The Truth Just Twists

The following post includes an analysis of Bob Dylan’s lyrics entitled Psychedelic Irony in “The Truth Just Twists: Psychadelic Irony in “The Gates of Eden” by Sara Gates followed by a response entitled  “Deep Listening, Close Reading; or How are a Songwriter and an English Professor like a Psychoanalyst?” by Mara Wagner.

Psychedelic Irony in “The Gates of Eden”

Sarah Gates

First, I would like to thank Ian Hatch for the loan of this gorgeous guitar and Dr. Patricia Hugenberger for organizing this great event and inviting me to contribute to it. What a pleasure to talk about Bob Dylan this way—especially in such august company. I’m deeply honored and not a little intimidated.
The seed for this reading was just an intuition about songs in Dylan’s catalog that, like “The Gates of Eden, seem to work in an aesthetic that I took to calling “psychedelic irony.” I thought this phrase conveyed the songs’ specific historical moment (the psychedelic part) and their transcendent or universal effect (the ironic part), and that the phrase captured the enigmatic quality of their imagery, which often gestures toward and yet evades literal and even metaphorical interpretation. So, tonight I’d like to explore these expressive modes (psychedelic and ironic) more deliberately and along the way illustrate ways lyrics and music work together in “The Gates of Eden.” Songs are, after all, multimedia forms that create meanings and effects in ways different from, though related to, forms made of either words or music alone.

The Kingdoms of Experience: Psychedelia
Psychoanalysts who are here tonight might be interested to learn that the word “psychedelic” was coined in the mid-1950s not by Timothy Leary or Aldous Huxley, but by British psychiatrist Humphry Osmond, who was at the time researching the treatment of schizophrenia. He noticed a similarity between adrenalin and mescaline molecules, which led him to theorize that schizophrenia might primarily be caused by distortions of perception from intoxication “caused by one’s own body” (“Humphry”). His experiments with hallucinogens on himself and as treatment for schizophrenic patients revealed to him the mind-expanding and mystical experiences such substances could induce. He did also guide Aldous Huxley through the mescaline trip that led to Huxley’s book The Doors of Perception, and he guided Bill W., co-founder of AA, through an LSD trip. Since some alcoholics seemed able to give up drinking only after experiencing delirium tremens, he observed, perhaps inducing a similar condition with hallucinogens would lead to a cure.

Osmond coined the term “psychedelic” from two Greek words: “psyche” (which the Oxford English Dictionary tells us means “mind” and anima mundi—the animating principle of the universe) and “delon” (which the OED translates as “make manifest, reveal”). So: to reveal the mind, make manifest the mind of the cosmos. In correspondence, Huxley had proposed his own coinage in a rhyme: “To make this trivial world sublime, take half a gram of phanerothyme” (from thymos: “spirited”). Osmond retorted, in better rhythm and fuller understanding of hallucinatory range: “To fathom Hell or soar angelic, just take a pinch of psychedelic” (qtd. in “Humphry”).

I don’t think Dylan wrote songs while tripping or from memories of tripping, and in fact, I don’t care whether he did. (He claims not.) What I want to suggest with this association is an aesthetic not a chemical influence. I think the way his lyrics unspool images, figures, and scenes looks “psychedelic”; their mind-expanding, anima mundi-manifesting effect is like that produced by psychedelics. And I think it’s safe to say that the psychedelic effect of “The Gates of Eden” is not one of “soaring angelic” (despite its cowboy angel) but rather one of “fathoming Hell.” The song unfolds before us a ghastly world of absurdity, neglect, decadence, and torment—and longing gazes toward Eden.

