Michael A. Miller

We are hidden in ourselves, like a truth hidden in isolated facts. When we know that this One in us is One in all, then our truth is revealed."


To understand Bob Dylan's lyrics it is often necessary to listen with the ears of a child, the child you were before you were blitzed by the accumulated trash of an epoch. The mystery-charged picture-language Dylan has created in his songs is a first cousin to the wisdom language that has carried fairy tales down from the lost beginnings of time to the present. It is a language, for the most part, of pictures which correspond to inner psychic events. It is not comprehensible save through imaginative feeling and rigorously honest introspection.

Dylan released the album John Wesley Harding in 1968 after nearly two years of public silence following his motorcycle accident. Its quiet tone, besides marking a shift in the direction of Dylan's own music, was in a sharp contrast to the wild experimentations which characterized popular music at that moment. Indeed, there seemed then to have been a dramatic competition going on among the big names in rock'n'roll to outdo each other with outrageous musical inventions. With John Wesley Harding it was as if Dylan signalled that he was not a part of all that. The comparatively softer and slower music of Dylan's album was soundly traditional. But the lyrics, subtle and mystical, are poetic creations which levitate far above the fashions of the popular music scene.

One of the songs on this album, "All Along the Watchtower," is a particularly good song with which to begin our exploration of Dylan's work. Jimi Hendrix did a heavy-rock rendition of it, making it perhaps the best-known song from the John Wesley Harding album. And the song itself has the advantage of being short, a mere twelve lines. Yet, at the same time, the song is a fine example of Dylan's mystery-language. But there is still a more important aspect to the song which recommends it as a good starting point. For this song contains an essential insight into the unmanifested dimensions of man's being which is part and parcel of Dylan's spiritual perceptions. A clear understanding of this song will go a long way toward helping us unravel some of the many riddles which are set in Dylan's lyrics like so many jewels in a tiara.

Before getting into the song itself, I would like to make a few general observations about the song and about Dylan's method. The song is composed in four stanzas: two quatrains followed by two couplets. The first two stanzas relate a brief dialogue; the third and fourth stanzas paint a single picture from a double-layered perspective. In this song, however, Dylan has interwoven the obvious with the not-so-obvious in such an artful way that individual spiritual activity is demanded of the audience in order to penetrate the song's meaning.

By spiritual activity I mean not just listening or even thinking, but meditation. If it is realized that this song is the product of honest, inner - even prayerful - questing for personal yet universal truth, it will not seem surprising that the song requires an equally honest response from the whole listener, from the inner as well as the outer self, before it will yield up its full impact. As a built-in barrier, this requirement serves as something more than mere defense: it invites spiritual communion.

Dylan could easily be accused, as he often is, of playing a kind of shabby intellectual game if all he intended to communicate was information. But what he is offering is an experience of intuitive insight. "All Along the Watchtower" is so constructed that a meditative listener is led gradually to experience a particular intuition. When the listener thus "discovers" the meaning out of himself, he has all the "proof" he needs of its truth. Argumentation is then beside the point. Such a listener has become something more than he was before by virtue of this intuition, and also by virtue of exercising free spiritual activity in order to attain it.

Now to the song itself. It begins thus:

"There must be some way out of here," said the joker to the thief,
"There's too much confusion, I can't get no relief."

Who has not reacted to life at some point or other with this same desperate cry which the joker wails to the thief? Dylan, the artist, invites his audience inward to ponder these questions, for the full meaning of this song cannot be comprehended until these two are identified.

The joker's lament continues in the next two lines, suggesting the basic injustice of the situation:

"Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth.
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth."

In the next stanza, the thief responds by recognizing, more or less, the truth of the joker's observation. To this he immediately adds by way of a challenge the reminder that they have moved beyond perceiving life as a joke. Nor would the thief have the joker forget that time is running out:

"No reason to get excited," the thief he kindly spoke,
"There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke.

"But you and I, we've been through that, and this is not our fate
"So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late."

Either you feel that life is but a joke or you do not, the thief seems to suggest; and if you feel that life is not a joke, and you know that time is running out, then you know that you must seek the truth now. After this brief conversation between the joker and the thief, we are presented rather abruptly with two mysterious sets of poetic images which we will look at later.

