On the Fifth Day in the Drizzling Rain: Travel and Gender Performativity in Bob Dylan's 'Isis'
Patrick Webster (University of Leeds)
Spring 2004

I’m very patriotic to the highway - Bob Dylan 1966

‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ (1962), arguably one of Bob Dylan’s most celebrated songs, began with the lines:

How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man? (Dylan 1987, 53)

These lines have generally been perceived as referring to the Civil Rights marches of the early 1960s; it was seen as a song asking how many times a black man must walk down a road before he was called a man. Thus it was a song, within the sphere of its own creation and the tensions of its own time, very much concerned with issues of race. This may arguably have been the specific inspiration for Dylan’s song. However, from a wider perspective, reading these lines forty years later, without historical bias, the song can be read as having a different subtext. In a literal sense the lines could now be read simply as a definition of masculinity within the body of Dylan’s lyrical lexicon. The question the song now appears to be asking is direct and unambiguou: to be called ‘a man’ one is required to walk down a road, to walk down a road a certain unspecified number of times. This is the literal definition of masculinity within the opening lines of the song.

This interpretation may seem to have little significance were it not for the fact that such a definition of masculinity would appear to be a common trope within Dylan’s songs. It is one that occurs consistently throughout all his work. If one looks, for example, at one of Dylan’s earliest lyrics, ‘Song to Woody’ (1962), we find these lines:

I’m out here a thousand miles from my home,
Walkin’ a road other men have gone down. (Dylan 1987, 6)

Again one finds the idea of walking a road to define yourself as a man. The narrator of the song goes on to compare himself to the other men that have travelled the road and sees himself as following in their footsteps. He strives to place himself, ‘on the road,’ with the great blues singers of the past:

Here’s to Cisco an’ Sonny an’ Leadbelly too,
An’ to all the good people that travelled with you.
Here’s to the hearts and the hands of the men,
That come with the dust and are gone with the wind.

I would maintain that there is, throughout the body of Dylan’s work, a relentless urge to keep moving, an enduring notion of rambling, of travelling, of wandering - and, most importantly, an enduring notion that this is invariably seen as a wholly masculine endeavour. [One could cite a number of early Dylan songs, all dealing explicitly with the idea of masculine travel, for example: ‘Standing on the Highway’ (1962), ‘Long Time Gone’ (1962), ‘Walkin’ Down the Line’ (1963), ‘Down the Highway’ (1963), ‘Dusty Old Fairgrounds’ (1963) and ‘Paths of Victory’ (1964).] This is a theme that extends throughout the whole of Dylan’s career; for example, the songs on Dylan’s Time Out of Mind (1997), begin, end, and are concerned throughout, with men walking and men travelling.

I should perhaps note that to perceive of a notion of travel and movement within Dylan’s lyrics, is, in itself, not original; other critics of Dylan’s work have also pointed this out. For example, David Pichaske commented that:

Early Dylan lyrics are permeated with the theme of departure, leaving, clearing out and travelling on, escaping the inadequate present (Grey 1987, 101)

However, the specific intent here is to link the theme directly with the idea of a gendered identity. My argument here is that Dylan’s work explicitly relates the concept of travel with the concept of being a man and hence to the performative construct of a gendered identity.

One might think, for example, of the blues tradition, a tradition which Dylan has always been closely associated with, a tradition in which masculine travel has always been a dominant motif. Aside from this, there is the obvious idea that men travel in order to look for work, and one could cite the influence of Woody Guthrie at this point. In Guthrie’s work it is certainly true that economic factors led men to take to the road in search of employment. A number of Guthrie’s songs, for example ‘Tom Joad’ portrayed the plight of men in such situations. However, I would argue that Dylan’s idolisation of Guthrie was connected more with the mythological and romantic notions in Guthrie’s life and work. Guthrie’s famous book, Bound for Glory (which greatly influenced Dylan early in his career) celebrated the theme of the outcast, the drifter, the man fleeing from convention and conformity, the hobo who found freedom on the highways and railroads of the American landscape. In a sense Guthrie (or the persona he created) was an outlaw, albeit a morally sanctioned outlaw. Guthrie tapped into the moral relevance of the outlaw in American culture, an idea that would be repeatedly displayed within Dylan’s work as well.

