Bob Dylan Doesn’t Exist

“Any artist who goes in for being famous in our society must know that it is not he who will become famous, but someone else under his name, someone who will eventually escape him and perhaps someday will kill the true artist in him.”

Albert Camus, “Create Dangerously,” a lecture at the University of Uppsala,Sweden when receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Because there is no Bob Dylan, he did not attend the Nobel Prize Awards Ceremony in Stockholm, Sweden to accept his Prize in Literature. He is a figment of the imagination – first his own and then the public’s. Perhaps behind the character Bob Dylan there is a genuine actor, but if he had shown up and given a truthful speech about his actor’s life, he would have been dismissed as a charlatan, an impostor. His ardent fans would have received it as a slap in the face, and their illusions would have transmogrified into delusions as the spell was broken.

Dylan, the spellbinder, has, through his public personae, hypnotized his followers with his tantalizing and wonderful music. “Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me,” wrote D.H. Lawrence in his poem, “Song of a Man Who Has Come Through.” This sounds like Dylan’s artistic credo. His masks (personae = to sound through) have served as his medium of exchange. He has been faithful to his tutelary spirit, what the Romans called one’s genius that is gifted to one at birth and is one’s personal spirit to which one must be faithful if one wishes to be born into true and creative life. If one sacrifices to one’s genius, one will in return become a vehicle for the fertile creativity that the genius can bestow. A person is not a genius but a transmitter of its gifts.

Like Lawrence, Dylan has served as a vehicle for his genius. His many masks, unified under the pseudonym Bob Dylan, have served as ciphers for the transmission of his enigmatic and arresting art. But while the music dazzles, the “real” man behind the name can’t stand up — or is it won’t? — because, as always, he’s “invisible now” and “not there,” as his songs have so long told us.

I wonder if many people have ever understood this, or perhaps don’t want to. Could that be because their own reality is problematic to them? Do generations of his fans sense a vacancy at the heart of their self-identities – non-selves – as if they have been absent from their own lives while reveling in Dylan’s kaleidoscopic cast of characters? Do Dylan’s lyrics — “People don’t live or die people just float” — resonate with them? Lacking Dylan’s artistry, are many reluctant to ask why they are so intrigued by the legerdemain of a man who insists he is absent? Has a whole generation gone missing?

Friedrich Nietzsche, another man of many faces, who advised us to “become who you are,” once wrote, “There are unconscious actors among them and involuntary actors; the genuine are always rare, especially genuine actors.” I don’t know if the man behind the name Bob Dylan is a “genuine actor” (genuine being cognate with genius, both suggesting the act of giving birth, creating), for I have never met him. I hope he has met himself. He hints that someone is missing, whether that is the fictional actor or the genuine one, is difficult to discern. Is he becoming who he is, or is he lost out on the road “with no direction home”? He is always on the go, leaving, moving, restless, always seeking a way back home through song, even when, or perhaps because, there are no directions.

I am only familiar with the musician who acts upon a special social stage, and I love his creations. Because Dylan the performer has the poet’s touch, a hyperbolic sense of the fantastic, he draws me into his magical web in the pursuit of deeper truths. He is an artist at war with his art, and therefore forces me to venture into uncharted territory and ask uncomfortable questions. His songs demand that the listener’s mind and spirit be moving as the spirit of creative inspiration moved him. A close listening to many of them will force one to jump from verse to verse — to shoot the gulf — since there are no bridges to cross, no connecting links.

Like Lawrence and Emerson, he creates a sense of restlessness in the listener that forces one to ask: Who am I? Am I? He has said “that a song is like a dream, and you try to make it come true.” He has done that with his songs, and that is why he is honored. They have the ring of truth.

And yet, something is missing in this picture. There’s an invisible man here, or is it a visible man not here? Even if the actor Bob Dylan had shown up at the Nobel Award Ceremony, it wouldn’t have been the genuine actor. It would be the one that doesn’t exist. It would be the one that showed up at the White House in 2012 to accept the Presidential Medal of Freedom and crawled inside his own skin, as if to say, I’m not here. “I’m not there.” I’m not. I’m invisible now. Get me out of here.

His uneasiness was a reminder of the issue his mysterious art and acts raises for all of us. He has said about the artist, “You always have to realize that you are constantly in the state of becoming and as long as you stay in that realm you’ll be alright.” Assuming we are all artists of our lives, who is the “you” that is constantly becoming? Is there an actor behind the acts? Can a human “being” become?

Dylan deserves a prize for being an enigma. His absence at The Nobel Award Ceremony is a present to us. His non-existence moves us to ask: Do we?