In the seventh verse, for example, we see the abdication of responsibility, as “the princess and the prince discuss what’s real and what is not” with rotting “precious” windiness, while paupers scrabble for each other’s possessions, “each one wishing for what the other has got.” The third verse shows a “savage soldier,” head in the sand, complaining to a “shoeless hunter who’s gone deaf”—two figures that seem to have withdrawn from the world (blinded, deaf to complaint) and from their roles in it. The same might be said for the wish-purveyors of the fourth verse, “Aladdin and his lamp” and the “utopian hermit monks,” who make “promises of paradise” from their perch on that false idol “the Golden Calf,” pointing the way with a “time-rusted compass blade.” The fifth verse shows “those who are condemned to act” according to “relationships of ownership” that “whisper in the wings”—enslavement from behind the scene.

Still, the most hellish psychedelia come in the two verses whose figures of amalgamated human and machine or human, beast, and object perpetrate the most horrifying abuses. In verse two:

The lamp-post stands with folded arms
Its iron claws attached
To curbs ‘neath holes where babies wail
Though it shadows metal badge.

This iron-clawed lamp-post cop with his shadowed metal badge and forbiddingly folded arms looms over holes and babies in a frightening display of state power. The sixth verse brings us the part-woman, part-machine “motorcycle black Madonna / Two-wheeled gypsy queen / And her silver-studded phantom.” These hybrid figures flicker among the Madonna with Holy Spirit, a black gypsy queen with spirit familiar, and a two-wheeled dominatrix in silver-studded Phantom motorcycle jacket (I looked it up—it was a brand name) and torment a softly helpless Hansel, “the gray flannel dwarf” who “screams” and “weeps,” dropping his trail of “bread-crumb sins” for “wicked birds of prey” to “pick up on” (that is, notice and reveal), “pick up” (that is, retrieve), and “pick upon” (that is, tear at) in a nightmare of humiliation, lost-ness, and predation such as Prometheus endures, chained on the mountain, his liver eaten over and over by the eagle.

Every such scene concludes with a pronouncement about “Eden,” the songworld’s lost paradise. Sometimes the ills plaguing the songworld are said to have no place in Eden (kings, sins, trials); sometimes desired things that lack in the songworld appear there (trees, a laugh, the truth). Yet for all the confidence with which such conditions are projected into this paradise, the performance of the refrains feels as unsettling as the verses they close. In his reading of “Mr. Tambourine Man,” Christopher Ricks notes that “The trees of Eden are haunting, frightening trees” (144). Nelson Hilton claims that Dylan’s Eden owes a debt to William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, a text he places in Dylan’s hands via Allen Ginsberg (110). However, we don’t need to know William Blake to feel what’s “haunting and frightening” about the songworld’s Eden. Dylan performs it in the music.

You Will Not Hear a Laugh: Irony

Certainly, local ironies appear in the individual scenes: the soldier may be “savage,” but he is also plaintive and cowardly; the deaf “shoeless hunter” can hear neither his companion’s complaints nor his prey; the “time-rusted compass blade” won’t point in the needful direction; “friends” are “other strangers.” These local ironic twists contribute to the ways the scenes and figures invite and resist interpretation and so intensify the phantasmagoric feeling of the songworld. But the song’s main structural irony plays out in its harmonic movements.

How do we perceive irony in the non-semantic language of music, whose “meaning” resides in pure sound and the feelings it provokes as color and shape do in abstract painting or architecture. Harmonic music creates feeling by establishing a “home” (or “root” or “key”—terms for the default sonority of a piece) and then moving away from and back to this “home.” Sometimes, too, in more complex pieces, the harmony leads away from one home and establishes a new one—or moves into and out of several such homes—before making its way back to the original (or not). Such movements create the patterns of tension and release or resolution that constitute the “meaning” of music.