I would argue that the road for the men in Dylan’s work is primarily a place with a romantic, visionary and mythological ambition. Furthermore, the men most admired in Dylan’s work are often outlaws and outsiders - men who have moved beyond the constructed confines of society apparent in these songs. ‘I might look like Robert Ford,’ Dylan sang in ‘Outlaw Blues,’ (1965) ‘But I feel just like Jesse James’ (Dylan 1987, 167).

Aside from Woody Guthrie, another obvious influence here were the Beat writers, and most specifically Jack Kerouac. Kerouac’s seminal work, On the Road, obviously informs a similar pattern of male desire found within Dylan’s work, propounding a significantly gender-specific quest for self-discovery, via the road. Hence Kerouac’s work offers the idea of a male outsider escaping narrow-hearted consumerism in search of the lost frontier, making a celebratory escape from responsibility; and, in so doing, exerting a large influence in Dylan’s positioning romance and visionary experience on the road. In the reverentially titled ‘On the Road Again’ (1965), Dylan’s male narrator wants to be on the road, wants to be in the wide open spaces, wants to be in the wilderness, wants, in fact, to be anywhere as long as he is not with the woman of the song - and the rest of her family:

Well, I woke up in the morning
There’s frogs inside my socks
Your mama, she’s a-hiding
Inside the icebox
Your daddy walks in wearing
A Napoleon Bonaparte mask
Then you ask why I don’t live here
Honey, do you have to ask? (Dylan 1987, 168)

This is typical of a large number of songs Dylan wrote in the mid-1960s, positioning a male character desperately attempting to avoid the onset of familial constraints. Other examples include: ‘Motorpsycho Nitemare’ (1964), ‘Maggie’s Farm’ (1965), ‘Tombstone Blues’ (1965) and ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ (1965). These songs portray men who don’t want to settle down with the farmer’s daughter, who don’t want to work for brother’s or pa’s or ma’s, men who want to get away from Mama’s in the factory and Papa’s in the alley, and men who want nothing to do with fifth daughters and first fathers and seventh sons.

In one of Dylan’s seminal works of the 1960s, ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’ (1964), a similar intent can be more explicitly inferred. The famous refrain, with its thrice repeated denial of ‘No, no, no, It ain’t me babe’ has been read as both a political and a personal message. In the political sense the line can be read as a retreat from a world of social protest, but, in a different and more individual discourse, the line can be read simply as a repudiation of confinement within a feminine domain. Thus the refrain of the song, ‘It ain’t me babe, it ain’t me you’re looking for ... ’ becomes a message from a man to a woman, or even from men to women, a message repudiating the idea of any kind of permanent commitment.

In a later song, ‘The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar’ (1981), Dylan again put forward the idea of a retreat away from commitment, but here included a possible reason why:

Don’t know what I can say about Claudette,
That wouldn’t come back to haunt me.
Finally had to give her up,
About the time she began to want me ... (Dylan 1987, 464)

Here the male protagonist is compelled to give up the woman at the very moment she expresses a desire for him; and there is a sense that some part of the self must be kept inviolate from a feminine sphere of influence. In an earlier song, ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’ (1963), the reason for the break-up of the relationship is contiguous with this same concept:

I’m thinkin’ and a wonderin’ all the way down the road,
I once loved a woman, a child I’m told.
I gave her my heart, but she wanted my soul,
But don’t think twice, it’s alright. (Dylan 1987, 61)

This is an idea that culminates in the song, ‘Sweetheart Like You’ (1983):

You know, I once knew a woman who looked like you,
She wanted a whole man, not just a half,
She used to call me sweet daddy when I was only a child,
You kind of remind me of her when you laugh. (Dylan 1987, 474)

The male figure here will only offer half of himself, with the implied suggestion that he must retain some part of himself outside of the female domain. It would seem to me that the men in Dylan’s songs repeatedly fail to live up to the expectations of the women they find themselves in relationships with, an idea perhaps personified by a line from ‘One More Night’ (1969):

I just could not be what she wanted me to be (Dylan 1987, 274)

It is significant that even in songs which would purport to describe happily ensconced marital relationships, even in songs that have generally been perceived as extolling the pleasures of existence within a settled monogamous life with a wife and children, even here there is still a sense of scepticism and doubt. For example, in ‘Sign on the Window’ (1970), Dylan ended the song with a vision of supposed domestic bliss:

