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a queer sort of petrified sphinx

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I finally watched I’m Not There. Todd Haynes’ method was immediately clear to me.  I was quite amused when the Richard Gere Dylan – a man who seemed to be looking for the part of an ordinary man in an extraordinary world – wandered into the town of Riddle on Halloween. Here we have the familiar conceit of the world as a riddle, perhaps in a modernist incarnation. Riddles have an answer, have a sense and a meaning even if they are elusive. Nietzsche’s ‘World Riddle’ came to mind, the Welträtsel, and Pope’s poem ‘The Riddle of the World’. The riddle is second cousin to the jigsaw and the scheme in cosmological terms. Dylan Gere is a clear contrast to Dylan Blanchett , the one who just a year or two earlier had looked out on the world as an apocalyptic junkyard.

While Dylan Gere is wandering pensively around this place of Riddle, the narrator says something like ‘nobody’s who they seem to be’. Ha ha, I thought. He should have been in Glasgow on that night! 

I suppose that the question watching the film threw up for me was whether Dylan was just an ordinary man in an extraordinary world or whether he was an extraordinary man in an ordinary world. (For the sake of completeness the other possibilities are an ordinary man in an ordinary world or an extraordinary man in an extraordinary world). The modern world itself of course never settles long enough to be called ordinary, so we might say that extraordinariness is the normal condition of existence in a society like ours. Extraordinary is the ordinary condition of late modernity. And the sixties were an extraordinary time. America at war with itself, a tortured nation, a nation disintegrating. Assassinations, napalm, the space race, the arms race, the cold war, television, rock and roll, paranoia. These were apocalyptic times. But isn’t modernity in any case pretty much the normalisation of apocalypse?

The film presents the self as a fragmented, vulnerable and contested reality. If we accept this premise then perhaps we should recognise that as a person Dylan was both ordinary and extraordinary, and that this was perhaps key to his difficulties. And yet it is the idea that Dylan was arguably Everyman in the film that interests me most, the notion that in reality Dylan is much the same as you or I and that (increasingly?) our situations are becoming like his. Nowadays we all have to deal with shifting personae and shifting expectations. And with the lure of celebrity. We can no longer be satisfied with ordinary lives and in our world of greedy media an extraordinary life will make you famous; we are somehow fooled into thinking the corollary of this is that to be famous will make your life extraordinary and transform you into an extraordinary person. It won’t. But to be a celebrity is an almost normal goal now. The opportunities are many, from Big Brother to The Weakest Link. And yet how will being a celebrity even for a day change us?  We will expect a transformation, a sudden coming into real being. And yet the opposite is likely to happen. The half-hearted realities of ordinariness will vanish from out hand; we will suddenly become no-one at all.

Of course Dylan’s burden as a celebrity was exceptional. But perhaps only different in scale, not in nature. We all want to ‘live the dream’. Haynes’ tale from this perspective is a cautionary one: the dream is only a dream and once you see that you will collapse into yourself.  Anomie and dissociation will follow. You may want to refuse them. You will not be able to.

Haynes has his Dylans speak lines from various Dylan sources – sleeve notes, poems, Tarantula, interviews and so on. At one point one of them says a poem is a naked person. It’s interesting Dylan didn’t say self: a self and a person are not the same thing. A person is an outward reality, a social and political entity. The self is a supposed inner entity, a psychological item. People will say Dylan is a complex person. Did anyone ever suggest he had a complex self? The self is something we imagine we see when gaze into ourselves (ha ha – did you notice the tautology here?!) The self is like a soul. Like an essence. We imagine each self as having a unique simplicity. Can we imagine a person without a self? This seems almost like asking if we can imagine a person without a body.

Bob Dylan is a complex person and it is this complexity that Haynes film seems to want to unravel. And yet ironically I think the film falls into the trap of trying to show us Dylan’s soul, even though it takes its primary text from the song which says ‘I’m not there’. Maybe it needs to do this for dramatic reasons, since where would a western narrative be with a protagonist too elusive or transient for the audience to identify with?  There is no narrative to chaos, and without a narrative there may be no space for a me. Maybe there is something to be said for the idea of the self as a centre of gravity for the narrative of a life. Maybe the self is a necessary fiction, the unavoidable consequence of giving chaos an order. I accept chaos, Dylan Blanchett says, but I don’t know if chaos accepts me.

