The Professor And The Poet: Reflections on Chomsky and Dylan

chomsky dylan

I have been pondering lately the significance of two elder visionaries who have exerted a lasting influence on me – Noam Chomsky (90) and Bob Dylan (77) – the former because he is an intellectual ‘rock of Gibraltar’ now in his ninth decade, and the latter because I recently saw the Nobel Laureate perform in concert more than half a century after the lyrics of his timeless classics became etched in my youthful brain.

Interestingly, both men were (are) word geniuses – one being the heralded poet- musician ‘voice of a generation’ and the other the ‘father of modern linguistics’ – who have radically changed the way we understand language, the world and ourselves.

Bob Dylan created some of the most powerful and enduring songs of the last century – Blowin’ in the Wind, Like A Rolling Stone, The Times They Are A- Changing, Masters of War, All Along the Watchtower, Mr. Tambourine Man, A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall… – and was a seminal figure in the 1960s counterculture, even though he has balked at the idea that he was its spokesman.

Whether one views Dylan as the poet laureate of the youth counterculture or not, his lyrical masterpieces certainly helped shape and define that unique period of social change in modern history.

The enigmatic Dylan has undergone many transformations during his long and storied career, alienating a fair share of his fans in the process, and has remained throughout largely indifferent to the masses, including critics, the media, and his concert audiences. A master of reinvention, the chameleonic artist has done whatever he chooses to do and gotten away with it, in large part because he is the legendary Bob Dylan, a mercurial soul who has always followed his own muse rather than the expectations of others.

Noam Chomsky is a celebrated philosopher-scientist-activist who in the 1950s revolutionized the study of language and cognition with the development of his theory of universal grammar, which posits the existence of linguistic knowledge innately structured in the human mind that renders possible its infinite creative potential, and has been an unrelenting critic of U.S. foreign and domestic policies and its corporate media since the ’60s. A brutally honest man, Chomsky has angered ideologues of all political stripes by bringing to light hard truths about our nation that most are unwilling to acknowledge, especially its reckless and bloody military exploits around the world fueled by the powerful military-industrial complex President Dwight Eisenhower warned the American people about in his 1961 farewell address.

The distinguished MIT Professor Emeritus has transcended both left and right, liberal and conservative, in his quest to speak the unvarnished truth, no matter what anyone else thinks and how much criticism is fired his way.

The two iconic historical figures, while similar in some interesting respects, are also different as night and day.

Chomsky at 90 years young is the same anti-authoritarian thinker he was in his 30s when he expressed early and staunch opposition to the Vietnam War (for years, he refused to pay a portion of his taxes, supported those who resisted the draft, was arrested several times protesting the war, and was on “Tricky Dick” Nixon’s enemy list), and to this day remains an uncompromising voice of reason and conscience in a world filled with injustice, oppression and violence. The celebrated scholar and dissident possesses a deep ethical core that does not change with time, and his rare moral courage and towering intellect have combined to serve as a force for good in exposing evil in the world.

Chomsky seems to personify the hero archetype [1] that the renowned depth psychologist Carl Jung discovered in art, mythology and legend throughout the ages and in different cultures around the world, and which is part of a shared human collective unconscious.

Dylan’s unique genius lies in his elusive and unpredictable nature. A modern embodiment of the age-old trickster archetype [2], Dylan is a man of mystery who has worn numerous masks over the years and broken many rules along the way. His protean persona has undergone dramatic changes – Bob Zimmerman to Bob Dylan, transitioning from folk to rock artist, turning his back on the counterculture he helped spawn, preaching mini-sermons from the stage during his ‘born again’ Christian phase, serving as a corporate pitchman for gas-guzzling cars and “ladies undergarments”, crooning Sinatra songs and appearing on stage looking like Liberace… – and who always seems a step ahead of those seeking to label or categorize him.

Dylan has been described by some as the consummate sellout artist for behavior exhibited as far back as the mid ’60s when he abandoned his acoustic guitar and “went electric” at the Newport Folk Festival, turning off many folk music purists in the process, to his recent appearances in commercials for Chrysler and Victoria’s Secret. His most ardent fans blow off such criticisms by emphasizing that the artist has earned the right to do whatever he wants, and Dylan himself could probably care less about any of it.

I wondered myself while watching Bob Dylan perform recently, WHO IS THIS GUY?, and could not help but think of what the bard once said about himself, “All I can be is me, whoever that is.”

In a similar vein, Bono, activist and lead singer for the Irish band U2, once said of Dylan, “The reason I’m never bored with Bob Dylan is because there are so many of them.”

Dylan and Chomsky are in classes all their own and, despite glaring differences, share certain admirable traits and qualities: They are both iconoclasts who have challenged the conventional order, marched to the beat of their own drum, and chosen not to heed much what others, especially those in positions of power and authority, think. In other words, they are boldly unorthodox individuals in a world where most are content to blindly and unquestioningly conform to the social status quo.

Finally, each of these gifted geniuses has carved a unique niche in their respective fields – Dylan in music and literature and Chomsky in philosophy, linguistics and psychology – and each has exerted a positive influence in my life, helping to open my eyes to the world around me and think more critically about it, and for that I am grateful.

[1] “The hero’s main feat is to overcome the monster of darkness: it is the long- hoped-for and expected triumph of consciousness over the unconscious.” – Carl Jung, Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious

[2] “…his fondness for sly jokes and malicious pranks, his powers as a shape- shifter, his dual nature, half animal, half divine, his exposure to all kinds of tor- tures, and – last but not least – his approximation to the figure of a savior…” – Carl Jung, on the Trickster

William (Bill) Rowe is a retired college psychology professor whose interests lie primarily in the areas of cognition, consciousness and the psychology of terror, war and peace. He has completed a book-length manuscript, Mind in the Mirror: Reflections on the Nature of Consciousness, the Brain and Human Evolution, and written articles for local alternative newspapers and online publications like Anti-War and Counterpunch.


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