Late last year, author Ron Rosenbum gave a lecture at Stanford University titled “Bob Dylan’s God Problem—and Ours.”
More recently, he wrote an article in The Chronicle Review titled “The Naked Truth,” reexamining what he said during that lecture. It had to do with the problem of how we can believe in an all-powerful God who is totally good when there is so much evil in the world. (In philosophical circles the consideration of this problem is known as “theodicy.”) Rosenbaum was in particular looking at how the problem seemed to be considered by Dylan in his work, and the lynchpin of this lecture was apparently a few lines that he had recently found in Bob Dylan’s 1960’s book of poetry and stream-of-consciousness writing called “Tarantula.” Specifically:
“hitler did not change
history. hitler WAS history”
(Found at the bottom of page 23 of my own paperback edition from St. Martin’s Griffin.) (UPDATE: See all twenty lines of the poem at this link.)
I don’t want to linger too long on the Bob Dylan element, because there are (believe it or not) questions that seem more important to me here, but I have a few thoughts. Ron Rosenbaum sums up his reaction to encountering the lines this way:
Whoa. Those eight words: “… hitler did not change history. hitler WAS history”! Where did that come from? In the 10 years I spent writing a 500-page book called Explaining Hitler (Random House, 1998), not one of the historians, philosophers, artists, or other sages I spoke to or read ever made as white-hot an indictment of humanity as that. An indictment, implicitly, of God as well.
Well, I think Rosenbaum had an experience that maybe all Dylan fans have, usually when listening to his music, when we hear something that pierces right into an area of great relevance to us. It seems uncanny that he’s thinking just like us. (And it is uncanny, don’t get me wrong.) As someone who spent ten years writing a 500 page book on Hitler, and is currently writing a book on Bob Dylan, Rosenbaum was struck as if by a lightning bolt by the confluence of these two great subjects. Here was Dylan making a piercing observation about Hitler, albeit only eight words in a jumbled collection of sometimes incomprehensible “poetry” (which for the record and arguably to my shame I’ve read more than once in my life and re-consulted on numerous occasions). But Rosenbaum’s take on it as “an indictment of humanity” and “implicitly, of God as well” is his own. I take it as a simple statement of fact rather than an indictment, and one that in theory could be made by an atheist as easily as by a devout believer in God, albeit with different import. Obviously, given that it’s just eight words, and given the context in this book “Tarantula,” one’s first instinct is to avoid attaching too much weight to it at all, but at a minimum it surely is a comment on human nature, and one that is not inconsistent with the view of human nature that permeates Dylan’s body of work: People are capable of anything. Corruption is a constant. Hitler, in that sense, was only an especially gigantic personification of the presence of evil in history and the capacity for evil in human nature. Continue reading God’s Problem with Bob Dylan (and with Us)