By Wade Hollingshaus
Two weeks ago, I departed on a road trip with my wife and children. We left from our home near Brigham Young University (BYU-Provo, Utah)—where I’m an associate professor in the Theatre and Media Arts department—and headed south to the Grand Canyon, and then on to Phoenix. (It just wasn’t hot enough in Utah in June.) With a ten-hour drive each direction, one’s thoughts have ample space to wander, especially in the desert. Mine kept circling around Bob Dylan, the Grand Canyon, Saul Bellow, and Existentialism—I mean, why not?
As a teenager, I went to high school in Mission Viejo, California, then did an undergraduate degree in Theatre Education at BYU. After teaching Drama and English for a couple of years at a junior high school, I decided that I needed to continue my studies in graduate school. My wife and I moved to Seattle, and I did a Masters degree in Scandinavian Studies at the University of Washington, where I specialized in Finnish-language literature and studied Nordic theatre and film more generally. Then we moved to Minneapolis, where I did a PhD in Theatre History/Theory/Criticism, with a focus in historiography and performance studies. I kept up with my Finnish-language interests, but most of my research and my dissertation centered on popular music as performance. So it may not be surprising that in the Summer of 2015, seven years after completing the dissertation, I often thought of Bob Dylan as I traveled south through the U.S.-American West.
I’ve seen numerous pictures of the Grand Canyon and have considered that my familiarity with those images would have in some way eroded (seems the right word) the beauty of the actual canyon. I am pleased to report that this was not the case. It was literally breathtaking. The wonder of the canyon was not diminished by its simulacrum. This is not to say, however, that there was not any simulacrum at work; for, at one moment, when I spotted a hiker, spending his/her Sunday evening standing alone on one of the unguarded outposts of the south rim of the canyon, I couldn’t help but remember the final lines of Bob Dylan’s song-poem, "Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie.” Dylan readily acknowledges Guthrie’s influence on his music, and what turned out to be about half a year before Guthrie’s death, Dylan was invited to pen a few words on his inspiration, “sort of, what does Woody Guthrie mean to you in twenty-five words.” The result was, as Dylan indicates, five pages, which he then performed.
The entire piece is about seven minutes long, and very worth the time (), but it was the final stanzas that stuck in my mind that evening, standing with my family at the canyon. He ends the poem by positing that there are two places in the world (well, actually three) where one can go to find clarity in one’s life:
You can either go to the church of your choice
Or you can go to Brooklyn State Hospital
You’ll find God in the church of your choice
You’ll find Woody Guthrie in Brooklyn State Hospital
And though it’s only my opinion
I may be right or wrong
You’ll find them both
In the Grand Canyon
Frequently during our family vacation in the Arizona deserts, these words and images returned to me. I had many hours to ponder them during the drive home, again through vast stretches of sagebrush, cacti, and not much else. At these particular moments, I was reminded of an anecdote that the theatrologist (as Lyotard referred to him) Herbert Blau once shared with me. He told of a lunch that he was having with Saul Bellow. They were chatting about Existentialism, when Bellow explained that he had always felt there are two kinds: European and American.
European Existentialism occurs when one stands in Rome or Paris or Prague or any European city where one is surrounded by structures rife with centuries of the history of mankind. In such moments, Bellow related, one is faced with feeling the futility of being able to do anything that could ever be recognized as a contribution to that history. There is just so much history in the landscape, that one is overwhelmed into discouraged inactivity.
On the other hand, Bellow continued, there is American Existentialism. He explained that the first time he visited Saskatchewan, Canada, he was debilitated by the lack of there being anything at all on the landscape. My wife is from a farm in Alberta, and her father says Saskatchewan is so flat that if you stand on a mole hill and look toward the horizon, you can see the back of your own head. In the North American west(s) there is just an overwhelming nothingness, to the point that one feels incapacitated ever to be able to do anything that would be seen as what one might call “history.”
It seemed to me, as I was cruising past an unending series of blank Arizona horizons, that much of what Dylan writes about, in his musical explorations of Americana, tends to be more in touch with Bellow’s American Existentialism. The hobo figures that have littered Dylan’s hundreds of songs, are a testimony to that—“Highway 61,” pretty much all of Blood on the Tracks, the references seem endless. But then it also occurred to me that Dylan’s discography is so extensive, so erudite, so compacted with allusions, images, and ideas—as is his ode to Woody—that it has effectively amassed a vast literary-musical cultural landscape. Dylan may have begun as an American Existentialist, and he may still be one (though he’d never admit to it, as he never really admits to any epithet presented to him), but as musicians today gather in their garages, in their studios, in their tour busses, in their bedrooms—wherever it is they go to write their music—they are traipsing through narrow streets, in an old city constructed in large part by Bob Dylan, chief architect of a new European Existentialism.
For me, thanks to Dylan, the Grand Canyon is now a feature of both American and European Existentialism.