BY Christopher Mitchell
In this presentation, I am going to explore the suggestion that we can listen to and read Bob Dylan’s body of work using Menippean satire as critical apparatus or a translation device. There are two pieces of recent criticism that make this suggestion, so in the spirit of a musical expeditionary, we will take a quick spin to see what this might look like in practice. We will start by reviewing the two pieces of criticism that make this suggestion. From there we will have a brief look at Menippean satire. Some of you know Menippean satire, and those of you who know Menippean satire know that it is a tricky, elusive concept, but once we have here a provisional sense of the concept in hand, we will look at possible routes through which we might navigate Dylan’s work. We’ll look at Chronicles, Vol. One, “Murder Most Foul,” “False Prophet,” and The Philosophy of Modern Song and the ways in which these works demonstrate an affinity with the characteristics or methods of Menippean satire. This affinity should make it possible to understand Dylan’s work as literary, without arguing for that work as literature. The intent is not to define Dylan’s work as Menippean satire but to understand that work on its own terms, terms that coincide with the methods of Menippean satire. I hope to underscore this affinity for Menippean satire and highlight the ways in which Dylan’s work confronts the boundaries of genre, literary or otherwise.
In their introduction to a 2019 collection entitled Polyvocal Bob Dylan, Josh Toth and Nduka Otiono present Dylan’s body of work as an example of the dialogic, Mikhail Bakhtin’s category of novelistic discourse, a category derived from Bakhtin’s formulation of Menippean satire. For Bakhtin, the dialogic stands in opposition to the monologic or poetic discourse, discourse that insists upon authority and unity. The dialogic or novelistic discourse accommodates or encourages heteroglossia, many voices. The monologic is a single authoritative voice; the dialogic is various voices arrayed in defiance of authority or unity. The most well-known aspect of Menippean satire is the mixing of genres or styles or voices. In the classical Menippean satires, this was the mixture of prose and verse – prosimetrum. This mixture of form or style has evolved into hybridity, mixtures of genres or voices, or, as Bakhtin has it, the dialogic. It is the dialogic aspect of Dylan’s work that Toth and Otiono enlarge upon. They proceed from Bakhtin’s observation that there are forces working “to overcome the heteroglossia of language,” forces that seek to create a “stable linguistic nucleus of an officially recognized literary language.” Toth and Otiono argue that Dylan’s work functions “primarily, as a frustration of those various forces” (9-10).
In a 2021 paper, Scott Peeples proposes reading Melville’s Confidence Man concurrently with listening to Dylan’s John Wesley Harding. Peeples isolates an episode from the novel in which Frank and Charlie banter in an exchange of trust and duplicity, and Peeples compares that episode to the “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest.” In that discussion, Peeples notes our tendency to describe The Confidence Man as a Menippean satire and then suggests that John Wesley Harding is a Menippean satire, too. Peeples invokes two characteristics of Menippean satire – thematic repetition and a lack of coherent narrative arc – but his observation is an aside, and he does not pursue the Menippean angle further.
Toth and Otiono’s observations about the dialogic might not necessarily entail understanding Dylan’s work as Menippean, and Peeples stops short of exploring the possibility of Dylan’s work as Menippean, but taken together these two avenues of inquiry provoke in us the desire to consider Dylan’s work or parts of it as Menippean satire.
The lineage of Menippean satire takes us from the proto-novels of Apocolocyntosis, The Golden Ass, Satyricon, and A True Story through to the anatomies of Boethius, Erasmus, and Burton, and then to well-known exemplars of the tradition: Gargantua and Pantagruel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Gulliver’s Travels, Alice in Wonderland, Moby-Dick. It is possible to build a formidable reading list, but it is just as possible to sink into a swamp of definition. Let us skirt the swamp by considering here the handful of surviving Menippean satires. Apocolocyntosis and Satyricon are from the first century CE. Apocolocyntosis is the first Menippean satire to be preserved in its entirety. In this work, the Emperor Claudius, upon his death, approaches the gods and sues for apotheosis. He is refused and descends to Hades. Satyricon is not intact but is perhaps the most well-known Menippean satire. Here, a trio of scoundrels rattle around in various seaports, surviving a series of escapades, orgies mostly but also a shipwreck, and in the extended episode for which Satyricon is famous to the present day, they attend a long, debauched banquet hosted by Trimalchio. The Golden Ass and A True Story are from the second century CE. The Golden Ass involves magic, and A True Story involves a trip to the moon. One appraisal of Apocolocyntosis arrives at a short, useful Menippean checklist that encompasses all four of these works: “unreliable source, fantastic journey, serious interlude, and comic reprieve” (Relihan 77). We should also note the same critic’s assessment of Satyricon which notes that work’s “resistance to coherent interpretation.” These four works underwrite Peeples’ specification of a lack of coherent narrative arc and thematic repetition. In a discussion of Gargantua and Pantagruel, a different critic writes: “The satire of these works can be said to be ‘Menippean’ in the loose, non-technical sense that it is generically hybrid and stylistically mixed, combining the incompatible registers and genres of high and low culture in fantastical comic fictions and freewheeling, antinormative, even subversive criticism” (Duval 72). And if there is anything common to the works that end up being designated as Menippean, it would be that they are loose and non-technical.
