"The Feudal Unconscious:
Capitalism and the Family Romance"

October 159 (Winter 2017)
MIT Press

Now Available

Portuguese translation of THE MYTH OF POPULAR CULTURE (Blackwell Manifestos, 2010) now available from Tinta Negra (Rio de Janeiro, 2015)


O renomado crítico cultural americano Perry Meisel detona as noções convencionais sobre a divisão entre “alta” e “baixa” cultura.

O autor transita pela provocante teoria de que a cultura pop experimentou ritmos dialéticos. A hábil análise que o livro apresenta de três tradições culturais duradouras – o romance norte-americano, Hollywood, e o rock inglês e americano – nos leva a um ciclo histórico da cultura pop que tem Dante como ponto de partida e revisita ícones como Wahrol, Melville, Hemingway, Twain, Eisenstein, Benjamin, Scorsese e Sinatra.


The Myth of Popular Culture discusses the dialectic of "highbrow" and "lowbrow" in popular culture through an examination of literature, film, and popular music. With topics ranging from John Keats to John Ford, the book responds to Adorno's theory that popular culture is not dialectical by showing that it is.

Available as eBooks

COURSE IN GENERAL LINGUISTICS. Trans. Wade Baskin. Co-ed. with Haun Saussy. By Ferdinand de Saussure (Columbia University Press, 2011)

THE LITERARY FREUD (Routledge, 2007)




Dylan and the Critics

by Perry Meisel

Chronicles, Volume 1. By Bob Dylan (Simon & Schuster).
Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads. By Greil Marcus (PublicAffairs).

Dylan's Visions of Sin. By Christopher Ricks (Ecco). 

Many years ago, in a review of Bob Dylan's Tarantula (1971) in the New York Times Book Review, Robert Christgau wisely cautioned that the book not be taken as a book of poems. To do so, he argued, would be to mistake the nature of Dylan's art, which is, book or song, pose or performance, something profoundly hybrid. For Christgau, Dylan's hybridity derives from rock and roll's enormous plasticity as a medium. Rock and roll includes everything – the history of world music, the history of world speech, the history of world movement and dress. It even includes Dylan. Dylanologists who concentrate on one thing instead of another – Dylan's words or Dylan's music – miss the full effect. 

Over the years, describing this full effect has been less of a problem than defining it. No one knows where to start. The tradition of descriptive Dylan criticism is for this reason the most distinguished; it requires no choices and a surfeit of splendid adjectives. Dylan's earliest observers – Paul Williams is probably the best example – combined exquisite observation with an interest in fact. All of the biographies are reasonably good because their aims are limited to portraiture and storytelling. None presents a case for much of anything, including those by gifted critics like Robert Shelton and Bob Spitz. Interpretive books about Dylan are no match for them. Whether they come from the academy or the academy-in-exile of rock criticism, such books are reductive to a fault. 

Even a brief survey is dispiriting. For Dylan's political observers, everything is social allegory. Mike Marqusee's Chimes of Freedom (2004) turns Dylan's work into a quest for the "unconventional"; David Hajdu s social history of Dylan in the Village, Positively Fourth Street (2001), turns it into a conversation among friends. For Dylan's formalist observers, things are taken in hand in less obvious ways. The goal of Neil Corcoran s effusive anthology of essays, Bob Dylan with the Poets and Professors (2002), is self-congratulation. Betsy Bowden's Performed Literature (1982), originally a doctoral dissertation in the Berkeley English Department, regards Dylan as a performance artist. Bowden does not wish to be reductive, but her notion of performance casts Dylan as a performing poet whose words come first despite their rock-and-roll frame. The English composer Wilfrid Mellers's A Darker Shade of Pale (1984) remains singularly provocative for a good reason: it is holistic, half musicology and half poetic analysis. (Mellers read English as a Cambridge undergraduate.) But this division of Dylan in two undoes the sense of unity that Mellers wishes to create; he can find no dialectic in Dylan's double enterprise. 

Perhaps one way to read Dylan, then, is not directly – not at first, anyway – but through his critics, particularly through their lapses. Reception histories are often unexpectedly revealing. More basic to Dylan's reception than the superiority of the descriptive to the analytic is that there is much agreement about Dylan's coherence as a majestic musical figure in his High or Classic phase. Everyone knows Dylan's early musical history. In his recent documentary, even the contentious Martin Scorsese suggests that the consensus about its shape and texture runs deep and true. We can feel the roots that clutch. A high-school rocker, Dylan became a ruggedly self-conscious folkie when he landed in Greenwich Village in 1961, exchanging Woody Guthrie for Muddy Waters and Dave Van Ronk for Bobby Vee. When he shocked the world with an electric band at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, Dylan was only returning to the wider theater of rock and roll, which the folk mode had allowed him to reimagine as more porous musically and more amenable to lyrical prodding. 

Half of the fans booed. For them, plugging in was a fall from grace. The music had nothing to do with this fall, and neither did the lyrics. So central is this moment in the history of rock and roll that it is easy to overlook its real significance: Dylan was being read typologically. In fact, the idea of the Christian Dylan was already in place at Newport in 1965, well before Dylan's actual conversion to Christianity in 1979. Typology is a pervasive mode of thinking, introduced by Tertullian's Christian reading of the Hebrew Bible and trickling down into popular assumption as the Church Fathers, beginning with Augustine, made it the best way to find hope and solace in life when faced with its difficulties. As a doctrine of interpretation, typology regards events of the Hebrew Bible as prophesying or prefiguring their repetition and completion in other spheres of action in the Christian Bible. "The persons and events of the Old Testament," wrote Erich Auerbach in 1944, "were prefigurations of the New Testament and its history of salvation." The Fall of Man from the Garden is its most familiar example; Christ's suffering both repeats and redeems it. Conversion narratives bring home the truth of typology for everyman. Augustine's great conversion scene occurs, in a splendid literary flourish, in a Roman garden. The pagan garden is fallen, but just as Augustine is redeemed by grace, so is the garden. Formally speaking, Augustine's conversion redeems his narrative's mise-en-scène and his soul in the same typological gesture. In other words, later events, in Scripture or in life, gain their meaning by being repetitions and fulfillments of earlier ones. Rhetorical rather than theological in its classical origins, and variable even in its later Christian schools of practice, figura nonetheless came to obey its typological shape. Auerbach's history of the use of figura in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages shows just how deeply typological thinking informs the foundations of Western judgment, giving to newly converted peoples such as the Goths and the Celts, for example, "a basic conception of history," as Auerbach puts it, superadded to and following from their new religious beliefs. 

Typology, or figura, structures both Dylan's popular reception and his critical interpretation. Its key trope emerges again and again: the trope of the fall, which Dylan follows, or seems to follow, with exceeding regularity, like a Christian soldier marching, inevitably, to the earlier Jewish drum. The fall from acoustic to electric at Newport in 1965 repeated the biblical fall from innocence to sin. Whether or not Dylan could redeem himself from this fall became the paradigm for thinking about him, for lining up with or against the devil's party. It not only set a standard of judgment with which to follow Dylan's career, but also gained additional weight from Dylan's American context. Typology's most familiar American pattern is, to use Leo Marx's phrase, the fall from the garden to the machine, a form of both progress and lament every bit as double edged as the one Augustine secured. Its secular terms describe Dylan's own presumable fall – plugging in – but in doing so they reveal once again their religious roots. Countercultural thinking reflects this doubly sedimented history with particular vividness, setting nature against culture at the level of value no matter the idiosyncratic experience of individual listeners. 

Nor, after Newport, was there long to wait for an encore. The following summer Dylan fell off his motorcycle near Woodstock and cracked a bone in his spine. The die was cast: Dylan was always falling. Scorsese's film concludes here, not because he wishes to serve this religious paradigm – he never does – but because he wants to describe its tenacity. In his view, John Wesley Harding (1968) is Dylan's last great recording, and one of its characters, Augustine, is as "alive," sings Dylan, "as you or me." Afterward came the Dylan Wars, wars of religion that have continued for almost forty years, pitting progress against decline, Dylan the mortal god against Dylan the mortal man. Forty years should be enough, at least according to the paradigm. 

Is there any help for the Dylanologist amid these typological ruins? The myth of Dylan requires Dylan to fall in order to continue being a myth. This is an apparatus, obviously, not an assessment. Marqusee is a typologist, even though he approves of Newport; his paradise is the freedom that Dylan leaves behind when he becomes a Christian. Bowden is a typologist; her paradise is Dylan's putative expressiveness. Mellers is a typologist; his paradise is a Europe with blue notes in its own folk music. 
 There are alternatives to the lapsarian account of a fall from grace. The first Dylanologist, A. J. Weberman, scoured Dylan's garbage on MacDougal Street for clues to the meaning of Dylan s work. Weberman was a phenomenologist, not a typologist. Dylan chased him away nonetheless, objecting to Weberman's assumptions about intent: they did not take the unconscious into account. But Weberman came back, again and again, sometimes with demonstrators, sometimes with coffee. Michael Gray, Weberman's upscale counterpart, an academic-in-exile living in the English countryside, also prefers information to revelation, although of a tidier kind. Gray's encyclopedic Song and Dance Man III (2000) is superficially thorough, cataloguing Dylan's various sources as they flow through his songs and anatomizing both lyrics and music against this historical scrim. Weberman may have been tough, but Gray is a disciple of F. R. Leavis. Gray, like Leavis before him, believes that a careful reading of great poets will ensure the health of culture. For Leavis, it was T. S. Eliot; for Gray, it is Dylan. Almost typological, but not quite. For Weberman and Gray alike, a figure like Dylan is worthy of studious love not because of his pieties but because of his excess. 

If typology is reductive, however, excess is intractable. Gray has no argument to make; Weberman had arguments only on the street. All is lost. What is the pilgrim to do? Is there another trend in Dylan's reception besides typology and excess? Two figures are left standing, and they predominate as readers of Dylan because they are the only ones with unified critical programs and sustained critical approaches. Dylan's best reception is the imaginary conversation between them. One is an academic; one is an academic-in-exile. One is a close reader; one is a cultural critic. One is interested in the lyrics; one is more engaged with the music. But they share a diligence and a penchant for systematic thinking that makes their ostensibly different approaches to Dylan two parts of a larger, single perspective.
The academic-in-exile is Greil Marcus, a critic for whom all emanations of American culture are the same. Mystery Train (1975) established this critical terrain long before Marcus embarked on his study of Elvis (1991) and on his first study of Dylan (1997). In Mystery Train, Robert Johnson and Jonathan Edwards resemble one another because they share a preoccupation with solitary reflection. So, one inevitably observes, does everybody else in American culture, from Thomas Jefferson to Madonna. One appreciates the permission to be self-evident, but too little regard for context obscures the fact that such similarities arise from different historical circumstances. In Mystery Train, Marcus's ease of purpose allows him to range widely over the cultural terrain without being specific. Marcus's cultural criticism shares the goals but not the procedures of the academic New Historicism with which it is contemporary. Rock criticism recapitulates literary criticism's modes of reading, and one of the reasons for this is simple: many jazz and rock critics have studied in major departments of English at defining moments in the history of literary-critical method. The early jazz critic Martin Williams learned New Critical close reading at the University of Pennsylvania; the rock critic Christgau learned close reading decades later at Dartmouth University. Marcus himself may have fled graduate school at UC Berkeley, but he got a sip of early New Historicism when he was there as an undergraduate. 

It is only the New Critical approach to Dylan, however, that has an overtly academic affiliation. Its avatar is Christopher Ricks. Although Ricks has lectured on Dylan for many years, his book, Dylan's Visions of Sin, appeared in the United States only in 2004. Ricks is most concerned with the extraordinary perfection of Dylan's work when it is viewed simply as verse. Unlike the many rock critics who eschew an affiliation with the academy, Ricks is an ex-Cambridge don who now teaches at Boston University. He is a fine critic of English and American poetry, particularly of Milton, and one whose work has remained useful over the years despite historical changes in critical method. The resonances of Marcus – and the grander tones of Dylan himself –stand out best if Ricks introduces them. 