In Haynes’ narrative we are presented with a succession of selves we are to suppose Dylan to have had. We like to imagine the self as an onion, and think perhaps some people have more layers than others. Dylan’s layers are peeled away, one after another. I think the film is structured so that the reflective persona of Dylan Gere perhaps represents Dylan’s curious soul, the simplicity that he finally is. Dylan Gere appears almost as if he’s the father of the others, the one from whom the seed of all the others came.

Maybe this is a stretch, but does it make sense?  Was Dylan more than one person – one self – at any one time? Dylan’s selves were successive rather than simultaneous. One didn’t lie beneath the other; one lay next to the other, succeeded it. Each self was performed and the performances were repeated until they were succeeded by a different performance – a different self. Haynes is right to give these selves different names; the extent to which they can be said to be the same self is problematic. Dylan’s life is a succession of selves, none of which has any privileged or higher reality. His life, like all our lives, is a life caught between becoming and having been. The self is not there, only the performance that is what we are. Dylan Gere appears to perhaps be the real Dylan, the inner man, a meta-self, a self beyond performance. But even this is an illusion.

Dylan breathed in the chaos that is America and breathed out shapes that made sense, the shapes of a new America, brave new versions of traditional identities, hanging in the air, fragile and flickering, as vulnerable as ghosts in a hurricane, like projections on the screen of the nation. Dylan performed a succession of American selves. Or perhaps a succession of American personae.  In the end Bob Dylan found he could not escape from Bob Dylan, because Bob Dylan was never really there at all. He sang America and America sang him. A song is anything that can walk alone, he said.  A song falls short of selfhood. A song is not even a person, it seems. A song might be no more than a ghost.

The thing that I wonder about is whether Dylan in this film is Everyman. But the thing I remember about the film is the music, the way the songs seep from the scenes and haunt the images. The songs ambush you, taunt you, lure you into places you had forgotten about. The songs unsettle you and reassure you, sooth you and pierce you, empower you and terrify you. They do all these things at once. This is a film for Dylan freaks by a Dylan freak. In the end this is what the choice of songs says to me. These are legendary, hallowed songs, the songs from which the myth of Bob Dylan is woven.

I’m a bit worried about Tom Ridley. Tom is the admin manager for the area and works between three sites. I met him at the photocopier today. It’s a Xerox Workstation M35 model, a freestanding square box that’s about the size of chest freezer, or in animal terms, a small horse. Tom was talking quietly to it, promising it a ‘special treat’ if it was a ‘good boy’ and behaved itself for him. 

‘Hi, Tom’ I said. ‘How you doing?’

‘Yes, fine,’ he replied. ‘Just trying to encourage Frodo to be a good boy for me.’

‘Frodo?’ I said. ‘The photocopier’s called Frodo?’

”Yes,’ Tom replied. ‘If he’s good all day I’ve promised him that I’ll take him out this afternoon.’

‘Out, eh? Anywhere special?’

‘The beach. He just loves the beach. Of course I’ve got to keep him on his lead in case he runs into the waves and gets washed out to sea. He’s still just a puppy really and very excitable.’

Tom leaned on Frodo’s stout ivory plastic frame as he spoke about him. I was wondering which end was which.

‘Of course the other thing about the beach,’ he went on, ‘ is that he gets to meet other photocopiers. That’s good for him because he needs to learn how to socialise with them and not to be aggressive or snappy.’

‘Yeah, that’s a good point,’ I said. I asked him if Frodo was almost finished his current job and could I perhaps copy a couple of reports.

‘Of course,’ Tom said. ‘You’re such a good boy, aren’t you? Now be nice for the man and copy his things carefully for him, do you hear?’

Tom patted his ivory friend affectionately on the shoulder, picked up his wad of documents and set off down the corridor towards his office.

About mid afternoon I went down to the photocopier to copy some documents. The photocopier was gone. I abandoned the idea and decided I’d go home early. I decided to drive down through Sleekburn and along through Cambois. I’d seen a television news item about E-on’s proposal to build a new coal fired power station there on the site of the old one and that local people were protesting about it. Quite understandably so too, because the government isn’t insisting that only so-called ‘clean’ coal fired power stations can be built. But did we really expect them to?  Next thing you know the local MP’s will be telling us how this will be good for jobs, our own brave Socialist warrior foremost among them, no doubt.

