The Opus of Bob Dylan

The many-faceted opus of Bob Dylan is structured by the same basic mythologem as the Bible, especially the Second Isaiah and the Revelation.

Ivan Dugic

The Opus of Bob Dylan as the Extended Individuation Process


The many-faceted opus of Bob Dylan - which in its wholeness masterfully pictures the individuation process which includes the deepest layers of the psyche - is structured by the same basic mythologem as the Bible, especially the Second Isaiah and the Revelation. Therefore, when asked about the connection of his songs with the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, he - not without reason - mentioned the prophets, especially Isaiah. In difference to the modern opuses of Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso - where only the key-pictures as Picasso's Le Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907), Guernica (1937), Harlequin (1915), Woman before Mirror (1932), and Three Musicians (1921) can, in a strict sense, be seen as a symbolical presentation of the extended individuation process - the opus of Bob Dylan, like the opus of Piet Mondrian, also in its wholeness represent this overall transformation process, which nowadays strongly structures the interior world of the individual, as well as the whole outer world. But, in difference to the opus of Piet Mondrian, the uniqueness of Dylan's opus is its contemporaneity. Extending into the popular culture and its secular spirit, strongly colored with the anima or the Eros symbolism, it also connects them with the transformations of the deepest layers of the psyche. Therefore the opus of Bob Dylan, which with many colorful threads, paints the living myth of our days, where even the Eros principle have more than enough space, deserves deeper and much more comprehensive analysis than it is posible here. This is particularly so, because in Dylan's opus the basic mythologem is not confined on the single poems - despite their deepness and complexity - but forms the opus as a whole; it is extended even above the single albums, so that some of his greatest songs became the victims of that wholeness and have been thrown away from the albums.

The Introduction of the Extended Individuation Process

Now, after the appearance of his book Bob Dylan: Lyrics 1962-2001 (Dylan 2004) in the last year, we can see the opus of Bob Dylan as almost completed - as the forty years of desert wandering, if still lacking its very end with the promised land. But this is not the only similarity between the individuation process symbolically pictured both in Dylan's opus and in the Bible, where the same deepest mythologem structured the whole book, especially the Book of Isaiah - culminating in the Servant Songs formed in 6th century B.C. - and was further extended in the Book of Revelation in the end of 1st century A.D. The same mythologem is also active in Dylan's opus, where - with the inclusion of the deepest part of the psyche - came to the repetition and extension of the transformation process, explicitly expressed in Dylan's song "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again" from 1966:

An' here I sit so patiently

Waiting to find out what price

You have to pay to get out of

Going through all these things twice (Ibid., p. 200)

The song with its ending also sheds additional light on the atmosphere of this extended transformation process:

Oh, Mama, can this really be the end

To be stuck inside of Mobile

With the Memphis blues again (Ibid.).

These tremendous difficulties present in the second stage of the extended individuation process are even more drastically pictured in Jung's vision, which appeared to him in the end of the year 1913, when he made a decisive step and entered into the mysterious archetypal world of the collective psyche. He plunged down into the dark depths and entered a dark cave, where he saw a glowing red crystal:

I grasped the stone, lifted it and discovered a hollow underneath. At first I could make out nothing, but then I saw there was running water. In it a corpse floated by, a youth with blond hair and a wound in the head. He was followed by a gigantic black scarab and then by red, newborn sun, rising up out of the depths of the water. (Jung 1963, p. 203)

After that first part of the vision, corresponding to the individuation process as described by Jung, unexpectedly happened the extension of the classical hero journey into a "bloody" second stage:

Dazzled by light, I wanted to replace the stone upon the opening, but then a fluid welled out. It was blood. A thick jet of it leaped up, and I felt nauseated. It seemed to me that the blood continued to spurt for an unendurably long time. At least it ceased and the vision came to an end. (Ibid., pp. 202-3)

This extension of a hero and solar myth greatly amazed Jung himself:

I was stunned by this vision. I realized, of course, that it was a hero and solar myth, a drama of death and renewal, the rebirth symbolized by the Egyptian scarab. At the end, the dawn of the new day should have followed, but instead came that intolerable outpouring of blood - an altogether abnormal phenomenon, so it seemed to me. But then I recalled the vision of blood that I had had in the autumn of that same year, and I abandoned all further attempt to understand. (Ibid., p. 203)

