Ulterior Significance in the Art of Bob Dylan
This essay examines the songwriting art of Bob Dylan as a vehicle for exploring and clarifying elements in Bernard Lonergan’s analysis of art. The elements focused upon include Lonergan’s treatment of symbols and symbolic meaning as the communicative medium of art, and, at greater length, Lonergan’s account of art’s capacity for what he calls “ulterior significance,” its ability to suggest depths of meaning—including divine or ultimate meaning—that we surmise to lie beyond our comprehension. Examining songs from the full range of Dylan’s fifty-year career, the essay shows that from his early songwriting in the “folk” tradition and his breakthrough achievements of the mid-1960s, Dylan’s best art has been characterized by an unusual concision and power in its use of symbolic imagery, as well as by a recurrent ability to evoke, with artistic originality and effectiveness, mysteries of “ulterior significance.” These analyses are then brought together in a discussion of the religious, often eschatological, character of some of Dylan’s most significant work.
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