Bob Dylan’s “Land of permanent bliss” – The irony of human desire and false utopias

Sweetheart

There’s only one step down from here, baby
It’s called the land of permanent bliss
What’s a sweetheart like you doin’ in a dump like this?

I recently posted an interpretation of the song “Sweetheart Like You” by Bob Dylan. That may be read here.  (The video is also there for seeing and listening to.) There are several lines in the song that are so meaningful and memorable that they deserved separate treatments. The excerpt above is one such line.

I think that the line had a very specific meaning that I discussed there, even though to believe that is a perilous proposition given Dylan’s layers of meaning that seem to be present in many of his songs. In this case though, I think that the imagery is so rich, and the moral dimension so essential and parabolic, that it is nearly impossible to not see many layers of applicability here.

Therefore I believe that this line essentially is a parable. The story is that a woman is being led astray by her misguided desires. She seems to be nearing the place of achieving the object of her desire, and if she does she will think she has found “the land of permanent bliss.” But the realization of this land is in reality a “step down.” The refrain of the song is the repeated question asking what “a sweetheart like her is doing in a dump like this.” The repetition probably signifies here that she has actually gone from bad to worse. The tragedy of the song, and point of this parable, is that the wrong desire of this “sweetheart” has led her to rest in that fulfillment so that she stops seeking what she really needs. Finding her dream has led her to “permanent bliss” in which she is now content. The tragic irony is that she is even deeper in the dump.

Before I elaborate more on this parable, I would like to point out that Dylan told another parable about a “land of permanent bliss” in his 1967 song “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest.” In the beginning of the song there is some backstory about the two characters, and then they part company for what turns out to be a short time:

“I’m gonna start my pickin’ right now
Just tell me where you’ll be”
Judas pointed down the road
And said, “Eternity!”

“Eternity?” said Frankie Lee
With a voice as cold as ice
“That’s right,” said Judas Priest, “Eternity
Though you might call it ‘Paradise’”

A little later Frankie Lee is notified that Judas priest is in trouble, having become “stranded in a house”:

“Oh, yes, he is my friend”
Said Frankie Lee in fright
“I do recall him very well
In fact, he just left my sight”
“Yes, that’s the one,” said the stranger
As quiet as a mouse
“Well, my message is, he’s down the road
Stranded in a house”

Well, Frankie Lee, he panicked
He dropped ev’rything and ran
Until he came up to the spot
Where Judas Priest did stand
“What kind of house is this,” he said
“Where I have come to roam?”
“It’s not a house,” said Judas Priest
“It’s not a house . . . it’s a home”

Judas Priest has taken the fatal step down to “permanent bliss,” when he tells Frankie Lee that “it’s not a house…it’s a home.” The “desire become reality” of Judas Priest is a temptation that Frankie Lee “the gambler” cannot resist:

Well, Frankie Lee, he trembled
He soon lost all control
Over ev’rything which he had made
While the mission bells did toll
He just stood there staring
At that big house as bright as any sun
With four and twenty windows
And a woman’s face in ev’ry one

Well, up the stairs ran Frankie Lee
With a soulful, bounding leap
And, foaming at the mouth
He began to make his midnight creep
For sixteen nights and days he raved
But on the seventeenth he burst
Into the arms of Judas Priest
Which is where he died of thirst

Notice Frankie Lee’s raving zeal, his ecstatic delight, the “permanent bliss” of his days and nights in this house in which “he died of thirst!” The irony of misplaced desire is to succumb to them and never have our true thirst quenched.  After a funeral scene the song concludes by pointing out the moral of the story:

Well, the moral of the story
The moral of this song
Is simply that one should never be
Where one does not belong
So when you see your neighbor carryin’ somethin’
Help him with his load
And don’t go mistaking Paradise
For that home across the road

The point of this parable is the same as that in “Sweetheart Like You”:

  • don’t “die of thirst” by “mistaking paradise for that home across the road”
  • don’t “step down” by realizing your desire in “the land of permanent bliss”

Implied in both of Dylan’s parables, but made explicit in “Frankie Lee” is that our deepest desires cannot be fulfilled by indulgent self-fulfillment of our fallen “passions” but rather by helping the neighbor we see “carrying his load.” The path for true fulfillment is right before our eyes in the need of our neighbor, but our self-infatuation leads us to look for the house with “four and twenty women” and “the land of permanent bliss.”

The universal parable Dylan is portraying in both songs is the irony of realizing wrong desires. It is a tragic story that has been told and enacted in countless ways in all human history. It is the common tale of human life, and is the temptation that all face. To fail in this is a fatal step farther down. Christian theology calls this step down “false peace,” and it is a step toward having one’s fate sealed, the fatal step toward eternal damnation. This parable of false peace is a parable enacted in human life on many levels. It is not always the ultimate end, but it always leads closer toward it, because each step down is a step to a level from which recovery is always harder and at the bottom of this stairway recovery becomes impossible. We resist this “doctrine” of false peace leading to damnation, but it is a very simple and evident truth of the nature of human life wherein our “indulgences” become “comforts” and eventually “necessities.” As the Doobie Brothers sang:

“What were once vices…are now habits.”

And what were once desires are now false utopias, especially when we believe that we have achieved “peace.” This universal parable is told many times and on different levels, in the Bible: the primal fall of man in Eden; the repeated falls of Israel; even the fall of “heroes” like Samson and King David. In essence this parable is enacted when we fixate our ultimate desires on anything less than God and thereby make the goal of our desire into an idol.

Blaise Pascal explained the reason that our desires lead to idolatry in the following excerpt which is probably where his oft paraphrased “God shaped vacuum” originated from:

What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace?

This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself. [Pascal, Pensees #425]

Thankfully, God can save us from filling our “infinite abyss” with our finite idols. The Apostle Paul wrote that there is a remedy for the idolatry we have all practiced to some degree:

…we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. ButGod, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:3-10; English Standard Version)

At this point I would just like to return to Bob Dylan for a moment. Many people recognize and appreciate the depths of his songs. In this lyric he has certainly plumbed the depth of human existence, and it is a dark place. Darkness is a huge theme in Dylan:

  • “but all I see are dark eyes”
  • “it’s not dark yet but it’s getting there”
  • “darkness at the break of noon”

Fortunately, he asks the question that presupposes that this is not the way things are meant to be…

“What’s a sweetheart like you…doing in a dump like this?”

To answer that question we all need to examine our longings, dreams and desires, and our own estimation of the peace we have or hope to achieve thereby, in the light of God’s word that alone can reveal to us what is clear to Him:

12 For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account. (Hebrews 4:12-13, ESV)

In case you haven’t heard the song:

 

Comments, questions, critiques are always welcome!

Original Content © Bryan M. Christman and Manifest Propensity, 2013. Excerpts, links, and reblogging may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Bryan M. Christman and Manifest Propensity with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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