The fact that in this second stage the complete symbolism was suffocated with blood can explain Jung's subsequent confinement on his classical model of the psyche. The last sentence can also explain a reaction of Jung in his last year, shortly before his death, described in the excellent biography of Jung written by Vincent Brome: Jung: Man and Myth (Brome 1978). It was a sad last meeting with Dr. Michael Fordham, who recalls:

My last meeting with Jung was a sad one. Shortly before his death a mutual friend brought me a letter from Jung over which he was very much upset. It was written in a shaky hand and a full of complaining despair; nobody understand him and his work had been a failure.... I decided therefore to go out to Zurich and see him in the hope of being able to relieve his distress by telling him something of the extent that he had been studied in England.... I arrived and Jung was there in his dressing gown and a skull cap. I told him about the letter and delivered my message. He looked at me as if I were a poor fool and did not know a thing.... He eventually become confused and distressed, and I asked him what was the matter. He did not speak for a minute or two and then he said "You had better go" and regretfully I did so. (Brome 1978, p. 272)

While the same fundamental mythologem is present in both cases, it seems that in Jung's case it left beside or only marginally present, in Dylan's opus as well as in his performances it occupies central part. The earlier statement seems to be also confirmed with Jung's gladness expressed in the end of his days for not participating in the future world with its primitivism and chaos, and its new man. Therefore it may be not just coincidence that in the same time when we have lost C.G. Jung we got Bob Dylan. From the other side it must be said that Jung was excused for not taking into account the extended individuation process by his vision itself, where - in difference to the visions in Revelation, also suffocated with blood - the symbolical transformations happening in the extended part of the individuation process are not visible at all.

Since in all these cases is active the same mythologem (which, as it seems to me, first explicitly appeared in the Book of Isaiah, especially in the Servant Songs) it is also not just coincidence that the same elements present in the Servant Songs are also present in "Shelter from the Storm" - the Dylan's song that prepares the second part of the extended individuation process. However, I would here begin with another Dylan's song, "Simple Twist of Fate," which also found its place in the same album Blood on the Tracks released 1975. In this song the hero, symbolizing the ego, is, by the anima or by the fate itself, brought into a new situation:

He woke up, the room was bare

He didn't see her anywhere

He told himself he didn't care, pushed the window open wide

Felt an emptiness inside to which he just could not relate

Brought on by a simple twist of fate (Dylan 2004, p. 334)

His relation with the world outside and inside, mediated through the mystical lady, the anima, is gone. This twist of fate is arranged by destiny, given already in the beginning of the song:

They sat together in the park

As the evening sky grew dark

She looked at him and he felt a spark tingle to his bones

'Twas then he felt alone and wished that he'd gone straight

And watched out for a simple twist of fate (Ibid.)

Still worse, behind the personal entanglement, there is also a termination of the natural primordial state - where a projection of the anima gives a mythical quality to the world outside. The natural wholeness of the world, the interior and outer world as one and same world colored by the anima and therefore full of mystery and charm is terminated by "a simple twist of fate." The psychic energy is withdrawn into the ground of the psyche, into the deep unconscious layer making the world empty; but also the unconscious parts closer to the consciousness are left empty, therefore a feeling of the "emptiness inside," and a reaction to this unnatural state of introversion:

People tell me it's a sin

To know and feel too much within (Ibid.)

However, the introversion, where the emptiness was compensated with the excessive inner feeling, also brought to the knowledge of the inner world. The end of the poem confirms our conjecture that the mysterious lady was the anima:

I still believe she was my twin, but I lost the ring.

She was born in spring, but I was born too late

Blame it on a simple twist of fate (Ibid.)

The ego is always born too late in comparison to the anima, which, representing the unconscious, leads the game. The first state, the spring when she was born, corresponds to the original wholeness of the psyche, which is characterized by the ego-Self identity in the primordial unconscious state of the psyche experienced in the early years of life. Despite the possibility that the psychic integration can run more or less smoothly - without a breaking the unity of the conscious and unconscious parts of the psyche, without "loosing the ring" - the conscious individuation process, having the deepness and totality as in Dylan's opus, has a different scenario characterized with the "simple twist of fate" - also present in the earlier mentioned Dylan's poem "Shelter from the Storm," where the anima appears in the heart of the chaos giving the ego, the conscious personality, the "shelter from the storm." The time can be different, with unknown years of emptiness and struggle between two songs, with the shadow on the top:

'Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood

When blackness was a virtue and the road was full of mud

I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form

"Come in," she said, "I'll give you shelter from the storm" (Dylan 2004, p. 345)

This is a modern experience in the time when spirit came into the lower regions transforming itself, as Jung said, from air into water. The total activation of the unconscious, introducing the chaotic phase, necessarily requires the holding on through the chaotic state for a long time. Destruction of the old personality, which is one of the necessary parts of the transformation process of this kind, is completed, therefore the hero is "a creature void of form."

