I finally watched I’m Not There Todd Haynes‘ wonderful film about Bob Dylan—whatever “Bob Dylan” actually means. Haynes creates a kaleidoscope of Dylans, played by different actors, in different places and times, all of which capture different parts of the one pop musician who really is (sorry, Beatles and Jesus) bigger than Jesus Christ.
When I slid the DVD in and started watching, it seemed that I was about to waste two-plus hours (and one-half of my Netflix quota) on an indulgent film-school snoozer. Dylan as an 11-year-old African American jumping freight trains? Sorry, but this is not going to work, I thought.
But then came that sublime philosophical experience of being utterly and completely wrong. I was wrong not just because Cate Blanchett, the hands-down star of this film, somehow out-Dylans Dylan himself at the peak of his fame. This was 1965 when D.A. Pennebaker filmed him in England for his mispunctuated film, Dont Look Back. This was when even pretty good songwriters like Donovan and awesome ones like Lennon himself wanted to be Dylan or at least one of the many Dylans.
Even in Pennebaker’s black and white format, you can see Donovan turn green with envy when Dylan plays “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” during a smoky, hotel room session. Lennon turned into Blanchett, er… Dylan for “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” on Help, released the same year.
I was wrong because Haynes explores a truth about personal identity that nicely balances the view of identity you get when you cross George W. Bush and Seinfeld‘s J. Peterman (see Pop Goes Philosophy: George W. and J. Peterman, Philosophically Speaking). That comparison points to identity as malleable, shifting, and in the long run, empty.
But for artists like Dylan, our common-sense notions of personal identity fail for the opposite reason: these persons are not empty, but rather, they are overflowing with contradictions, oppositions, and conflicts. So many contradictions that each of us can find something to like (or someone we want to be) at the Dylan buffet and still step back, take in the whole thing, and see the complexity of human individuality and our responses to it.
Haynes figured this out, and so did Peter Vernezze and Paul Lulewicz (a few years before Haynes, it appears) in their contribution to Bob Dylan and Philosophy. They compare theories of identity based on the body, the mind (or memory), and spiritual souls to conclude that Dylan’s many identities illustrate a Buddhist conception of life sustained not by things (bodies, memories, or souls) but interconnections among them. Since those interconnections extend to each of us and our particular points of view, Haynes’ kaleidoscopic Dylan becomes even less a filmmaker conceit and more an accurate representation of the truth about identity.
The below is adapted from “’I Got My Bob Dylan Mask On’: Bob Dylan and Personal Identity” By Peter Vernezze and Paul Lulewicz in Bob Dylan and Philosophy: It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Thinking).
During a concert at Carnegie Hall, October 31st, 1964, Dylan replied to some banter from the audience by saying, “It’s Halloween. I got my Bob Dylan mask on” (Vol. 6 of The Bootleg Series). The audience laughed, but it’s worth probing the implications of the statement by examining the three main accounts of personal identity: the notion that personal identity is constituted by a physical component (the body), a psychological trait (our memory of ourselves across time), and by a spiritual reality (an eternal soul). If you do, you find that each faces a rather substantial hurdle.
So should we conclude that there is no permanent self that constitutes our personal identity? This is the position taken by the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711–1766). For Hume, the notion that there exists a self—something that is permanent and stable and can identify us across time—is an illusion. Instead of a single fixed entity at our core, what we find when we examine ourselves are isolated perceptions that are themselves subject to change. At this moment I have a particular impression (this computer screen), am possessed of a distinct emotion (anxiety about the chapter I am writing), reflect on a specific memory (what I had for breakfast), and call up a long-standing belief (that Dylan is a great poet).
But in the next moment, I will be staring not at the computer screen but out the window, unconcerned with the paper, remembering a dinner two days ago, and perhaps (just perhaps) beginning to wonder if albums like Knocked Out Loaded and Down in the Groove are not enough to call into question Dylan’s genius. What I thought I could appeal to as a source of stability and a ground for the self is, Hume claims, subject to change. We are, according to Hume’s essay “On Personal Identity,” “nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement.”
Although such a view may sound simply bizarre or incomprehensible to many in the West, the notion that there is no self lies at the core of Buddhism. According to the teaching of the Buddha, what we refer to as the self is in fact a bundle of five aggregates: matter, sensations, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. Since these collections are themselves the result of causes and subject to constant change, what we call the self has no more permanence than a flame that is passed from one candle to the next.
The physicalist view, the memory view, and the soul view each sits rather comfortably with the conventional sense that we have a static, fixed essence. By contrast, the Buddhist-Humean view of the self overturns our conceptions of ourselves as stable beings with a solid identity. Where do Dylan’s sentiments lie on this issue? We’d like to conclude with some thoughts that suggest Dylan is not without sympathy for the no-self view. Dylan himself seems to ascribe to a version of this. In an interview he once said, “I mean, I think one thing today and I think another thing tomorrow. I change during the course of a day. I wake and I’m one person, and when I go to sleep I know for certain I’m somebody else. I don’t know who I am most of the time” (in B. Hedin, ed. Studio A: The Bob Dylan Reader, p. 236).
Nor should we view this metaphysical musing as an isolated incident, for other evidence can be brought in to support its odd implication. The fact that the very name “Bob Dylan” is a construct, a fabrication, ought to alert us that Dylan may well be out to call into question our conceptions about identity. Then there’s that interview with Allen Ginsberg, in which Dylan says, “Nobody’s Bob Dylan. Bobby Dylan’s long gone” (in S. Scobie, Alias Bob Dylan Revisited, p. 45) The notion that there is such a thing as the artist Bob Dylan, an individual performer whose essence we can fix in time and space, is undercut by the many permutations that Dylan himself has undergone in his career—from protest singer to electric guitar rock star to country gentleman to Christian evangelist to folk archivist to whatever the latest permutation might be. It’s hard to think of anyone more fluid as a performer than Dylan. The ever-shifting nature of the artist might help to explain the enigmatic comment in the liner notes to Biograph: “I don’t think of myself as Bob Dylan. It’s like Rimbaud said, ‘I is another’.”
One sense in which Dylan might be “another” is suggested by the Buddhist view of ego. Buddhists ground their argument that there is no self on the doctrine of causation, the notion that nothing can have the sort of essence required to be a truly separate being because everything is the product of causes. An individual enters the world possessed of a given set of genetic traits, grows up in a distinct family situation which is embedded in a particular culture at a certain place and time—none of which she is responsible for and all of which goes into determining her peculiar make up. Such a scenario, it is claimed, undermines the justification for belief in a self-caused essence.
In the same way, by spending much of the past ten years recording the music of others, or by titling an album which consists mainly of covers Self Portrait, Dylan himself seems to be calling attention to the fact that the very musical genius we identify with him may be nothing more than a link in a chain, the result of countless other performers and traditions. Under such conditions, perhaps the creator does not warrant being distinguished as a fixed, self-created essence in his own right; rather, it is the chain that is the fundamental reality.