If you meditate on this song, you will realize that this dialogue is of a very intimate nature. Indeed, this conversation between "the joker" and "the thief" is one which takes place in some form or other within the deep recesses of every man's being, in the conscience. With the joker side of the self we are prone to think that we do not really know what's going on in life and that life is somehow unfair. We are apt to complain and feel sorry for ourselves. The joker is the wild card; it can be anyone; It is the ordinary ego experiencing itself in isolation. The thief, on the other hand, is the darker, more mysterious side of the self. He is an outlaw in the Dylan sense of "to live outside the law you must be honest." And it is he who, as a still, small voice, speaks kindly, robbing the ego of its cherished illusion.

The joker is the ego of illusion. It does not penetrate to the spiritual depths where unity is experience. The joker, wanting to be the highest card in the deck, does not quite understand that it can only temporarily borrow that designation which the ace - mysteriously the highest and lowest at the same time - possesses as a primary quality. Before it were possible for the joker to be an "ace," however, the real Ace must exist. Nor can the joker become a "little ace" without assuming that uncanny unity of the lowest-within-the-highest.

The tendency of the joker, of course, is to take life as a joke and to play frivolously with its own great, though temporary, potential in the game of life. Most often he would be a knave or a deuce for the sake of simply winning a hand. Next time around he may be completely worthless.

But enough of this abstract punning. The point is that there are two sides to the self for which Dylan has found intriguingly appropriate names. The joker represents that aspect of the self which is intellectually conscious of itself in its separateness from all else. The thief on the other hand represents that aspect of self which is spiritually conscious of itself within the unity of the Great All. These two, the Joker and the Thief, are at odds with each other. The Joker as the ordinary worldly ego eats of the Tree of Knowledge and is therefore lousy with words. The Thief hiding out in the cave of the soul eats of the Tree of Life and knows that which can hardly be spoken because it is an element of the very Word itself. This Thief, in a sense, is like a little Christ within us. Like Christ who, as Dylan put it in a later song, "died a criminal's death," this Thief comes from a place beyond the letter of law, from the spirit; and he goes beyond the evidence of the senses to the substance of things unseen. It is within this "thief" side of our being that we know intuitively that life is not a joke and that we had better not kid ourselves, because death is coming.

The dialogue recorded in the first two stanzas of "All Along the Watchtower" is itself a picture of a primary conflict that persecutes every soul struggling with the question of its reality. This conflict is no small matter to be settled intellectually after a moment's thought. It surges in the subterranean reaches of the soul and calls for a commitment of our whole being. The fine balance of this inner agon is accurately portrayed by Dylan when he cites a certain validity to the ego's point of view:

"Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth,
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth."

It is true that we are all victimized and sold short by the ways of the world. Yet, we also sell ourselves short, and others as well, until we come to realize the crucial fact that life is not a joke - that by reason of the faculty by which we know it, the Thief, our source of reality, extends beyond what the Joker can understand. Our conscience is our lifeline, so to speak, connecting us with that vast dark region which is the unknown depths of being. Hiding away in those depths is the Thief, our conscience, seeking to rob us of our illusory and egocentric "possessions," our capital.

Dylan first gives us the picture of this conflict raging in the soul. Then, in the last two stanzas, he throws light on it from two different angles: The third stanza gives us the picture as it is seen from the spiritual heights while the final stanza shows the inner experience of the soul down below:

All along the watchtower, princes kept the view
While all the women came and went, barefoot servants, too.

Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl,
Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.

In Dylan's poetic language, 'women' and the female gender symbolize the soul, while the male gender symbolizes the ego. This symbology, it may be noted, has a long history in lyric poetry, reaching back at least as far as the troubadours of medieval times and the Sufi poets who were their predecessors.

The 'princes' who keep the view are egos who have been crowned with spiritual vision. Looking down upon the world from their ethereal and eternal vantage point, they watch the souls coming and going, even those without shoes - that is, those without anything to cushion the shocks of their walk upon the path, those who must meet the rude earth with their naked soles. Down below, the inner reality experienced by the soul whose ego has not yet been crowned is that outside, somewhere, a beast is growling and inside the wind (the spirit) is howling. All the while, two riders relentlessly approach.