Most folk and rock songs stay simple—home-away-home. In “The Gates of Eden,” the G major chord is the established home, but the other chords that lead away from and back to it are not always the ones we expect to hear for that key. If they were, we would be hearing something like what I just played. Instead, Dylan sets his song in what’s called Dorian mode—a scale and family of chords that falls between major and minor keys. Minor keys have three flatted notes—that is, tones whose pitch is lowered by a half-step in the scale, which gives them their somber sound: [play G A Bb C D Eb F G F Eb D C Bb A G]. Major keys have none and so feel brighter [play G A B C D E F# G F# E D C B A G]. Dorian mode has only two, which is why it’s “between” major and minor, although it is closer to the “somberness” of minor: [play twice G A Bb C D E F G F E D C Bb A G]. It wants to land one note further down: [play F]. It feels unresolved—uncanny. It’s an unsettled and unsettling mode. This is the unheimlich “home” of the songworld.

We hear it in the chords as well. If the song were in G major, the first two chords would be [play: GM- DM]. In G minor, they would be [play: Gm.- Dm]. In G Dorian we get one of each: [play: GM-Dm]. The difference is in the highest notes sounded by the guitar: [play F#] and [play Fnat.]. In solfeggio, it’s the difference between do-ti-do and do-te-do. This [sing] “te” gets emphasized not only going from [play GM] to [play Dm] but also in the next chord of the line [play FM], and in the melody: [sing first line twice with chords, emphasizing the te].

However, the third melodic line, the one that leads into the refrain about Eden, feels different. It moves the tonality towards a resolution in G major, where the refrain itself begins: [play and sing tune: GM- Bm- Am- GM- Am-CM- DM]. Here’s that F#, the “ti” that pushes toward resolution in G major. But during the refrain itself, when for example the “ships with tattooed sails” are “heading for the gates of Eden,” that G turns out to be in Dorian mode again. We hear it especially strongly in the melody, which places the first syllable of the very word “Eden” on that same flatted “te” note: [sing: “Heading for the gates of ED- en”: te do]. This is the irony sounded in the music: Eden is not a better Other Place but in fact is part of the songworld and its nightmares.

In this kind of irony, one thought—the acknowledgement of a reality—is clothed in another thought—a wish expressed in the surface utterance. Its power comes from the enactment of disillusionment: the ironic utterance banishes the wish in the very act of voicing it, even as the wish’s sweetness makes acknowledging the reality bitter. Oedipus wishes to be the righteous king who restores the fertility of his people and their lands and cattle by punishing the criminal whose unnatural actions have caused their desolation. But the unnatural criminal he seeks is in fact himself. The words in the refrains voice a wish: Eden holds original innocence and the Tree of Life—no sins, no kings, no trials, no meaningless blows. The compass will point the way, the ships will reach the gates, we will laugh in joy when we return. But the music hollows laughter into derision:

And on their promises of paradise
You will not hear a laugh
All except inside the gates of Eden . . .

where they know better than to listen to promises of paradise (or make them). The “curfew gull” and “cowboy angel,” wafting up from Eden’s trees on “four-legged forest clouds” with “candle lit into the sun,” bear a wish: it’s time to return where truth glows bright. But the curfew gull just glides, the glow is waxed in black. Within the wish comes bitter reality: Eden also holds that other Tree, the one with the forbidden fruit, the knowledge of good and evil. We have always already fallen. Edenworld is songworld.

No Words but These to Tell What’s True
I haven’t yet talked about the first-person singer who addresses us directly in some verses. This “Dylan” has enough in common with the cowboy angel that I’m tempted to consider the latter his in-world avatar. Both bring portentous news, both come accompanied by birds—the “curfew gull,” the “lonesome sparrow”—both have what seems an alienated relation to the “foreign sun,” which “waxes” the cowboy angel’s candle-glow “in black” and “squints upon” the singer’s bed that is never his own.

