SONG CORNER BY Sarah Gates, St. Lawrence University

“The Truth Just Twists”: Psychedelic Irony in “The Gates of Eden”

“The Gates of Eden” must be one of Bob Dylan’s more opaque songs, since there is so little commentary on it, and that little only addresses the lyrics—and not all of those. For example, Michael Gray discusses only two of the song’s nine verses to claim that it is about “balances of opposites” (62-63), while Nick Smart and Steven Heine look only at its refrain, calling its Eden “a vision of paradise” (186) and “the locus of non-dual truths” (126), respectively. To me, such readings do not capture the haunting, ominous quality of the song, when it is apprehended as a whole. Here, I will explore all the verses and the music, the whole song, in order to describe a tone and mode that Dylan uses so effectively in works throughout his career, but which he honed especially well in this early period. I like to call this mode “psychedelic irony” for its blend of imagery that invites and escapes rational analysis with an accompaniment built on an ironic musical sleight of hand.


The Kingdoms of Experience: Psychedelia

When I use the term “psychedelic” as a way to describe the particularly cryptic effect created by lyrics of songs like “The Gates of Eden,” I mean first that Dylan does verbally something akin to the sensory effects brought on by ingesting a psychedelic substance. The images and vignettes in these songs seem to me to perform a swirling, shape-shifting intertwinement not just of visual phenomena, but also of phenomena from the other senses, of ideas, figures, scenes, and of phrases from other songs and literary works. Other commentators have noticed Dylan’s intertextuality. Rona Cran calls his style “collagesque” and connects his work to that of modernist poets and visual artists (187), while Alex Ross refers to his “magpie mode of writing” (309). Christophe LeBold sums it up when he writes, “Basically, Dylan does to the great American Songbook what T. S. Eliot did to the Western literary canon” (133). These characterizations very smartly get at the way Dylan layers his songs with bits from all over the blues masters, ballads from the British Isles and Appalachia, cowboy songs, sea shanties, American standards — roots music, as we now call these forms — and those who identify them enlighten us helpfully about where the contents of these song-conglomerates come from. However, with the term “psychedelic,” I want to get at effect as well as content.

For a brief example of what I mean by this psychedelic effect, I’d like to consider one of my favorite lines from another song, and another kind of song, “Visions of Johanna”: “The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face.”  Now, I don’t know what that means.  I am not sure I even know what it might represent metaphorically. What is the “ghost of electricity”? And whatever it is or represents, what does “howling” mean that it’s doing “in the bones of her face”? However, I do know how vivid the image is: I know what it looks like, what it sounds like, how it feels. That bony, hollow face glows and pulses and aches; it’s starkly lit and shadowed; she’s inspired, or angry, or agonized, or ecstatic — or all of these — or the singer sees all of these in a projection onto her face of his own feeling. The full couplet suggests such an entanglement of identities: “The ghost of ’lectricity howls in the bones of her face / Where these visions of Johanna have now taken my place.” So, while I may not know what it means, I believe pinning it down to a specific meaning is not the point. We do not need to know what it “means”; we can see it, hear it, feel it. This flickering of an image among referents and sensations, like an optical illusion, is what I mean by the “psychedelic” aesthetic effect.     

In 1965, too, important psychological and spiritual dimensions accompanied the perceptual dimension of psychedelic experiences. The word “psychedelic” was coined in the 1950s not by Timothy Leary or Aldous Huxley, but by British psychiatrist Dr. Humphry Osmond, who was at the time researching the treatment of schizophrenia. He noticed a similarity between adrenaline and mescaline molecules, which led him to theorize that schizophrenia might primarily be caused by distortions of perception from “intoxication caused by one’s own body” (“Humphry”). Since some alcoholics seemed able to give up drinking only after experiencing delirium tremens, he observed, perhaps inducing a similar condition with hallucinogens would lead to a cure. His ensuing experiments with hallucinogens on himself and as treatment for schizophrenic patients revealed to him the mind-expanding and mystical experiences such substances could induce, and it was he who guided Aldous Huxley through the mescaline trip that led to Huxley’s 1954 book The Doors of Perception.

