“I and I.” World of Bob Dylan 2023, June 2023, Tulsa, OK.

BY Bernard Wills, Grenfell Campus Memorial University


“I and I” is a track on Dylan’s 1983 album Infidels. The title, of course, refers to the phrase “I and I” used by Rastafarians to assert a logic of identity rather like the Fichtean A=A. Unlike in German idealism however, this is an experiential not a logical proposition. “I and I” states the experience that God and humanity are one: that I in my subjectivity and self-hood am the divine subjectivity. The human and divine I are distinguished to be identified. This knowledge is a revolutionary act of appropriating dignity, the dignity of I itself, to myself, in my fallen and oppressed condition and is the condition of any assertion of freedom and decolonization. Indeed, with the division of the world into subject and object (not “I and I” but “I and it”) other human subjects are reduced to “objects” to be used and exploited.[1] In the Rasta world all is “I” not “you and I” which entails division and subordination. As Bunny Wailer puts it, “In the beginning there was one concept” that of I. (“Armagideon,” 1976) Division emerges (the problem in all Gnostic type systems) through the arch nemesis “Apollyon” or “Satan” who first enunciates the sentence “you and I,” thus dividing the unity of I into subject and object. This is how, in one of his accounts at least, Plotinus accounts for the emergence of mind from the simplicity of the one: an act of “daring” that breaks the original unity and introduces the possibility of evil (1991; 5, 1, 1). What, however, does Dylan make of all this from a Judaic perspective for which God utterly transcends the human so that “his thoughts are not our thoughts”? In this essay I will explore this question by explicating the lyric for “I and I.” As we shall see, Dylan (perhaps unconsciously, perhaps not) has evoked some of the most fundamental problems about the divine and human identity-in difference. It is perhaps not usual to bring German idealism into one’s consideration of Dylan as I did above. Nor is it usual to bring in the beliefs of the Rastafarians. Yet to crack the complexity of what Dylan has done in this song we shall have to do both as occasion serves.[2]


Dylan, notoriously, had a period of intense immersion in Evangelical Christianity. This period seemingly ended with the release of Infidels and on this and later records Christian and Judaic imagery seem poised against each other in what we might call a dialectical way. Though Dylan is, before all else, mercurial, I think I can say with some confidence that these later explorations of Judaism reflect a dissatisfaction with strict Evangelical theology. This is because it is a theology of rupture. The fissure between the old self and the new, nature and grace, the saved and the unregenerate is posited as absolute. This fissure is dramatized in Dylan’s trilogy of gospel albums: Slow Train Coming, Saved, and Shot of Love. On these records the divine has entered history, radically, in the person of Christ. This moment of revelation forces an absolute choice: “You either got faith or you got unbelief/there ain’t no neutral ground” (“Precious Angel,” 1979). The divine drama unfolds in a moment of pure crisis where the will must give itself unreservedly to the standpoint of faith or remain divided: “No time to prepare for the victim that’s there / no time to suffer or blink / and no time to think” (“No Time to Think,” 1978). This crisis presents a binary option, an either/or. At its most radical it entails the logic of the early heresiarch Marcion, with his absolute division of nature and grace and his absolute separation of the Christ of the Gospels from the Torah. In many ways, this Gnosticism, as Harold Bloom points out, lies at the heart of American Protestantism, especially in its popular modes (1992; 21-23). A radical separation is sought from what is simply given in nature or history. The self is radically transformed, reborn in redemptive suffering. This new Christian self is in the most basic sense a revolutionary self, a radical recreation, and we should give the word “revolutionary” its full resonance for an American context.


Dylan, though, is a poet of continuity as well as rupture. Transformation and recreation of the self is a reaching back as well as a looking forward: looking forward to a redeemed self and back to an ahistorical point of origin: deep in the soul there is no past (see Day, 1988; 118). What propels us forward is an effort to recapture the integrity of the beginning through a recovery of the past. As another poet, T.S. Eliot, put it “the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time” (1971; 145). The beginning point is always present; Jewish experience, to be specific, does not disappear from Christianity. The legitimacy of the new faith is predicated on the old[3] (John 5.45 46). Dylan seems to want to explore this fact to a far greater degree than Evangelical Protestantism would readily countenance. One might say that for him, Judaism and Christianity align insofar as both are religions of expectation and insofar as the object of this expectation is one and the same. How he would work this relation out is difficult to say; however, it must be emphasized that such discursive tasks are not typically for poets. What they utter in their divine madness the reader must turn into prosaic commentary. We will, then, consider the lyrics of “I and I” and consider how they manage (linguistically) the complex task of rendering a space within and somehow beyond the contested boundaries of Hebrew and Christian tradition.


