Wednesday, August 12, 2009

More Dylan Thefts, II: Rollins, Pynchon, Hemingway, etc.

A while back I reported on some passages of other authors that Bob Dylan had re-used in Chronicles. I've continued to find more, as have others, especially the indefatigable Scott Warmuth.

Some of the more interesting borrowings I've found are the following:

The Portable Henry Rollins (1998), p. 131:
"Roads full of debris and sadness, old music shifting on the radio. The smell of gasoline on my hands."

Chronicles, p. 74:
"Radio sounds came shifting out of cafes. Snowy streets full of debris, sadness, the smell of gasoline."

Hemingway, "The Battler," The Nick Adams Stories:
"Nick saw that his face was misshapen. His nose was sunken, his eyes were slits, he had queer-shaped lips. Nick did not perceive this all at once; he only saw the man's face was queerly formed and mutilated. It was like putty in color."

Chronicles p. 75:
"His face was misshapen, looked queer formed, almost mutilated -- like putty in color."

Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow, p. 529
"...cast-iron flowers on spiral vine all painted white..."

Chronicles, p. 58:
"There were some iron flowers on a spiral vine painted white leaning in the corner"

Jack London, "The White Silence":
"All movement ceases, the sky clears, the heavens are as brass; the slightest whisper seems sacrilege ...."

Chronicles, p. 96:
"When I hear Hank sing, all movement ceases. The slightest whisper seems sacrilege."

"The Yellow Claw", Sax Rohmer:
"Through the leaded panes of the window above the writing-table, swept a silver beam of moonlight."

Chronicles, p. 166:
"From the far end of the kitchen a silver beam of moonlight pierced through the leaded panes of the window illuminating the table."

Scott has also uncovered a lot of other interesting material, which I'll leave to him to write about.

There are two ways to take all this. One is to say that Dylan is alluding, not copying; paying tribute, not ripping off; and conceivably playing a game with his readers, daring them to find (as he knows they will) the various authors whose words he has creatively re-used. This is part of his genius. This is a perfectly respectable point of view. The second perspective, however, is the one that I favor, which is to be disappointed that Dylan's descriptions, narrations, and word choices are, much of the time, not his. It seems like lack of imagination, and maybe a little distrust of his own abilities, to say nothing of the questionable ethics.

But whatever you think, isn't it better to know what his method is? Chronicles, it's now becoming clear, is comprised of some authentic reminiscence and some fiction (I take it that the characters Ray, Chloe, and Sun Pie, to name a few, are fictional). Within this mixture, typically when he is reaching for an eloquent description of the physical setting, or of his own tangled thoughts, he uses the words of others, sometimes heavily rewritten, sometimes only lightly retouched. Plagiarism or collage? It's your choice.

This is to be distinguished from the use of sources for the purpose of information. Scott has demonstrated that Dylan used an issue of Time magazine for his portrait of the early '60's. It can also be demonstrated, for instance, that Dylan's information about Balzac (Chronicles, pp. 45-46) is derived from Graham Robb's Balzac: A Biography (1995). (What, you thought Bob knew Balzac personally?) Nothing problematic about any of that. I would have cited these sources, but I'm an egghead, and Bob is not.

More of this stuff will come out. Eventually the palimpsest that is Chronicles will be as full of marginal glosses as the Talmud. Like his method or not, it is interesting to see what the dude has been reading. And if we didn't like Bob, it wouldn't matter, right?