Build me a cabin in Utah,
Marry me a wife, catch rainbow trout,
Have a bunch of kids who call me ‘Pa,’
That must be what it’s all about,
That must be what it’s all about (Dylan 1987, 293)

There is a sense here of a male voice striving to convince itself of the concept it proposes. Whilst the idea of making sense of the world by placing it within an arena of home, wife and children is one obvious means of defining oneself as a man, there is nonetheless an element of self-imposed coercion being utilised . We are told that this ‘must be what it’s all about,’ and the fact that Dylan feels the need to state this twice suggests he perhaps protests too much. As Michael Gray suggested, the closure of the song is ‘made less positive by its being repeated, as if for self-reassurance’ (Gray 1972, 290).

There are a wide range of theories to account for the masculine fear of engulfment in the female, and the subsequent loss of self. For example, Julia Kristeva has explored the masculine fear of the abject nature of the female, and Nancy Chodorow’s work has identified how women’s universal responsibility for mothering creates asymmetrical factors between the genders. However, it seems to me, Dylan’s texts offer a simple and yet powerful means of evading a sense of confronting the problematical discursive manoeuvres in constructing a gendered identity. The concept of movement and the freedom to travel becomes a means of evading this engulfment within the feminine; and to keep moving, to refrain from stopping, at least offers one way out of this dichotomy.

There are, it must be admitted, isolated examples of songs in which Dylan places a male protagonist out in the wilderness in the company of a woman. For example, in ‘John Wesley Harding’ (1968):

Twas down in Chaynee County
A time they talk about,
With his lady by his side
He took a stand ... (Dylan 1987, 249)

One might also think of the singer and his companion, Magdalena, who travel together in ‘Romance in Durango’ (1976), and also the sister who is on the highway with the steel driving crew in ‘Tough Mama’ (1974). The one other major example is ‘Gypsy Lou’ (1963), a song in which the gender roles were completely reversed, a song about ‘a ramblin’ woman with a ramblin’ mind’ who leaves a large number of masculine lovers behind her. However, these are the exceptions that prove the rule, the wilderness in Dylan’s work is predominantly defined as the place where males, usually heroic males, retreat to escape the domain of women.

In his book America in the Movies, Michael Wood speculated on the motives behind the male heroes of Hollywood westerns in the 1940s and 1950s. This speculation may possibly illuminate the question why so many male protagonists in Dylan’s work have an attraction for the road and such an equivocal attitude toward women:

[T]he hero secretly fears women - women and the civilisation, compromise and settled life they represent; he sees them as sources of corruption and betrayal, luring him away from independence and a sure sense of himself, as well as from the more comforting company of men (Wood 1975, 43).

It would seem to me that such fears and desires also operate in Dylan’s work. One of the songs that most reflects this, is ‘Isis,’ from the 1976 release, Desire. This was a song that explored ideas of freedom and escape, a song that mixed the surreal and the allegorical, the mythic and the real, in a sophisticated melange of gender politics - and a song I now wish to consider in some detail here.

In taking Michael Wood’s argument above, I would suggest one can read the song as dealing with ideas very much redolent of the Western, albeit a Western genre Dylan revisit with a postmodern sense of parody and irony. Whilst the Western has seldom been seen as an important or typical theme within Dylan’s work - it does, I would argue, deserve a certain degree of attention. One might initially consider the first words Dylan gives the world, or at least the first words found in Lyrics 1962-1987. The opening lines to ‘Talkin’ New York’ (1961), the first song in the collection, finds the narrator of the song:

Ramblin’ out of the wild west
Leavin’ the towns I loved the best
Thought I’d seen some ups and downs
‘Till I came into New York Town (Dylan 1987, 3)

Thus Dylan, in a certain sense, appears to the world coming out of the wild west; in a sense he appears to the world as if he was emerging from this genre. In addition to this Dylan has written a significant range of songs set in total or in part within the Western genre, for example: ‘John Wesley Harding’ (1968), ‘Lily Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’ (1975), ‘Romance in Durango’ (1976), ‘New Danville Girl’ (1985), the collection of songs from Dylan’s soundtrack of Sam Peckinpah’s film, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and a number of others. [These include: ‘Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Willie (1963), ‘The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest (1968), ‘Wanted Man’ (1969), ‘Patty’s Gone to Laredo’ (1975) ‘Senor: Tales of Yankee Power’ (1978) and ‘The Man in the Long Black Coat’ (1989)].