However, the cowboy angel bears “the truth,” and in this song, whether the bearer of “the truth” is Eden’s cowboy angel, the state’s lamp-post cop, the church’s motorcycle black Madonna, or philosophy’s arbiters of what is real and what is not, “the truth just twists.” How can our singer bring us a true message and how can we hear it in such a world? The final verse of the song shows us:

At dawn my lover comes to me
And tells me of her dreams
With no attempts to shovel the glimpse
Into the ditch of what each one means
At times I think there are no words
But these to tell what’s true

I had always heard the line to be “With no attempts to shovel a glimpse / Into the ditch of what each one means” and puzzled over this admiration of the refusal to understand and the characterization of “meaning” as a “ditch.” But in fact the phrase is “the glimpse.” The dreams themselves are “the glimpse,” and telling them provides the words that tell what’s true. The attempt to “shovel” these glimpses “into the ditch of what each one means” just twists their truth.

Sometimes when people learn that I have done some training as a psychoanalyst, they come to me and tell me of their dreams, wanting me to tell them what they mean, as though there is a special set of dream symbols that mean specific things. My students sometimes approach poems this way, as though what a poem “means” is something other than what it “tells.” But with dreams and poems—and songs—meaning resides in what we see and hear and feel, or from the other side, what the artist or psyche has shown and said and sung. What does it sound like? What does it look like? How does it feel? Our singer, like his lover, speaks through art, not doctrine. If we attend closely to what he tells instead of looking for what he means, at times we can see and hear and feel what’s true, even in a world where truth itself just twists.

Response to Gates of Eden

Deep Listening, Close Reading; or How are a Songwriter and an English Professor like a Psychoanalyst?

Mara Sanadi Wagner

My task is to make some explicit links between Dr. Gates reading of The Gates of Eden and psychoanalysis. I will make just  few of these, touching on basic psychoanalytic concepts of transference, countertransference, resistance, the unconscious, the repetition compulsion, drives, free association, wish fulfillment, disillusionment, and cure.

Psychoanalysis is practiced by a method we call free association – the analysand endeavors to say everything that comes to mind during the session, which allows the analyst to connect the dots into meaningful images and ideas about the unconscious story that is both trying to come through and trying to hide.  I discovered that I was not alone in my feeling that Dylan wrote the Gates of Eden in this way, in a single sitting, somewhat effortlessly.  His biographer, Clinton Heylin, used as evidence of this claim the fact that Dylan’s draft of the lyrics was unusually clean, with very few revisions.  Dylan recorded it first, in a single take, as the B side of the more familiar “Like a Rolling Stone” in 1965, calling it “a sacrilegious lullaby in D minor” and also a “a love song”.

Psychoanalysts assume that things that arise next to each other in the mind are necessarily related by thoughts, feelings, memories, sensations that often have organized but unconscious meanings. (To SG)You said that the seed for selecting this song was “just an intuition”, and I think it turned out to be the product of a perfect free association, just the song for an audience that would include many psychoanalysts, analysands, and students in training.  Because at the simplest level, the song could be about the journey each analysand embarks upon when telling the truth of their experience to their analyst.  At our best, psychoanalysts practice listening in the way that  Dylan recommends in the last verse of the song, without trying to “shovel the glimpses” of the unconscious into “the ditch of what each one means”, but to use what Freud called evenly hovering attention to listen and be affected by what we are told and how it makes us think and feel over time, with a mind open to the many truths we will hear.  In this way we find layer upon layer of possible meanings, deepening our understanding of what is driving the suffering of our analysands.

You heard Dr. Gates use verbs like “unfold” and “unspool” to describe the song’s progression, and this is the way freely speaking  works as well.   Finding the words to tell the simple truth of our emotional life gets these experiences into the mind through the code of language.  We call this process metallization, not surprisingly.  The surprising part is that not all our experience is in our minds until we can find the words to describe it.  Once we can do this,  the ideas, encoded by language, can then be combined, thought through in may ways, integrated into a nuanced understanding in a process without necessary end.  And this lights the way to emotional freedom.

Gates’ unpacking of the word psychedelic was fascinating to me –  analysts obviously also attempt to reveal the mind, not just the mind of the individual who speaks to us in session, but the shared human mind, and the lessons we can take from knowing it ever deeper.  We are seeking not to “make the world sublime” as Aldous Huxley seemed to suggest, but to see it as it is in all its conflicting facets, causing ourselves both to  “fathom hell (and) soar angelic”, as Humphrey Osmond said.  Of course, we do this without the benefit of actual psychedelics.

