On March 27, Bob Dylan released a single called “Murder Most Foul,” centered on the assassination of John F. Kennedy but rippling far beyond that now-mythic event. For 17 minutes, Dylan sweeps slowly across a ravaged landscape, like an old buzzard peering down at the carcasses and smoldering ruins below. Voices rise up here and there, along with snatches of music fading in and out like the signal from pirate radio. Are they the cries of the living or the echoes of the dead, reverberating one last time before they dissipate forever? At some point, you finally realize it’s not John Kennedy being conveyed to the afterlife: it’s you, along with the particular jumble of history and culture that formed you, all of it now passing away.
“Murder Most Foul” is not a literary work, although Dylan is, rather infamously, a Nobelist of Literature. (An honor he himself seemed to treat largely as a joke.) It’s barely even a song, meandering with no firm structure, shifting in and out of viewpoints voiced by different characters: some malevolent, some mournful, some speaking with a sarcastic sneer, and some – or perhaps one, perhaps the main one – speaking like an old man meditating through a sleepless night, a whisky in hand as the fire flickers and the shadows dance.
So if not really literature or fully a song, what is then? Well, here’s an idea. Dylan, who has played so many different, contradictory roles in American culture – from flaming young rebel to quiet country gent, from Rimbaud manqué to Americana avatar – has now come to perhaps the last of his public permutations: as psychopomp, the voice in the bardo, imparting instructions and offering laments to the soul of our civilization, as it dissolves into a future when it will no longer walk in the world of the living.
Too much? I don’t think so. This is not a claim of special knowledge or exalted status for the wizened old man from Minnesota. It’s just to say that, for whatever reasons – reasons that he himself has expressed deep puzzlement about over the decades – Dylan has been one of those who receive, at whiles, the “echoes from the future” that Boris Pasternak spoke of. In the manifold mysteries of space-time, Pasternak – a former philosophy student under the heavy influence of Henri Bergson – was speaking of the weight of the future pressing ceaselessly back upon the present. He was talking of the way the future warps the weave of present time, in the same way that the past does.
But if Dylan (or Pasternak or Bergson) aren’t your cup of tea, then look at it this way, through the prism of epidemiological statistics and the accelerating accumulation of data on climate change. We are passing from the paradisiacal conditions of the Holocene into an age of rolling thunder: a never-ending series of world-churning upheavals, with the pandemic blending into the floods and storms and famines and locust swarms and melting ice sheets and loosening methane and apocalyptic degenerations that are even now characterizing the nature of our planet and defining the lineaments of its imminent future.
To some, it may seem that the pandemic is a prelude to climate catastrophe – in the same way that most historians see World War I as the harbinger of World War II. But in truth, both world wars were part of the same centuries-long dehumanization of individuals and societies by capitalism and imperialism: twin bastards born from the barbaric, blinkered, fear-ridden, deeply ignorant understandings of reality that comprised Western Christendom as it spread its way, by gun and genocide, across the planet. They were not separate irruptions, but a continuum.
And in precisely the same way, the pandemic and climate catastrophe are not separate events, but part of the same process of the self-induced dissolution and destruction of our environment and, ultimately, our civilization.
So what is the answer to the horrendous fate laid out for us by our Bergsonian bards and our climate change scientists? There is none, if by “answer” you mean an easy solution that will assuage the consciences and preserve the comfort of the comfortable. There is no technology that will reverse this dissolution, no ideology that will overcome it (although there is a plethora that will accelerate it), no miracles that will undo it. We are here, now, in the reality that we have made in the present; in the reality that was made for us in the past; in the reality that the future is pressing down upon us like a stone slab.
What is left is … mitigation. What is left is the cultivation of a mindful, thoughtful, loving, generous attitude toward our fellow sufferers and those who will follow us. What is left is a heedfulness to those who – randomly, wildly, accidentally, mysteriously – were vouchsafed those strange and ambiguous echoes from the future. Those like the sarcastic, infamous, contradictory, Kennedy-keening singer who felt those echoes decades ago, when he sang these lines:
“Eden is burning; either get ready for elimination, or else your hearts must have the courage for the changing of the guards.”