Editor’s Note: The following is our second review of Kathryn Lofton’s S-USIH Conference keynote address on Bob Dylan. It comes from Nicolette Gableis, a PhD candidate in the American Studies Program at the College of William and Mary. She is currently working on a dissertation on the Decadent movement in America in the 1890s.
In style alone the keynote address on Friday night was certainly the most invigorating academic talk that I have ever heard. The simple devices of using handouts, and planting audience members to help read quotations kept everyone’s attention. With the performance sense of a revival minister, and impeccable comic timing, Dr. Lofton set out to question the links we so blithely make between the authentic self, belief and action. Her subject was the inscrutable Bob Dylan. A wisely chosen topic if only because everyone, or at least I and everyone I know, has an opinion on who Dylan is or is not based entirely on his music and what it meant to them.
Dr. Lofton introduced her talk with a brief discussion of the ways in which we both disclaim belief as a subject of study and at the same time seek it out. Despite the warnings of William James and Wittgenstein, we are not content to merely observe belief in action, or to take people at their word, we must know what someone really believes. This raises the question of what exactly religious studies has to do with intellectual history. When we study ideas, are we actually asking who was really a Spencerian, what does the new right really believe, or what did Alfred Kazin really think? Part of what Dr. Lofton’s talk suggested to me is that we are all closer to studying religious belief than we might like to think and that considering that closeness might improve our work.
Moving to Dylan, Dr. Lofton laid out the three options for interpreting Dylan’s religious belief: first, to discern Dylan’s true religious identity (Jewish, Re-born Christian, etc.) and argue that his other positions are deceptions; second, to argue that he is a wanderer, the ultimate baby boomer, always searching spiritually; and third, to argue that he is essentially unknowable. Lofton’s argument is first, that our interpretations of Dylan tell us more about ourselves than they do about him, and secondly that we listen to what Dylan is actually saying. He resents being a prophet and so attempts to alienate people by publicizing a variety of religious positions while his actual belief has seemed to him at least, to be constant. This argument is, in its simplest form, the advice that my first mentor in intellectual history gave me: keep your eyes on the page. If you listen to the sources you won’t go too far astray. Dylan’s responses to reporters are often real attempts to express himself. As Dr. Lofton brought up in the beginning of her talk, this is also a radical questioning of the entire agenda of intellectual history. We, as historians, tend to treat ideas as realer than the people who have them, or we conflate the person and the idea. Though we know that belief is essentially ineffable and unprovable, we, both as a society and as historians are obsessed with somehow knowing it. We task ourselves with ferreting out what a person ‘actually’ believes as if this belief can be contained in a recognizable and coherent whole. We also naively assume that these beliefs then guide actions, though we have merely to look at ourselves to see the foolishness of that axiom.
The implications of the talk were troubling. Are we intellectual historians, like some crazed Dylan fan, searching through trash for scribbled upon scraps of paper, close reading liner notes, dissecting lyrics for arcane meanings, as our subjects somewhere sigh and roll their eyes? Are we caught, like Dylan scholars, in choosing between three equally unsatisfying solutions, or is there, as this talk suggested, another way? Can we believe in the reality, importance, and life of ideas themselves, while also acknowledging our inability to know for certain if they do or not exist in someone’s mind, or the effect that they have there?
It seems only fitting, if a little obvious, to end this with a Dylan quotation. So:
“You always said people don’t do what they believe in, they just do what’s most convenient, then they repent. And I’ve always said ‘Hang on to me baby and let’s hope that the roof stays on’” –Bob Dylan “Brownsville Girl”