This past two weeks I’ve been carrying this song around in my head, letting it swirl, percolate, produce something to share here. As Dylan fans know “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine” appeared on his John Wesley Harding album, his first album of new songs after the infamous 1966 motorcycle accident that terminated his world tour with The Band.
What was striking about the album was how it signaled another change in direction for Dylan as an artist. His previous three albums rocked a lot of foundations and shook up a lot of the fans he’d acquired during his folk days. Now, it was a scaled back sound that featured simple tunes, an acoustic guitar and harmonica. John Hinchey called this album the “comeback of all comebacks.” In describing it, he cites Dylan’s own comment on comebacks from Love and Theft: “You can always come back, but you can’t comeback all the way.” Perhaps this was considered a comeback only because he’d come out from a long period of silence, veiled from the public eye.
This song was the third cut on side one. Interestingly, he performed it 39 times between 1969 and 2011. As many writers have pointed out, “I Dreamed” opens with a tune and structure similar to the classic folk song about the union organizer Joe Hill.
“I dreamed I saw St. Augustine, alive as you or me” Compare: “I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night, alive as you or me…”
It’s easy for me to hear Joan Baez singing that line as it rises, whereas Dylan’s version, with similar cadence, falls at the end of the line.
What we hear in this song is a tale about a strange dream featuring this significant fourth century theologian/philosopher tearing about “in the utmost misery with a blanket underneath his arm and a coat of solid gold.” The blanket is a symbol of comfort, the gold a symbol of purity and perfection, not earthly wealth. As the Proverb states, “The crucible is for silver, the furnace for gold, but the Lord tries hearts.” In the narrator’s dream, St. Augustine is searching for souls. The second stanza elaborates on why Augustine is so concerned.
“Arise, arise,” he cried so loud
In a voice without restraint
“Come out, ye gifted kings and queens
And hear my sad complaint
No martyr is among ye now
Whom you can call your own
So go on your way accordingly
But know you’re not alone”
David Pichaske, in his Song of the North Country, writes “John Wesley Harding is pervaded with sin and redemption, and associated with concerns for the health of the soul.” Of this song Pichaske notes that the singer is “lamenting the death of prophets and martyrs in this modern American wasteland, and offering his own message of comfort: ‘Know you’re not alone.”
The third verse comes with another twist.
I dreamed I saw St. Augustine
Alive with fiery breath
And I dreamed I was amongst the ones
That put him out to death
Oh, I awoke in anger
So alone and terrified
I put my fingers against the glass
And bowed my head and cried
In the narrator’s dream he discovers that he himself is amongst the ones who put the martyr to death. When he wakes, he is shaken to the core.
At this point it would make a good segue to do a little study of the various dreams by which God spoke to characters in the Bible, from Jacob and Job to Jonah and Joseph. But that’s a study you can do on your own.
* * * *
My thoughts this morning fall into alignment with another book I’m reading, Francis Fukuyama’s Our Posthuman Future. The question of the moment is this: what does it mean to be human? What does it mean to have a soul? The questions have been generated by recent readings about robotics and artificial intelligence. (AI).
In 1980 I wrote a paper analyzing contemporary culture, attempting to bring order from the chaos of our times. On pages 22–25 I spotlighted two of the most influential dystopian novels of the previous fifty years, Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World. Despite the the seemingly disparate images of our future — a totalitarian state so complete that Big Brother is everywhere vs. a ghastly, genetically pre-programmed human race where artificial happiness reigns — the two “visions” of the future have something in common. Both point to a dehumanized humanity, devoid of mind, will and emotions, and soulless.
Fukuyama opens his book with a discussion of these very same works. The nightmare more frightening to Fukuyama is Huxley’s because “it’s easy to see what’s wrong in the world of 1984,” but in Orwell’s story the evil is not so apparent. Everyone gets what they want. Humanity is seduced rather than compelled to be less than human. (In my paper I also compared these two with That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis.)
If everyone can be happy, what’s wrong with this picture? Leon Kass states, “Unlike the man reduced by disease or slavery, the people dehumanized a la Brave New World are not miserable, don’t know that they are dehumanized, and, what is worse, would not care if they knew. They are… happy slaves with a slavish happiness.”
What does it mean to be human? What is it that sets us apart from the rest of creation? Conscience is part of it. How we treat our brothers and sisters is central to it. All this is tied, as theologians explain it, to the imago dei, the image of God in us.
But many modern scientists deny the existence of this part of our species. Instead religious experiences, they suggest, are generated by our own genetic dispositions. It’s nothing more than an illusion, albeit compelling.
Fukuyama argues that this corrosive postmodern smog was foretold by C.S. Lewis in his Abolition of Man (1943). Lewis saw what was happening in public education which had begun teaching relativism and the denial of objective truth. Huxley only detailed the manner in which this de-humanizing would occur.
Dylan keyed into the matter of conscience in a number of songs on this album, including “Dear Landlord,” “I Pity the Poor Immigrant” and this one, among others. I appreciate the straightforwardness of its simple ending. When the narrator of “I Dreamed” awakes he’s shocked, saddened, broken by what he’s seen. He’s seen himself.
Fukuyama’s concerns deal with how features of contemporary biotechnology need to be given ethical restraints before the real damage is done. It’s not just about the side effects of pharmaceuticals that should concern us. What Huxley predicted in the 40s is unfolding faster than anyone back then could have imagined.
The frightening part is that what’s taking place in biotechnology and pharmacology is so nuanced and complex that we don’t even know how to argue against it. The “progress” taking place in these and other fields, like neuroscience, genetic engineering and A.I., will change us in ways we can’t fully foresee and with benefits that no doubt create other unintended consequences.
For more on the significance of Augustine, visit my 2009 blog post here.
Originally published at pioneerproductions.blogspot.com