The Opus of Bob Dylan and the Bible

Still worse, that formless state seems to be the constant feature characterizing the prolonged second transformative stage of the extended individuation process, as in the Fourth Servant Song in the Book of Isaiah, where the Suffering Servant is disfigured "beyond human":

Just as there were many who were appalled at him -

his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man

and his form marred beyond human likeness - (Isaiah 52:14 NIV)

Here must be mentioned that the Christians are inclined to the opinion that Jesus Christ fulfilled all features characterizing the symbolical figure of the Servant. Therefore, and because of the further development of the leaving myth today, it must be said that the critical scholars agree that Jesus did not fulfilled all requirements from the Servant Songs. So Jesus was not so disfigured that he seemed less then human; still more importantly, in difference to the Servant, Jesus had the public career, he was known, and his suffering was not constantly accentuated, but it came in the end culminating in his crucifixion; and most of all, in difference to the mythologem of Suffering Servant, Jesus' career, as seen by his contemporaries immediately after his sacrificial death, ended in a complete failure. Thus Christopher North says: '... for example, there is no reason to suppose that Christ was so disfigured that He scarcely seemed human - this appears to be permanent feature of the Servant in the last Song, not in consequence of maltreatment - nor was He buried in a dishonoured grave' (North 1956, p. 208). Not excluding that the psychical state would found its expression also in the physical appearance, the "disfiguring beyond of any man" - as pictured in the Forth Servant Song - is, as it seems to me, in the first instance symbolical picturing of the integration of the deepest layers of the collective unconscious.

Therefore, we must here speak of the repetition of the basic mythologem, which was activated three times, every time with some variations and extensions: the first activation of the mythologem can be placed in 6th century B.C. in Babylonian captivity (or even earlier in 8th century in First Isaiah, coming with Yahweh's theophany from about 740 B.C.); the second activation found its place in Jesus' time and person; while the third extended activation - symbolically given in the Book of Revelation from the end of first century A.D. - has its culmination in our times. Here the further differentiation of the Suffering Servant archetype occurred with its division or duplication into two figures: the apocalyptic Lamb and the male child, which in a context of the individuation process symbolize the transpersonal and personal Self - which only together can fulfill all aspects of the mythologem. This is connected with the inclusion of the deepest layers of the psyche into the integration process - also causing the mysterious second death - which can also explain the transformation of Christ from the anthropomorphic Son of Man (Revelation, chapter 1) into a theriomorphic form of the Lamb with seven eyes and seven horns (the great vision, chapter 4). (That Christ himself goes through the second death can be also concluded from his staying "as slain" before the God's throne, while - not only God - but even the twenty-four old men are sitting on their thrones on the periphery of the mandala.) However, in difference to the Servant mythologem, Lamb is recognized and honored by the whole cosmos. Therefore, the humiliating aspect of the mythologem can be fulfilled only by the man-child, which symbolizing the more conscious and personal part of the Self confronted with the outside world, is connected with the empirical man and his ego-bound personality. In fact only the latter can be despised and be "held of no account" from the society blind for the meaning and importance of that deepest and overall process, which caused a deep suffering and introversion (Isaiah 53:3). I give Clines' translation:

Spurned and withdrawing from human society,

he was a man who suffered;

pain was his close acquaintance.

Like one who must hide his face from us

he was despised;

we held him of no account. (Clines 1993, p. 12)

In this kind of transformation process the integration of the psyche is postponed to the very end:

After the suffering of his soul,

he will see the light of life and be satisfied;

by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,

and he will bear their iniquities.

Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,

and he will divide the spoils with the strong,

because he poured his life unto death,

and he was numbered with the transgressors.

For he bore the sin of many,

and made the intercession for the transgressors. (Isaiah 53:10-12 NIV)

The contrast between humiliation and exaltation, especially after the long alienating phase present from the beginning to the very end, points to the peculiarity of this kind of individuation process. Here God himself creates a "twist of fate" (Isaiah 53:10):

It is God who purposes the suffering;

God puts him to grief.