The Western as a genre might be dismissed as a lightweight and escapist form of popular culture. However, as Jane Tompkins argues in her book, West Of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns, there is nothing lightweight or escapist about the needs the Western answers, ‘the desires they arouse of the vision of life they portray’ (Tompkins 1992, 11). Tompkins argues that the Western provides an environment in which men can find a reality that might otherwise be lacking in their lives, that the Western functions as:

... a symbol of freedom, and of the opportunities for conquest. It seems to offer escape from the conditions of life in modern industrial society: from a mechanised existence, economic dead-ends, social entanglements, unhappy personal relations, political injustice (Tompkins 1992, 4)

What is at stake is the sense of challenge, a method of getting away from the triviality of life into something that at least seems to be real. The hunger that Westerns satisfy is a hunger not so much for adventure but for meaning. In a general sense the Western is a genre in which something really is at stake. Thus the genre is not an escape from reality but an attempt to get as close as possible to something that represents reality. As Tompkins puts it, ‘In the Western nothing stands between the man and the world’ (Tompkins 1992, 220) and the use of the word ‘man’ in this quotation is relevant, insomuch as the Western was, and is, almost universally about men.

In ‘Isis’ we find a man acting out the solitary nature of the archetypal Wild Western hero, a hero who is self-reliant, independent and, above all, free of female dependency. This is apparent from the beginning of the narrative, wherein the hero marries an exotic woman (whom, for reasons never clearly explained, has the name of an Egyptian goddess), but then feels compelled to leave her:

I married Isis on the fifth day of May,
But I could not hold on to her very long.
So I cut off my hair and I rode straight away
For the wild and unknown country where I could not go wrong ... (Dylan 1987, 378)

The song itself offers little in the way of an answer to the question: why this man cannot stay with this woman, why he could not hold on to her for very long. It merely expresses a need for the woman, but also expresses a need for adventure and freedom, together with the paradox of needing them both at the same time.

From his public comments it would seem that Dylan perceives the song as having marriage at its core. In concert performances he often prefaced the song by referring to it from this perspective:

Listen closely, this is a true story, it could happen to any man. This is about the marriage ceremony between man and woman, it’s what happens when you get married. It’s called ‘Isis.’ (The comment derives from a concert performance in Montreal on 4 December 1975 - a performance included in the film, Renaldo and Clara.)

However, this would hardly seem to be the song’s actual intent, if the song is about marriage it would seem to be about marriage of a wholly different kind. Thus, far from being a song about a conventional marriage, the song seems more concerned with what the narrator of the song does after he has married the woman called Isis, with what happens when he is absent from the company of women, and what happens when he is in the company of other men. One might recall here Leslie Fieldler’s phrase ‘the holy marriage of males’ (Fieldler 1966, 344) as portrayed in American literature, and this, I would suggest, is closer to the actual nature of marriage within the song.

The first thing the narrator does after removing himself from Isis’s feminine influence is to cut off his hair. A number of critics of Dylan’s work have speculated over the meaning of this. To Aidan Day it implied a loss of creative energy and a sense of purification; (Day 1988, 38) similarly, Stephen Scobie saw it as undergoing a ritual purification (Scobie 1991, 161). Wilfrid Mellers perceived the removal of the hero’s hair as asserting a male dominance before embarking on a heroic adventure (Mellers 1984, 189), whilst to John Herdman the act was a shedding of complexity, a way of seeking simplicity (Herdman 1982, 74). All these readings would seem valid, there is certainly a ritualistic element to the act; and it would seem fair to say Dylan’s hero cuts off his hair to prepare himself for the ordeal ahead. However, I would see the act as ultimately pointing to a masculine stereotype, since it is culturally the norm for men to have shorter hair than women. The cutting of one’s hair, and especially shaving, demonstrates a control over one of the main visible masculine indicators of maturing sexuality; shaving is an initiation into manhood. Thus, in a sense, the act can ultimately be seen as emphasising gender identity.

