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Some Notes on Bob Dylan's Song "I and I"

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Accessing Dylan's "I and I": Here is a live version of "I and I." Recommend you scare up the recorded version from the album Infidels (1983). You can listen to it here. You can find the lyric to "I and I" here. Recommend you keep it open as we proceed.

Dylan's "I And I" from 1983 is, with "Angelina," "Not Dark Yet," and "Highlands," among my favorite Dylan songs of the moment. It's also part of the evidence I would offer to confess that, if I had to do the desert island thing and choose, I would take later rather than earlier songs of Dylan.

One way to gauge Dylan's preeminence as a poet-composer is to listen to the cover of one of his songs without being aware of what it is at first. You realize you are hearing words that work at a level beyond one's capacity to emulate or even necessarily fathom. On a different plane.

All this has been said of course. Dylan has become an aspect of life for those who make his huge contribution so. This is not fandom. It's a sagacious use of time.

Notes:

1. "No man sees my face and lives" is the celebrated statement of Exodus 33:20 It is a Biblical truism with multiple implications. It most certainly evokes an unapproachable deity. One with the power of life and death. It is, in this sense, a statement Jesus never approaches. His sense of G-d (Abba) is almost childishly familiar. Dylan's song (chorus) centers on "Old Testament" truths.

2. The verses are wonderfully direct and even shocking for their range, their detail, their tactile elements. The "you" in the the last verse is the strange woman of the first. She is present in all but one verse. The recent experience of "closeness" to her inspires the central theme of justice that makes up the chorus and the explanation in verse three.

3. The chorus combines the literal I and I with the clear evocation of the Old Testament notion of justice -- eye for eye -- which is a rule of equivalence of lex talionis. Why this can be termed beautiful as Dylan does, with no trace of irony, is that it is, on reflection, vastly more reasonable than revenge, which typically seeks not equivalence but superiority. If we practiced equivalence as a rule of warfare, war would not take place without an actual provocation. The response would be equivalent to the provocation and no more. Pearl Harbor for Pearl Harbor.

That the world does not operate is way is obvious. But this should give pause to those who find the lex talionis inhumane. We have traded a literal notion of equivalence for an abstraction which enables us to create a false justice based on revenge. It is a law of bullying.

4. The first verse is a wonderful link to the texts Dylan evokes in the chorus and in verse three. It contains a delicious irony. There are no righteous kings. It is full of exaggeration. Enjoyably so.

5. The chorus lines "In creation where one's nature neither honors nor forgives" and "One says to the other, no man sees my face and lives" contain Dylan's main proposition. It is the nature of the inhabitants of this earth neither to honor the lex talionis nor to forgive. Forgive would mean dialing back to at least equivalence or to entirely forgiving an offense. Dylan is evoking not merely the law of eye for an eye but stating the theological context for the law. To seek to fathom the author of the law, which is not honored, observed or transcended, is to court death.

We are in the realm of the world's imperfection, the shabbiness of actual justice, the desecration of law, the defiance of the Holy.

6. The coherence of the verses and the chorus is most obvious in the singer's evidently autobiographical verse three. The language is that of religious insiders, exposure to a teacher and a teaching. It's Biblical teaching talk. An unfamiliar teacher shows him the beauty in the law of equivalence. He "looks" into the lovely face of justice, And note that he lives. Justice seen rightly is not lethal.

This gives a deeper dimension to the last line of the chorus. It is speculation, but could the two I's whose conversation is recounted in the last line be the I who has seen justice's beautiful face and either the One who speaks from the burning Bush, saying thus far and no farther (or in Isaiah 6, placing a hot coal on unclean lips), or the sinful soul whose vengeful ways give no honor and have no capacity to forgive?

7. The presence of the strange woman so concerns the singer that he reflects in verse four that she is probably still asleep. Nevertheless, we see in the final verse that he extends his walk until noon, well beyond the time when she might have woken up.

The notion of spring smoking down a railroad track is a move into fantasy or nonsensicalness. Spring as a train? Kings writing psalms in the moonlight? It sets up the conclusive final verse.

The singer has been walking forever it seems. He has gotten (at high noon) to the darkest part of his narrative. He is no longer out on a street somewhere. He is in a place of immobility, a narrow place, almost stopped. He is face to face with what is in his heart.

It forces him to bring equivalence so down to earth that it almost shocks with its seeming pettiness. He has been making shoes for everyone, enabling everyone to trod a path, even the woman back in that bed who presumably bored him with the sort of praise he gets this from most ever stranger he hooks up with. And he still goes barefoot.

Who goes barefoot Biblically?

It's Dylan's heart talking. Primally, he is no further along the path than he ever was. Yet everyone who has heard and constructed paths from his work claims somehow a completion that simply does not exist in this creation. Finally he has only the chorus. The mystery. The incompleteness. Anything else is a sad distortion.

This is an honest resolution, not small-minded or snitty or otherwise demeaning. What can any human being finally say, even if the mind is aware of what might be just and right? The heart says I still go barefoot. The truth still lies ahead. It is ever thus in world that neither honors nor forgives.