The song is in one way very simple. A man goes out for a walk to avoid talking to a dreaming woman. The “walk” however is clearly a metaphor for another type of experience: the mystical experience of a realm outside time, change, and even language. As the chorus indicates, this is an encounter with the transcendent creator of the Hebrew Bible. Dylan’s source here is Exodus 33 vs. 19-23 in which Moses encounters the living God and receives a glimpse of divine glory. This is the principle of absolute beauty and justice before which creation is reduced to nothingness: “No man sees my face and lives.” This is the principle which “neither honors nor forgives” (i.e. in “creation” we are not honored or forgiven if we do not honor and forgive).[4] The paradox of the song revolves around the mediation between the creature and this absolute principle. The Rasta phrase “I and I” adverted to above immediately evokes an encounter between an “I” and another “I” or (presumably) two subjectivities. Yet the phrase yokes these subjectivities together such that each “I” can see the other “I” as “I,” as itself rather than another. Difference and unity are evoked at the same time and in the same respect: that of the “I.” Earlier in Exodus 33 it says “and the Lord spoke unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend.” Paradoxically, the self can attain union with that which it cannot behold and live. This may seem a naked contradiction, but Dylan is purposefully honing a paradoxical discourse which tests the limits of finite reason. Readers unable or unwilling to distinguish between a sloppy contradiction and a fruitful paradox should probably avoid Dylan and the Hebrew Bible! At any rate, this paradoxical union/disunion is enacted by the mediation of the word which speaks its own ineffability: “One says to the other.” At the very limit of communication consciousness is saturated with what is too intimately present to be divided discursively by a “Mind that multiplies the smallest matter” (“The Wicked Messenger,” 1967).


This points to another possible interpretation of the phrase “I and I.” “I and I” could be read as a circumlocution for God’s name “I am who I am” in which, despite the assertion of identity, the “I” is taken twice. Yet the very fact that the “I” must be duplicated for God to speak his name suggests that this assertion of absolute unity slides into difference, even duality, even as it is spoken. One can take this further. “I and I” may be attributing the reflexivity of consciousness to the one God: the “I” knowing itself as another “I” which, if one takes the copula binding “I and I” as a third element, would anticipate the Christian (though not Plotinian) Trinity.[5] On this reading we have an assertion of identity and difference packed in the ambiguity of Dylan’s terse phrases. Somehow the mystical identity of the soul with the one beyond comprehension, the identity with what is absolutely different, is grounded in the possibility of the one being different from itself in the word which mediates its transcendence: the “I” can saturate and suffuse another “I.” It can be “I” in another “I.” Thus, Moses can speak face to face with He whom no man can look upon. Even in the gap, the distance opened up between “I” and “Thou,” the “I” can encounter another “I” as its own most intimate self.[6] The boundaries erected by ordinary object-consciousness and discursive logic may, after all, not apply in the heightened state of poetic, and indeed prophetic, inspiration. Here the poet/prophet/visionary may be as much God as not God and vice versa.