It was dusk on the beach. As I drove south listening to Dengue Fever I saw a figure close to the shoreline making his way north. It was Tom. He was pulling along the Xerox M35 by a leash, like a man dragging a mule. Frodo seemed to me to be a rather more reluctant walker than Tom made him out to be. I was somehow reminded of Pozzo and Lucky in Waiting for Godot.  For a moment I fancied I saw two small photocopiers run up to Frodo and sniff at him. Frodo set himself back on his haunches and his hackles went up. Tom is right, Frodo isn’t yet well socialised.  I drove over the crossing and up through East Sleekburn, past the site of the old power station and Wilson Avenue. It was dark and there wasn’t a soul around.  I wondered if I shouldn’t email Tom’s manager about his behaviour, but I decided it was really none of my business so long as he returned Frodo by morning and wiped the sand from his wheels before taking him back into the office.  It’s certainly odd for a grown man to adopt a Xerox M35 as a pet and take him for walks on the beach, but it isn’t something which is very likely to harm children, at least not as long as Frodo is properly muzzled when they are around him.

When I got home that night Brenda was there. She had come to collect some more slippers to send out. She was wearing a knitted garment of many colours, a long wrap-around cardigan of sorts. It had multi-coloured words of some sort embroidered all over it.

‘Hi, Brenda,’ I said. ‘Nice cardie.’

‘Thank you, kind sir,’ she said. ‘It’s handmade. We bought it from a textile artist in Hawick a couple of weeks ago. It’s beautiful, isn’t it?’

‘It’s a doozy,’ I said. ‘What do the words say?’

‘You mean to say you don’t recognise them?!’ she said. She turned around to let me read her back. Entangled in meandering lines were phrases I struggled at first to recognise and disentangle. And then one of them became clear to me: a robin redbreast in a cage puts all heaven in a rage.

‘The Auguries of Innocence?’ I said. ‘Your cardie’s got lines from Blake embroidered all over it?’

‘Yes,’ Brenda said, swinging back around. ‘Isn’t it fab?! Tristan bought it for me on a day out. I just had to have it. I’m going to wear it when I go to my next poetry weekend. What do you think? I think they’ll just adore me in this!’

I tried to read Blake’s entangled utterances as they crept and crawled and snaked and snaggled over her shoulders and down her arms and across her torso and around her  hips. If the sun and moon should doubt in mustard yellow criss-crossed by the poison of the snake and newt in dull maroon. In emerald green, the beggar’s dog and widow’s cat giving birth to the long divergent slate blue arc of the wanton boy that kills the fly.

‘I think it’s fantastic, Brenda,’ I said. ‘Does she also do the Proverbs of Hell?’

‘Yes, she does. Oh, that one’s really beautiful too. Oh, did Margaret tell you about her horoscope, by the way?’

‘Not really,’ I said, remembering how last night I’d noticed Orion again for the first time this winter. ‘What star sign are you again, Brenda?’ I asked.

‘Taurus, of course,’ she replied. ‘Loving, loyal, prosperous and patient, the creative type. Doesn’t it show?’

‘It shows in your cardie,’ I said.

‘What sign are you, again?’

‘I believe I was born under the sign of hammer and sickle,’ I said.

De Kooning wandered in. I picked him up.

‘Have you got your stock of sunglasses in yet?’ I asked.

‘No, not yet. Why? Are you after a pair.’

‘Yeah, I was thinking about getting a friend a pair of Ray-Bans for Christmas.’


‘No, Wayfarers.’

‘I’ll see if I can get you some, if you like.’

‘Thanks, Brenda. Yes, that would be great.’

Margaret came through from the kitchen. She’d put on a big pan of onions to boil. I went through and put a pizza in the oven for tea. I gave De Kooning some prawns and sat in front of the television to watch the news.  Later I went upstairs and rummaged among my books to find something William James wrote about the notion that the world might be a riddle to which there is a single answer.

All the great single-word answers to the world’s riddle, such as God, the One, Reason, Law, Spirit, Matter, Nature, Polarity, the Dialectic Process, the Idea, the Self, the Oversoul, draw the admiration that men have lavished on them from this oracular role. By amateurs in philosophy and professionals alike, the universe is represented as a queer sort of petrified sphinx whose appeal to man consists in a monotonous challenge to his divining powers. THE Truth: what a perfect idol of the rationalistic mind!

After I’d eaten I went out in the dark and walked through the town. Christmas is coming. The streets were remarkably quiet. I caught sight of my reflection in Woolworth’s window and for a moment thought it was a stranger. I was thinking about Nietzsche and Descartes and the Wizard of Oz.