Ricks's attraction to Dylan is idiosyncratic, an outgrowth of his love for poetry, not for rock and roll. He isn't really a rock critic, but despite his obsequious charm and disingenuous avuncularity – he must appeal to the rock critic as best he can – Ricks has a good deal to say. He makes no apologies for not talking very much about Dylan's music. Odd as it may seem, he does not regard it as his job. With the enthusiasm of an honors schoolboy, Ricks reads Dylan as poet, and in enormous technical detail, even if his exegesis – more so than that of Milton, Keats, and Tennyson in his earlier books – is often tiresome and unnecessarily digressive. He shows how richly structured Dylan's verse, considered as verse, really is. Dylan is not only a genuine English poet, argues Ricks, but as major a poet as Shakespeare or Milton. 

Although it is grandiose, Ricks s claim is less implausible than it may appear. Ricks never explains why he believes Dylan to be comparable to Shakespeare or Milton – he thinks that showing us the often astonishing patterns in Dylan's writing is proof enough – but the reasons for the comparison reside in a simple assumption. It is an assumption to which Ricks himself may or may not adhere because it takes us well beyond the study of poetry itself, and makes any claim for Dylan as poet alone inexact in conception. However stunning his verse may be, Dylan's own highly organized materials come from a quantitatively larger and denser database than that of literature alone. They include musical and literary tradition, as well as the iconography of the singer-star, a very different and expanded kind of achievement compared to that of the traditional poet, playwright, actor, or musician. With the exception of Freud, who mixes literature with science and philosophy rather than with music and iconography, Dylan's only technical counterpart in this quantitative respect is Shakespeare, who recombines, with a wider formal scope than the capacious Milton, more received knowledge than any writer before Freud. That Dylan combines musical and literary achievement might lead a critic less modest than Ricks to even more grandiose conclusions. 

Ricks's belief that apology is unnecessary serves him well. It allows him to work unimpeded by anxiety or by critical polemic, and to begin where we all begin with Dylan: our impressions. We all have our favorite Dylan tunes, our own sense of what a Dylan band sounds like, or what Bob sounds like bent over his guitar, alone. There is no "white-hot center" to Dylan, to use Paul Nelson's words (1976), but a specific "world of Dylan" that each of us has in our minds. No wonder it is folly to give pride of place to one phase of Dylan's career over another. No moment in Dylan's itinerary is any more or less Dylanesque than any other. The Christian conceit in Ricks's title – Dylan's Visions of Sin – has no reductive impetus; its only job is to get Ricks going. Ricks is not a typologist; he is a dogged reader. No matter its vicissitudes, Dylan's imagination, he shows, is highly organized, and works on the same principles, early and late. They proceed from a formal predilection in Dylan's way of writing songs, especially Dylan's use of rhyme. The play of masculine and feminine rhymes, for example, throws a stutter into Dylan's language that is unusual for a poet, but compelling for a rocker. Masculine rhymes land on the downbeat. But feminine rhymes – participles, for example, or rhymes using the copula "is" – fall a syllable short of a line's last poetic foot. This allows, of all things, a syncopated upbeat – a rock-and-roll beat--to emerge in the silence so created. 

Rhyme, however, has another pattern that serves Dylan's purposes even more: rhyme's curious way of creating repetition and difference in sound simultaneously. Ricks calls these moments "imperfect alignments," and argues that they represent Dylan's central formal strategy as a poet. Dylan's songs, says Ricks, are "founded on ... deviations, where a pattern is created and respected but then finds itself modified." Dylan's songs modify their patterns "by waiving," says Ricks, the "antithetical predictability" that they set up. On "Lay, Lady, Lay," from Nashville Skyline (1969), "a perfect continuity is intimated" by "lay" and "lay"; it foreshadows a presumable union between the poet-singer and his beloved. But then a singular pair of non-rhymes ("begin" and "love") breaks up this expectation in the third stanza. "Day of the Locusts," from New Morning (1970), where Dylan pronounces "singing" as "sanging," is a denser example. Here the same word does different things at the same time: Dialect ("sanging") exudes the raw timelessness of folk tradition, while usage ("sing" and "sang" are different tenses) distinguishes clearly between past and present. 
 Ricks can also resurrect less canonical songs from the later period of Dylan's career to show Dylan's continuity of purpose. "Disease of Conceit," on Oh Mercy (1989), can serve Ricks as a Dylan template, too. The song asks an instructive question, which Ricks translates as "How do you vary the unrelenting?" This is not a self-help question, argues Ricks; it is a technical question that reveals what is interesting about rhyming, particularly Dylanesque rhyming. The song's anaphoric repetitions – "down the highway," "down the line," "down for the count" – carry "differences of weight," shifting their presumable equivalence in meaning on the very ground of their similarity in sound. "Do Right to Me Baby," on Slow Train Running (1979), illustrates what else Ricks has discovered: The pairings "touch/touched" and "judge/judged" are not, as semantic items, identical either. "Judging" and "touching" are dissimilar. 

The repetitions of which rhyme is composed, in other words, are never exact. Rhyme is a good example of what Ricks calls (simplifying Wordsworth) "similitude and dissimilitude." The difference between "similitude" and "dissimilitude" is the "fraction," as Ricks puts it, that guides Dylan's poetic project. But it guides more than that. Beneath Ricks's trilling lurks an argument of very considerable power. Dylan's rhymes and the verbal arabesques to which they give rise are a miniature version of the wider patterns that organize Dylan's work as a whole. These do not include theme –Ricks remains a consistent formalist – but they do include the last thing one expects Ricks to explain: the relation of the music to the lyrics. In Dylan's songs, Ricks suggests, the music searches for the poem even as the poem searches for its music. 
 The perception of "similititude and dissimilitude" is the key to this relationship. "Dylan is always," Ricks claims, "playing his timing against his rhyming." "Dylan's vocal punctuation," he says, "is dramatically other than that of his page." Ricks argues that Dylan's voice is, as a rule, "thrillingly disagreeing with itself." This disagreement creates an effect that Eliot called, in relation to Swinburne's poetry, "diffuseness." Ricks acknowledges that in Dylan's songs, as in Hardy's poems, this "diffuseness" has a technical spur. Obliquity or directness of pronunciation are both open to – are functions of – vocal performance, even in the reader's mind. Dylan's songs juxtapose voice and page, warble and diphthong, yaw and pentameter. 

Ricks is no typologist, and, for him, such juxtapositions do not point to an opposition between nature and culture. Dylan weaves the elements of song – text and voice, poetry and music – into endlessly "imperfect alignments" in order to generate a hum of multiple relationships among them. "Melisma" is the technical name for the "fraction" or difference between performance and the page that sets it all in motion – "Something in the timing," according to Ricks, "that cannot be rendered by placing and space." The difference between text and performance is the subject of Betsy Bowden's Performed Literature, but melisma plays no part in her analysis. She believes that the text is somehow "realized," as though it were a stable object subject to transmutation. For Ricks, by contrast, stable textuality is always the function of indirectness or "diffuseness." "Otherness" – a "dissimilitude" – is the perpetual shadow against which "similitude" comes into the light. 

Melisma offers a way to understand the reciprocal relation between Dylan's words and music, between sound and sense. Dylan's voice is not simply an expressive medium for his page, nor is his page simply a dirigible excuse for him to sing. Rather, meaning emerges from the differential weave between text and voice. "Love Minus Zero" on Bringing It All Back Home (1965) is a good example: "My love, she's like some raven / At my window with a broken wing." The grammar of this sentence remains unclear until the last word of the second line. Will "broken" modify "window," leading us to expect "pane" at the end of the line instead of "wing"? Grammatical relationships among words are suspended, as in Latin, until the sentence is finished. We are most familiar with this kind of problem phonetically alone in a poet like Hardy. Thematically, we are most familiar with it in Whitman, who dissolves the very self he sings as the best way to celebrate it. Dylan, in the spirit of Whitman, does the same, dissolving signifier and self alike into the weave of language that gives each their moorings. Here, too, is the secret connection of aestheticism to historicism: The dissolving aesthetic self dissolves as a rule into the components that make up its specificity as a historical subject. 

Dylan's Latinate syntax recalls Milton's, but this does not prompt Ricks to link his study of Dylan with his first and best book, Milton's Grand Style (1963). Ricks's Milton book successfully countered a tradition of Milton criticism that acknowledged Milton's power while denying his exactitude. Ricks showed that Milton's language in Paradise Lost is, like the language of Dylan's songs, deeply and delicately systematic. Both poetic systems are based on exposing how easily language can shift its sense, and both topple the pretenses of the typologies that try to repress this linguistic play or, as Ricks calls it, "sliding." For Milton, this "sliding" is a basic consequence of the fall; for Dylan, it suggests that there was never an Eden from which to fall. Like Dylan, who, as an artist, says Ricks, takes "the path of most resistance," Milton, said Ricks in 1963, "writes at his very best only when something prevents him from writing with total directness." This "something" is "sliding," which shows how "directness," like Wordsworth's "similitude," is a function of indirectness or "dissimilitude." Milton's "greatest effects," like Dylan's own, "are produced," says Ricks, "when he is compelled to be oblique as well as direct." Milton (whose father was a composer) does within poetry what Dylan goes on to accomplish in the relation between poetry and music. 
 Both Milton and Dylan are of the devil's party because their poetic practices deconstruct the typology they mean to serve. This is not a mere effect of either s work, but the decided focus of each one. In Milton's case, it proceeds from his antithetical relation to the history of Christian doctrine. Language, not just poetic language, is necessarily fallen. What are the terms of its use when figuring divine or just things? In Dylan's case, this focus proceeds from his antithetical relation to the history of rock and roll. How can you chant freedom on the shoulders of muses like Woody Guthrie or Muddy Waters? The problem is one of influence, and, like Milton, Dylan can find freedom only in tradition. 

Musically, melisma is the source of Dylan's debt to gospel, soul, and early rock and roll. For Little Richard, bending the signifier applies equally to both sense and tonality. Rock and roll is not a semiotics of drama, in which performance interprets the text. Here the point is to sunder altogether the link between signifier and signified, although only – inevitably – to rejoin them. The arbitrariness of their relationship goes hand in hand with its social determination. This form of irony is particularly African American, especially raw in a majestic figure like Otis Redding. The minstrel myth of the "natural" black man is both sustained and exposed by the easy rupture of sound from sense. How do you pronounce "dock of the bay"? How many syllables does each word contain? What phonetic requirements are necessary for them to emerge as phonemes? Changing sound while retaining sense – Redding's song paints a memorable scene – is both outrageous and precise. The social norms of language are the only norms it has; all the rest is silence. 

Melisma – this unmooring of sound from a meaning that is left in place – brings us not only to the heart of Dylan's technique. It also raises difficult issues surrounding Dylan and his cultural status. Dylan may be "diffuse," as Ricks says he is, but he is also, in this sense, well, dirty. Not just his voice, but his clothes, his hair, his manners. He is one of Whitman's "roughs." But even his offenses to civility hold in prudent reserve a more recalcitrant one buried deep in the American grain. While it may be a critical commonplace to assign the cause of racism to sexuality, racism is more primarily a question of cleanliness, and of the establishment of proper borders. Anthropologists like Mary Douglas have shown that it is the fear of otherness that prompts cultures to indulge in rituals of purification. The segregated water fountains of the American South made this link abundantly clear. Psychologically, such practices create a common identity or sense of sameness by stamping someone or something else as dirty or unclean. Jacques Derrida likes to pun on the word proper – what is clean is also what is one's own. Dylan's scholarship is good; he names a recent album Love and Theft (2001) after the title of Eric Lott's deconstructive history of minstrelsy (1993). Lott shows that, after 1830, blackness had to be invented as an "other" in order to produce the "sameness" of whiteness. This hidden dynamic is the abiding irritant in American life and the one that Dylan, chief among rockers, has addressed by making miscegenation or hybridity the technical precondition of his sound. 