This suggestion seems to lie behind the third verse, a mysterious conflation of Ecclesiastes 1, 9-11 and Timothy 2, 15-16. The Ecclesiastes text laments the power of time and chance over all human endeavor while the Pauline text enjoins Christians to avoid vain and foolish babbling and to rightly “divide” the word of truth. The way Dylan joins these two texts (one Hebrew and one Greek and Christian), they carry the sense that he who divides rightly the word of truth shall gain the goal which strength, wisdom, speed, and cunning cannot attain: salvation from time and chance. Most striking is the notion that a “division” of truth as truth, traditionally, is one. The phrase “the word of truth” implies that the one truth can be spoken in the dividedness of language. To divide the word of truth rightly would be to properly split up the one truth into many words. There is another kind of proper division consequent on this: the proper division of honor into equal portions through justice, hence the next two lines. Here there is not only divine unity but “just” division and “just” speaking. Language breaks up the unity of the one into discourse as nature breaks up God into creation and indeed, as human society “divides” the unity of justice into “equal shares.” One might almost think of the “breaking” of the vessels of light in the imagery of the Kabbalah. These lines attribute to a “stranger” the teaching of the true character of justice. In a brilliant play on words Dylan (the speaker) learns to “see an I for an I,” the absolute equality of one subject with another, and is hence placed under the law which demands an eye for an eye, which this equality entails. If one sees an “I for an I,” one must also see an eye for an eye and “a tooth for a tooth.” This is learned from beholding justice in the face of a “stranger.” We cannot see justice in ourselves but only in the face of the other. Exodus says to honor the stranger among us (22-21), so the primary meaning here is that the measure of our justice is how we treat the stranger for nature itself inclines us to be kind to our own kin but to fear and hate the other.


This image also suggests the traditional representation of justice as a blindfolded woman holding a pair of scales. To look into her face would be to see the beautiful countenance of justice and justice, after all, may be something to which all us fallen humans are a stranger. This, a visible icon of justice, may be the face we can look into and live, or look into and die, depending on what is in our hearts. Here one is tempted to sum up all these strands of meaning by pointing out that in Christian discourse it is Christ (the stranger among us in John, he who is not of this world but sent from the Father) who is the visible icon of justice. Thus, we have the assertion that truth and justice can be mediated by words and images, just as we can be one with that which no eye (or I) can look upon and live through the speaking of the word. This meaning, if we accept it, links beautifully with the first for it is through the face of the stranger, the face of the other, that we see the face of Christ: “Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matthew 25:40). It would be fruitful, though beyond the scope of this paper, to consider this focus on the stranger as the icon of justice in relation to the “face of the other” which for Levinas constitutes the sphere of the ethical.


The final verse presents this result as the conclusion of the speaker’s journey. Language (“talk”) which the speaker had sought to escape in the second verse is here reaffirmed. The journey has continued past the night: the natural alteration of light and dark has been suspended by a deeper darkness. A “darkness at noon” that outshines the natural sun. The speaker, pushing himself through this darkness at noon (the totalitarian horrors of the 20th Century as in Arthur Koestler? The “divine darkness” of negative theology? Both at once?) must force himself forward yet cannot stumble or stay put into the narrow lanes of quotidian existence.[7] Freedom and compulsion seem to exist at once. In this state, the speaker experiences something of the infinity of the divine itself: “Into the narrow lanes I can’t stumble or stay put.” Dylan divides this line with a scoff, the divine scoff at the constraints of the finitude which cannot contain it. One can almost hear the voice of God here taking over the speaker’s voice. Indeed, this is what is described in the very next line: “Someone else is speaking with my mouth”. This seems to mean two things: a. the divine is speaking in me as in prophecy; and b. I, God, am speaking through another. Exactly as in Rastafarianism the divine and human interchange pronouns in a division without confusion. As the speaker (presumably the human “I”) focuses on the sound of his own heartbeat, the word is delivered: “I’ve made shoes for everyone, even you, while I still go barefoot.” Shoes may here stand for images or artifacts, perhaps even words or (for the human speaker Dylan) songs. The word of the divine is that no image can contain him; though a maker of shoes he is himself not shod. The God beyond words can speak of his wordlessness and this speech cannot be exhausted because it cannot exhaust him. The word of ineffability saves speaking itself from its own exhaustion.