The narrator may have decided to leave the heterosexual embrace of a newly married wife, but - like the act of cutting off one’s hair - the song seems to have a continual anxiety to hold to the dominant ideology of a ‘normal’ heterosexual identity. As the first verse tells us, the narrator rides straight away, and whilst he may be heading for a wild unknown country (arguably the wild and unknown country of his sexuality) there is still the insistence that he cannot go wrong. In other words, one reading of the song suggests the hero is determined he will not stray from a rigidly defined heterosexual structure, an idea emphasised in the second verse:

I came to a high place of darkness and light.
The dividing line ran through the centre of town.
I hitched up my pony to a post on the right,
Went into the laundry to wash my clothes down ...

There are oppositions apparent here: darkness and light, high and low places, right and left, or perhaps even right and wrong. However, what seems crucial is the fact that the hero chooses the right hand option; in other words, he is insistent on following the rational, dominant and conventional ideological route. Furthermore, the narrator goes into a laundry to wash his clothes down; this, like the cutting off of his hair, could be seen as a way of suggesting cleanliness and righteousness; in other words, the opposite to any kind of transgression. However, in the laundry an encounter occurs which greatly augments the narrative:

A man in the corner approached me for a match.
I knew right away he was not ordinary.
He said, ‘Are you lookin’ for somethin’ easy to catch?’
I said, ‘I got no money.’ He said, ‘That ain’t necessary.’

The nature of the meeting is redolent with ambiguity, the words ‘match’ and ‘catch’ both seem to possess dual connotations. On a literal level the word ‘match’ suggests the stranger may merely want to light a cigarette, but on another level it could be seen as a proposal to enter into a relationship of a reciprocal kind. In a similar way, the word ‘catch’ resonates with an equivocal intent. In one sense it is an economic invitation to make a quick profit, but the word also resonates forward in time to a line in verse eight: ‘When he died I was hopin’ that it wasn’t contagious...’ Whilst the song was written in a pre-Aids universe of 1975, it nonetheless retains a subversive quality. There is still a sense of infraction in the words ‘contagious’ and ‘catch,’ of some kind of unknown exchange having taken place, an exchange that has implications for both of the men concerned. What we can be certain of is a feeling of tension within the relationship between the two men; these men are not ‘two drifters off to see the world.’

Jane Tompkins’ description of the repressed, covert sexuality between men in Westerns might be seen as applicable here:

... the hero frequently forms a bond with another man - sometimes his rival, more often his comrade - a bond that is more important than any relationship he has with a woman and is frequently tinged with homo-eroticism (Tompkins 1992, 39)

In verse four the two men begin their journey:

We set out that night for the cold in the North.
I gave him my blanket, he gave me his word.
I said, ‘Where are we goin’?’ He said we’d be back by the fourth.
I said, ‘That’s the best news that I’ve ever heard.’

One notes that the two men leave at night, that they head for the cold and the north; these being harsh, masculine images that stand in opposition to Isis’s feminine southern world of lightness and warmth. There is a sense that these are men braving the elements, undergoing ordeals that exact superhuman effort. As in the Western, what is at stake here is a getting away from the triviality of life into something that seems real, something that calls ‘the whole soul of man into being,’ into a sense of action that ‘totally saturates the present moment,’ that totally absorbs the body and mind, and directs one’s life to ‘the service of an unquestionable goal’ (Tompkins 1992, 12). The goal of the two men in ‘Isis’ would appear to be a search for treasure, but, within the discourse of the adopted Western genre, the goal could be interpreted as having a greater significance. To borrow from Tompkins, the two men are in:

... a world without God, without ideas, without institutions, without what is commonly recognised as culture, a world of men and things, where male adults in the prime of life find ultimate meaning in doing their best together on the job (Tompkins 1992, 37)