If melisma – the difference between performance and page – raises questions about signification, it also raises questions about the status of the singing self, or, rather, about the self that sings. What is it? This is the bailiwick of cultural criticism and the subject of Marcus's most recent study of Dylan, Like a Rolling Stone (2005). Invisible Republic (1997), Marcus's study of Dylan's Basement Tapes (released in 1976), began the trend in Marcus's career that has crystallized in Like a Rolling Stone: the focus on a single text. Here the text is Dylan's 1965 hit single. Marcus's strategy creates a singular critical effect, suggesting his new theory of Dylan, which, however uneven its gait, is far more systematic than any Marcus has presented before. Because Invisible Republic involved Dylan's recuperation from his motorcycle accident, it flirted with typology. But as a result of its greater sensitivity to form, Like a Rolling Stone is not typological at all. Its descriptive terminology has a precise, analytic power. Like Ricks, Marcus is interested in Dylan's "diffuseness," although from a musical rather than a poetic perspective. 

Marcus's book evokes the musty recording session of "Like a Rolling Stone." Key to Marcus's description of the song is that it is "unstable." In the context of its later history, the song is always being revised when it is it heard again, read, inevitably, against a fugitive original hearing. Marcus's book, in other words, reconsiders something that is itself always being reconsidered. This is a superb mode of critical plotting. In order to produce the effect that will vouchsafe his contention, Marcus reduplicates in his own text what happens to Dylan's song over time. What is particularly illuminating about the approach is that it begins with a typological assumption – the belief that "Like a Rolling Stone" is "the greatest record ever made," the heart and soul of Dylan's work – that it goes on to disrupt, again and again. The superlative is what most superlatives tend to be: a type, as it were, of the typological, a very particular kind of rhetorical assessment and critical valuation. Unlike comparatives, superlatives posit an origin from which anything else is a fall, judged historically. The "greatest" is, as a trope, the baseline of history, not history itself, its defining rather than differential measure. For Marcus, "Like a Rolling Stone" is Dylan at his purest or most exactly original. The song is central because it is "the secret" of Dylan's "kingdom."
But the mechanism of listening that Marcus identifies – the way in which later hearings redact earlier ones in order for both past and present listenings to take their proper, and unstable, places – makes such claims inappropriate. "Like a Rolling Stone" is significant not because it is Dylan when he is most himself, but because it capaciously exhibits the spectrum of Dylan's influences and the range of his purposes. It is just this capaciousness that puts in question the song's centrality. The song's porousness overwhelms and renders tentative any singularity it may be said to have. No wonder Marcus describes the many changes to which the song is subject, both on repeated hearings of the recording and when it is performed live. Such repetitions of the song are "utterly displacing," making the song the same and not the same. These changes are Marcus's real subject, not simply the song and the session at which it was made. Whatever these displacements do, they never allow the song to "play" simply "as a memory." Something else always happens. 

Marcus refers to Freud's notion of the uncanny to describe this double effect, in which something is at once familiar and strange. Adept at descriptive criticism, Marcus goes on to show what mechanism in Dylan's work determines this effect or feeling, and how it is identical with both theme and technique. It is, in Wordsworth's own words, "similitude in dissimilitude." The Freudian name for this mechanism is deferred action. Later events and impressions revise earlier ones, making memory a remastering, not a recording. In Freud, the primal scene the Wolf Man observed as a child becomes sexual only after he has gained a knowledge of sex and is able to revise the memory accordingly. This is typology demystified. Freud's target, like Dylan's, is a central interpretive paradigm in Western culture that he wishes to reveal and disrupt; targeting it reflects both the seriousness and the Jewishness of Freud and Dylan alike. In Marcus's Freudian reading, Dylan's song, like the Wolf Man's primal scene, is put in place by its later hearings over the years, not, as in a Christian reading, for once and for all in a moment of determining grace. The song can remain the "greatest" only if, like the more agonistic or classical epic hero, it can be judged again and again. 

This approach has its advantages. The early doesn't really predict the later; the later requires it to have occurred. It is a send-up of typology, a revelation, not of its truth, but of its mechanism. The early – as it is in Christianity, too – becomes both foundational and obsolete. This insight animates Eliot's familiar description of poetic history: "When a new work of art is created...something...happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it." The endless changes that "Like a Rolling Stone" undergoes as one listens to it over time illustrate what both Freud and Eliot describe: the emergence of things against and only against a field of time. The present reinvents what precedes it: "The future," sings Dylan on Love and Theft, "is already a thing of the past." The famous lines on "My Back Pages" on Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964) describe this structure exactly: "I was so much older then, / I'm younger than that now." Any moment in Dylan is provisional rather than definitive, indexical rather than absolute. 

Like Shakespeare's art, and like Milton's, Dylan's is not one of statement. It is an art of "instability," to use Marcus's word, or of endlessly modulated "diffuseness," to use Eliot's. Like Shakespeare's plays, Dylan's songs are subject to any number of possible readings, all of them, however plausible, limited by their wish to foreclose further interpretation. Very recent, very readable, and very droll, Dylan's autobiographical Chronicles (2004) is both a description of this kind of textual behavior and a fine example of it. Chronicles does what Marcus cannot do in a wholly conscious way: dramatize Dylan's own labor. Of course, Dylan is not wholly conscious of himself either, but that is just the point. Dylan, like his critics, must also take himself as his own subject. He refers to other critics of his work as though he were part of their scholarly community. This is deadpan Dylan at its best, ironic and straightforward at the same time. Chronicles is important not because it is Dylan himself who is writing, but for the opposite reason. The man who has the seat on the stage is, like his critics, scratching his head, too. Dylan must also approach himself as a critic, puzzled, on the outside looking in. Even Bob Dylan wants to know who Bob Dylan is. The lesson of Chronicles is that because of the intractable porousness of his work, Dylan is as distant from himself as the rest of us are.
Dylan's work both is and is about this dislocation within the self, especially as he grows older. Dislocation is not inhibitive; it is enabling and productive. Temporal movement or deferred action is Dylan's active principle both poetically and musically, the very nature of his labor. No wonder Dylan, Marcus, and Ricks all recur to the uncanniness of hearing old Dylan songs played in concert many years later. That experience is the most palpable example of the self-revision with which Dylan is concerned. This apparently formalist assessment sharpens our sense of his central theme: the passage of time. This theme has become especially important in Dylan's later career. "It's not dark yet," he sings on Time Out of Mind (1997), "but it's gettin' there." Dylan's achievement is in league with time, not time's rival or enemy. As with different performances of the same songs, says Dylan, "circumstances never repeat themselves." Neither does the self that they endlessly reinvent. Dylan's career is not one of progression or decline but of retrospection. This is not a Christian or typological Dylan; this is a Freudian – a Jewish, a Talmudic – Dylan. 

For a text that documents how the unconscious works, Chronicles is supremely self-conscious. Self-revision – and the porousness that requires it in order for both the self and the work to cohere – is Dylan's endless preoccupation. Whether he is reading himself or others, Dylan describes diffuseness in both music and poetry with nonchalant ease. Roy Orbison, he says, writes songs that have "songs within songs"; Dylan himself also writes songs that contain any number of possible relationships among their elements harmonically. As in Orbison, chord progressions inevitably stir unexpected relationships with harmonic patterns not included in the song's text. They also make new intertextual connections. "Blowin' in the Wind" is a previously unwritten bridge for "We Shall Overcome." An example of Dylan's determination by folk tradition, the song is also an example of Dylan's debt to Buddy Holly. Like Orbison, for whom he was the principal precursor, Holly wrote tunes defined by their propensity to spin such additional harmonic implications. That they spill into the songs of others is another example of their unlikely labor. Poetically, Dylan's songs do the same thing, both individually and as a body of work. An appropriate analogue here is D. H. Lawrence's poetry. Amit Chaudhuri has suggested that the chief activity of Lawrence s poems is their own rewriting, a motivating element in Lawrence's poems that Chaudhuri calls, following Ruskin, the Gothic. Dylan shares this stance with Lawrence and with Ruskin himself, the master of self-revision in English. 

This instability has its technical counterpart in Dylan's deliberate use of melisma. In Chronicles, Dylan recalls discovering "a new vocal technique" in 1987, but this phrase is only a clarification of how he'd been singing since way back when, including on "Like a Rolling Stone." Dylan is quick to distinguish this "new technique" from "improvisation," which it somewhat resembles. As in scat, there are phonetic units to honor, not just phonemic ones. The point, however, is not to worry about the link or suture with what is signified, but to let it bleed. This blues technique is, in fact, melisma – the bending of the signifier, whether in pain, delight, or some combination of the two. Chronicles also provides an explanation of the anxiety that arose between the young Dylan and Dave Van Ronk, which was about hijacking melisma. Van Ronk, observes Dylan, "never phrased the same thing the same way twice." The only other nonjazz singer to merit this description in Chronicles is Woody Guthrie, who "would throw in the sound of the last letter of a word whenever he felt like it." Here the canonical precursor Guthrie masks the more burdensome, and accidental, precursor Van Ronk, who happened to be a contemporary.
Dylan resolves a larger problem of influence in a similar way, once again because of the advantage that retrospection and self-revision provide. When he arrived in New York in 1961, he traded in his electric guitar for an acoustic one. This was not the bland decision of a folk enthusiast, but a keenly dialectical act. It reversed Muddy Waters's founding gesture in blues history when Waters moved to Chicago from Mississippi in 1944 and exchanged his acoustic guitar for an electric one. His transition to electric was not a fall from grace, but a liberation from a pernicious myth – half sentimental, half oppressive – about how natural black life is in the South. Dylan turned Waters on his head. His acoustic guitar symbolized a musical history with which Waters himself was unconcerned, and one that allowed Dylan to reimagine nature through the lens of an additional kind of folk stance: the tradition of Guthrie and Van Ronk that stretched back to English and Celtic hymn and jig. (These regionalist and religious traditions count also among Shakespeare's sources.) Dylan's history, including the history of poetry in English to which it is adjacent and which it informs, is the supplement Dylan carries with him when he goes on to negate his negation of Waters with a screaming blues band of his own at Newport in 1965. Rhythm and blues had already synthesized blues, jig, and hymn into one music, as had country swing, but without Dylan's literary perspicacity. Bluesman and Anglophile, Dylan brings rock and roll into its classic phase by becoming wholly transatlantic. At Newport, the dialectic is complete. He crosses the Atlantic of the Middle Passage with the Atlantic of the Grand Tour. 

Who, then, is Dylan himself? The one who sings or the one who writes? The electric Dylan or Dylan unplugged? Is the real Dylan the one at Newport in 1965, or the Dylan on Scorsese's screen in 2005? The real Dylan is both at once, especially when we see him at Newport in Scorsese's film. If Marcus deconstructs Dylan by showing him to be a weave of past and present, Ricks deconstructs Dylan by showing neither Dylan's words nor Dylan's music to exist except in their interrelationship. The endless rearticulation of these relationships is Dylan's chief activity. The later Dylan is beneficiary to the clearings felled by Dylan early. It is one measure of Dylan's power that he inspires critics like Marcus and Ricks to write powerful books about him.

Originally published in Raritan, Winter 2007


Psychology and Modern Literature

by Perry Meisel

As Michel Foucault has shown (1961), among the first great shifts to accompany the demise of religion and the emergence against it of Enlightenment rationality was the division of reason, not from religion, but from madness. A nosological shift – the creation of a new descriptive field available to medical diagnosis – was also an epistemological one: the mind was no longer partitioned into good and evil, but into the rational and the irrational. The religious antinomies that precede it historically shadow this new pairing, but its consequences are different. Reason’s domain was necessarily psychological. Reason was now the guardian of a soul that was by definition self-divided, turning the self into its first, and chief, object of scrutiny. So began, to use Christopher Lasch’s phrase, the culture of narcissism. The conventional critical emphasis upon madness in modern literature is a durable way of showing how clearly modernism descends from the Enlightenment split that Foucault describes (Gilbert and Gubar 1979; Valentine 2003). But modern literature’s transgressive energies and liminal orientations – Virginia Woolf is its locus classicus – merely heighten what is already at work in the comparatively stable if neurasthenic world of the later novels of Henry James: an emphasis on the self, and the difference between self-knowledge and self-regard.