This brings us to the figure of the woman mentioned in the first, second, and fourth verses. The woman sleeps throughout the song wrapped in the dreams of her past. She is the power who evokes speech, perhaps she is language herself or, to use Ginsberg’s phrase from the liner notes to Desire, “Lady Language Creator.” Her speech, however, is focused on the past, on “whatever was.” Perhaps then she is memory as well. Her sleep seems a sleep of exhaustion as if satiated with her own fullness. Indeed, there is an air of unreality about her dream state: she would sleep through the end of the world if it occurred. This exhaustion or fullness invokes weariness and disgust reminiscent, again, of Ecclesiastes 1, 9.: “there is no new thing under the sun.” It is from this state of world weariness that the speaker ascends to other realms, realms beyond memory and decay. In the process he is raised from the silence of self-satisfied dreams to speak a deeper silence. This is possible for God can reveal himself to creation. The power whose glance would consume the world can, through its ineffable condescension, maintain the creature in relation to itself. It is its very nature to mediate itself to what is other. Thus, one can be intimate to the point of identity with what is other to a degree which can neither be imagined or comprehended. This identity is not only the core of Christian mysticism but of Neo-Platonic henosis as well. It is also core to the Islamic Sufi tradition (rarely, to my knowledge, explicitly evoked by Dylan) which speaks of fana or loss of conscious self-hood in the divine ecstasy.[8] Indeed, the mystic al Hallaj uttered the phrase “I am the truth” in one of his ecstasies: his “I” was, in that moment, the divine “I” and one might say that “I and I” was almost what he uttered were it not that he proclaimed the distinction of the I’s annulled. Does “I and I” leave a shadow of difference in its assertion of identity?


Divine power, we are told, will soon fill and renew all creation in an eternal spring which will come “smoking down the track” as the “two men on a train platform” wait for the “gospel train” to appear. It was once suggested to me that these men are a Christian and a Jew and this seems to me plausible as in Dylan’s mind this is who would be waiting for the “Slow Train Coming”: the two religions of eschatological hope join in waiting for the same consummation (as does Islam but that does not seem to be on Dylan’s radar at least here). One might take this song as poised teasingly between Christian and Jewish standpoints on speaking and silence, God and creation, image and what cannot be imaged. This would certainly mark an advance (if this word applies to poets and artists) over Dylan’s more nakedly confessional records of the late 70’s (though these are in their own way compelling). Christianity leavened with a Jewish sense of paradox and “negative capability” seems no worse for wear to me and Dylan certainly weaves as much into this “Judeo-Christian” lyric as a lyric can contain. Poetry of this sort might even seem to some even overloaded, an unusual criticism for a pop song to be sure. Still, Dylan has difficult things to say and such things cannot always be said in a simple manner. Moreover, he has difficult things to say about the most difficult things. Indeed, he here performs one of the poet’s most important tasks, bending the resources of language to say what cannot, after all, be said. With apologies to Wittgenstein, it is the poets who face the task of speaking of that “whereof one cannot speak.” It is their task to push language to the point of failure and beyond.


Works Cited

Bloom, Harold American Religion (New York, Simon and Shuster, 1992).

Day, Aiden Jokerman (Cambridge Mass Basil Blackwell ltd, 1988)

Dylan, Bob Blonde on Blonde (New, York, Columbia Records, 1966)

Dylan, Bob Infidels (New, York, Columbia Records, 1983)

Dylan, Bob John Wesley Harding (New York, Columbia Records, 1967)

Dylan, Bob Slow Train Coming (New York, Columbia Records, 1979)

Dylan, Bob Street-Legal (New York, Columbia Records, 1978)

Eliot, T.S. The Complete Poems and Plays (New York, Harcourt Brace and World, 1971)

Hegel, G.W.F. The Science of Logic trans. A.V. Miller (N.J., Humanities Press

International, 1969)

Ricks, Christopher Dylan’s Visions of Sin (London, Harper Collins, 2003)

Plotinus, Enneads trans. S. MacKenna (London, Penguin Books, 1991)

Schelling, F.J.W. System of Transcendental Idealism trans. Peter Heath (Charlottesville,

University of Virginia Press, 1978)

The Wailers Burnin’ (New York, Island Records, 1971)

Wailer, Bunny Blackheart Man (New York, Island Records, 1976)


[1] Dylan is, of course, making a gesture, perhaps critical, to Martin Buber’s formulation of “I and Thou.” The human I encounters the divine in the form of thou, an otherness not reducible to the condition of the ordinary object world. This “thou” is irreducibly personal as irreducibly numinous. It overflows the category of thinghood and presents itself as an object of address not as an empirical object or notional category. It is to “thou” that one says, with Abraham (and with Leonard Cohen!) “hineni” or “here I am.” Understood this way, the formula “I and I” is an intensification of Buber’s “I and Thou.” It asserts a fusion and identity (as in mysticism) whereas Buber’s “I and Thou” emphasizes a dyadic encounter (where neither term is reduced or assimilated to the other). Of course, the ultimate limit of the assertion of “I and I” is the identity of human and divine in Christ. Is this what is being evoked through the appropriation of Rasta discourse for which, as Peter Tosh sings “Almighty God is a living man” (“Get Up, Stand Up,” 1971)?

