Misfits like us: Dylan, James Joyce & Lenny Bruce

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Bruce’s and Joyce’s crimes were crimes of honesty.  Like all true artists, they defied those who deny the full range of human experience, those who seek to crush our awareness for fear that we will be more difficult to manipulate if we know and share the truth.  It is this repression that is indecent.   As Dylan sings: “If my thought dreams could be seen, they’d probably put my head in a guillotine.”  Dylan’s voices, too, in their often twisted, dark way, celebrate the will to live with integrity of perception, to find the courage to see things as they are.  He celebrates the outlaw and the misfit, the terrified visionary and the blind blues singer, the joker and the thief.  From the shadows of despair to the lightness of affection, we see our own experience reflected through prism of his verses.   We see our dreams and nightmares, our wildest fantasies and hardest-core realities, grand ideas and corny jokes, our great aspirations and most miserable self-pity.
The process is the same as in Joyce and Bruce:  By revealing the full spectrum of human experience, exposing it to the light of day and the black of night, Dylan’s acerbic, poetic verses remind us that we are all heroes, even if we are also dupes, fools, even lost souls like Faust.  As the protagonists of our own lives; we have both right and need to stand up for ourselves, for our experience, our needs, our reality, for the integrity of ordinary mortals.

Our artists evoke the torment of being neither willing nor able to fade into the narrowness of living by the rules that define what is normal, what is permissible.  We sense the irony and laugh, cry or scream at the absurdity of reality.  This exuberant irreverence is not cynical: In the act of daring to be true to our experience, there is hope.

But it is wrong to elevate our artists so high that they lose their connection to ourselves.  For all their genius and poetry, their vision and audacity, they are not christs, not superhuman.  They do not sacrifice themselves for our sins, but for their own inner necessity, for their own honesty and integrity. Rather than sanctify these flawed beings, their irreverence should alert us of the dangers of reverence.  It’s fine to sit in awe for a few minutes sometimes, but when we do no more than passively admire their genius, we miss the point.  There echoes remind of us a fate we share.  We have sing our own songs, create our own meaning, make our own choices. We have to have the guts to look at ourselves straight in the mirror and get on with our lives.

What makes our icons contribution invaluable is their capacity to touch a common core of what we’re all up against that unites us, potentially, in a community of shared understanding.   When we image Bloom stuffing his pockets with sweetmeats, when we here Lenny Bruce ranting his guts out about the absurdity of society, when we hear echoes of Dylan’s verses in our ears, we know there are millions of others who have the same associations, who also feel their particular life’s struggles validated by these artists’ creations.
Our jesters are not court-appointed fools, entertaining us only to lighten the oppression of reality.  If we want to share in a communal understanding that they make available to us, we have to extend something of ourselves. It takes effort to listen through Dylan’s harsh voice to grasp his spinning images, to make sense of Joyce’s melodic yet jarring prose, or to stomach Lenny Bruce’s unsettling monologues.  Only by hearing our own life-struggles echoed in their words  can we appreciate their validation that the emperor’s disguises are not a joke, but a perversion, a twisting of the human spirit to the needs of power. Joyce, Bruce and Dylan are the people’s jesters, reminding us that it is our right and need to question the powers-that-be, no matter how disturbing the truth may be.

Faust, too, is jester and outlaw.  He challenges fate.  His “pact” with the devil, is more accurately a wager with the Devil;  since Faust believes his striving soul will never cease to strive, will never find such satisfaction with earthly fulfillment that he will wish to say, “This moment is perfect, I will give my soul for it to last forever.”  The wonderful thing about the story is that it is retold so many different ways, particular with regard to the grand finale of Faust’s life:  the moment of choice between eternal salvation and damnation.  You don’t have to believe in either God or the Afterlife for this question to resonate with our own struggles in our lives.
Because Everyman, the commonality of all humans, men and women, sane and insane, knows evil.   Again, it is not a matter of whether one believes in one religion or another or none, to know that evil, so evident when one person intentionally harms another, is always an issue in human existence.   And that there are many things condemned evil that are not.   The lines are not always clear.
To strive, perhaps, means doing many things that are not easily accepted, to be an outsider, to experience oneself as different.  In the Mahler’s Faust, he is saved.  He is loved for his striving and not condemned for it.  There is hope, perhaps, that we can reach for the sky and not crash back to earth.  Or, if we do crash back, that it is in our nature as human beings, to drag ourselves back up and strive some more.
These messengers do not tell us what to do.   They are neither proscriptive nor prescriptive.  They show us our condition, ourhuman condition.   We must find our own courage to live our lives integrally, to struggle for what matters to us, our human values, in the face of the often oppressive forces that twist our world.
For the countless, confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones and worse
An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.


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Essays on creativity, community, social change, and the search for meaning