I was fascinated as well to read the section where you reveal the irony developed in the relationship between the lyrics and the music.  I thought that the unexpected flatting pattern of notes in the Dorian scale functioned like the hint of tension in listening to a patient when something from the unconscious begins to announce itself, between the major and the minor keys.   The uncanniness you refer to, issuing from the unresolved musical phrase is like the signal that there is more to say, and the discipline of free association creates the unpressured space into which it can naturally be said.

We come first to analysis because we want to feel better, we want to find Eden, or to return to it if we have known it before, but we may not feel better for a long time.  Those of us who stay for the whole journey eventually renounce the effort to feel better, in exchange for the gift of knowing ourselves and others better.  In this way we have a chance of breaking the cycle of suffering driven by what analysts call the repetition compulsion.  We become free of the compulsion to repeat our past, we try something new, we find what works to get us where we want to go.

Freud wrote that the energies of drives that propel us toward states of relative aliveness and deadness, or most basically, tension increase and decrease, are present in all experience – in thoughts, feelings, actions, symptoms, sensations, song lyrics, everything we experience or do. The life drive, sometimes called libido or eros, moves us toward greater sates of union and complexity, seeks stimulation and novelty; its purest form may be curiosity.  The death drive, sometimes called thanatos, moves us toward tension reduction, rest, and seeks habit and familiarity.  Dr. Gates illustrated the way this works musically by describing the comforting restful state when a song ends where we expect it to, home – away- home, and I think that the term  “default sonority” is a great description of this.  In this song, the lyrics and the Dorian scale combine to create increased levels of productive tension and partial release in an alteration of these drive states, to urge us toward more thoughts, more feelings, more possibilities for understanding what Dylan is talking about. Just when we think we have got it, he unsettles us again and we have to try something else.  It’s a little uncomfortable, but in this tension, we can think new thoughts as I think Dr. Gates and I have both done in preparation for this talk.  And thinking new thoughts and telling them to listeners who want to understand them is a very great pleasure.

On the psychoanalytic journey, we all seem to find that our lives are full of the “absurdity, neglect, decadence and torment” that Dr. Gates highlights in the song, and eventually we find that we are not just victims of these ills, but perpetrators.  We find that we are the authors of our own personalities and it is this set of traits that has outlived its usefulness and become our limitation.  Like Pogo Possum, my favorite contemporary incarnation of Oedipus, “we have met the enemy and they is us!”  Like the prince and princess in Dylan’s song we must occupy ourselves with what is real and what is not, getting a firmer grasp on it, until finally giving up the distinction for purposes of deeper understanding.  I thought that the description of the “savage soldier” with his head in the sand who complains to “the shoeless hunter who’s gone deaf”   was a perfect description of what it feels like to be stuck in what Hyman Spotnitz calls the narcissistic transference/countertransference matrix, a place all modern psychoanalysts and their analysands must log many hours.  Aladdin’s lamp and the “utopian hermit monks” promising a paradise belied by the false idol of the golden calf seem to represent the wishes we all enter into our analysis with – we want to think that the analyst will sagely tell us what the matter is and what to do about it.  Now!  But no, we must suffer the disillusionment that conforming to others’ plans or prescriptions, even if they are experts,  does not free us to be ourselves.  The lamp-post cop and other authorities are useless in the face of suffering, as Dylan tells us.

Similarly, the vision Dylan and Dr. Gates paint of the “two wheeled dominatrix in silver studded Phantom motorcycle jacket” perfectly captures the transference feeling we as analysands have about our analysts in our paranoid moments (or years).  When we as analysts “pick up on” the breadcrumb clues leading to the trail of unconscious motivations,  we can be felt as pecking birds of prey rather than helpful trackers or fellow seekers.  We have to keep many potentially useful ideas to ourselves until the moment is right to speak about them.  And in the mean time we need to tolerate the countertransference inductions of feeling both like Prometheus and the vultures if we are to really understand what’s happening here.

