Adventures, As Yet Unsurpassed, of The Visionary Idiot
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
“Forget the self-indulgent quest for happiness or self-knowledge associated with Byronic heroes” relays the The Longman Anthology of British Literature, in paraphrase of a warning once delivered by Thomas Carlyle, “strive instead to improve society and practice greater artistic control; know your work and do it.” Here is the conflict that inhabits the core of the novel Jane Eyre. In an age of technological and social upheaval, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane served for readers as a surrogate self in navigating the terrifying possibility and fantastic voids along the tracks of Victorian England. Her story held particular relevance for a marginalized class of independently-minded women for whom few options existed in line with the status quo. Not solely that of oppressed female, her persona encompasses the roles of outsider and rebel, one who seeks both peace of mind and betterment of the world in which she lives, while ranging beyond the pale of existing societal structures in private relation to a preternatural voice from on high. In her audience Jane famously believes as she follows the path of her conviction from outsider at Gateshead, to visionary idiot in the attic, to impassioned devotee of Rochester, to affianced lover, to runaway, to obstinate equal, to blissful domestic companion — at which time, alas, she takes mannered leave of her conjured audience. In this mold, Jane Eyre may be seen as prototype to a similar sort of character, both romantic and craft-driven, of an age obviously different, though not as obviously similar, to Bronte’s own. I’m referring to an age in which citizens were similarly propelled to resist the status quo, albeit at much higher volume: the 1960s in the United States, and, in particular, one surrogate, taken as an emblem of changin’ times.
What fascinates about Bob Dylan is that he is himself the hero of the novel happening all around him, as the creation of Robert Zimmerman, Suze Rotolo, Dave von Ronk, John Hammond, among however many others, a work of collaborative fiction enabled by newly ascendant media, his “back pages” as cherished and sifted through by today’s seekers as were Jane Eyre’s in hers. In this mode, Dylan serves as surrogate for those who feel their voices have been marginalized, an in the flesh, heart-rent stray from pre-established modes, a pleasure-seeker and a social critic. Of course, differences are myriad and likely indicative of those between Victorian England and late 20th century America (Dylan, the construct, all foreground, no background), although it should be noted that both periods mark the ascendancy of a nation as global cultural center, wealth producer, and technological innovator.
On the level of language and narrative, echoes abound; it seems Bronte and Zimmerman draw from the same archetypal well to paint their masterpieces. Consider the following:
- Locked in the departed patriarch’s chambers, Jane speaks of receiving “a herald of some vision coming from another world,” while cognizant that the matron Mrs. Reed considers her to be “a precocious actress… a compound of virulent passions, mean spirit, and dangerous duplicity.” Meanwhile, the disliked Miss Abott sees young Jane as “a sort of infantine Guy Fawkes,” suggesting the inflammatory Dylan of “Masters of War.”
- In her desolation, Jane imagines “a preternatural voice to comfort [her], or… some haloed face, bending over [her] in extreme pity” and for solace relies on “loving and cherishing a faded graven image”: her Woody Guthrie, it could be said.
- When the wind blows outside Lowood, Jane wishes “the wind to howl more wildly”: Dylan, “All Along The Watchtower,” voice and instrumentation ascending, “The wind began to howl.”
- With Helen Burns (echo of poet Robert Burns?, eternally young visionary, an inspiration for Dylan) Jane speaks of “a visionary brook”: Dylan sings of sitting so contentedly to watch the river flow.
- Jane learns to see from Helen that the school principal “Mr. Brocklehurst is not a god”: Dylan, “It’s Alright, Ma, I’m Only Bleeding,” “Even the president of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked.”
- “Externals,” Jane recognizes, “have a great effect on the young”: no rock star hasn’t taken that lesson to heart.
- Just like a tried and true performer, Jane reflects on entering Lowood: “the ruddy gloaming, the licensed uproar, the confusion of many voices gave one a welcome sense of liberty.”
- To Jane, Rochester sings in foreshadow, “For Might and Right, and Woe and Wrath, between our spirits stood…”: Dylan, “Idiot Wind,” “The howling beast on the borderline that separates you from me.”
- On fleeing her true love, the heroine sees the future as “an awful blank: something like the world when the deluge was gone by”: sings Dylan, “Down in the Flood,” a break up song, “Crash in the levee, mama/ Water’s gonna overflow.”
Of Jane Eyre and the patchwork, mercurial figment of Bob Dylan, a more structured and considered argument could be made. Suffice it to say that universal figurations of youth that Bronte captures, Dylan set in fragments to the urgent music of “now.” To give greater weight to Bronte’s work — as a student of literature, after all — Dylan is the sort of figure that a young Jane Eyre might have dreamt.
– Jeff Price is the Associate Editor of Electric Literature