James and James

This shift in the history of modern literature is nowhere more evident than in the shift from James’s own early fiction to his later phase. It is a shift that has served generations of critics as an organizing assumption about the history of the novel as a whole. In fiction before James, the world predominates; in fiction after James, the mind predominates. Compare the opening sentence of The American (1877) with that of The Ambassadors (1903). The shift from outside to inside is manifest. The American begins with James’s fashionable hero in a pose of aestheticist lassitude that borders not only on exhibitionism but also on pretension: “On a brilliant day in May, in the year 1868, a gentleman was reclining at his ease on the great circular divan which at that period occupied the center of the Salon Carré, in the Museum of the Louvre” (James 1877: 1). It is the pose that is ambiguous, not the man. Whether or not a doubleness invades the soul of Christopher Newman we have as yet no idea. We do not know if he is as ambivalent about his mannerisms as the morally impatient reader of James may be about him. How different is the beginning of The Ambassadors. Once again the focus is on James’s hero, but the terms have changed, perhaps only slightly, but with enormous differences in implication: “Strether’s first question, when he reached the hotel, was about his friend; yet on his learning that Waymarsh was apparently not to arrive till evening he was not wholly disconcerted” (James 1903: 17). By the end of the sentence we are firmly established within Strether’s mind, even to the point of feeling his ambivalence about his friend’s absence (“not wholly disconcerted”). Strether is, it appears, relieved to have some time to himself despite missing his friend’s expected company. Nor are we asked merely to identify with Strether. This is free indirect discourse, with the narrator shaping the construction of Strether’s thoughts for our consideration as well as simply presenting them to us for the purpose of sympathy. What differences contribute to Strether’s ambivalence? If we are asked to know Christopher Newman where he does not know himself, we are asked to know Strether where he presumes to know more about himself than he really does.
It is often to Henry’s brother, William, author of Principles of Psychology (1890), that historians turn to find terms to describe Henry’s prose. Here is an influential passage from the Principles: “Consciousness, then, does not appear to itself chopped up in bits. . . . It is nothing jointed; it flows. A ‘river’ or ‘stream’ are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described. In talking of it hereafter, let us call it the stream of thought, of consciousness, or of subjective life” (William James 1890, I: 239). Despite the combination of “comparison” and “suppression” (288) required to constitute an object’s “fringe” (258), as James puts it, or, in a splendid phrase, its “theatre of simultaneous possibilities” (288), James regards this process as one of “consciousness,” or, in the decisive assumption, “voluntary thinking” (259). Although the mind organizes “tendencies” (254) of thought rather than real perceptions, its agreements with other minds is considered an agreement about “the same object,” he concludes, making “thought cognitive of an outer reality” (272).
James’s descriptions of consciousness hardly do justice to the psychical processes that his brother’s novels both describe and provoke. William’s “consciousness” is too limited notionally to account for them. No wonder historians invoke Henri Bergson’s work to account for the techniques of modern fiction in more detail. Says Bergson in a passage from An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness (1889): “I do not see how . . . differences of sensation would be interpreted by our consciousness as differences of quantity unless we connected them with the reactions which usually accompany them, and which are more or less extended and more or less important” (Bergson 1889: 37–8). As in The Ambassadors, the transposition of the self’s fluctuating impressions by language into social myth or ideology is the Essay’s real subject. Unlike brother Henry, however, even Bergson cannot describe the state of perilous epistemological twilight in which Strether exists. It is because he cannot give up the idea of “consciousness” any more than brother William can. Nor can either give up the notion that the world is simply given.
Neither Bergson nor brother William will do to describe brother Henry’s fiction. The Ambassadors – and The American, too, for that matter – deal with states and data quite precisely not given to consciousness. Whether or not they eventually enter consciousness is the ethical drama that James’s novels customarily play out. Like Bergson, what brother William cannot describe in brother Henry’s prose is the unconscious – that which exceeds the grasp of any sense of awareness based on the presumption that one can see objectively, without the biases that make us, unconsciously, who and what we are.
Formulating the unconscious is the province of European psychology in the nineteenth century, the product of myriad influences reaching back to the Enlightenment. It is just this history that American clinical psychology, following brother William, represses; it is its enabling negation. This repressed history leads not to academic psychology, but to Freud and psychoanalysis. The tradition of the unconscious is what joins modern literature with psychology, particularly psychoanalysis, in a variety of ways, and not just as cause to effect, or even as mere parallelism. So rich is Freud’s own achievement that the different trends in modern literature actually unpack different trends in Freud himself. It is no surprise because Freud summarizes and reconfigures the numerous influences that overdetermine him.


“The effect of Freud upon literature”, wrote Lionel Trilling in 1950, “has been no greater than the effect of literature upon Freud” (1950: 32). By the literature Freud had influenced, Trilling meant modern literature; by the literature that had influenced Freud, Trilling meant Romanticism and its Enlightenment antecedents. Here Freud’s own widest influences assemble both science and literature (Ellenberger 1970) and, with them, the influences that produce the psychology of modernism as a whole. Unlike English and French Romanticism, German Romanticism, which precedes them both, included Novalis, a doctor; British Romanticism counted a professional apothecary surgeon, Keats, among its chief poets, and among its intellectual sources the associationist psychology of David Hartley, medical doctor as well as philosopher. Indeed, the hard division between science and poetry that emerged in the early twentieth century with the rise of technical research (Whitehead 1925) was not yet in place when Fechner began a second career in the 1860s as Doctor Mises, journalist, spiritualist, and literary entrepreneur. Psychology’s earliest modern terrain is not science but philosophy, especially the sensationalism of John Locke, which prefigures Hartley’s associationism by more than a century. Psychology’s presumably intimate relation to idealism is already a problem in Locke, for whom sensory experience builds the mind as well as the body.
The simple division between idealist and materialist never structures the history of modern psychology in the first place. Contemporary with Hartley is the development of interest in the brain and nervous system (Richardson 2001). Brain science is the link between the sensory philosophy of Locke and Hartley and the materialism of a literary tradition from Keats to Pater that takes body and brain to be continuous rather than at odds. By 1820, phrenology, despite its notorious future as a cult practice and locus of popular assumption about intelligence, had emerged as the first attempt to map the brain. Its background is the discovery in 1781 of “animal electricity” by Galvani and the notion that mental activity could be broken down into component parts and actually studied. The anatomy of the soul had replaced its salvation. In the hands of a physiological philosopher like Hartley, the notion of “association” therefore included the physiology that underlay the mind’s psychology. Like Galvani’s electricity, Hartley’s “vibrations,” as he called them in his 1749 Observations, strove to connect physical stimulation with events in the mind using the “association” as the mediator among sensation, ideation, and feeling. Erasmus Darwin, in Zoonomia (1794-6), gives us the term “sensorium” to describe a connectedness of brain and perception that is no longer simply ideal. Franz Joseph Gall in turn gives us the notion of the brain itself as a systematic organ. The emergence of the brain as the biological source of thought, feeling, and sensation therefore complicates the otherwise idealist air of Romanticism, British Romanticism in particular, and likens the neural atmosphere that surrounded Romanticism with the neurological atmosphere later in the century that surrounded the birth of psychoanalysis. Like Hartley, brain science had already made both Romanticism and psychology materialist affairs, not by becoming mechanistic, but by situating ideas in a relation to the “sensorium.” Keats’s hands-on involvement with the sciences of the body has produced generations of scholarship preoccupied by the connection between his emphasis on sensation and his experiences as a surgeon actually touching the material of his own metaphors.
Out of the cauldron of Romantic science and philosophy emerged in turn the distinct disciplines of neurology, psychology, and psychoanalysis; psychiatry, ironically enough, emerges, like psychoanalysis, as a late-nineteenth century response to neurology, although also as a response to the new psychoanalysis, with which it is largely contemporaneous. Here the descriptive insouciance of psychiatry as a discipline finds its own root – and literary – cause. Emil Kraepelin’s profuse nosographies of psychiatric disorders, like the more exacting ones of C. G. Jung’s chief at the Burghölzli Clinic in Zurich, Eugen Bleuler, functioned as the scrim upon which Freud painted a far richer specificity of mind, due in large part to the literary and philosophical reading that had spurred his own mind beyond the conventions of a purely descriptive medicine.
Freud’s teacher Ernst Brücke, in whose laboratory Freud worked as a young neurologist from March 1881 to July 1882, was the contemporary of Hermann Hemholtz, who had borrowed the term “conservation of energy” from mechanical physics to describe a regulatory principle in the nervous system in 1845 (Sulloway 1979: 66). Working under these assumptions in Brücke’s Physiological Institute as he dissected everything from crayfish to the nervous systems, including the brains, of human cadavers, the young Freud was taught to regard neurological processes as reflexive discharge, the body’s way of relieving buildups of tension.
For Gustav Fechner of Leipzig, however, William James’s great rival, Hemholtz’s “conservation” was not a process of reflex or discharge but of “constancy.” The organism seeks equilibrium through absorption rather than through discharge, which, for Fechner, unlike Hemholtz, is a pathogenic state. The body expunges stimulation rather than absorbs it only when stimulation is toxic or inassimilable. But even more is at stake in Fechner’s recasting of “conservation” than the change from discharge to absorption. It is the old question of mind and body. Fechner moots the problem of a difference between mind and body – between idealism and materialism, psyche and soma – by regarding them as continuous. Sense perception and the internal production of images in memory or in fantasy are – as they were in Hartley and will be in Fechner’s disciple Freud – interdependent. What is their mediator? It is a “residuum” (Bergson 1889: 64), to use Bergson’s description of Fechner’s idea, of memory and assumption. It is what Freud will call the unconscious. Propped on the brain in a recapitulation of its development, the mind, says Fechner, is also a part of the body as a whole.
The birth of psychoanalysis is customarily assigned to the moment that Freud abandoned his “seduction theory” in 1897 in a letter to his friend Wilhelm Fliess, moving within and discovering “psychical reality.” But this is not to say that Freud’s inwardness was ideal.
I will confide in you at once the great secret that has been slowly dawning on me in the last few months. I no longer believe in my neurotica. . . . In every case the father, not excluding my own, had to be blamed as a pervert – the realization of the unexpected frequency of hysteria, in which the same determinant is invariably established, though such a wide spread extent of perversity towards children is, after all, not very probable. . . . There are no indications of reality in the unconscious, so that one cannot distinguish between the truth and fiction that is cathected with affect. (Freud 1950 [1897]: 1, 259–60)
Like the shift from early to late James, the shift here is from the external to the internal, from the real, presumably, to the ideal, from events to representations. But this is to simplify matters.
The difference between abreaction or catharsis – and between hypnosis and psychoanalysis proper – was precisely the difference between Hemholtz’s “discharge” and Fechner’s “constancy.” For Hemholtz, the nervous system could be expunged, or “swept clean,” to use the vocabulary of Anna O., Breuer’s first psychoanalytic patient. For Fechner, by contrast, discharge and catharsis do not function transparently. Real or not, thought leaves a trace of itself behind. Discharge never sweeps clean because a residue, or memory, whether physical in the case of reflex, or ideational in the case of the mind, is required to give a person a history, a mode of being in the world. For Freud the conclusion was plain. One had to assume a residue or trace – a memory –in, or, indeed, as the unconscious. Here emerges another key difference, the difference between neurology and psychology themselves, and the nature of Freud’s passage from the first to the second. Freud’s own terms in the posthumously published Project for a Scientific Psychology (1950 [1895]) are the clearest. It is the difference between a mere “quantity” of stimulation (by which we traditionally mean the “physical”) and the emergence, propped upon it, of “qualities,” or ideas (by which we traditionally mean the “psychological”). This vocabulary suffuses the period from Bergson to Pater. The difference is well stated by the subtitle of Pater’s Marius the Epicurean: His Sensations and Ideas (1885) – the difference between “sensations” (“quantity”) and “ideas” (“quality”). Only in the passage from quantity to quality does an organism achieve what we call personality – the quality, as it were, of having ideas as well as sensations.
Freud not only well represents the numerous elements that constitute the prehistory of modern psychology, but actually links all of these histories up in a way that makes psychoanalysis their veritable sepulcher. Psychoanalysis’s picture of the mind is also a picture of its own emergence as a discourse and of the ways it solves the problems it inherits from its precursors. This is the surest way of regarding Freud’s own achievement as a properly literary one. Its reflexivity – the exactitude with which récit and histoire coincide – is without precedent in the history of writing (see Derrida 1967). The more efficient grows Freud’s view of the mental apparatus, the more efficient grows the mental apparatus that psychoanalysis describes. When psychoanalysis gazes at itself in “On Narcissism” (1914), Freud sees that, like the infant child, it still requires the supplement of a theory of images, or, more precisely, of image-acquisition – of identifications, as they will soon be called – to people the mind with “ideas.” With Group Psychology (1921), the notion of “identification” coordinates this movement of “ideas” in the individual. The ego is given its determinations by the images produced by social interaction, beginning with the infant’s first moments of life. Here symbolization and primary process – “idea” and “sensation” – begin their work together.
To facilitate the shift from sensation to idea, Freud’s work contains three distinct notions of the unconscious, each a function of the three principal stages through which psychoanalysis passes in its conceptual development, and each an overturning of the one before it. Each is also a function of strands in the historical overdeterminations that structure Freud as a thinker. How does Freud’s notion of the unconscious evolve? The early period, beginning with the Project and Studies on Hysteria and cresting with The Interpretation of Dreams, regards the unconscious for the most part as “topographical,” as Freud calls this first model of mind – a seething landscape of repressed instincts within us. James Strachey, editor of the Standard Edition of Freud (1953–74), translates the German “Trieb” as “instinct” rather than as “drive” – a notorious point of contention in debates about Strachey’s translation – because it designates the “frontier,” as Freud puts it, “between the mental and the somatic”; it is the “psychical representative of the stimuli originating from within the organism and reaching the mind” (Freud 1915: 122).
Here enters a related strand in the crowded cultural history that Freud inherits. This is the discourse of race of which nineteenth-century science is a product and against which it is a reaction. Simultaneously among the direct progenitors of psychoanalysis and among its targets, theories of racial difference and valuation, often tied to the emergence after 1870 of an organic rather than a liberal notion of nationalism, abounded in both Europe and the United States. Weir Mitchell’s Western rest cures for East Coast neurasthenics were the consumer counterparts of decisive scholarly texts on the subject, the most popular and influential of which was Max Nordau’s Degeneration (1892), a comprehensive description of the causal relation between skull types and degenerate personalities, posture and sexual predisposition, facial features and morals. This form of thought has a familiar destiny in the discourse of Nazi eugenics (Gilman 1993; Mosse 1964).
The doctrinal decade – the first decade of the century – saw the exemplification of psychoanalytic theory in clinical studies such as The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901), Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (1905), and Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuallity (1905). But in the next decade, this attempt to offer universal proof for psychoanalytic investigation led to a metaphor for the unconscious different from the instinctual ones of the early phase – the metaphor of primitive myth. Now the focus was on image rather than instinct, on the “representative,” to use Bergson’s terms, rather than on the “affect.” Here Totem and Taboo (1912) is the key text, with its view of the father as a rival to his sons. Drawing on the Cambridge anthropologists James Frazer, Jane Harrison, and E. B. Tylor, Freud found myth to be the universal reflection of unconscious process. This is also the version of the unconscious that most appealed to Freud’s disciple Jung, who rejected the libidinal theory of the instincts in precisely the year that Totem and Taboo was published. He goes on to produce an influential psychoanalysis of his own with a doggedly mythical rather than instinctual unconscious whose popular heirs include Joseph Campbell. Whatever shape it may take – the Greek, the Indic, the African – “myth is,” as Thomas Mann put it in “Freud and the Future” (1930), “the foundation of life; it is the timeless schema, the pious formula into which life flows when it reproduces its traits out of the unconscious” (422).
Freud’s own reimagination of the unconscious during the metapsychological phase (1915–17) is what allows his third model of the unconscious to emerge with the amplitude that it does. In “On Narcissism,” Freud discovers that the child must find an image to connect to autoerotism in order to enter the human order. This is how the child constructs a relation between “sensations” and “ideas” (see also Laqueur 2004). A retroactive relation between body and mind is produced which is not there at the start of life. The temporality of this relation is precisely what Bergson cannot imagine in the Essay, and the reason he cannot solve the problem of the advent of “ideas” as Freud can. This temporal relationship is what Freud means by the unconscious. This unconscious is neither material nor ideal, but both at the same time. The mind that Freud goes on to describe in The Ego and the Id in 1923 is a history and partition of his own three views of the unconscious: “id” is “instinct”; “superego” is myth; “ego” is the attempt to manage the difference between them – between “sensations” and “ideas.”