When his life is offered for the guilt of others,

he sees his offspring,

he gains vitality,

by him Yahweh's plans prosper. (Clines 1993, p. 13)

The suffering, the central theme in the whole song, has a transformative function. It even extends the opus into the sacrificial death for others which has also the messianic component. But in the context of the individuation process it in the first means the excepted conscious suffering of the conscious personality for all others unconscious parts of the psyche including its deepest parts: for the "whole world" - for the whole psychic structure. The repetition of this overall transformation process, which brings to its two-part structure, is also given in the Third Suffering Servant Song - where the messianic aspect is connected with the outer global integration - where God says to the servant (Isaiah 49:6):

"It is to small a thing for you to be my servant

to restore the tribes of Jacob

and bring back those of Israel I have kept.

I will also make you a light for the Gentiles,

that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.

Also here - like in Revelation and in Dylan's opus - only in its very end, after the inclusion of the all activated opposites, their clash can be transformed into the final and lasting synthesis producing the new vitality. But in the contemporary opus of Bob Dylan, in accordance with the spirit of the time - and contrary to the First Isaiah, where God "have been ... a shelter from the storm" (25:4 NIV), and where "each man will be like a shelter from the wind and a refuge form the storm" (32:2 NIV) - the anima gives, or better to say, promises to give the "shelter from the storm":

In a little hilltop village, they gambled for my clothes

I bargained for salvation an' they gave me a lethal dose

I offered up my innocence and got repaid with scorn.

"Come in," she said,

"I'll give you shelter from the storm" (Dylan 2004, p. 346)

Here Dylan took the elements, not from the Servant Songs, but from the Gospels. As I said, a peculiarity of Dylan's song, as well as of his whole opus, is the strong presence of the anima, which brought to the particular twist:

Suddenly I turned around and she was standin' there

With silver bracelets on her wrists and flowers in her hair

She walked up to me so gracefully and took my crown of thorns

"Come in," she said, "I'll give you shelter from the storm" (Ibid., p. 345)

However, this taking off the crown of thorns brought to the alienation between the ego and the anima:

Now there's a wall between us, somethin' there's been lost

I took too much for granted, got my signals crossed (Ibid.)

So in Dylan's opus, just like in the Suffering Servant Songs, the only way the individuation process can go on is the carrying of the crown of thorns to its very end - which Dylan later tersely expressed: "the suffering is the code of the road." In that transformation process "it's doom alone that counts"; in comparison with it all others is futile:

Well, the deputy walks on hard nails and the preacher rides a mount

But nothing really matters much, it's doom alone that counts

And the one-eyed undertaker, he blows a futile horn

"Come in," she said, "I'll give you shelter from the storm" (Ibid.)

The inefficiency of the outer means brings to the regression which also activate the primordial unconscious core of the psyche where the opposites are still undivided and in perfect harmony. This "foreign country" is a state where the "beauty walks a razor's edge," but here the polarities must be consciously differentiated and integrated to make it your own:

Well, I'm livin' in a foreign country but I'm bound to cross the line

Beauty walks a razor's edge, someday I'll make it mine

If I could only turn back the clock to when God and her were born (Ibid., p. 346)


In difference to the other parallels, especially the Bible, the opus of Bob Dylan as well as its formation corresponds with the contemporary secular process. In that context can be also seen Dylan's song "Things Have Changed" which appeared in the film Wander Boys in A.D. 2000, in the last year of the now gone millennium:

Standing on the gallows my head is in a noose

Any minute now I'm expecting all hell to break loose

People are crazy and times are strange

I'm locked in tight, I'm out of range

I used to care, but things have changed

I've been walking forty miles of bad road

If the Bible is right, the world will explode

I've been trying to get as far away from myself as I can

Some things are too hot to touch

The human mind can only stand so much

You can't win with a losing hand (Dylan 2004, p. 574)

