What Kind of Love Is This?: Bob Dylan, Max Weber, and the Song of Songs
By STEPHEN HAZAN ARNOFF
The Song of Songs is a covenantal love song. It's a song for
grown-ups, not to be confused with pop. It contains commitment, conflation,
threat, desperation, poetry, and it's completely out of line: a covenantal love
song of the biblical kind, and Dylanesque.
"Walking," in the words of "Ain't Talkin'," "through
streets that are dead," Bob Dylan has been probing themes of covenant and
love for five decades. His work embodies a prophetic voice anticipated more
than a century ago by German sociologist Max Weber.
Weber taught that the covenantal systems like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam
function within the tension of two competing energies. On one side of his scale
of religion rests charismatic or prophetic sensibilities. We'll call that love.
At the opposite end lies rationality, an urge for systematizing and regulating
religious charisma. We'll call that covenant. As I survey the presence of
biblical themes in some of Dylan's love songs, I will be looking for this
particular combination of covenant and love.
According to Weber, the most enduring societies manage to balance the tension
inherent between spirit and structure, love and covenant. But when the flow
between charisma and rationality slows or ceases, religious structures entropy,
and oppression ranging from everyday meaninglessness to authoritarianism and
systemic religious violence emerge.
Yet Weber also suggested the possibility of religious figures and movements
that might emerge to salvage the "soul" trapped in fossilized
covenants. "No one knows who will live in this cage in the future,"
he says in The Protestant Ethic and the
Spirit of Capitalism (1904), "or whether at the end of this tremendous
development entirely new prophets will arise, or there will be a great rebirth
of old ideas and ideals."
Bob Dylan navigates and reanimates static inherited covenants while
interpreting both collective and personal religious, political, and romantic
history to construct new ones. In a world of "Ain't Talkin'"—where
there "ain't no altars on this long and lonesome road," a world of
loveless, pointless covenant—Dylan models Weber's "great rebirth of old
ideas and ideals" with prophetic art that refreshes and re-imagines
ancient covenants in a modern creative idiom.
During one of Bob Dylan's most fecund periods, his 1960's collaboration with The
Band (celebrated on December 5 in Bob Dylan and the Band: What
Kind of Love Is This?, a gallery exhibition, symposium, and
all-star concert at the 14th Street Y in association with Le Poisson Rouge)
Richard Manuel and Dylan composed one of the oddest songs of love and covenant
in Dylan's oeuvre, "Tears of Rage." It was the song
that opened the Band's first album Music
from Big Pink (1968), sung by the incomparable Manuel:
We carried you in
our arms on Independence Day
And now you'd throw us all aside and put us all away
Oh, what dear daughter 'neath the sun could treat a father so?
To wait upon him hand and foot and always tell him "No"
Tears of rage, tears of grief
Why must I always be the thief?
Come to me now, you know we're so low
And life is brief
It was all very painless
When you went out to receive
All that false instruction
Which we never could believe
And now the heart is filled with gold
As if it was a purse
But, oh, what kind of love is this
Which goes from bad to worse?
Tears of rage…
We pointed you the way to go
And scratched your name in sand
Though you just thought it was nothing more
Than a place for you to stand
I want you to know that while we watched
You discovered no one would be true
And I myself was among
The ones who thought
It was just a childish thing to do
"What kind of love it this, that goes from bad to worse?," the
narrator asks. Song of Songs shares the seal of love upon arm and heart like
tefillin in a playful, ironic, or rebellious reference to covenant; the father
asks how his daughter could disband herself from him and mock their covenant
once sealed on Independence Day, but now unraveled.
At the 14th Street Y, we will be asking a stellar group of artists, critics,
writers, and musicians “What kind of love is this?” about Bob Dylan and The
Band, one of rock's most bewitching collaborations. Enjoy a preview of this conversation
about this love with
three of our presenters, writers John Niven and Dana Spiotta and critic Greil
Portions of this essay
reprinted with permission from Eros: A Journal by LABA.