Many thanks to reader Anthony Harmon who e-mails with a very interesting discovery:
… I noticed an interesting connection today. In the 3rd century A.D., St. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, wrote a letter to a certain Donatus:
“This seems a cheerful world, Donatus, when I view it from this fair garden, under the shadow of these vines. But if I climbed some great mountain and looked out over the wide land, you know very well what I would see. Brigands on the highways, pirates on the seas; in the amphitheatres men murdered to please the applauding crowds; under all roofs misery and selfishness. It is really a bad world, Donatus, an incredibly bad world. Yet in the midst of it, I have found a quiet and holy people. They have discovered a joy, which is a thousand times better than any pleasure of this sinful life. They are despised and persecuted, but they care not. They have overcome the world. These people, Donatus, are the Christians… and I am one of them.”
Already some phrases and ideas may have rung a bell in your head, depending on your familiarity with Masked and Anonymous, in which “Jack Fate” says toward the end:
“I was always a singer and maybe no more than that. Sometimes it’s not enough to know the meaning of things, sometimes we have to know what things don’t mean as well. Like what does it mean to not know what the person you love is capable of? Things fall apart, especially all the neat order of rules and laws. The way we look at the world is the way we really are. See it from a fair garden and everything looks cheerful. Climb to a higher plateau and you’ll see plunder and murder. Truth and beauty are in the eye of the beholder. I stopped trying to figure everything out a long time ago.”
The idea is the same, just compressed, and the quaint phrase “fair garden” and some other parallel words are too striking to be coincidental, in my opinion. Of course, the Dylan quote comes off more pessimistically, as he doesn’t mention the last part of the Cyprian quote, about the Christians. But I find it fascinating that Dylan may have, consciously or subconsciously, borrowed an idea and even some exact words, from this 3rd century Christian bishop. Just imagine if Dylan is trying to subtly imply the rest of the quote, the part about the Christians and his being one of them, by referencing just the first part of the quote. It wouldn’t be his style to include that last part and so blatantly identify himself as Christian; plus it wouldn’t work in the dark context from the movie. But I think he likes to plant little hints that will only be picked up by people who really care; kind of like a parable: it’s a built-in filter so that only the dedicated hear the real message. I hope I don’t sound like the next A.J. Weberman or something haha …
Well, as I wrote back to Anthony, I don’t think this is Mr. Weberman’s territory at all. Another way of putting it might be that because Dylan’s awareness of God is such a constant underpinning of his work, it comes out in countless different ways. If you’re attuned to it, I think, you pick it up, and it is inspiring and encouraging (as great art ought to be). If you’re not attuned to it, then it’s just part of the rich and mysterious tapestry of his work. Is he being allusive to these words of Cyprian of Carthage because he deliberately wants to send a message to anyone, or is it just because the words came to his mind in the writing of this script, or would he even know himself? I don’t know, in any case. But I think the fact that he is echoing Cyprian’s words here is beyond doubt.
And one can easily see how these words of St. Cyprian would have stuck in Dylan’s mind whenever he himself read them. Dylan’s work always has this consciousness of the big picture, and of the fact that “happiness can come suddenly and leave just as quick.” His songs have always known that and always posed the question as to what this knowledge means for everyone. In other words, his work never turns a blind eye to the human condition, and this is what makes it distinct from so many of his contemporaries in popular music. Even in as happy and carefree a song as I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight, you can hear the world outside with all of its pressing dangers and troubles, from which the singer is trying to snatch a few hours of escape with his sweetheart. A fair garden, indeed.
By the way, I told Anthony a couple of days ago that I would post about this today (Sunday) and he later wrote back with another interesting discovery. Today just happens to be the feast day of Cyprian of Carthage in the Orthodox Liturgical Calendar.
Recently Bob Dylan has been performing I Believe In You in concert. Here’s a clip from his August 23rd gig in Indiana.