ignorance. Prideful ignorance is our natural state, while realization of disembeddedness is our liberation.  In essence the song is a parable:

Once upon a time you dressed so fine

Threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you?

People’d call, say, “Beware doll, your bound to fall”

You thought they were all kiddin’ you

You used to laugh about

Everyone that was hangin’ out

Now you don’t talk so loud

Now you don’t seem so proud

About having to be scrounging your next meal

So is this the parable of every one? I believe it is for several reasons, First, disembeddedness is the actual condition of human life. But ignorance of and resistance to this disembeddedness is the natural human response of pride. Therefore  “pain” is “bound to come” because of this pride.  Realization of disembededness is what is needed if we would as Dylan said, “be sensitive to reality.” So Dylan sings “how does it feel”  as we experience this process, a process that is both “terrible and wonderful.”

The parable was the experience of the first pair in Genesis as they were sent out from the garden of Eden to accentuate the disembeddedness from God that was now their life, for the purpose of preventing them from becoming confirmed in that disembeddedness as irreversible. (See Genesis 3:22-24) God thus insured to man that their experience of life would be disembeddedness so that they would know that their life consisted of disembeddedness from God. The book of Job says,

1 “Man who is born of a woman
is few of days and full of trouble.
2 He comes out like a flower and withers;
he flees like a shadow and continues not. (Job 14:1-2)

The author of Ecclesiastes wrote:

“What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? 23 For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity.” (Ecclesiastes 2:22-23)

The disembeddedness of man was certainly thought to be the actual condition of life to these and other biblical writers.

This disembeddedness is also the experience of believers through the ages. It was the experience of Blaise Pascal who saw the experience of disembeddedness not merely lived in the earth outside Eden but in a universe of infinite spaces: “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.” (Pensees, #206)

Kierkegaard wrote that “despair” is the normal condition of all people:

“No matter how much the despairing person avoids it, no matter how successfully he has completely lost himself (especially the case in the form of despair that is ignorance of being in despair) and lost himself in such a manner that the loss is not at all detectable – eternity nevertheless will make it manifest that his condition was despair and will nail him to himself…” (The Sickness Unto Death, p.21)

I mention Pascal and Kierkegaard merely to show that disembeddedness is not the discovery of secular philosophers. It is the confession of the faithful of all ages: “These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.” (Hebrews 11:13, English Standard Version)

The curious? thing is that these recognitions of disembeddedness did not destroy them. Job said ‘Though he slay me, I will hope in him” (Job 13:15). Their realization was thus “terrible and wonderful.” It could only be wonderful because it brought hope.

C.S. Lewis explains the positive side of all this, that the realization of disembeddedness is not an end in itself, but merely prepares the way for the  embeddedness that God will give at the end:

“The sense that in this universe we are treated as strangers, the longing to be acknowledged, to meet with some response, to bridge some chasm that yawns between us and reality, is part of our inconsolable secret. And surely, from this point of view, the promise of glory, in the sense described, becomes highly relevant to our deep desire. For glory meant good report with God, acceptance by God, response, acknowledgment, and welcome into the heart of things. The door on which we have been knocking all our lives will open at last…

We walk every day on the razor edge between these two incredible possibilities. Apparently, then, our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of
some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation. And to be at last summoned inside would be both glory and honour beyond all our merits and also the healing of that old ache.” (The Weight of Glory, 1949, 15-16)

It seems that Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” certainly captured the ethos of postmodern man at the least, if not that of the entire species. His refrain “how does it feel” seems to me at least, to be tantamount to God’s question to man after he partook of the forbidden tree: “Where are you?” For the man was hiding in fear, having become “disembedded” from God. The good creation that was meant to be a place of fellowship became a place for man to hide in (in the trees), and the parts of creation that were given for man’s use (fig leaves) became tools to hide the reality of his vulnerability from God. But he needed to be “invisible” or transparent before God, realizing that because of his pride he had lost everything, but that he now had nothing else to lose except his pride and “darkness.” But what happens if we cling to pride and darkness? Does God force them from us?

When you ain’t got nothing,  you got nothing to lose You’re invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal                                                                                                           

You must be vulnerable to be sensitive to reality. And to me being vulnerable is just another way of saying that one has nothing more to lose. I don’t have anything but darkness to lose. I’m way beyond that.”     Bob Dylan

20 “For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” (John 3:20-21, English Standard Version)

BMC 2/08/12

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2 thoughts on ““Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan – America’s postmodern anthem

  1. jkbiette says:

    Hey,
    Really interesting. My thought is that this would all be wrapped up in Jesus Christ…His death, but ultimately his Resurrection. Based on my studies this week on Sheol, it seems to me that everything you are describing regarding ‘disembbededness’ is the same thing that Sheol is as it is used in the Bible. The reason that faithful biblical characters like Job as you say ‘were not destroyed by their recognition of desembbededness’ is because all things were made right by Jesus’ resurrection. Ultimately His resurrection saves us from Sheol (disembeddedness). See Psalm 16.
    Many of my thoughts came from this…
    http://www.leithart.com/archives/002930.php
    Thanks again.

    • bmc55 says:

      Thanks so much for the comment and the link to Leithart’s easter sermon! Strange that I had thought of the fact that “disembeddedness” was the common experience of God’s children but didn’t even think of Jesus Christ as the ultimate one that experienced these things. The text I referred to in Hebrews continues by saying that, since there is such a great “cloud of witnesses” of those that “died in faith…not having received the things promised…a homeland,” we should consider Jesus the “founder and perfecter of our faith who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame…”. The connection of disembeddedness/homelessness to sheol/shame in the experience of the “cloud” and of Jesus is something obviously in the text but I had missed it. I hope anyone reading your comment or this will follow the link and read the sermon.

      I also appreciate that you emphasize that the ultimate reason that those in “the cloud of witnesses” were not destroyed was because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Thanks again! Bryan

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