The Three Modernisms

Modern literature inherits these three trends or tendencies in Freud in separate and distinct ways, which helps us to divide it into three versions or modes: the “instinctual” modernism of D. H. Lawrence and its gross materialism; the “mythic” modernism of T. S. Eliot and its crude idealism; and the “material” modernism of Katherine Mansfield, Willa Cather, and Virginia Woolf, with its notion of the unconscious as that which links the “instinctual” and the “mythic” – “sensations” and “ideas” – the way that the later Freud does: through language and society, particularly through the medium of identification. The work of Joyce forms an instructive double pathway between mythic and material modernism.
Nordau’s exorbitant physicalism finds no better literary exponent than D. H. Lawrence. Lawrence, at least in his conventional profile as prophet of liberation through the “instincts,” is in search of what he calls in the posthumous “Study of Thomas Hardy” (1936) “the primal soil” (417), “the unfathomable womb,” “the powerful, eternal origin” (418). Although he uses the term “consciousness,” Lawrence, unlike William James, has in mind a core of being that far exceeds awareness. Indeed, Birkin’s labor in Women in Love (1921) rests on making conscious this deep instinctual core as a path towards human salvation. Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious (1921a) lays out the doctrine behind Women and Love, and links it explicitly to a reading of Freud that emphasizes, to the exclusion of other factors in psychoanalysis, Freud’s focus on instinctual life. “We are,” says Lawrence, “too mentally domesticated” (Lawrence 1921a: 21): “We must discover, if we can, the true unconscious, where our life bubbles up in us, prior to any mentality. The first bubbling life in us, which is innocent to any mental alteration, this is the unconscious. It is pristine, not in any way ideal. It is the spontaneous origin from which it behooves us to live” (1921a: 13).
To be sure, Lawrence’s great trilogy – Sons and Lovers (1913), The Rainbow (1915), and Women in Love (1921) – exhibits technically what Lawrence describes as a “criticism” of its own “system of morality” (1936: 476) – a debate about Lawrentian doctrine among Lawrence’s characters. In a generous reading, the trilogy is not doctrinal but dialogical and reader-directed, measuring response, as do many of Freud’s own texts, rather than imposing doctrine. Lawrence’s poems are similarly self-correcting by virtue of their endless revision of earlier tropes (Chaudhuri 2002). Less articulated novels such as Aaron’s Rod (1922) or Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928/32) garner no such dispensation. But a doctrine of the instincts leaves a heaviness behind, even in the great trilogy. Lawrence’s notion of the “star” “equilibrium” of the love-relation, as Birkin calls it (Lawrence 1921b: 139), is his version of the Mitchell rest cure from stress, the redemption from moral degeneration unavailable in Nordau. Birkin’s “star” “equilibrium” is idealist to the extent that the “being” it discovers is material and, in Lawrence’s self-frustrating epistemology, therefore distinct from it. Even awareness must die in Lawrence to vouchsafe the truth of the material to which it must, redemptively, submit. Sensations are valuable when they become ideas. But once they become ideas, they lose the Bergsonian purity that made them valuable. The “pure balance” (139) that Birkin wishes to achieve with those he loves is therefore the only qualified one within the novel’s story. For Lawrence, such a balance is achieved by the novel itself, which suspends in equipoise Birkin’s impassioned voice and the more conventional novelistic diction to which it is polemically – and constitutively –opposed. As a writer, Lawrence benefits from the very alienation that assails his characters. The gap between their lives and their self-understanding is, as it is in James, his very subject.
T. S. Eliot’s influential review of James Joyce’s Ulysses, published in The Dial in 1923, discovers in Joyce’s novel what Eliot called the “mythical method” (Eliot 1923). Based on the Odyssey, Ulysses, by Joyce’s own testimony, is serious about what Eliot described as its mythical correspondences, from the manifest parallelism between the novel’s organization and that of Homer’s epic to the less obvious mythic alignments produced by Joyce’s naming techniques and his use of puns. “In using the myth,” says Eliot, “in manipulating the continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity, Mr. Joyce is pursuing a method which others must pursue after him” (Eliot 1923: 177). For Eliot, the “mythical method” is the sine qua non of modern literature because it allows the embattled present to find roots in the deeper strata of the Indo-European past – in its “mythic” unconscious. Eliot’s is, however, a somewhat restricted view of universality from a global perspective; not all civilizations, even ancient ones, are created equal.
Eliot’s polemical animus as poet and critic alike – what Christopher Ricks views as a strategy of provocation designed to engage the reader to wrestle with him (Ricks 1988) – has as its justification his belief in a beneficent mythical undertow to human experience. Its clearest psychoanalytic counterpart (if that is what it is) in Jung’s “anima” – that part of the mind filled with vital, procreative energy. R. F. C. Hull, Jung’s translator, frequently translates Jung’s “Seele” as “soul,” unlike Strachey’s rendering of Freud’s use of the same term as “psyche.” Jung’s, like Eliot’s, is a religious version of the unconscious. Anima, for Jung and for later disciples such as Joseph Campbell, is given expression in ancient myth and ritual of the kind described by Frazer in The Golden Bough (1890–1915), and by Jessie L. Weston, in a book that influenced Eliot deeply, From Ritual to Romance (1920). Jung elevates the mythic side of the Freudian unconscious in order to free himself from the doctrine of unconscious libido. Eliot elevates the mythic side of the unconscious in order to stem the tide of history.
That Eliot had studied Sanskrit while a student at Harvard is emblematic of the assumption about cultural value with which his work is allied: that it is timeless and presumably universal. For Harvard students, learning Sanskrit was cultural capital. Sanskrit was the “original” Indo-European, “Aryan” language, a “pure” ancient language from which all others derived. The Semitic or the varieties of African or Asian languages were, by contrast, inferior, as were the skulls of their speakers, by phrenological standards. Myths, like the Hindu ones that Eliot equates with those of Greece and Rome in The Waste Land, are the instrument of this timeless purity, its emanations, as it were, in historical time. Allied with Eliot’s mythic fascination with the Vedas – the projective and compensatory aspect of Eliot’s colonialism – are the more manifestly idealist philosophical preoccupations exhibited by Eliot’s interest in the work of F. H. Bradley.
This is also the program of Eliot’s poetry. Like Lawrence, he is doctrinal, although in a different way. He is, like Lawrence, also dialogical, and thereby provokes not only agreement with his program but also gives his program its own immanent critique. The Waste Land’s extraordinary suppleness as a poem is challenged by its rude impositions of mythic doxa upon its shifting materials. “A poem that is to contain all myths,” wrote F. R. Leavis, memorably, in 1932, “cannot construct itself upon one” (Leavis 1932: 81). The poem tries to recontain its polysemy by means of the “mythical method,” but the flooding of its mythic correspondences and their unmooring are the poem’s chief activities. Eliot separates dialects in value even as he mingles them in the poem’s narrative flow. The equivalences do not hold when the candidates are bourgeois or black. The poem becomes a site of contention rather than a movement toward the harmonization of its plural voices. Nor is the contention only political; it invades all the poem’s topoi. The nightingale in “A Game of Chess” is a universal symbol for “inviolable voice” (line 101), as in Keats, although it is precisely Keats’s use of the nightingale for rather more specifically ambivalent effects that makes Eliot nervous about the bird’s presumable universalism. The “reverberation” (line 326) of memory, as Eliot calls it in “What the Thunder Said,” is at one and the same time what allows the correspondences to be invoked, and what washes away or unseats the parallels they wish to stabilize. Indeed, the poem’s own constant movement corresponds rather exactly to the structure of the shift from sensations to ideas in Freud: the shift from difference to metalanguage, from dialogue to dialectic.
Real history, alas, interferes, as in Joyce, with the neatness of a “continuous” mythic history. Ulysses, despite Eliot’s review, regularly interrogates just this use of myth. Eliot, whose ultimately medieval and agrarian program grows clearer and clearer in his later criticism, can follow his hero Joyce only so far. While Joyce shares with Eliot’s classicist modernism a use of myth, he departs from Eliot in focusing on myth’s displacement in real time by ideology, much as our third mode of modernism will do. No wonder, then, Eliot’s lament at the end of The Waste Land that his myths are but piecemeal attempts to defend against the complexities of the real history he abjures: “These fragments,” he writes, “I have shored against my ruins” (line 431). Does a dialogical modernism ever take precedence over its rivals?
There is indeed a third kind of modernism that is not only resolutely dialogical but that takes its dialogism from a sense of life that corresponds to Freud’s third and most elaborated notion of the unconscious, the material and social unconscious. This third modernism, one emphasizing not only social interaction but also symbolization, is also a feminist modernism. Its tradition can be traced from Katherine Mansfield, émigrée New Zealander, through both Willa Cather in New York and Mansfield’s close friend Virginia Woolf in London. Cather’s essay on Mansfield shows how Mansfield’s particular focus is on what Cather calls the “double life” that everyone leads: “Even in harmonious families there is this double life: the group life, which is the one we can observe in our neighbour’s household, and, underneath, another – secret and passionate and intense – which is the real life that stamps the faces and gives character to the voices of our friends” (Cather 1936: 109). It is as though Mansfield – and Cather – have actually made James a novelist of the Freudian unconscious. Here is a theory of images and the way they connect sensations and ideas through the identifications that the social life of the family provides. The “double life” is the Freudian unconscious in its most mature form: “the material and social investiture,” as Cather puts it in “The Novel Démeublé” (1922: 40), out of which the self emerges as such.
An emphasis on Mansfield’s influence upon Cather and Woolf not only suggests a new way of mapping the history of modern fiction, particularly a sound relationship between British and American modernism. It also suggests that neither psychoanalysis nor the techniques of literary modernism are an extension of idealism either as a philosophy of mind or as an aesthetic practice. An aestheticist regard for inwardness is not at odds with the social sphere to which its concerns are presumably opposed. Mansfield, Woolf, and Cather draw common inspiration from Walter Pater. But neither is Pater an idealist; his sense of perception is resolutely material, especially in the “Conclusion” to The Renaissance (1873), where the vocabulary is very often a scientific one. Indeed, the materialism of Mansfield, Cather, and Woolf evidences a continuity with the materialist Romanticism of Hartley, Keats, and Pater all alike, a Romanticism from which the quite distinct careers of Lawrence and Eliot have led us astray.
Mansfield’s influence is key to showing us what Cather and Woolf share. The material and social “investiture” of the self is represented in Mansfield’s own stories as early as “The Tiredness of Rosabel” (1908) and as late as “Bliss” (1918) and “Prelude” (1918). Mansfield’s world is the shifting boundary between sensations and ideas, often among children, and the social identifications that allow children and adults alike to protect themselves against the very social order from which they are in symptomatic flight. For Cather and Woolf, this “investiture” is played out in different national settings and under the weight of different suns – for Cather the relation between country and city, for Woolf that between the normative and the transgressive. But the focus of representation is a common one that highlights the relation between sensations and ideas, as it does for Mansfield herself. For Cather, this relation is best studied in the young person’s inscription into the protocols of local community that may or may not be adequate to her. Some of Cather’s heroes simply change their surroundings like Thea Kronborg or Lucy Gayheart; others reinvent local community by recasting its terms, like Jim Burden or Tom Outland. Only in an active relation to landscape, as in the focus on farming in O Pioneers! (1913), or to ideology, as in the focus on business law in A Lost Lady (1923), can the self’s materiality and sociality come into being. A Lost Lady even provides the psychosexual grounds upon which these later modes of social inscription are propped. For Woolf, “investiture” is best studied in Clarissa Dalloway’s ambivalence, or Mrs. Ramsay’s fluctuation between Victorian hostess and Paterian aesthete. The striking of London’s clocks in an inexact relation to the strokes of Big Ben in Mrs. Dalloway (1925) is a fine emblem for the way in which the self’s particularity is a function of the separate peace it makes with the social order. As in Freud, this proceeds in Woolf’s novels through identification, with Jacob’s Room (1922) inaugurating this tendency in Woolf’s classic phase by regarding idealization as the source of depression, much as Freud himself does in “Mourning and Melancholia” (1917). This is the exact focus of To the Lighthouse (1927).
Mrs. Dalloway and the first volume of Freud’s Collected Papers in English were published by the Hogarth Press on the same day – May 14, 1925. Lytton Strachey’s younger brother, James, had begun his career as Freud’s chief translator and editor of what would become the Standard Edition of Freud’s works. Strachey’s career was carried out at the very center of the Bloomsbury Group’s daily life. Woolf’s brother Adrian Stephen was also a psychoanalyst, as were other Bloomsbury habitués like Joan Rivière, who served as first translator of both “Mourning and Melancholia” and The Ego and the Id. That the material production of English Freud was a physical labor of Woolf’s immediate circle of friends is the last and best historical instance of the very real relation between modernist literature and psychology.