Further to this, the sense of bonding between the two men, as they look for an ultimate meaning together, is enhanced by the exchange of possessions, quoted above, in verse four. The narrator gives the stranger his blanket and receives, in return, the man’s word. The gift of a blanket suggests a certain sense of intimacy, what might be seen as almost a feminising gift indicating comfort and warmth. Whilst the gift of ‘his word’ offers a further element of ambiguity. In a sense the song could be read as a tract concerning the male ownership of language. One man giving another man ‘his word’ could be read not merely in the sense of swearing a promise but also describing the ownership of language itself. Allen Ginsberg may have described Isis as a ‘Lady Language Creator’ (Talking about the song in his untitled liner notes to Desire, Ginsberg spoke of: ‘To Isis, Moon Lady Language Creator Birth Goddess, Mother of Ra, Saraswati & Kali-Matoo, Hecate, Ea, Astarte, Sophia & Aphrodite, Divine Mother’). However, the discourse of the song - and our theoretical construct of language - betrays this idea. Isis, as a woman, does not own language, her gender lacks the universal signifier and thus her words are relatively unimportant and are easily forgotten, whereas the male gift of ‘the word’ is of significance. In a symbolic and a literal sense both men possess the phallus, Lacan’s universal arbiter of sexuality, the key signifier of meaning, the ultimately privileged signifier. Thus there is a sense here in which men own language, they give each other their word, and use language to control women. (One could perceive of an unintentional lampoon here. In the light of a Lacanian reading relating to the gift of the word, the narrative subplot in the song of heading north becomes clearer and brings to mind the idea of masculine adventurers undertaking polar journeys. Thus the idea of polar expeditions, replete with the now almost risible search for ‘the pole,’ overlaid with Lacanian resonances of the phallus as the ultimate signifier, at least offers a further layer of interpretative thought.)

In the fifth verse a materialist motive for the journey is suggested:

I was thinkin about turquoise, I was thinkin’ about gold,
I was thinkin’ about diamonds and the world’s biggest necklace.
As we rode through the canyons, through the devilish cold,
I was thinkin’ about Isis, how she thought I was so reckless.

As indicated previously, there is an implication that a quest for treasure, for fabulous wealth, may be the real purpose of the journey, putting the song within a common genre of adventure story. However, material greed is an incidental incentive, far from a prospect of gold and diamonds, it is the idea that Isis will find the narrator ‘so reckless’ that is of primary importance (Williams 1992, 67). Once again a contradiction is inferred, the male narrator may have achieved his wish of finding himself within an exclusively masculine environment, but nonetheless his thoughts are still concerned with the female presence he has left behind.

The two men continue their journey and eventually reach the pyramids, which are, somewhat implausibly it must be said, buried in ice. It is at this point that the narrator’s companion reveals that it is a body he is really looking for. There is an ambiguity and a tension to the line, ‘Twas then that I knew what he had on his mind’. However, as to what the man may have actually had on his mind is left unspoken. In a conspicuous gap in the narrative, an elision, an aporia, the stranger dies and the narrator quickly buries him. At this stage the narrative becomes overtly compressed and the cause of the man’s demise is not disclosed. All we can discern is an anxious concern on behalf of the narrator with the cause of the fatality, and a hope that it is not communicable.

The narrator then returns to Isis, to tell her he loves her, which is not quite the same, one notes, as actually loving her. Isis is in the meadow where the creek used to rise. There is further subtle phrasing here, the phrase ‘where the creek used to rise’ might be seen as suggesting a lost fertility, pointing to a number of possible readings. However, the song is also rooted in a narrative of Egyptian myth, and, if only on a much reduced level, the dry creek evokes the dried-up Nile of the original Isis-Osiris story. (This connection to ancient Egyptian mythology has been discussed by a number of other Dylan commentators; for example, see Scobie, page 161.) In the original myth it was a failure of fertility that called for a sacrificial death and rebirth. Seth, the son of Isis and Osiris, killed his father and scattered him in fourteen pieces up and down the Nile. Isis searched until she had found thirteen of the pieces to rebuild her husband, lacking only the fourteenth piece, the phallus. It is thus interesting to note that when the narrator breaks into the tomb he finds the casket empty: ‘There were no jewels, no nothing ... ’ The word nothing could be read in Shakespearian terms as ‘no thing,’ in other words no phallus. In a sense the song becomes a search for the phallus. There is no thing, there is an empty tomb, and there is a dried up creek. Dylan’s technique here is to use a complex overlay of different myths, to suggest a sense of sexual aridity present just beneath the surface of the lyric.

