10/02/2005 09:19 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011


Watching Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home, I was reminded of the original meaning of the word “genius’—as in genesis (birth/source) and also genus (a kind of life). In fact, before the 18th century, the word referred to the spirit of a culture or a people—as in “the genius of the Renaissance” or “the genius of the Greeks.” The idea of the individual genius didn’t emerge until the latter part of the 18th century. In the 19th century, it took hold—Napoleon, Goethe, figures like that defined the type. If you think about it, though, the original meaning lingered. They were geniuses because they embodied the spirit of a people or an age.

I don’t know what Scorsese was thinking when he chose to focus so much attention on Dylan’s original milieu, on Greenwich Village, back in the day—the ‘60s all but visible on the horizon of the future. But what he chose to highlight was the range of influence; Scorsese shows us Dylan as sponge. And Dylan himself, reminiscing freely, talks with obvious sincerity about the impact others had on him—not just Woody Guthrie and the great bluesmen, but the Clancy Brothers, for example, and Joan Baez and Dave Van Ronk, on and on. He channeled them all, quite shamelessly. Eventually, something unique emerged, but something fecund enough to morph into staggering variety without ever losing the essential quality that makes that vast trove of song the work of Dylan alone—utterly individual, always universal—the very mark of genius. Only the most hidebound reactionary could watch this film and fail to recognize it.

I was struck also by how little Dylan seems to know how about himself, how superficial and matter-of-fact his understanding of his working life turns out to be. That reminded me of the attitude of Socrates and Plato toward the poets at the very dawn of the Western adventure. In The Apology, for example, Socrates dismisses their achievements as the product of mere inspiration—they know not what they do, he says, in effect—and so he ranks them lower than craftsmen on the hierarchy of humanity fulfilled. The aptitude of creative genius we came later to revere was originally suspect. We look at creative genius and see a wondrous talent, a gift. What Socrates and Plato saw was something more like Rainman.

Which might shed a lot of light on Dylan’s life, as he lived it day by day, one too many morinigs and a thousand miles behind....