There was a time when I could not have imagined being indifferent to the release of a new Dylan album. But it was a fairly short time, only five years or so in the last half of the '60s. Nashville Skyline, Self-Portrait, New Morning, and Planet Waves pretty well cured me of Dylan-awe. Not that those were all bad--I think New Morning is pretty good. (At least I used to. I don't think I've heard it for decades.) But they didn't matter to me. My cultish fascination with Dylan, the conviction that "he was never known to make a foolish move," was gone.
So when Blood on the Tracks came out in 1975 I didn't pay very much attention. When reviewers said it was great I thought yeah, right. Not only did I not rush out to buy it, I didn't even hear it for a while, when a friend insisted that it really was very good and played it for me. And it was. I was pleasantly surprised. But still, my reaction was something like "Pretty good for a post-'60s Dylan album." Something like the way I thought of the post-Beatles work of John, Paul, George, and Ringo. Apparently I bought it, because I have it. But it's certainly not on my Favorite Albums Ever list.
Over the years I heard people acclaim it as a masterpiece, even calling it his best album. Puzzling. There's no accounting for tastes, but I didn't understand how anyone could rank it with those '60s monuments. I suspect it has something to do with age. If I'd heard it at 17 instead of 27, it might have made a bigger impression on me.
With the release of More Blood, More Tracks, a 6-CD collection of variant recordings of the songs that made it onto the album, I've heard more of that talk. So I listened to the album again, for the first time in many years. And it is good. Very good. But my basic opinion hasn't changed. It's definitely a high point of post-'60s Dylan, but on a level below, say, Highway 61 Revisited.
I'm puzzled by the market for these multi-disk collections of outtakes etc. from famous albums. Twelve versions of "Buckets of Rain"? I can imagine it would be interesting to hear these once, maybe even twice, to see how the songs developed in the studio and all that. But I have no interest in owning it, especially at a price well over $100.
Then again, I did pay $100 to see him live a couple of weeks ago, so who am I to talk?
I notice that the 6-disk set includes only three takes of my favorite track, "Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts," which also is unlike every other song on the album in that it's not a direct personal statement. I don't know what to make of that.
In the Department of What Is Actually Happening: two recent pieces in The American Conservative struck me as significant. First, this one by Rachel Lu: "Men and Women: Should We Just Call the Whole Thing Off?"
Relations between the sexes have always fascinated me--I mean intellectually, philosophically, as well as practically and personally. Sometimes I think I might write something substantial on the subject, and by "substantial" I mean at least a lengthy essay. But chances are pretty good that I won't, so here's Lu on one thing I would discuss:
The truth is, women do feel more vulnerable than men, in public, at work, or in social gatherings. That’s because, in a very real sense, we are. We shouldn’t treat all men as likely aggressors, but men should be expected to conform to behavioral standards that serve, among other things, to help women feel safe. That’s always been a major function of gentlemanly behavior, without which men and women rarely find one another bearable for very long.
Women's vulnerability seems almost frightening to me. It's elemental and physical. It's not only the basic physical weakness relative to men, but the vulnerability, both physical and emotional, to and of pregnancy, childbirth, and child-rearing--the enormous risk of sex. I've been paying attention to feminism since the early '70s (it would be an overstatement to say studying it), and I've thought for a long time that some part of feminist anger comes from this vulnerability, which seems more profound than any of the specific identifiable injustices of human arrangements. Those are many, it's true, and many of them can be ameliorated (and have been). But prior to that is a vulnerability that's intrinsic to human biology and psychology and can't be erased.
Camille Paglia once said something to the effect that many women feel that the sexual revolution has not been a good deal for them. (I'm paraphrasing from decades-old memory but I think that was the idea.) It liberated them, but it also broke down structures of custom that, though confining, had also served to protect them. And (said Paglia) part of the drive for establishing explicit rules and procedures governing sexual consent is an attempt to re-establish some of those protections.
I think she's right. And I think Rachel Lu is right that there is much to be said for the old notion of gentlemanly behavior. Good men respond to feminine vulnerability with respect and an impulse to protect. And men who exploit and abuse it should be disgraced in the eyes of other men. That's not a capital-S Solution, but it would help. In the world of male sports, cheaters are held in contempt. The same should be true of a man who would, for instance, take advantage of a drunken young woman, to say nothing of the kind of active extortion reportedly practiced by the likes of Harvey Weinstein.
One defect in the gentleman's code is that it frequently (mostly? always?) applied only to women of the man's own class, excluding those who for whatever reason were not considered respectable--that is, worthy of respect. But a real gentleman would treat the both the Duchess of Cambridge and Stormy Daniels with courtesy and respect.
The other piece, by Michael Vlahos, bears the dispiriting title "We Were Made for Civil War." It's a consideration of the present state of division in this country, and it's pretty pessimistic. It's a bit lengthy by web standards (3000+ words) and I don't agree with everything in it, but I think it's all too accurate in its assessment of the current situation, accurate enough to be worth reading.
I've been saying for some time that we're in a sort of non-violent undeclared civil war. As Vlahos says:
...even though these two divided visions of America have been opposed for decades, and so far have controlled the urge to violence, there is in their bitter contest a sense of gathering movement toward an ultimate decision. In no way is this more clear than in the 2016 election and ongoing political conflict. This divide is no status quo “agree to disagree,” but rather two moral armies moving towards a showdown.
Moreover, and worse, it's a religious conflict:
Red and Blue already represent an irreparable religious schism, deeper in doctrinal terms even than the 16th-century Catholic-Protestant schism.
He doesn't elaborate on the doctrines involved, and I guess I won't try to, either, in this brief note. But I don't think you can understand what's going on unless you recognize that aspect of what's happening. If you want to define "religion" fairly narrowly, you can call it a quasi-religious conflict, but it's effectively religious. In any case it's a struggle between fundamentally irreconcilable views.
This may all seem alarmist, but I agree with Vlahos that to fail to take the situation seriously is to keep moving toward the showdown. I, of course, as people who have read this blog for a while know, think the way to avoid it is to reduce the reach and power of the central government, to give control back to state and local governments regarding some of the flash-point issues. The big problem now is the one Vlahos identifies: the belief on each side that the other represents a dire threat to it. And that comes straight from the belief that whoever controls the national government can and will force the opposition to submit. This bomb needs to be disarmed.
I think it's important for Christians to recognize this state of affairs--signs of the times, wise as serpents, etc. But even more important is to avoid getting caught up in the war mentality, not to allow oneself to demonize and hate the other side. Hate is against the Law.
If all that's depressing, or if you didn't get the reference in the title of Rachel Lu's piece, watch this. Guaranteed mood-elevator. Or, if not, the fault is in you.
It's about this big.