Light Come Shining In

The Transformations of Bob Dylan

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Andrew McCarron
Inner Lives
  • Oxford, U.K.: 
    Oxford University Press
    , January
     2017.
     232 pages.
     $19.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780199313471.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Andrew McCarron’s Light Come Shining: The Transformations of Bob Dylan has a story to tell. This story, a “psychobiography” of Bob Dylan, weaves together biographical events, autobiographical writings, interviews, song lyrics, and psychological theories into a version of Dylan whose artistic and biographical personality can be understood as a biblically patterned progression of death and rebirth. There are numerous Dylan biographies, as well as multiple books on Dylan and religion and Dylan and the Bible, and one of the first sentences in McCarron’s prologue asks, “Hasn’t everything been said already?” (ix). The answer to that question is always no, but the more complicated response McCarron gives is in the form of a Sartre-like psychobiography in which he attempts to find a through line to all of the different Dylans (folk hero, born again Christian, messianic Jew, philosopher, political radical, Anglo poet) by capturing what he calls the “unique psychological ‘fingerprint’ of a person” (xi), or the “essence” of a life (xii). While he admits that Dylan’s many transformations have been analyzed to the extent of “cliché and parody,” McCarron offers a new paradigm for thinking about the relationship between them.

McCarron’s project, which he claims is a way to “demythologize,” offers an alternative and deeply mythical story. His version of Dylan focuses on three renowned moments of “transformation” in Dylan’s career: his mysterious motorcycle “accident” in 1966, his turn to evangelical Christianity in 1978, and a moment of recommitment to his craft in 1987, which McCarron describes as a “mystical” experience and a return to his American music roots. He devotes a chapter to each moment, offering various psychological interpretations of select songs of the period as well as examining interviews with Dylan, where his stories often expand in mythical and religious language over time. McCarron’s comparison of interviews is one of his more interesting methods of analysis, one that opens up essential religious issues. His framing of Dylan’s motorcycle accident through  interviews from 1969, 1987, and 2012, for example, is akin to interpreting Joseph Smith’s three various accounts (1820, 1832, 1839) of his famous First Vision. In both cases, the recounting takes on an increasingly religious tone, while simultaneously introducing important questions that go beyond the biographical. Although McCarron does not reference Joseph Smith, the questions are comparable. Is there ever an originary event? How do events become religious or religions? How should fans and worshipers interpret these shifting realities? Who, ultimately, gets to tell the story? Even the structure of McCarron’s book challenges these modes of thought as he returns again and again to these conversion moments, yet offering different angles and reshuffled theories of understanding them.

McCarron’s framework for understanding these events, interviews, songs, and images, is through what he terms “the destiny script,” a theory based in Silvan Tomkins’s “script theory,” blended with a biographically and biblically influenced narrative of the arc of Dylan’s art and life. The idea of a “destiny script” organizes the structure of McCarron’s book, as well as, the narrative of death and redemption he finds in each of Dylan’s transformations and surrounding language. His use of theorists and psychologists—somewhat randomly chosen from different schools of thought, ranging from the canonical to the less known—provides a scaffolding throughout the book, yet is  often used in an awkward manner that is problematic. Often they seem introductory, dropped into the text, and could have been better integrated—my guess is that some readers will be tempted to skim over these parts.

Although Dylan’s most obvious religious transformation was his infamous turn to evangelical Christianity in 1978, McCarron, in an interesting structural shift, conflates the sacred and the profane. In his account of Dylan’s “script,” the impulse to connect with older cultural traditions (American folk music, for example) is the same as his need to find meaning in Judaism and Christianity. In McCarron’s version, scriptural values and the “eternal world of folk music” (93) play the same role. In this account, Dylan’s “savior” or moment of “incarnation” could equally be an imagined brush with death, a silver cross on a concert stage, a jazz singer in a random bar, the ghost of Buddy Holly, or the memory of listening to blues music on an old radio in Hibbing, Minnesota. McCarron writes, in one of his many reiterations of this theme, “Jesus may have laid his hands on Dylan in the Tucson hotel room in the late Seventies, but the radio had apparently been doing the same for years” (120).

McCarron’s final chapters attempt to locate the “origins” of the “center” of Dylan’s destiny script, which he accomplishes by emphasizing the apocalyptic and dislocated world in which Dylan was raised. From childhood Cold War air raid drills to the literal empty hole at the center of his hometown, McCarron finds a mid-20th century narrative to explain what he labels Dylan’s “death anxiety” or his “annihilation anxiety.” Ultimately, this narrative is one of change and identity, conversion and stability, and existentialism and essentialism. The final frame the book offers us is of a “protean self” who is constantly in the process of becoming, stuck between a narrative of a displaced world “gone horribly wrong” and a “second narrative” that finds redemption and self-discovery inspired by “old forms” and a world of love and divinity (191). Whether or not readers will think this a path to understanding who the man, Bob Dylan, really isdepends on—yes, what they think the word “is” means—but also on how they understand ideas of self-fashioning, identity, celebrity, narrative, and religious conversion.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Gregory Erickson is Clinical Associate Professor of Modern Literature at the Galatin School at New York University.

Date of Review: 
January 16, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Andrew McCarron currently runs the religion, philosophy & ethics department at Trinity School in New York City. His first collection of poetry, Mysterium, was published by Edgewise Press in 2011, and book length study of the poets Charles North, Tony Towle, and Paul Violi, Three New York Poets, was published by Station Hill Press in 2015.

Comments

Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.