Osmond coined the term “psychedelic” from two Greek words: “psyche” (which the Oxford English Dictionary tells us means “mind” and anima mundi, the animating principle of the universe) and “delon” (which the OED translates as “make manifest, reveal”). So literally, “to reveal the mind,” “to make manifest the mind of the cosmos.” In correspondence with Dr. Osmond, Aldous Huxley proposed his own coinage in a rhyme: “To make this trivial world sublime, take half a gram of phanerothyme” (from thymos: “spirited”). Osmond retorted with his own rhyme, in better rhythm and fuller understanding of hallucinatory range: “To fathom Hell or soar angelic, just take a pinch of psychedelic” (qtd. in “Humphry”). As I use this term, then, I want to suggest an aesthetic influence that includes this metaphysical suggestion. And I think it is safe to say that the psychedelic effect of “The Gates of Eden” is not one of “soaring angelic” (despite its cowboy angel) but rather one of “fathom[ing] Hell.”  

The song unfolds a ghastly world of absurdity, neglect, decadence, torment — and longing gazes toward “Eden.” In the seventh verse, we see the abdication of responsibility, as “the princess and the prince discuss what’s real and what is not” with rotting “precious” windiness, while paupers scrabble for each other’s possessions, “each one wishing for what the other has got.” The third verse shows a “savage soldier,” head in the sand, complaining to a “shoeless hunter who’s gone deaf” — two figures that seem to have withdrawn from the world and their roles in it (blinded, head in the sand, deaf to complaint). The same might be said for the wish-purveyors of the fourth verse, “Aladdin and his lamp” and the “utopian hermit monks,” who make “promises of paradise” from their “side-saddle” perch on that false idol “the Golden Calf,” pointing the way with a “time-rusted compass blade.” The fifth verse shows “those who are condemned to act” according to “relationships of ownership” that “whisper in the wings” — enslavement from behind the scene.

Still, the most hellishly haunting psychedelia come in the two verses whose figures that entangle human with machine or human with beast and object perpetrate the most horrifying abuses. In verse two, an iron-clawed lamp-post cop with his “shadowed metal badge” and forbiddingly “folded arms” looms over “holes where babies wail” in a frightening display of state power over the most helpless victims of urban decay. The sixth verse brings us the part-woman, part-machine “motorcycle black Madonna two-wheeled gypsy queen” and “silver-studded phantom,” figures that shift among Madonna with Holy Spirit, gypsy queen with spirit familiar, and two-wheeled dominatrix in black silver-studded Phantom motorcycle jacket.  She/they torment a softly helpless “gray flannel dwarf” with his “bread-crumb sins” who “screams” and “weeps.”     

Both Michael Gray and Seth Rogovoy consider these bread-crumb sins an allusion to the tashlich atonement ritual of Rosh Hashana in which the sinners cast the bread-crumbs that have accumulated in their pockets into a body of water in order symbolically to shed their sins—a ritual that responds to Ecclesiastes 11:1: “Cast your bread forth upon the waters, for after many days you will find it” (Gray 482, Rogovoy 84). Like his tormenters, however, the gray flannel dwarf also appears as a shifting composite figure. He is as much the innocent Hansel as he is the guilty sinner. In the tale, Hansel leaves a trail of bread-crumbs in order to find the way home, but the birds eat them, leaving him and Gretel lost in the forest. Here, “wicked birds of prey” “pick up on” (that is, notice and reveal), “pick up” (that is, retrieve), and “pick upon” (that is, tear at) the bread-crumb sins in a nightmare of humiliation, lost-ness, and predation such as Prometheus endures, chained on the mountain, his liver eaten over and over by the eagle.     

Yet, every vignette concludes with a pronouncement about “Eden,” the songworld’s lost paradise. Sometimes ills plaguing the songworld are said to have no place in Eden (kings, sins, trials); sometimes desired things lacking in the songworld appear there (trees, a laugh, the truth). Yet for all the confidence with which such conditions are projected into this paradise, the performance of the refrains feels as unsettling as the verses they close. In his reading of “Mr. Tambourine Man,” Christopher Ricks notes in passing that “The trees of Eden are haunting, frightening trees” (144), and Nelson Hilton claims that Dylan’s Eden owes a debt to eighteenth-century poet William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (110). (I would note that it could as easily have come via Huxley’s book: “the doors of perception” is a phrase taken from this Blake text.) However, we do not need to know William Blake to feel what’s “haunting and frightening” about the songworld’s Eden. Dylan performs it in the music.


You Will Not Hear a Laugh: Irony

Certainly, local ironies appear in the individual scenes: the soldier may be “savage,” but he is also plaintive and cowardly; the deaf “shoeless hunter” can hear neither his companion’s complaints nor his prey; the “time-rusted compass blade” will not point in the needful direction; “friends” are “other strangers.” These local ironic twists contribute to the ways the scenes and figures invite and resist interpretation and so intensify the phantasmagoric feeling of the songworld. But the song’s main structural irony plays out in its harmonic movements.     

