Tuesday, September 19, 2006


"First of all, we have said it often enough, one cannot establish the state of a debt . . . as one would a balance sheet or an exhaustive record, in a static and statistical manner. These accounts cannot be tabulated. One makes oneself accountable by an engagement that selects, interprets, reorients. In a practical and performative manner, and by a decision that begins by getting caught up, like a responsibility, in the snares of an injunction that is already multiple, heterogeneous, contradictory, divided--thus an inheritance that will always keep its secret. And the secret of a crime. The secret of its very author."--Jacques Derrida, "Spectres of Marx"

The Derrida quotation is from the reading for a Marxist Study Group meeting tonight. Reading it this afternoon, it seemed to me apropos of some recent flak about Dylan's theft of some of Henry Timrod's lines and images and wording in several songs on Modern Times. What Derrida is describing, re: Marx, is how it is that an intellectual debt cannot really be reduced to a series of demonstrated "borrowings" or cribbings or shared discourse. I particularly like his stress on "selects, interprets, reorients," for this is much like what T. S. Eliot has in mind when he says "mature poets steal" rather than imitate. Further, the inheritance, the debt, is always clandestine unless it comes to light. The entire history of influence studies is based on just such secret "crimes" where, as Derrida says, the "very author" can be obscured or "multiple."

Derrida's method of deconstruction famously fixes upon those textual moments not in "control" of a given subject; those moments when language takes over and to ascribe "authority" to it -- as a claim of personal identity -- is retrograde or at least naive. What I notice in Dylan's songs these days is how much they are a tissue of lines, and who knows the provenance of them all (such as the knock-knock joke on "Po' Boy") -- as the Mekons song says: "these lines are all individuals, and there's no such thing as a song." I think Dylan's thefts are radical in that sense -- a mature method from the musical artist most imitated by immature talents of our times.

Recently I came to know the song "Mole in the Ground" from which Dylan steals a line for "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again" -- one could imagine that Dylan knew certain listeners, unlike me, would immediately recognize it (like all those scholars and crooks who have been through all of F. Scott Fitzgerald's books and so recognize Dylan's theft of a famous line from Gatsby on "Love and Theft"). Could be there's some admirer of Timrod Dylan is regaling with the lines, or maybe it's just a tribute to someone whose lines stuck in his mind -- so that, as Derrida says, the state of debt is an injunction one is caught up in. Dylan's lines (at least I think they're his) have stuck in my mind for ages and there's no way I could attribute them all, but keep it in your mind and don't forget that it is not he or she or them or it that you belong to.

1 comment:

Andrew Shields said...

The title of "Love and Theft" is perhaps worth considering here. The two words work together: an author loves the work that he steals from (which greatly complicates the debt that he owes).

Also, at some point I noticed that the title is written in quotation marks. For whatever that is worth! :-)