References and Further Reading

Bergson, Henri (1889). Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness, trans. F. L Pogson. Rpt. New York: Dover, 2001.

Cather, Willa (1922). “The Novel Démeublé.” In Willa Cather on Writing. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1988.

Cather, Willa (1936). “Katherine Mansfield.” In Willa Cather on Writing. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1988.

Chaudhuri, Amit (2003). D. H. Lawrence and “Difference.” Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Derrida, Jacques (1967). “Freud and the Scene of Writing.” In Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.

Eliot, T. S. (1922). Collected Poems 1963. Rpt. Harcourt, Brace & World, 1970.

Eliot, T. S. (1923). “Ulysses, Order, and Myth.” In Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot, ed. Frank Kermode. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovitch, 1975.

Ellenberger, Henri F. (1970). The Discovery of the Unconscious: The History and Evolution of Dynamic Psychiatry. New York: Basic Books.

Freud, Sigmund (1897). Letter to Wilhelm Fliess. September 21, 1897 (no. 69). The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. and trans. James Strachey, 24 vols. London: Hogarth Press, 1953-74. 1: 259–60.

Freud, Sigmund (1915). “Instincts and Their Vicissitudes.” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. and trans. James Strachey, 24 vols. London: Hogarth Press, 1953-74. 14: 111–40.

Gilbert, Sandra and Susan Gubar (1979). The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

James, Henry (1877). The American. Rpt. New York: Holt, 1967.

James, Henry (1903). The Ambassadors. Rpt. Cambridge: Riverside, 1960.

James, William (1890). Principles of Psychology, 2 vols. Rpt. New York: Dover, 1950.

Laqueur, Thomas W. (2003). Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation. New York: Zone Books.

Lawrence, D. H. (1921a). Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious. Rpt. New York: Viking, 1962.

Lawrence, D. H. (1921b). Women in Love. Rpt. New York: Viking, 1966.

Lawrence, D. H. (1936). “Study of Thomas Hardy.” In Phoenix: The Posthumous Papers of D. H. Lawrence. Rpt. New York: Viking, 1980.

Leavis, F. R. (1932). New Bearings in English Poetry. Rpt. London: Penguin, 1967.

Mann, Thomas (1930). “Freud and the Future.” In Essays of Three Decades, trans. H. Lowe-Porter. New York: Knopf, 1947.

Nordau, Max (1892). Degeneration. Rpt. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993.

Richardson, Alan (2001). British Romanticism and the Science of Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ricks, Christopher (1988). T. S. Eliot and Prejudice. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Sulloway, Frank (1979). Freud: Biologist of the Mind. New York: Basic Books.

Trilling, Lionel (1950). “Freud and literature.” In The Liberal Imagination. Rpt. New York: Doubleday, 1953.

Valentine, Kylie (2003). Psychoanalysis, Psychiatry, and Modern Literature. New York: Palgrave.

Whitehead, Alfred North (1925). Science and the Modern World. Rpt. New York: Free Press, 1967.

Originally published in A Companion to Modernist Literature and Culture, edited by David Bradshaw and Kevin Dettmar. Oxford: Blackwell, 2006.


From Bebop to Hip Hop: American Music After 1950

By Perry Meisel

Jazz Myth, Jazz Reality

The reception of jazz and its musical heirs, rhythm and blues and rock and roll, has always been the product of a deep ambivalence in the American grain. In the 1930s, the first professional jazz critics celebrated jazz for its redemptive primitivism. In the process, they had to slander the very achievement that they praised. For Carl Van Vechten, the more brutal the poverty of black life, the more authentic was the music to which it gave birth. The Yale-educated John Hammond, who drove through the South and the Midwest on the trail of legendary performers, valued musicians who could not read music more than those who did. Their illiteracy testified to the natural urgency of their expression. In the 1950s, Jack Kerouac and Norman Mailer honored jazz for similar reasons. For Kerouac, the spontaneity of jazz improvisation was proof of its mindless honesty. For Mailer, the power of black music lay in the presumably savage power of the black people who had invented it.
What is troubling about the modern reception of jazz is what is historically familiar about it. Behind it looms an earlier mode of reception that it recapitulates even as it overturns: the history of American minstrelsy, the practice by which “blackface” white performers, beginning in the North in the 1830s, parodied black American music even as they deigned to exalt it. The minstrel tradition persists well beyond the 1950s. Imagine, alas, the vexing performance of John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd in the 1980 film The Blues Brothers. Unlike their blackface inspiration, they cannot even sing or dance. Because of studio money, however, they are able to enlist as companion performers some of the greats of blues and rhythm and blues, from Ray Charles to James Brown. This is mockery, subtended by a domination based not only on the almighty buck, but on a racism rooted in minstrelsy that continues to accompany the mainstream appreciation of American music.
Is there another way of assessing the history of jazz and its progeny that is free of racist presupposition? Ralph Ellison is the best guide.
Although since the twenties, many jazzmen have had conservatory training and were well grounded in formal theory and instrumental technique, when we approach jazz we are entering quite a different sphere of training. Here it is more meaningful to speak, not of courses of study, of grades and degrees, but of apprenticeship, ordeals, initiation ceremonies, of rebirth. For after the jazzman has learned the fundamentals of his instrument and the traditional techniques of jazz—the intonations, the mute work, manipulation of timbre, the body of traditional style—he must then “find himself,” must be reborn, must find, as it were, his soul.

Jazz has a structure and a history, rooted not in the soil or in blind instinct, but in the self-conscious artistry of the musicians who play it. Jazz is a learned tradition. Like the history of any aesthetic form, it is defined by a complex interplay of convention and revolt. After 1950, the complexity deepens. Reactions to it produce a whole new epoch whose apotheosis is rock and roll.