How do we perceive irony in the non-semantic language of music, whose “meaning” resides in pure sound and the feelings it provokes? Harmonic music creates feeling by establishing a “home” (or “root” or “key”) and then moving away from and back to this “home.” In more complex music, the harmony can lead away from one home and establish a new one—or move into and out of several such homes. Such movements create the patterns of tension and resolution that constitute the “meaning” of music.

The simplest folk and rock songs play out a home-away-home gesture in their three or four chords, sounding some variation of tonic-subdominant-dominant-tonic. In “The Gates of Eden,” G major is the established tonic home, but the chords that lead away from and back to it are not always the ones we expect to hear in that key. Instead, Dylan colors or inflects that journey with sonorities from the Dorian mode — a scale and family of chords that fall between major and minor keys. Minor keys have three flatted notes, which gives them their somber sound. Major keys have no flatted notes and so feel brighter. However, Dorian mode has two flatted notes, which is why it is “between” major and minor, although it is closer to the “somberness” of minor. It thus produces a scale that sounds unresolved, even uncanny, to our modern harmonically-trained ears because it does not follow the patterns of whole- and half-steps found in the major and minor scales that we are so used to hearing. The Dorian scale sounds like it ends on the second degree of the scale instead of the first; it feels unresolved and uncanny, as though it is hovering in mid-air. To us — or to me, at any rate — it is an unsettled and unsettling mode.

This Dorian coloration provides the unheimlich sonority established in the first two lines of the verses in “The Gates of Eden.” The first four chords (G major – D minor – F major – C major), as they are voiced on the guitar, outline in their highest pitches a descending Dorian scale: G – F natural – F natural – E natural, or do – te – te – la. The chord progression itself also gets Dorian coloration from the use of a minor dominant (d minor, or v) leading to two major subdominants (F major—a bVII instead of the usual vii—and C major, or IV), which return home to the tonic via plagal cadence. The sequence we are used to hearing (tonic to subdominant of various kinds to dominant to tonic) is reversed: the dominant gives way to the subdominants, which then shift directly back to the tonic in a plagal cadence. On top of this unsettling progression, Dylan sings a pentatonic melody whose highest note sounds in repeated emphasis, as peak moments in the melodic shape, the flatted seventh-degree te: “Of war and peace the truth just twists.” Put all this together, and we get a combination of sonorities that creates the uncanny, portentous sound characterizing the songworld.

However, the third melodic line, the one that leads into the refrain about Eden, feels different. Its harmony moves comfortingly toward resolution as it approaches the refrain through a standard progression from tonic through subdominants to the major dominant: G major (I) – B minor (iii) – A minor (ii) – G major (I) – A minor (ii) – C major (IV) – D major (V). That D major chord jumps into prominence after the lyrics of the line have finished, as a full-measure fill in the guitar, so its bright F#, or ti, sounding at the top of the texture, provides the strongest possible leading tone towards resolution, like a promise to take us not just home but Home—to Paradise. Then, during the refrain itself, when for example the “ships with tattooed sails” are “heading for the gates of Eden” in a melody that pushes through an insistent repetition of the “home” note G, the harmony shifts behind those notes, beginning with a brief, disquieting Dorian inflection in the transitional chord that comes halfway through that line. I want to call it a Bb7sus4, but whatever it is, it includes all three notes, the F natural (te), Bb (me), and E natural (la), of the Dorian scale. It sounds only briefly, but it takes us not to the D major chord that promised to take us Home via authentic cadence, as in the third line, but back to the C major subdominant (IV) that has been circling us around in the songworld in the first two lines. With the harmony shifting the ground below them in this way, those repeated G notes in the melody draw us unrelentingly to a place where the first syllable of the very word “Eden” is sung on that same flatted te (in the lower octave): “Heading for the gates of Eden”: te do. It is like waking from a bad dream only to find that you are still dreaming. This is the irony sounded in the music: Eden is not a better Other Place but in fact is part of the songworld and its nightmares.     