[2] Aiden Day, in his study of Dylan Jokerman: Reading the Lyrics of Bob Dylan, invokes Dionysius and Eckhardt and in general the tradition of “negative mysticism” as a way of approaching Dylan’s lyrics (1988; 110). In the early modern period this Christian tradition absorbed a good deal of Jewish Cabbalism through figures like Jacob Boehme and Athanasius Kircher. This tradition, in turn, marked the tradition of German idealism through Schelling, Baader and, ultimately, Hegel. This is why convergences between Dylan and German Idealism, though indirect as far as I know, are not as surprising as they would seem at first blush. Western esoteric thinking (which might get by any number of routes to Dylan and, indeed, the early Rastas) has already blended Jewish and Christian themes in just the way we shall see “I and I” does. Fans of Dylan might be surprised what they find in Schelling’s essay Of Human Freedom!

[3] Dylan’s biblical references are to the Authorized Version so that is what I employ here. Dylan, after all, is an English poet, steeped in the tradition of that language, and English poetry, consciously or not, is haunted by the phrasing and cadence of the King James translators. What’s more, Dylan’s precise word play cannot be replicated using more modern translations.

[4] Citations from “I and I” are from the version on Infidels (1983).

[5] Considering the mystery of the name of God in Exodus would take us far afield. God names himself as “being” in Greek and Latin translation and as something not exactly “being” in Hebrew. I will not enter into the philological question here as it is outside my competence. I will note, though, that even in its tautological identity the divine name retains a triadic structure: pronoun, copula, pronoun. As Schelling says, even in the form of the law of identity, A=A, the A is taken twice (1978; 30). Its identity is constituted out of a moment of internal difference with the equal sign functioning as the copula or logical link. Identity, even in its most immediate universality, is also triadic procession and ordering.

[6] In Visions of Sin Christopher Ricks makes a number of indirect references to “I and I,” though he does not treat it directly. Dylan, he notes, plays constantly with pronouns and indeed the “I,” whether in “I and I,” “I and you” or “I and they” (2003; 344-36). Day makes the same observation (131-132) citing Dylan himself. The referent of this “I” is indeterminate, wavering between the divine I and the human self, or perhaps even the poetic mask. This fluidity may remind us of what Coleridge held about the creativity of the human I as an image of the divine self-hood and absolute, self-positing freedom. At any rate, we might say that for Dylan, pronouns are entangled and that the binary drawn in discursive language between “I and Thou” or “I and I” may readily, indeed dramatically, collapse. This is as much as to say that binaries are constituted in inner identities and inner identities constituted as external binaries as in Hegel’s Science of Logic (see Chapter 2 ‘On Determinate Being’ for an extended account). This is manifested in the instability of fixed, over-determinate linguistic categories, pronouns included.

[7] From Boehme to Schelling to Buber there has been a tradition of conceiving of the divine as manifesting a light/dark polarity. Of this Aiden Day says: “There is an honest and fearful consistency in the brooding apprehension of absoluteness in “I and I.” The lyric grasps profoundly that to approach the synthesis of the absolute may be to venture beyond the very structures that enable distinctions between contraries to be made. Admitting neither division nor condition the absolute may exclude or, equally, may include neither the light nor the dark, neither the positive nor the negative” (130). Day gives Isaiah 59,10 as a possible source for the image of darkness at noon (130).

[8] Dylan mentions the “Persian drunkard” Omar Khayyam on Blonde on Blonde. Others have found links to Rumi in Dylan’s lyrics and this is, at very least, not implausible. Certainly, Dylan seems aware of this tradition but I am not prepared to say how deep this influence may go.