Leaving it to Peeples to apply any or all of this to John Wesley Harding, we will begin with Chronicles. While Dylan’s account of his songwriting and performing travails in Chronicles does evoke these stories of visiting strange moonscapes and searching for magic and surviving shipwrecks, I would like to begin by highlighting a correspondence between Chronicles and Apocolocyntosis. While Dylan’s roaming in his autobiography is certainly not analogous to Claudius’s quest in Apocolocyntosis, we do get in the third section of Chronicles a weird inversion of Claudius’s plight: This episode is set within the period of Dylan’s tenure in Woodstock with his family. In the middle of this section, Dylan muses upon Melville’s fate; Dylan writes, “By the time of his death [Melville] was largely forgotten. I had assumed that when critics dismissed my work, the same thing would happen to me, that the public would forget about me” (123). Dylan is not dead, but he has just come away from his father’s funeral. He does not approach the gods, but he proceeds to a meeting with Archibald MacLeish (107). He does not seek apotheosis – if anything, he is seeking to reverse that process. While this inverted correspondence might be as strained as it is suggestive, the characterization of Apocolocyntosis and the other early Menippean works, the “unreliable source, fantastic journey, serious interlude, and comic reprieve,” appears to be equally applicable to Chronicles, which now seems more novelistic than autobiographical. We have the fantastic journey, the serious interludes, the comic reprieves, but those might all be features of an autobiography. Contemporary critics and readers were puzzled by Chronicles, which did not fulfill expectations of celebrity biography. And then the fourth item on that checklist, the unreliable source, became an issue. Scott Warmuth, in chronicling Dylan’s “magpie tendencies,” noted that Chronicles is “meticulously fabricated” (“Bob Charlatan” 71). To choose one example, the thick seafood stew episode on page 170 turns out to be a cryptographic exercise, melding a Hemingway short story and travel book about New Orleans. For some readers this was plagiarism, theft. Those readers felt betrayed; Dylan’s book did seem to provoke in those readers something very like Satyricon’s “resistance to coherent interpretation.” Yet if we are reading Chronicles with Menippean satire in the back of our minds, an unreliable narrator and this resistance to coherent interpretation seem more purposeful than vexing.
But Chronicles is a book, and Dylan is a performer, a recording artist. Let us listen to “Murder Most Foul” with the Menippean in mind: we hear a recitative performance that verges on the liturgical, a profusion of piano amid the bowed double bass and a violin. If here the length of the recording – sixteen minutes – and the somber, elegiac atmosphere were not oppressive enough, the narrative seems to be an account of the assassination of John F. Kennedy told by several voices, all sung by Dylan. There is the narrator: “President Kennedy was riding high / A good day to be living and a good day to die.” There seems to be Dylan himself: “Zapruder’s film, I’ve seen that before / Seen it thirty-three times, maybe more.” There is the president himself: “Got blood in my eyes, got blood in my ear / I’m never gonna make it to the New Frontier.” There are other voices: “Don’t worry Mr. President, help’s on the way / Your brothers are comin’, there’ll be hell to pay.” But the voices are not announced; we cannot see who is speaking; it is a collage; it is all Dylan’s voice; it is pianos and bass and violin; it is a very definition of heteroglossia. This mélange of voices supports Toth and Otiono’s dialogic understanding of Dylan’s work, but we have here also a dead man speaking from the afterlife, a president and the specter of apotheosis, yet another echo of Apocolocytosis. And again, with the strained and the suggestive, can it be entirely that coincidence that A True Story was an account of a trip to the moon, and this president is the one who urged us to go to the moon?
Rough and Rowdy Ways provides more affinities with the Menippean, but I would like to focus here on a second song, “False Prophet.” If we set aside for now the aspects of the narrator and the voicing of the arrangement, the most striking thing about “False Prophet” is the direct reference to Billy Emerson’s “If Lovin’ Is Believin’.” To some ears this would seem to be another instance of Dylan’s theft from earlier poets and musicians; to other ears this would seem to be another instance of Dylan’s continuing in the folk process; but in our current discussion we would see it as Menippean hybridity. Using Emerson’s record, Dylan anchors his own record in Memphis of 1954, in Sun Records, providing a reckoning point but also an underpinning of his work, as if his voice has been recorded over Billy Emerson’s, as if his work has been recorded over a reel of tape from the Memphis Recording Service, as if Billy Emerson’s voice bleeds through amid Dylan’s voice, or maybe as if Dylan’s voice bleeds through amid Emerson’s voice. If the question once was whether Dylan could sing, the question now would seem to be who is it that is singing? And even if we cannot say, we have in this profusion, this indeterminacy of voices, our Menippean prosimetrum.