In the penultimate verse of the song the narrator and Isis have a short, surreal conversation in which the narrator, somewhat unconvincingly it must be said, agrees he will stay and seal his commitment to Isis:

She said, ‘Where ya been?’ I said, ‘No place special.’
She said, ‘You look different.’ I said, ‘Well, I guess.’
She said, ‘You been gone.’ I said, ’It’s only natural.’
She said, ‘You gonna stay?’ I said, ‘If you want me to, yes.’

The narrator’s final quoted word of the lyric is a life-affirming, Joycean statement: ‘Yes,’ (‘yes’ being the last word of Ulysses), which offers the song a further intertextual resonance. The narrator of the song, like Leopold Bloom, has returned to his beginning, and, after a period of wandering, has found no answer, no solution, no meaning with which to confront the sense of futility, frustration and loneliness he had had before he left. Furthermore, Isis, like Molly Bloom, has remained at home waiting for the man to return, as she knew he would. Both Dylan’s unnamed narrator and Leopold Bloom are, in a sense, subjugated by the women they are involved with. There is a sense that both Isis and Molly Bloom have a greater understanding of mens’ fears and desires and that, as women, they know how to use this knowledge. Isis’s lover and Bloom may possess the universal male signifier, they may travel in the world as women cannot, but for all of this they ultimately seem dependent on the female presence and are continually drawn back to them.

Thus the song could be read as an allegorical construct encircling the impossibility of ever reconciling gender differences, the impossibility of man and woman ever fully comprehending one another. The question the song appears to ask is whether Isis, and her reckless, masculine lover, can ever live happily ever after, or indeed, can any man and woman ever truly live happily ever after? The song derives from an album called Desire, and there would seem to be a desire to achieve a union between the masculine and feminine universes. But whether this can ever be achieved within the performative construct of gender in this song, and many others in Dylan’s canon, remains uncertain.

In the thirteenth and final verse we get this summing up:

Isis, oh, Isis, you mystical child.
What drives me to you is what drives me insane.
I still can remember the way that you smiled,
On the fifth day of May in the drizzling rain.

The narrator, forced back into a feminine domain, recalls the contradiction of needing Isis and not needing her, and of risking his life and possibly his sanity in the process of doing this. Thus the song ends, in a completely circular fashion, on the fifth day of May in the drizzling rain.

‘Isis,’ like other American texts as diverse as: Moby Dick, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and On the Road, finds a male couple undertaking a quest narrative. One might, for example, compare the two men in ‘Isis’ to Ahab and Ishmael. The narrator might be seen as an equivalent Ishmael, ensconced in both the feminine and masculine worlds, whilst the man the narrator encounters could be seen as representing Ahab, a figure with a one-sided definition of his masculinity, as his tragically fixed purpose and fixated personality attest. Leslie Fieldler has written that Moby Dick can be read not only as an account of a whale-hunt, but also as ‘a love story, perhaps the greatest love story in our fiction’ (Fieldler 1966, 344). In an analogous sense ‘Isis’ becomes more than a mere account of a search for the world’s biggest necklace; in its own way it is also a love story. In both texts, in greater and lesser ways, one can perceive an exploration of Fieldlerian ideas of manly friendships acting as a substitute for marriage. It is important that this is deniable, but it is a theme that nonetheless runs throughout Moby Dick and, I would argue, throughout ‘Isis,’ a song I consider as one of Bob Dylan’s most significant textual creations.


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Dylan, B. 1987 Lyrics 1962-1985 London: Jonathan Cape
Fieldler, L. 1966 Love and Death in the American Novel New York: Stein and Day
Grey, M. ed 1987 All Across the Telegraph London: Sidgwick & Jackson
Gray, M. 1972 Song and Dance Man : The Art of Bob Dylan London: Hart-Davis MacGibbon
Herdman, J 1982 Voice Without Restraint Edinburgh: Paul Harris
Mellers, W. 1984 A Darker Shade of Pale London: Faber and Faber
Scobie, S. 1991 Alias Bob Dylan Red Deer, Alberta: Red Deer Press
Tompkins, J. 1992 West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns New York: OUP
Williams, P. 1992 Bob Dylan Performing Artist: 1974-1986 London: Omnibus Press
Wood, M. 1975 America in the Movies London: Secker and Warburg

Patrick Webster, University of Leeds
2002-2004 Chapter&Verse. All rights reserved. Chapter&Verse
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