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On Kehinde Wiley & Bob Dylan.
It’s deceptively easy to slide into a certain rhetorical register of nonsense when it comes to describing your own country. Lord knows that I’ve been guilty of it in the past and will no doubt be guilty of it in the future. But there’s a degree to which self-knowledge of country is just as important as personal self-knowledge, and it’s in that spirit that I want to briefly talk about Bob Dylan’s “Murder Most Foul” alongside Kehinde Wiley’s official portrait of Barack Obama.
Bob Dylan’s nearly 17 minute-long song reminds me of this line from Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice —
Was it possible that at every gathering, concert, peace rally, love-in, be-in, freak-in, here up north, back east, wherever, some dark crews had been busy all along reclaiming the music, the resistance to power, the sexual desire from epic to everyday? All they could sweep up for the ancient forces of greed and fear?
— but rather than sit in summary, as Pynchon partially does, the song takes the time to actually cite lyrics and names, one after the other after the other; to give weight to the baton of hope that is consistently trying to outrun the machinery of death that partly makes this country what it is, these ‘dark crews’ seeking to “kill you with hatred and without any respect.”
Wake up, Little Suzie, let’s go for a drive
Cross the Trinity River, let’s keep hope alive
Play Etta James too, play I’d Rather Go Blind
Play it for the man with the telepathic mind
Play John Lee Hooker, play Scratch My Back …
And, as Dylan’s lyrics run one way, so, too, does Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of Obama run the other, because could we ever imagine a portrait of Roosevelt or Eisenhower or Truman or Lincoln filled with a similar sort of color and vibrancy? But also — and we must partly realize this when we look at Wiley’s painting — how could we not? We must. If violence seeks to chase us one way through history, then why can’t it try and chase us the other way? Why does it try and persuade us that a certain kind of encompassing nullity is the only way to live?
Which means that the question underlying all this is: how do we sit in vibrancy? We open up the window on a spring day and see the ghost of Walt Whitman wandering barefoot through the backyard. We open up another window and watch Natalie Diaz talk about the Mojave looking at the Colorado as part of their own body. We open up a third window to let the ghosts of Cortazar’s “House Taken Over” out and try to refrain from saying anything as they tease us for speaking in parataxis once again. We open up a fourth window and hope to see Leonard Cohen in his buddhist years trying to hear the silent earworm of the self. We open the window and we ask ourselves, “Is this citizenship? Is this what it means to be as hope and violence chase each other back and forth through time like certain kinds of birds overhead?”