Once attuned to these aspects of Dylan’s work and this affinity for aspects of Menippean satire, we hear these strains of the dialogic, of digression, of the negotiability of the narrator’s voice, of the distortion or confusion of fact and fabrication, as a single driving activity. In The Philosophy of Modern Song, we are presented with sixty-six chapters about sixty-six records. One of the first things we notice is Dylan’s extensive use of the second person. The effect of this upon the reader is that You is in the song, and You is listening to the song. We have here another instance of method that Toth and Otiono remark upon in their discussion of Dylan’s Nobel lecture performance: “All the while, he shifts between first, second, and third person – placing (and confusing) himself and his listener in the heart of the action” (6). This scrambling of identity is familiar to us. We might have first noticed it in the various iterations of “Tangled Up in Blue”; we might have come to it lately in “Murder Most Foul.” If The Philosophy of Modern Song seems like a jukebox of sorts, we are familiar with that, too, most likely in the form of Theme Time Radio Hour, and we realize that the book is less a jukebox than a spinning of a radio dial. And once we have made that short hop, we hear it too in the Sun Pie episode from Chronicles. Dylan and his wife are tooling through Louisiana on their motorcycle when they stop at “an obscure roadside place, a gaunt shack,” a chimerical emporium “run by an old-timer named Sun Pie.” Some of the details in this extended vignette catch our eye: “There were iron works around the entryway” (203), but in the wake of this discussion, we now hear a radio “from beyond a wall and the sound was coming through in static.” Throughout this episode, the radio plays a constant, familiar soundtrack, “Do You Want to Know a Secret” by the Beatles, “I’m Leaving It Up to You” by Dale and Grace, “Sea of Love” by some local singer. We are reminded now of the role of the radio station in “Murder Most Foul”: the assassinated president phoning in requests, but before he begins his litany of songs he wants to hear, it is again the Beatles who alert us to the presence of the radio. A short while after the Beatles, the president (or someone in the car) says, “Turn the radio on, don’t touch the dials.” In the very next section of the song, we witness the assassination, the sacrifice, and immediately following that we catch snippets of song, “What’s new, pussycat? What’d I say?” A couple of lines after that “Wolfman Jack, he’s speaking in tongues.” Dylan compounds heteroglossia with glossolalia. From that point the song is given over to the president’s requests, the dead man’s Philosophy of Modern Song, interspersed with snippets of dialogue from that Lincoln Continental. The voices of the characters, the voicings of the music, the voices of the records playing over the radio, all of this is cacophony to the ears of listeners and readers expecting veracity, authority, unity. But the cacophony, or as Toth and Otiono would have it, the polyphony, is exactly the point.
Howard Weinbrot, in his effort to define the Menippean, stipulates a method wherein the satirist sets “a work against its own approximate genre” (6-7). The very idea of someone setting “a work against its own approximate genre” puts us in mind of Dylan going electric or Dylan making John Wesley Harding or Dylan making Self-Portrait or Dylan making Slow Train Coming. Certainly, Dylan has never been confined by genre, whether we are talking about the distinction between folk music and rock and roll or the differences between Dylan’s songs, recordings, performances, and books and his movies, radio show, paintings, sculpture, whiskey, and television commercial for women’s undergarments. But it is here that we arrive at the purpose of Menippean satire, that it is satire, that it has a target, specified by Weinbrot to be a “threatening false orthodoxy,” a “danger to the world” (298). Eugene Kirk writes, “Menippean satire was essentially concerned with right learning or right belief. That theme often called for ridicule or caricature of some sham-intellectual or theological fraud” (xi). Menippean satire ridicules “the pretensions of authoritative claims to wisdom” (Marenbon).
It seems that Dylan knows that Meaning is hardly the issue. The “threatening false orthodoxy” that Dylan is attacking would be the expectation of meaning, the expectation of authority, of unity, of a “finite or hegemonic” form, a strictly policed line between “mercurial performance and the fixity of print” (Toth and Otiono 4). Toth and Otiono underscore this in their discussion of the polyvocal Dylan, that his work is “confronting the exhaustion (or restrictiveness) of literary forms as such” (5), but their enthusiasm for Dylan as an exemplar of the dialogic can be yoked to Peeples’ observation about thematic repetition and a lack of coherent narrative arc. In this direction we can use the Menippean to hear in Dylan’s work that thematic repetition, hear those radios playing through the walls, “the country music station plays soft,” through the text, through the voices, through the static.
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– – – . Rough and Rowdy Ways. Columbia, 2020.
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