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Dylan at 70: embracing the chaos

"If I wasn't Bob Dylan, I'd probably think that Bob Dylan has a lot of answers myself."

—Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan turns 70 on Tuesday, and one has to wonder about his relevance in the Digital Age — the age of hip-hop, Guitar Hero and "American Idol." I teach a college course on the life and work of Bob Dylan, and, not surprisingly, this question arises among my students. But the question assumes that art loses value as the artist ages, that the beauty fades, that the wisdom dissipates.

One of the wonderful challenges of studying Mr. Dylan is that he is an iconic iconoclast, a figure at once revered and reviled who consistently tests the very culture that idolizes and demonizes him at turns. See, for instance, the recent, feverish outcry over (and subsequent, full-throated defense of) his performance in China and its unsubstantiated allegations of censorship. His lyrics and other writings, his statements, and his actions — sometimes bizarre and off-putting to even his fans — have long offered considerable wisdom for those wise enough to listen.

For instance, young Mr. Dylan famously wrote, "I accept chaos. I'm not sure whether it accepts me." Many may dismiss his claim as a clever but meaningless toss-off, but it is really a sort of key (if chaos has a key) to Mr. Dylan's process-oriented artistry and to art and life itself. In fact, it suggests a clue to grasping Mr. Dylan, which is to say that — like chaos — he is essentially ungraspable, in part because he concentrates on the artistic process more than its product. To that end, he spotlights his art's imperfections by spurning modern recording conventions and other accepted industry practices (such as consistent enunciation).

In addition to his own chaotic ungraspability, though, he suggests that his listeners, including those who so often cannot accept him, are living in a world of ambiguity, that they themselves are "tangled up in blue," in the chaos that is life. We, the living, know only the murkiness of proceeding toward death. After all, "He not busy being born is busy dying."

There is a lesson here for educators and for students. We need to be — as Mr. Dylan suggests — "Admitting life is hard." Not just hard to do, but hard to grasp. And so is learning. You "gotta get up near the teacher if you can if you wanna learn anything."

Too often, we think of education reductively, as a series of standardized methods and results. Education, though, resists such regimentation. Like Bob Dylan and like life, learning, when done well, is hard to grasp and, yes, a bit chaotic. It is not a tidy package or the homogenized content of standardized tests. Learning, like all things worth doing, remains hard and messy and requires flexible, open minds.

I do not mean to suggest that real teaching is utter mayhem with no accountability. Learning can and should be measured in various ways. But good teaching encompasses the ambiguity of reality — the fact that, as Bob Dylan's lyrics acknowledge, "things have changed."

As with most value-added learning, teaching Mr. Dylan can be an exercise in controlled chaos.

Like other great artists, he is a master imitator and often creates bold, new work through a pastiche of sources, a technique that raises questions of originality. The contrast between Mr. Dylan's reputation as pure, idealistic artist and his commercial endorsements raises questions of selling out, too. His mystifying memoirs and obsessive privacy bring up issues about the artist's duty to be honest with the audience. Also, my students' reactions to studying their parents' (grandparents'?) music raises the issue of the extreme emotional and often generational reactions individuals have to all music.

I can think of few artists, contemporary or not, who so readily embrace and evoke and enact the chaos, flux, and entropy of life and art as readily as Bob Dylan does.

Teaching his life and works challenges me as much as it does my students. The relevance of his work is evident in the controversy, the discomfort and the insight it inspires right up to the present, 70 years after his birth.

Bob Dylan, like life, raises ever more questions but leaves the answers just "blowin' in the wind."

Jim Salvucci, a professor of English by training, is the dean of the School of the Humanities and Social Sciences at Stevenson University. His email is jsalvucci@stevenson.edu.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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