Dr. Gates and others have linked this song to works of Milton and Blake, with whom I am not very familiar, but I thought of Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming”, something I think perfectly describes not only the threat of cultural doom (a topic on many minds these days)  but individual psychic regression, to the point of psychosis.  His first verse is not unlike the feeling in Dylan’s song here :

“The Second Coming”
by William Butler Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming!  Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere  in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?

This haunting last stanza depicts not the Christian second coming we expect, not salvation, but a pitiless, blankly gazing sphinx-like amalgamation not unlike a ship with tattooed sails heading toward the gates of Eden, or a “two-wheeled studded leather motorcycle madonna”.  This “rough beast” ends the poem slouching “toward Bethlehem to be born.”   I think you can see that the irony and the Christian iconographic roots in the song and the poem are very similar.

The lyrics can be read as a fear of psychotic regression, or we could call it the fear of “things falling apart” with “a center that cannot hold” or in the world of the Dylan song falling forever backwards in a search for the imagined state of Eden.  This fear of the psychotic state of mind present in all of us and in our culture keeps many people away from psychoanalysis and I think fear of what is in our unconscious altogether is responsible for much of the ardent declaration that psychoanalysis is dead, not relevant.  People are scared to know what makes us tick.  We don’t want to know it and we don’t want anyone else to know it either!  That’s why we have the unconscious.

So I like to think that psychoanalysis, like this Dylan song, shows us that there is no Eden apart from ordinary reality, including its hellish aspects.  This is it.  In Dr. Gates’ gorgeous phrase, “we have always already fallen”, and I would add, “we were always already innocent.”  And everything in between.  The disillusionment we suffer in ordinary life and on the path of the examined life inside psychoanalysis can be embraced right along with the sweetness of the wish for paradise, a very ironic idea.  We can long for Eden wholeheartedly alongside grieving its loss, and with the realization that this loss can also be a great relief.  This is what wisdom is.  To know and to accept the way things are and to allow each moment to fully affect us without resistance.  To tell our dream to our lover upon waking and just let it be there to do its thing with us.

Psychoanalysis is not for the faint of heart from either side of the couch.  Dr. Mary Shepherd, on our faculty, famously said of the analytic journey, “ Psychoanalysis is an extreme sport.  It takes you high on a triple flip into the great blue air of where you’ve been afraid to go.  You take guts and determination and grab on with all you’ve got.  You land solid.  You cheer.  Everyone cheers”

So I think of Dylan’s song, as Dr. Gates has said, as a prescription for how to talk and how to listen if we are to find a path through the world of ordinary heavenly and hellish life and through any given psychoanalysis. Here is my paraphrase of his advice:   Abide now and then in the states between sleep and waking like Dylan and his lover.  Lie on the analytic couch, pay attention to your daydreams, or write a song.  Be curious about your experience without judging it.  Tell the whole truth of it, simply and with feeling, to someone devoted to listening and committed to accompanying you on the journey with an open mind.  Live in an ironic love song to yourself and the world we find ourselves in. Be all of who you are and make friends with yourself.  Then listen to another’s dream.


Works Cited in Sarah Gates’ Commentary
Dylan, Bob. “The Gates of Eden.” Bringing It All Back Home, New York: Columbia Records, 1965.

Hilton, Nelson. “Waxed in Blake.” Blake: An Illustrated Quarterly, vol. 43, no. 3, 2009-10, pp. 110-11.

“Humphry Osmond.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 23 March, 2017, en.wikipedia.org/
wiki/Humphry_Osmond. Accessed 13 May, 2017.

Ricks, Christopher. Dylan’s Visions of Sin. HarperCollins, 2004.