On Art, Bob Dylan, and Jung’s New Myth for Modern Persons

Bob Dylan had just moved to Greenwich Village and was beginning to be recognized at a talented young folk musician as Carl Jung’s final days approached in the summer of 1961.  I had always wished Jung had lived long enough to write one short essay or letter on the phenomenon of Bob Dylan.  This would not have been unfamiliar territory for him: he had written on James Joyce, Picasso, and even flying saucers, and Bob Dylan seemed to catch the cultural imagination not unlike the saucers had a decade earlier.  The role of the artist figures very prominently in Jungian thought: he writes, “so art represents a process of self-regulation in the life of nations and epochs” (1966, p. 83).  The Jungian analyst and author, Edward Edinger, quotes Schiller regarding the function of art:  “[The serious purpose of genuine art] is not merely to translate the human being into a momentary dream of freedom, but actually to make him free. It accomplishes this by awakening a power within him” (1984, p. 40).  This “awakening” is at the very heart of Jung’s concept of a new living myth for modern persons, which is believed to be necessary if humans are to survive themselves.  Historically, humans have always lived within one myth or another which functions as a sustaining, nourishing environment that provides meaning and psychic containment.  However, as modern western humanity is no longer contained within the traditional frame of organized religion, a new frame, a new myth, is necessary to prevent psychic fragmentation and destruction.  This, Jung argued, is to be found in a reorientation which places each person in a central role in relationship to the numinous, for, as he stated, “Man is the mirror which God holds up before him, or the sense organ which he apprehends his being” (Edinger, p. 58).  In this new myth, God needs people as much as people need God.  The question is, What does art have to do with this new myth?

For the past few years, Bob Dylan has continually appealed to my imagination.  A sense of awe and the numinous have surrounded him for me, as though the flying saucers had landed and took up residence in him.  In one sense, my psyche is projecting the image of the Self upon Dylan as did an entire generation 40 years ago who looked to Dylan as a prophet, and believed they would find in him answers that would lead to a new future.  He holds my projection, but also, we must imagine there is good reason why it falls upon him and not another.  In considering this, I have begun looking at master artists, to find what qualities or attitudes they possess that may allow them to affect us the way they do.  This has become the subject of my dissertation.  What quality of being does the artwork and also the artist possess that allow them to affect the audience in a meaningful way?  Not long ago, I had an experience that illuminated these questions in a new way.

I attended a Bob Dylan concert at the Santa Barbara Bowl a week after I finished my courses and comprehensive exams.  I was seated in the last row.  While listening and occasionally borrowing my neighbor’s binoculars, a keen and bitter awareness of doubts and insecurities began to overwhelm me.  A clarity and focus allowed me to see these feelings and look at them honestly and openly.  I watched myself, sitting under the sky, watching a lit stage in the distance with little black figures. I saw a person – myself – who was having feelings; a very peculiar experience and one that is wonderfully supportive despite the pain of the feelings emerging.  I then drifted into various fantasies and memories, feelings of compassion.  I looked up at the dark night and stars, and I sensed I was not alone; that my ancestors, or some kind of conscious entities were all around, so close, loving and supporting.  Emily Dickinson's words capture this experience: 

To my quick ear the leaves conferred;                                                                                                                                                                                                                  The bushes they were bells;                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     I could not find a privacy                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    From Nature’s sentinels.
In cave if I presumed to hide,                                                                                                                                                                                                                              The walls began to tell;                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     Creation seemed a mighty crack                                                                                                                                                                                                                           To make me visible.

When Dylan returned to the stage for an encore, a giant image of an eye was unrolled, stylized and glaring.  Regarding eyes and being seen, Edinger writes, 

Thus the full experience of being the known object of an ‘other’ knowing subject is best . . . experienced as an encounter with the inner God-image, the Self.  The archetypal image that carries the clearest symbolic expression of the ego’s experience of being the known object is the image of the Eye of God. (1984, p. 42)

I had seen Dylan perform once before at a fair, and thought this image rather tacky and I had forgotten about it until now.  After the last set, the performers held hands and bowed as bright lights from the stage illuminated the crowd.  Before, at the fair, these obviously very clear and intentional actions; the eye, the bow, and the light at the end of a show that was otherwise without effects or gestures, made me question what this was all about but gained little insight.  But during this most recent performance it became clear that this was a vital part of Dylan’s message all along: that it us about us.  In the most simple and direct way, Dylan was communicating and essential nature of what we are; that everything we ever projected onto him is our own.  

dinger speaks of three kinds of knowing: being the knowing subject, being the known object (exemplified by the Judeo-Christian myth), and the third, knowing with (1984, p. 52).  In knowing with, “the ego has the responsibility to the Self to be its knowing subject as well as its known object” (p. 53).  Dylan’s banner of the eye (as well as his piercing stare in various photos) seems to tell us this fact, for, “Therein lies the social significance of art: it is constantly at work educating the spirit of the age, conjuring up the forms in which the age is most lacking” (Jung, 1966, p. 82).  The experience I had during the concert felt like something was being held open for me.  The music and presence of Bob Dylan seemed to be an act of allowing, rather than a describing, or forcing.  Something I have noticed in deeply moving artworks – whether in music, architecture, sculpture, painting, film, or literature, is an almost dull simplicity.  By “dull” I mean from an ego’s perspective.  Our eyes crave flashing lights like that of the T.V., but the artworks of which I speak, appeal to the soul – or something resting and observing from behind our eyes.  I think of the repetition of Arvo Pårt’s music, the flat paint of Luc Tuymans, the stark lines of Agnes Martin, the grainy quality of David Lynch’s recent films.  When the eyes are not fed for their own sake, something seems to be nourished that lies beyond them.  During the concert, it was not the lyrics that caused my revelry, nor was it inspired musical accompaniment.  Perhaps it was being in the presence of someone who was doing what he was meant to do, or someone who is tuned in to the frequency of the Self.  Later, when writing and thinking back on this, I imagined an analogy: a magician with one hand held quietly and still over a top hat while the other hand waves dramatically about.  The audience assumes it is the hand in movement that conjures the magic – animals out of the hat.  But really, is it not the still hand that allows the magic to unfold?  Master artists, whether they wave their one hand about or not, know the secret of the other hand.  But what is it to have a still hand?  I wonder when Bob Dylan writes, 

I live in another world                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Where life and death are memorized,                                                                                                                                                                                                                   Where the earth is strung with lover’s pearls,                                                                                                                                                                                                And all I see are dark eyes.

What the new myth will ultimately look like, we do not know.  But I like to imagine it a place where each person is his own artist, a world where one experiences oneself and the world through the act of “looking with.”  This other world Dylan speaks of, the poet Paul Éluard (Yalom, 2008) had spoken of earlier.  He said, “There is another world, and it is this one.” 



Edinger, E. (1984).  The creation of consciousness.  Toronto, Canada: Inner City Books.

Jung, C.G., (1966).  The spirit in man, art, and literature.  Princeton University Press.  

Yalom, I. (June 2nd, 2008).  Mind/Super Mind lecture at Margery Luc Theatre, Santa arbara, California.