Dylan & Rimbaud: Whose Not There?

Should Bob Dylan be considered a songwriter or a poet? Dylan was asked that very question at a press conference in 1965, when he famously said, “I think of myself more as a song-and-dance man.”

It is indisputable, though, that Dylan has been influenced a great deal by poetry. He counts Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine alongsideWoody Guthrie as his most important forebears. He took his stage name, Bob Dylan, from Welsh poet Dylan Thomas .

Ben Whishlaw as Rimbaud, I'm Not There

Ben Whishlaw as Rimbaud, I'm Not There



A volatile and peripatetic poet, the prodigy Arthur Rimbaud wrote all of his poetry in a space of less than five years. His poem “Voyelles” invoked synesthesia, marking him as a founder of French symbolism, and his Une Saison en Enfer (A Season in Hell) is considered one of the first works of free verse. His poetry was subconsciously inspired and highly suggestive; his persona was caustic and unstable. Though brilliant, during his life his peers regarded him as perverse, unsophisticated, and youthfully arrogant, and he died virtually indifferent to his own work.

”The difference between Dylan and Rimbaud, if it still needs pointing out, is that Rimbaud’s unbelievably rapid ascent was an ascent to purity of utterance — it wasn’t just an expensive giganticism. You look at a poem like Bateau Ivre and see instantly that such writing can’t go much further. But even in the best of Dylan’s songs ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ — your critical faculties can’t be silenced for more than single stanza: they’re at war all the time with your acceptance of what’s on offer, wincing at the song’s slipshod organization, missed opportunities, easy rhymes, unfocussed images.”( Clive James, Cream Magazine, 1972 )

Bob Dylan, Allan Ginsberg

Bob Dylan, Allan Ginsberg



Bob Dylan in his Chronicles, vol.1 : ‘‘I came across one of his letters called ‘ Je est un autre ‘ which translates into ‘I is someone else ‘ When I read those words the bells went off”. The ùbob biopic, I’m Not There uses Rimbaud as one of the metaphors for Dylan and he slips in and among the scenes creating odd juxtapositions at times

alling Franz Kafka’s The Trial and lending a surreal subtext to the other avatars.

Rimbaud was one of the earliest articulators of the demolition of a stable, coherent, metaphysically grounded self and Rimbaud along with Baudelaire’s bohemian lifestyle inspired Dylan and whom Haynes invokes early on in I’m Not There, Arthur Rimbaud: “Je est un autre” (“I is an other”). At the most literal level I’m Not There is not a biopic about Dylan, whose name is never mentioned in the film and whose “real” image only appears once at the end. Haynes isn’t interested in supplying a convincing representation of the events of Dylan’s life, nor some conclusive, coherent, emotionally rewarding interpretation of those events.

Yet at the same time, Dylan is everywhere in this film—as its inspiration, as its limit point, as its condition of possibility. The film’s dialogue probably contains more of Dylan’s actual words than we’ve ever heard before at one time. That’s because Haynes is more interested in what Dylan has created than in what his life has been like. (Indeed, it’s arguable that this ironic dichotomy has been a chief characteristic of that life.

Bob Dylan, Self Portrait

Bob Dylan, Self Portrait



I’m Not There deals with the relativity of perspective, or more accurately, its temporary and fleeting characteristics. However, it is also an affirmative reflection on the nature of identity. The negative consequences of this situation were decisively elaborated in Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle, the diagnosis of late capitalism’s most recent mutation, the image as commodity, which in trapping our desire blocks and deforms our awareness of the real. The term ‘‘displaced cultural logic’‘ aptly describes this situation for want of a better description drawn from the realm of science fiction such as H.G. Wells ”The Time Machine”.

 This double-sided, positive-negative conception of the image, which is also a positive-negative concept of its political meaning, and its capacity to represent the self, is what inspires what “story” there is in I’m Not There.”Whoever is serving as a Dylan avatar or phantasm at any given point in the film is constantly attempting to outrun the various alternative versions of himself instantaneously being generated in the media-enhanced culture at large, whether in the phenomenon of celebrity, journalistic analysis, or cinematic representation itself—and always at risk of being cannibalized by a relentless, never-ending process of idolatry, imitation, and interpretation.”

”So what governs and structures I’m Not There is a sense of Dylan as perpetually in flight from banal political interpretation and a celebrity/journalistic culture that seeks to limit, possess, and conclusively define his image. ”( Larry Gross, Film Society Lincoln Center ) The presence of Rimbaud is part of the films non-linear model, yet simultaneously circular artistically, yet the distortions of temporal logic and doses of hyper realism result in a novel form of narrative fictional structure.

I’m Not There does demonstrate the presentation of identity as permanent and stable to be illusion laced with fantasy. The binding link with Rimbaud is established with Dylans adoption or use of corrosive and ambiguous use of words, phrasing and context, at once literal and abstract; all infolding with the vernacular of second person, an enlightened witness reluctant to assume the spotlight and thereby robbed of his liberty because of its demands.

 Whenever debates about Dylan’s true nature as an artist arise, whether he is more of a singer or a poet, I do not pick sides.  Yet, there is a literary  aspect in his work that leans him more towards Rimbaud’s camp.  His songs are so associative, so metaphorical, that every listener will arrive at a different conclusion.  It is in this use of doublespeak that posterity thrives, where timelessness is in a symbiotic relationship with the essential challenge of interpretation.  So Dylan may just be a poet.  If only he didn’t rock so hard.”( Kevin Urban )

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