In this kind of irony, one thought — the acknowledgement of a reality — is clothed in another thought — a wish expressed in the surface utterance. It is the voicing of disillusionment: the ironic utterance banishes the wish in the very act of saying it, even as the wish’s sweetness makes acknowledging the reality bitter. Oedipus wishes to be the righteous king who restores the fertility of his people and their lands and cattle by punishing the criminal whose unnatural actions have caused their desolation. But the unnatural criminal he seeks is in fact himself. The words in the refrains voice a wish: Eden holds original innocence and the Tree of Life—no sins, no kings, no trials, no crashing but meaningless blows. The compass will point the way, the ships will reach the gates, we will laugh in joy when we return. But the music hollows laughter into derision: “And on their promises of paradise you will not hear a laugh / All except inside the gates of Eden [tedo],” where they know better than to listen to promises of paradise (or make them). The “curfew gull” and “cowboy angel,” wafting up from Eden’s trees on “four-legged forest clouds” with “candle lit into the sun,” bear a wish: the time has come to return where truth glows bright. But the curfew gull “just glides,” the glow is “waxed in black.” Within the wish comes bitter reality: Eden also holds that other Tree, the one with the forbidden fruit, the knowledge of good and evil: we have always already fallen. The song turns on this irony, just as it turns on the refrain that wishfully cycles around at the end of each verse: Eden world is songworld.


No Words but These to Tell What’s True

Lyrics and music are of course delivered in a performance, and this song is performed for and addressed to listeners by a first-person singer/speaker. This singer has enough in common with the cowboy angel that I’m tempted to consider that angel his Eden-world avatar. Both bring portentous news, both come accompanied by birds — the “curfew gull,” the “lonesome sparrow” — both have what seems an alienated relation to the “foreign sun,” which “waxes” the cowboy angel’s candle-glow “in black” and “squints upon” the singer’s bed that is never his own.

However, the cowboy angel bears “the truth,” and in this song, whether the bearer of “the truth” is Eden’s cowboy angel, the state’s lamp-post cop, the church’s motorcycle black Madonna, the capitalist’s whisperer in the wings, or philosophy’s arbiters of what is real and what is not, “the truth just twists.” How can our singer bring us a true message and how can we hear it in such a world? The final verse gives us a “glimpse”:     

At dawn my lover comes to me and tells me of her dreams

With no attempts to shovel the glimpse into the ditch of what each one means

At times I think there are no words but these to tell what’s true

Telling the dreams provides the words that tell what’s true. Attempts to shovel these glimpses “into the ditch of what each one means” just twist their truth.

We so often approach poems as though what a poem “means” is something other than what it “tells.” But with dreams and much poetry and certainly songs composed in this psychedelic-ironic mode, we need to listen in the state of receptivity that poet John Keats calls “Negative Capability”: the capacity to rest in “uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason” (109). Our singer, keeping himself (like his lover) in this state of negative capability, speaks through art, not exegesis. If we attend to what he tells instead of irritably reaching after what he means, at times we might see and hear and feel what’s true, especially in a world where the truth just twists.


Works Cited

Cran, Rona. Collage in Twentieth-Century Art, Literature, and Culture. Taylor and Francis, 2014. Ebook.

Dylan, Bob. “The Gates of Eden.” Bringing It All Back Home, Columbia Records, 1965.  

——-.  “Visions of Johanna.”  Blonde on Blonde, Columbia Records, 1966. 

Gray, Michael.  Song and Dance Man III: The Art of Bob Dylan.  2nd ed. Continuum, 2000.  

Hartman, Charles O. “Dylan’s Bridges.” New Literary History, vol. 46, no. 3, 2015, pp. 737-57.

Heine, Steven.  Bargainin’ for Salvation: Bob Dylan, a Zen Master? Continuum, 2009.

Hilton, Nelson. “Waxed in Blake.” Blake: An Illustrated Quarterly, vol. 43, no. 3, 2009-10, pp. 110-11.

“Humphry Osmond.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 23 March, 2017. Accessed 13 May, 2017.

Keats, John. Letter to George and Tom Keats, 21 (27?) December, 1817.  John Keats’s Poetry and Prose. Selected and edited by Jeffrey N. Cox.  W. W. Norton, 2009, pp. 107-09.  

LeBold, Christophe. “I’ve Got the Judas Complex and the Recycling Blues: Bob Dylan as Cultural Theft.” Ranam, vol. 43, 2010, pp. 127-35.

Ricks, Christopher. Dylan’s Visions of Sin. HarperCollins, 2004. 

Rogovoy, Seth. Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic Poet. Scribner, 2009. 

Ross, Alex. “The Wanderer.” The New Yorker May 10, 1999, pp. 56-65.  Rpt. Studio A: The Bob Dylan Reader. Ed. Benjamin Hedin. W. W. Norton, 2004, 291-312. 

Smart, Nick. “Nothing but Affection for All Those Who’ve Sailed with Me: Bob Dylan from Place to Place.” Popular Music and Society, vol. 32, no. 2, 2009, pp. 179-197.