Jazz and Rhythm and Blues

The history of American music after 1950 falls into a three-part sequence: the emergence of bebop as a response to swing, and bop’s eventual decline after Charlie Parker’s death in 1955; the emergence of rhythm and blues after 1955 as a response to bop, and r & b’s reinvention of swing’s easy danceability in a newer key; and the emergence of rock and roll as both a resolution of this prior history as well as the suppression of some of its key elements, particularly its African American foundations. To tell the story by focusing on representative or “canonical” figures will also provide a lesson about how so-called “popular culture” works by tale’s end.
Swing music dominated New Deal America and kept spirits high in the canteens of World War II. But it had a history and its future had a horizon. If combo Dixieland had given way to the small-orchestra “jazz” of the 1920s and the Jazz Age ideology that appropriated it, then “jazz” had given way to the expansive vision of swing in the big-band sounds of Duke Ellington and Count Basie. By the end of World War II, however, swing’s infrastructure began to crack economically, and the mood of American culture at large had likewise become brooding and alienated in the shadow of the Bomb. Bebop was the music of the Beats, and Beat emphasized the solitary and the existential. The reflective bop soloist was its ideal emblem.
Parker’s battle with the influence of Lester Young is the key site of musical struggle in the shift from swing to bebop despite the attempt by some historians to blame it all on Dizzy Gillespie and his milder revision of swing trumpet. Muting the horn and gravelling its tone (Gillespie also bent the bell of his instrument by accident one afternoon, leaving it that way because it looked cool), Gillespie was good for publicity. By contrast, Parker drastically alters the tone, attack, and harmonic choices of saxophone forever. He expunges the most saccharine of swing horn mannerisms, vibrato, and introduces a tonal amplitude to saxophone that never capitulates to Young’s breathiness. Parker also combines a technical appetite unmatched in jazz before or since with a depth of blues feeling second to none except for that of Louis Armstrong.
Although Parker’s influence within jazz proper remains decisive well beyond his death in 1955—not until John Coltrane does a musician of peer power emerge to change the nature of saxophone again--by the late 1940s a new player appears on the jazz stage to challenge bebop’s dominance and take its place in popularity with the black listening public: rhythm and blues. Louis Jordan and his Tympani Five are the founding group, appearing at Minton’s in Harlem for the first time in 1938. Jordan himself sang in a swing style over the horn section’s jump riffs and played an early version of what is really rock and roll saxophone. The latter’s real father, however, is saxist Earl Bostic. If Parker invented bop out of swing, then Bostic, with his raucous transformation of swing vibrato into rock and roll flatulence, invented r & b out of swing.
Rhythm and blues eventually crossed with bop to produce “hard bop”: a fusion of bop phrasing and harmonics with r & b rhythms, particularly the funky beat, that becomes the via media for a music enduringly beset by the burdens of Parker’s precedent. Bop had often used Afro-Cuban instrumentation; the presence of conga and timbales added an extra layer of density to its experimentation with rhythms and time. But the reasons for hard bop’s emergence are more than circumstantial. LeRoi Jones and Arnold Shaw both regard hard bop as an umbrella of protection from Parker musically and from bop ideologically. Shaw even suggests that hard bop was a way lesser musicians, especially sax players, had of swerving from the demands of bop technique. The same could be said of a black public that, as Nelson George has documented, had grown exhausted listening to Parker and Gillespie, and that wanted easier, groovier music that it could simply relax to.
The absence of a canonical center for hard bop—one could choose among any number of group leaders, chief among them Horace Silver and Art Blakey—is a perfect example of its sensibility. Hard bop seeks the erasure of personality in the very act of securing it through deliberately generic, even formulaic means. Whether it is Cannonball Adderley, who played with Miles Davis, or King Curtis, who played with both Lionel Hampton and the Coasters, all of jazz goes on to feed on the synthesis of hard bop. As a common point of origin, hard bop joins the sound of the roadhouses of the 1950s with the revolutionary music of Ornette Colman, Eric Dolphy, Archie Shepp, and John Coltrane in the 1960s. Miles Davis’s inspired (and still criticized) brand of “fusion” jazz beginning in the early 1970s—a mix of jazz and rock—is hard bop’s greatest legacy, and the basis of virtually all later developments in jazz and rock alike. So significant is Davis’s jazz-rock fusion that his earlier role in the history of bop proper is often overshadowed by it. If Parker changes saxophone, it is Davis, not Gillespie, who changes trumpet. Not only does he take on the influence of the single most powerful influence in all of jazz, that of Armstrong, and modulate its enthusiasm into wariness. He also takes on the influence of Parker, for whom he served as trumpet sideman in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Davis' s invention of “cool” jazz after 1955—a calm, selective mode of solo improvisation—is his resolved response to Armstrong and Parker alike.
Hard bop is a superb metaphor for the many tensions that American music and culture hold in suspension in the years that follow World War II. The consummate jazz trope for any resolving or miscegenating style, hard bop is the stance of any number of familiar American mythologies: the fusion of cowboy and dandy in the roughneck spiff of gangster heroes from Jay Gatsby to Michael Corleone; the fusion of country and city in the churchy urbanity of African American writers from W. E. B. Du Bois to Alice Walker; the fusion of low-life vernacular and the learned vocabulary of English Romanticism in the fiction of Raymond Chandler. Philip Marlowe is not only a hard-boiled detective; with his combination of suavity, grit, and mischief, he is a hard bop detective, too.
John Coltrane, who served as Davis’s tenor sideman in the late 1950s, is the last of jazz’s major figures. Dead in 1967, Coltrane’s influence had replaced Parker’s, and remains the dominant style in jazz soloing even today. Like his contemporaries, Coltrane grew up in a climate that featured the consensus of hard bop; it also offered up hard bop’s resources for sale if you wanted to be original. Coltrane was always a dialectical musician. The biting cascades of sound represent both his debt to Parker and his flight from him; the replacement of finger-snapping by the graver blues tone-poem is his surest difference from the bop approach to phrasing, even as it is scarred by the desire to escape it. How does Coltrane win his originality and overcome Parker’s influence? By returning, not to Young, but to Bostic. Here he finds a means of inspiration in Bostic’s earliest of models for r & b phrasing, when it is still attached to the rigors of swing. As a youngster, Coltrane had actually recorded with Bostic at a date in Cincinnati in 1952, when he was also touring with the altoist Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson and hard bop organist Jimmy Smith.
Coltrane’s revisionist propensities run so deep that they also required him to follow one album with a response in the next, especially in his last phase. The growling, squealing adventures of Ascension, for example, which became a kind of holy text for the “out” jazz movement of the late 1960s, is greeted, with almost preternatural haste, by Meditations, a fearsomely shy and hesitant work. The epochal A Love Supreme is the most fiercely self-conscious effort in the history of jazz recording: each of the album’s movements comments upon and alters the phrasing of the movement before. Here, Coltrane breaks free of jazz history as no saxist before or since, although he does so, inevitably, by negotiating with the very history he transforms.


If jazz made some measure of peace with itself with hard bop, a wider form brought together rhythm and blues with the “gospel” tradition of Thomas A. Dorsey, Jr. to produce an entirely different kind of synthesis. The result is what is often known as “soul.” Soul is rhythm and blues in a post-Jordan mode. Jordan’s singing, including the ensemble chorus behind it on hit tunes such as “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie,” was still in the tradition of swinging jazz vocalists, chief among them Cab Calloway. Post-Jordan r & b is distinct from it thanks to Dorsey. It crosses the swing manner with another, and presumably opposed sensibility, the sound of the hymn. Soul is, like hard bop, also the result of the synthesis of two apparent antinomies, in this case the secular” and “dirty” stance of the blues and the stance of black religiosity derived from spirituals.
While always a religious man, Dorsey did not place the hymn on a pedestal, as did the earliest concert performers of the African American spiritual, the female Jubilee Singers of Fisk University in Nashville, who toured Europe in 1871. Dorsey the musician came belatedly to the invention of a religious or gospel music, having first been a blues musician who arranged for such luminaries as Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey. When Dorsey first heard the music of Charles A. Tindley at the annual meeting of the National Baptist Convention in Philadelphia in 1929, his own compositional instincts found both kinship and a foil. Tindley, too, was blues-based, but not confined to the strict, twelve-bar world of its musical grammar. Using the song models of Anglo-Irish spirituals, with sixteen-bar structures often supplemented by a bridge, Tindley’s lyrics and moods were transcendent rather than circular and despondent. Dorsey joined the resources of this new discovery with the musical modalities of the blues itself. After 1929, he never looked back.
Thus, gospel was from the start a synthetic sound, a transformation of the traditional Anglo-Southern hymnal by means of the “classic blues” of the 1920s that had also informed the pre-histories of swing, bop, and r & b all alike. The discovery of a fresher realm from the belated vantage point of classic blues is not a surprising one in the history of blues tradition. Just as Dorsey discovers the sacred on the starboard hand of the secular, so Rainey had discovered the sound of the country blues that preceded classic blues only after she had thrived as a city musician. Nor does Dorsey himself cross only sacred and secular; he also crosses country and city. Like the storefront churches that sprang up in the poor neighborhoods of Northern cities that counted more and more southern emigrants among their populations after World War I, gospel is a theater of Southern inspiration within a Northern frame. By the time soul reaches its apex in the big-city studio sounds behind the voices of Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, and Aretha Franklin (all gospel musicians who had graduated to the mainstream), the pattern was polished, and accounted for much of the music’s broad appeal.
Dorsey’s gospel sound blends with the jump sound of early r & b, however, through a mediator: the magnificent sound of the 1950s and early 1960s that we associate with doowop. While doowop’s roots extend to the Ink Spots, an elegant vocal recording group of the swing era that emphasized tight harmonies, falsetto, and “tuba” bass, the sound’s imitators included kids without benefit of instruments, the necessity that became a virtue. It created doowop’s a cappella sound.
By the late 1940s, doowop had grown into a full-scale ghetto genre. By the middle-1950s, its recordings finally crossed over racial marketing lines with hits by the Cleftones, the Flamingoes, the Moonglows, and Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. The next generation of doowoppers—the Platters, the Coasters, and the Drifters—paved the way for a number of solo artists whose names we know far better than those of their ancestors.
Now rhythm and blues hits its full stride. Sam Cooke’s career is a case in point. He was the first gospel star to cross over into commercial success. In 1957, after six years as lead singer of the Soul Stirrers, the country’s leading gospel group, he recorded “You Send Me,” a number-one hit and the watershed that marks the transition from gospel proper to soul. The course of Marvin Gaye’s career a few years later on is even more representative. Like Cooke, Gaye began by singing gospel music as a child, although his route to soul stardom included an explicit journey through doowop as a teenager. It also included marrying into the family of Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr., who produced Gaye’s first hits in the early 1960s.
With Motown, all the elements in the history of jazz, rhythm and blues, and gospel come together in the most fully realized sound ever achieved in American popular music. Memphis had the Stax house sound of Booker T. and the MGs; Atlantic Records had an outpost of progress at the Muscle Shoals studio in Alabama. But the crown jewel of soul production was Gordy’s Motown label in Detroit. Motown was, as Smokey Robinson remarks in his autobiography, “a university.” Unlike “high culture” versions of urban art such as T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, the sound of Motown presents the components of tradition, not as fragmented and broken off from a whole, but as related in a multitude of ways. Gordy is a gleeful archaeologist of blues knowledge, using the shuffle beat of Chicago blues, the walking bass lines of hard bop jazz, and the harmonies of doowop-inspired vocal back-ups as backdrop and collateral for an astonishing array of solo singers that included Gaye, Robinson, and Stevie Wonder.
After Sam Cooke, the epicenter of soul is Jackie Wilson. With Wilson, rhythm and blues singing becomes a school or strict canon. Wilson plays Milton to Cooke’s Shakespeare, structuring the diction of a newly unfolding tradition. Even more than Cooke, Wilson isolates a doowop device—the devastating falsetto, with roots in the ancient history of fieldhouse blues—and remakes it into a vocal strategy central to the subsequent history of r & b singing as a whole. Wilson’s 1957 hit, “Reet Petite” (also Gordy’s first published song) features a voice in self-conscious dialogue with itself, jump-cutting from falsetto to natural register and back like the alternating dialects of Chandler's prose or the double style of Mark Twain's that lies behind it.
In Wilson’s train follow, like the Romantic poets following Milton, Robinson and Al Green, to name only two of the principal proponents of soul as it moves into the 1960s and 1970s. Smokey resolves Wilson’s influence by resolving Wilson’s self-dialogue between tenor and mezzosoprano into a single falsetto pitch. Green resolves it again by returning to the self-dialogue. Green agonizes, in the Greek sense of the word, over his relation to Wilson. Green’s preacher father actually dismissed him from the family’s gospel choir as a boy when he caught him with a Wilson record. To contain the anxiety of Wilson’s influence, Green, with some irony, continued to rely on religious tradition, taking much of his performance persona from its investiture of the Passion of Christ. In 1980, Green the soul star also became a minister of God.