This is our situation: Caught between the certain confusion which torments the uncrowned ego and the dark uncertainties of the soul, we see the two riders advancing on us. To go with the ego, the Joker, is to reduce life to a joke. But to go with the Thief means opening up to the unknown - a realm which, being beyond the capacity of the ordinary ego, requires faith. The choice is ours, but the moment of decision is a difficult one amid the growling of the beast and the howling of the wind.

* * *

How much time do we have?

Individually, three score and ten; seventy years on the average. Some a little more, some less. It is very little compared to the millions of years man has inhabited the earth. It is nothing within the vast stretches of time which encompass the stars. If our existence were limited to three score and ten, we could hardly say we exist at all. Such a paltry existence would be meaningless except within the context of some larger spiritual life.

Standing here we look at the future: death. When we consider that mysterious black hole in the future we are naturally afraid for ourselves. Out of this fearful egotism many become religious in the hope of immortality. But eternal life is beyond time: there before birth as well as after death (and like the blind spot in the eye, present with every passing moment). If we but turn around to examine the miracle of birth for evidence of the eternal, it becomes possible to rise above the egotistic concern for immortality, free of the fear that darkens our days. This is what Emerson did and is why he could write, "Infancy is the perpetual messiah, which comes into the arms of fallen men and pleads with them to return to paradise."

The miracle of birth and the mysterious unfolding of personality in childhood, when it is inspected free of contemporary scientific prejudice, can confirm us in a spiritual life beyond the gates of time. Though the contemplation of death can make us religious out of fear, the contemplation of birth can release us from that fear to experience the free spiritual atmosphere without which love cannot happen.

In early childhood we see the soul before its fall into egohood. The child acts as though the whole world were his because, living in the afterglow of spiritual unity, he experiences the world as himself. Gradually he begins to differentiate himself from the world until at last he begins to refer to himself as "I.," usually at about the age of three. his memories of experiences in the world then begin to adhere to and form themselves around this "I" to become eventually his ordinary ego, identified by his given name. His pre-earthly soul life and its unself-conscious after-image in the first few years of life recede like a setting sun. At the same time his ordinary, earthly ego rises - like the moon, its cosmic symbol - into the night sky of earthbound consciousness.

...And God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness..."

How is man the image of the Great All, in whom we live and move and have our being? Our bodies, being of the earth, are like the earth. The ego circling overhead first waxes and then wanes from youth to advanced age. And like the moon, this ego is no true light of itself, but a reflection of the true light which shines from the other side, the spiritual side, of the body. The soul, being solar, abides with the spiritual sun, asleep in eternity, dreaming life.

"We are such stuff as dreams are made on," Shakespeare wrote.1 In the night sky of earthbound consciousness we gaze upon our moon-egos and dream our lives until we experience what mystics have called "seeing the sun at midnight." But even while we are asleep in our individual dreams, we are all one in the light of the spirit even as the light from separate candles in a dark room merge to form one light.

The light shone in the darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not. The ordinary ego cannot comprehend the mystical fact that its life, its light, is from above unless it consults with its dark side and there hears the voice of 'the thief,' the conscience. The conscience, on the dark side of the self, is our soul-life in the shadow created by the ego, and our faculty, however faintly developed, for knowing in concert with the spirit above.

To "see the sun at midnight" requires, to begin with, faith. And faith, as it is written, comes by hearing. The Joker remains merely a Joker till he begins to hear the Thief. perhaps this inner dialogue has something in common with St. Paul's words to the Philippians, "For our conversation is in the heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ."


1) In The Tempest, Act IV, Scene I, Prospero says:

We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.


Published in Journal for Anthroposophy no. 47, Summer 1988

Michael A. Miller is [was?] a free-lance writer living in Denver, Colorado. "The Thief Who Kindly Spoke" is a chapter from Mr. Miller's book, Hard Rain/Slow Train, which examines the mysticism behind Bob Dylan's lyrics.


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