From the other side, this song describes the stage in the end of the extended individuation process before the final miraculous transformation, in Revelation introduced with the fire unexpectedly falling from heaven (Revelation 20:9). Where, paradoxically, exactly this final and most chaotic stage, felt like the complete destruction, brings to the final victory. Because the hero, trying getting away from himself as far as posible, stands on the gallows with the head in a noose, also here the last transformation can be accomplished only with the miraculous act of highest instance. Therefore this really apocalyptic situation can be compared with the final battle in Revelation 20:7-9, where, with all actors gathered (in our context symbolizing the whole psyche), God himself decides with the fire coming down from heaven; after which comes the final integration of the psyche symbolized with the heavenly Jerusalem coming from God out of heaven toward the earth - prepared with the new psychic constellation, the new heaven and the new earth (Revelation 21:1). This new constellation, without any sea, points toward the coming to consciousness of the whole unconscious structure. This extension of consciousness reverberates in the last Dylan's song "Sugar Baby" from his last album "Love and Theft" (Dylan 2004, p. 597):

I got my back to the sun 'cause the light is too intense

I can see what everybody in the world is up against

You can't turn back, sometimes we push too far

One day you'll open your eyes and you'll see where we are

This coming to consciousness of the deepest parts of the psyche has also transformed the anima, where its deepest, earlier not activated layers completely overwhelmed the earlier complex:

Sugar Baby get down the road

You ain't go no brains, no how

You went years without me

Might as well keep going now

But this regression of the anima is already prefigured in the first chorus in "Idiot Wind" from 1974 (Dylan 2004, p. 336):

Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your mouth

Blowing down the backroads headin' south

Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your teeth

You're and idiot, babe

It's wonder that you still know how to breathe

It is the utmost tragedy, not to say the irony, what happened to the anima (or even the Eros principle), the main actress in Dylan's opus. But here the complete deterioration befall even the whole psychical structure - as can be seen from the last chorus ending the song (ibid., p.337):

Idiot wind, blowing through the buttons of our coats

Blowing through the letters that we wrote

Idiot wind, blowing the dust upon our shelves

We're idiots, babe

It's wonder we can even feed ourselves

However, in difference to its contemporary secular symbolism, there is also an another level of the mythologem which - like Isaiah's Suffering Servant - has the redeeming messianic meaning. This is the another figure - appearing, like in Revelation, with the duplication and further differentiation of the mythologem - but here the pair is completely separated (ibid., p.336):

There's a lone soldier on the cross, smoke pourin' out of a boxcar door,

You didn't know it, you didn't think it could be done,

in the final end he won the wars

After losin' every battle

The lone soldier on the cross - which in the final end won the war after losing every battle - here, besides the individual and the messianic aspect, also symbolizes the collective transformation in the psyche which goes completely unconsciously. Likewise, the hero introduced in the beginning of the song (which in the individual context would symbolize the ego or the more conscious part of the personality, the personal Self, in difference to the lone soldier on the cross symbolizing the transpersonal Self) can be also seen as representing our contemporary post-Christian collective situation - with a typically ironical Dylanesque twist (ibid.):

They say I shot a man named Gray and took his wife to Italy

She inherited a million bucks and when she died it came to me

I can't help if I'm lucky

In this shortened essay I have taken into account only same aspects of the many-faceted opus of Bob Dylan, especially those connected with the anima. Therefore I have here included only five songs (or, six when taken into account also "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again" (1966)): "Simple Twist of Fate" (1974), "Shelter from the Storm" (1974), "Idiot Wind" (1974), "Things Have Changed" (1999) and "Sugar Baby" (2001). In the context of the analyzed basic mythologem given in the Bible, especially in the Servant Songs, here must be also included "When the Ship Comes In" (1963), "I Shall Be Released" (1967), "When He Returns" (1979) and "Slow Train" (1979), to mention only some of them. As the representation of the extraverted and introverted aspects of this extended transformation process given from the anima-perspective it must be first of all included "Like a Rolling Stone" (1965) and "Sad-eyed Lady of the Lowlands" (1966). As an important part there is also the shadow aspect of this transformation process, which is here completely omitted. Therefore the masterful opus of Bob Dylan, which (like the opus of Piet Mondrian and Goethe's Faust) not only in its special parts, but also in its wholeness - here not taken into account - pictures the individuation process which transforms Jung's classical model into the extended model of the psyche, deserves much more thoroughfull analysis.

© Ivan Dugic 2004.


Brome, V. (1978) Jung: Man and Myth. London: Paladin Books (1985).

Dylan, B., (2004) Lyrics, 1962-2001. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Jung, C. G.(1963). Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Glasgow: Fontana Press (1995).

North, C. R. (1956). The Suffering Servant in Deutero-Isaiah. London, Oxford University Press.

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