Urban Blues

If Dorsey married the hymnal and classic blues, what kind of blues did gospel and doopwop marry to produce the synthesis of soul? They crossed with the sound of urban blues, particularly the sound of Chicago blues. Here, concrete history is symbolic. The emergence of Chicago blues can be dated with fair accuracy from the moment of Muddy Waters’s arrival in Chicago from Mississippi in 1943. Waters had already garnered fame as a Delta bluesman, and, in 1944, traded in his acoustic guitar for an electric one. The terms of his achievement expanded radically. Not only is his journey up Highway 61 reminiscent of the movement from country to city that defines much of the mythology of black American experience in the twentieth century. Through the electrification of his guitar, Waters adds to the journey the modernist lament of a fall into the nightmare of technology, away from the grace of nature. But this is to read him too jejunely. The most perpetually surprising thing about urban blues is that you sometimes can’t tell the difference between the singer’s voice and his guitar. Waters, characteristically, muddies the waters separating the two. Here the difference between blues tradition and the white culture that surrounds it is especially clear. Waters in effect deconstructs the presuppositions behind the most presumably natural difference of all—the difference between nature and culture.
The Southern urban bluesmen who emerge out of T-Bone Walker in Texas are a groomier bunch than their Northern colleagues (Walker actually precedes Waters, amplifying a swinging guitar with Charlie Christian’s help in the late 1930s), but the same deconstruction of the difference between the savage and the civilized is at work. B. B. King of Memphis is exemplary. The dialogues between voice and guitar do not just cast the guitar (Lucille) as having a singing voice of her own; by implication, they also cast King’s own sweet-as-can-be voice into an instrument par excellence.
Coming as it does after Christian’s invention of electric jazz guitar in the 1930s as a light and supple-toned instrument, Waters’s brutal rhythm guitar of the 1940s is a self-conscious anachronism. It is deliberately atavistic. Its creation of a new, self-consciously primitive persona for the city blues carries the same irony as does any Romantic quest for beginnings. Its earlier African American counterparts include Du Bois’s notion of the “folk” and Zora Neale Hurston’s invention of a rich and fecund South designed to override historical trauma. In all three cases, a Northern perspective creates a rawer Southern appeal.
Now Chuck Berry’s pivotal position in the early rock and roll canon comes into focus. Recording on Chess records in the mid-to late 1950s, Berry worked for the same Chicago label most closely associated with urban blues. But there the similarity ends. The pure singing voice right out of a boys’ choir, riding high over jump riffs of a kind unique for electric guitar, presents a prima facie case for a major new turn in the history of American music. A master at managing overdetermination, Berry is not just a combination of gospel and urban blues. A complex mediation hides the shift that they only enable. The guitar timbre may be that of Waters, who mentored his younger Chess colleague. Something else, however, is afoot. The jump riffs of “Johnny B. Goode” or “Maybelline” come from a plain source, even though the continuity involved is surprising. There is autobiographical testimony to confirm it, and the invocation of the “other” Dorsey’s name as well. It was, says Berry, Tommy Dorsey, the white swing bandleader, who most influenced him as a teenager, and it was Dorsey’s hit, “Boogie Woogie,” that haunted him most of all. In other words, Berry’s signature guitar rifts are really the horn section of a swing orchestra translated into the language and technology of electric guitar. Berry’s signature riffs retrieve the sound of the big bands suppressed by electric blues, but voice it in the latter’s new electric guitar mode. Canceling each with the other, Berry acknowledges and deflects his two principal influences simultaneously. In the process, he also shifts the center of American music from jazz to rock and roll.

Rock and Roll

Gospel music not only created the tradition of soul. It also created the tradition of country music. While country began as an amalgamation of Dixieland, banjo, and picking blues guitar in the form of hillbilly bluegrass, it also began in Texas in the form of country swing. Country swing was an extraordinarily sophisticated music that joined the horn section with a fiddle to revise the sound of the black big bands of Kansas City. The Grand Ole Opry radio broadcasts from Nashville always counted black listeners among its audience; listeners and musicians both knew how thin a line separated, or failed to separate, white America from black, especially in the South.
No wonder Buddy Holly’s role in rock and roll history is decisive. Born in the Texas panhandle (he died in a plane crash in 1959), Holly blended country with rhythm and blues to produce a foundation for rock and roll that enabled the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and even Bob Dylan. It is Hank Williams’s voice together with the instrumentation of bluegrass that provides Holly and other white southern musicians with the mode with which they can cross or miscegenate rhythm and blues. Both r & b and country were too close to home. The invention of rock and roll allowed Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley to render the components of both traditions uncanny—something at once familiar and strange. Holly’s “Reminiscing” exemplifies the crossing. King Curtis’s highly manicured rhythm and blues horn dresses up Holly’s wailing vocals over a tight, funky studio band that is missing the one instrument that serves as the model for both the singing and the saxophone: the sound of the banjo that is common to country and blues alike.
Much, then, as hard bop came to organize jazz by the mid-1950s, a synthesis of country and rhythm and blues came to organize rock and roll by the mid-1960s. The Beach Boys are its richest example. So strategic is their achievement, however, that the country dimension of their sound, unlike, say, that of the Everly Brothers, is neatly repressed. Southern white musicians cannot call in the definitive resource that the Beach Boys could: doowop. For the Beach Boys, it is the newer sound of the inner city that mediates between country and rhythm and blues. Surf music is a form of urban folk. If the Beach Boys' voices revise the wail of the Ozarks by virtue of doowop, surf guitar revises the sound of blues guitar by virtue of Chuck Berry.
The eventual model for folk rock, of course, is Bob Dylan. Dylan the singer joins the voices of Muddy Waters and Woody Guthrie; Dylan the songwriter joins Main Street and the Imagist lyric. Once Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, the die was cast. He also joined, as Waters had, voice and instrument in a byplay of sounds that deconstructed the differences among them. The crossing of lines informs Dylan’s career as a whole. As a youngster playing New York’s Folk City, he sounded like a gnomish old man; as an aging country enthusiast moving towards religion, he sounded like a boy. No rock and roll songwriter has had the degree of Dylan’s influence as a composer, since no other rock and roll songwriter has controlled the overdeterminations of tradition so well.
But it is, with great irony, a non-American rock and roll—the music of the British Invasion of the early 1960s— that catapults it into the hysterical popularity that has defined it ever since. Jackie Wilson caused female fans to faint at his performances, but not until the Beatles did the phenomenon reach the world of white girls. Heirs to Buddy Holly, the Beatles were, even more than the Beach Boys, also heirs to Chuck Berry, who had transformed the sound of the big-band horn section into the sound of electric rhythm guitar. The rock and roll synthesis was nearing completion.
The Rolling Stones finished the job. Keith Richards’s rhythm guitar, like John Lennon’s, carried with it the whole history of the jazz horn section, although now it is reimagined in overdrive, with the help of the Chicago bluesmen. Not an ecumenical band like the Beatles, the Stones were less interested in doowop back-up effects than in taking on the entire history of jazz as amplification revised and refigured it. The distance from America made the British climate richer in invention. The most influential solo guitarists in rock history, Eric Clapton and expatriate American Jimi Hendrix, also found an imaginative home in England in these same years.
The school of Chuck Berry was by now paying staggering dividends. Hendrix was Berry’s most original disciple, hiding his dependence on the master with the groaning, shuddering swerves that define the very sound of his guitar. “Purple Haze” is an overt revision of “Maybelline.” Listen to the two songs back to back, or, better yet, “sample” them—play them at the same time and look out for the uncanny combination of repetition and difference that the relation between them produces. But the school had more than a valedictorian in Hendrix. It also featured guitarists such as the Yardbirds’ Jimmy Page, who, with the formation of Led Zeppelin in 1968, completed Berry’s transformation of swing horns into electric guitar by helping to invent the sound of heavy metal. The fashion of the ear-splitting trash guitar band is no fashion. It is the central fact in American musical history that joins the big-band sound of the last era of a popular jazz, swing, with the sound of rock.
The two major trends in rock and roll in the 1970s, disco and punk, have, at least on the surface, little in common. But the good-time party strut of disco and the engine-like thwack of punk rhythm guitar share one central thing: an overheated and overpressured beat, up-tempo and built deep into high-hat, bass, and bass drum. Their common legacy is likewise plain: it is hip hop. Whether it is the Ramones and Donna Summer, or the Sex Pistols and the Village People—sampling them together is a worthwhile exercise—the grinding overdrive of punk tempos and the syncopated oom-pah of disco cymbals are resolved by hip hop time and stance. Reggae—hip hop’s nominal source—provides a strategy to cover the anxiety of influence felt from both.
Despite its seeming radicality, hip hop is a profoundly conservative form musically. Its radicality lies not in the diction of its lyrics, but in its fusion, or re-fusion, of rhythm and blues and rock and roll. It is a synthesis of the two. From Run-D. M. C. to 2 Live Crew, hip hop emphasizes a back beat as a heavy metal rock group would, but also resists it by its conversational vocal stance, which is temporally skewed in relation to it.
Where does the back beat, the most recognizable of rock and roll tropes, come from? The marching band. Much as Armstrong bends the oppressor’s bugle and invents jazz, so rock and roll, following the tradition of black esquadrilles in New Orleans and throughout the South, discovers the back beat as an answer to the sharp cadence of rule. The back beat turns rule back on itself. In the process, it gains a rule of its own.

The Myth of Popular Culture

No discussion of postwar American music can avoid an eventual confrontation with Theodor Adorno’s infamous estimate of jazz in particular and “popular music” in general. Despite his allegiance to the Left, Adorno appears to think very little of the ability of African Americans to think very much at all. Nor is his dull Marxist contention that all “popular music" is lifeless and commodified sufficient intellectual cover for a palpable quality of hatred whose origins only an encounter with the street, or with a psychoanalyst, could explain. In his brackish essays on jazz, Adorno cannot keep bop separate from swing, or New Orleans separate from Chicago. Nor is he embarrassed by his Eurocentrism, which measures all things against classical time signatures and the authority of the maestro rather than the groove. But the crux of Adorno’s dismissal of jazz and, by implication, of blues tradition as a whole, comes in an astonishing passage on the difference between “higher music” and “popular” in the Introduction to the Sociology of Music, published in 1962:
The higher music’s relation to its historical form is dialectical. It catches fire on those forms, melts them down, makes them vanish and return in vanishing. Popular music, on the other hand, uses the types as empty cans into which the material is pressed without interacting with the forms. Unrelated to the forms, the substance withers and at the same time belies the forms, which no longer serve for compositional organization. The substance withers and at the same time belies the forms, which no longer serve for compositional organization.
What a dazzling display of allusion. Adorno, the closet Platonist, is actually an aesthete, although a poor one whose appeal to Marx (“withers”) creates a smokescreen to keep the reader from reflecting on what he or she has just read. If the history of jazz and its legates is anything, it is “dialectical.” Far from using its “types as empty cans”—the metaphor is typically flattering—jazz and its musical heirs take the “forms” that enable them as their very subject. However, the distinction between “form” and “material” in any kind of music is misleading, since music has no semantic plane that it signifies, only an endless series of “formal” ones. The “vulgarity” that Adorno assigns to “popular music” is a projection. What is vulgar is the analysis and its presuppositions.
Properly speaking, there is no difference between the “popular” and the “higher” for a simple reason. All traditions are structured dialectically. Whether it is the relation between Mary Tyler Moore and The Dick Van Dyke Show or I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched, the revisionary ratios are manifest for any interested viewer. The ceaseless transfigurations in the history of “popular culture” reveal something else, too: the presence of the canonical master, who manages historical overdeterminations and anxieties of influence as the stock-and-trade of his or her business. Chuck Berry’s ability to transform big-band boogie woogie into the jump sound of rock and roll guitar is what makes him canonical, not the imposition upon him of a “moral” or “thematic” role from outside the terms of his medium. He is canonical because he transforms material, to insist on Adorno’s own vocabulary, dialectically. Like painting or literature—or, God forbid, like classical music—blues tradition is a self-conscious and learned tradition. To enjoy it requires education, too, although not, ideally speaking, at a German university.

Works Cited

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Originally published in A Concise Companion to Postwar American Literature and Culture. Edited by Josephine G. Hendin. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004.