I’m still listening to the songs from last year’s Modern Times and letting things pop out at me in a random way. I have no unified theory regarding the record, or none I could articulate. Yesterday I was listening to Thunder On the Mountain (actually a live version from St. Paul, Minnesota on October 29th last) and it was the last line of the song that stayed in my head, as last lines often will.
“For the love of God;” that’s an expression (albeit a little old-fashioned these days) in relatively common usage which generally means no more and no less than “for Pete’s sake.” “For the love of God, shut up!” is something one might say to a noisy fellow patron in a movie theater. There would likely be little religious significance to the phrase in that context.
Is that how Dylan is using it here? Could he just as easily have written, “for Pete’s sake,” or, “for cryin’ out loud, you ought to take pity on yourself?”
You can certainly think so. If you don’t think that God is particularly present in the song previous to that line, there might be little reason to think that Dylan is suddenly inserting Him into it in some significant way. To my ears, however, God has already been present between the lines in the previous verses, and so this overt invocation of God in the final line seems deliberate. (And on a more general level, I think Dylan has proven himself to be an habitually deliberate chooser of words, and one who is careful when singing about the Main Man.)
The title and recurring image of the song — “thunder on the mountain” — evokes the voice of God, I think, in a Biblical context — not that yours-truly is an expert on the Bible. But there’s Exodus, Chapter 20:
And all the people saw the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the noise of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking: and when the people saw it, they removed, and stood afar off.
And they said unto Moses, Speak thou with us, and we will hear: but let not God speak with us, lest we die.
And Psalm 29:
The voice of the LORD is upon the waters: the God of glory thundereth: the LORD is upon many waters.
Each verse of the song has something in it with a religious and in particular a Biblical resonance, if you care to hear it that way. I’m not going to do a complete litany here, because I’m interested in getting to the last line, but there’s the references to the expansion of the soul, to being a “servant both night and day,” seeing “what others need,” and so on — not in an overly precious context, but in a rollicking one, of-course, as befits the melody. The singer is upfront about being “no angel.” The notion of “confession” appears in the second to last verse, and I think I mentioned before in this space that I think it evokes the idea of confessing one’s faith, as opposed to confessing a crime.
So, if you assume that the reference to God in the last line is not a just a throwaway phrase, then the line changes from being a simple statement or admonishment ( “you ought to take pity on yourself”) to being a kind of argument ( “for the love of God, you ought to take pity on yourself.”)
As such, it’s a strange argument on the ears. Firstly, “self-pity” is more commonly put on the vice side of the ledger, rather than in the virtue column. Why would pitying oneself do anything to, let’s say, arouse one’s own love of God?
Well, maybe the kind of self-pity being talked about here is not the kind you wallow in self-destructively, but rather that kind that is allied to understanding and compassion. To pity oneself can be merely to comprehend one’s own mortal predicament. It’s one that deserves pity. Another Dylan reference reflects off of it — one of his references in Chronicles to something his “grandma” told him. She had “instructed me to be kind because everyone you’ll ever meet is fighting a hard battle.” Everyone is fighting a hard battle. No exception made there for people who happen to have a lot of money, or good looks, or great power. According to grandma, they’re all fighting a hard battle — everyone you’ll ever meet. Including, of necessity, yourself.
Another Bible quote might reflect off of it in a different way (James, Chapter 4):
For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away.
No matter who you may be, no matter your accomplishments and honors, no matter how many bridges you build or CDs you sell, your life is “even a vapour,” that briefly appears and then is utterly gone.
Absent this comprehension of one’s human predicament — absent this self-pity — one indeed might have little reason for the “love of God,” i.e. for one’s own love of God. If you look in the mirror and see only someone strong, self-sufficient and fearless, then maybe that is someone who isn’t inclined to prostrate himself to an Almighty — to humble himself before God.
If, on the other hand, one looks in the mirror and sees a pitiable bag of bones that will amount to exactly nothing at the end of it all, then one might begin to contemplate the lengths to which God has gone to reveal Himself and to show His love for such passing vapors of the earth as oneself, and one might begin feeling the kindling of a reciprocal love for that same loving God.
And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.
So, perhaps in a certain sense that this one line of this one song might prompt a person to contemplate, failing to have pity on oneself could be the greatest pity of all.
BACK TO MAIN
Original text copyright ©
2004 - 2011 by RightWingBob.com
Quotes from the works of others are linked to their source or are as otherwise attributed, and are used in accordance with Fair Use guidelines. Contact: rightwingbob(at)gmail.com