There's a reason why formalism flourishes in conservative times. It stops the discussion of ideology. The appeal of this approach to Dylan--and the reason it's taken hold, I'm convinced--is that it exempts his devotees from dealing with the troubling politics of his later songs: those reactionary attitudes and that unctuous, unforgiving theodicy. Formalism tells us that these values are not the source of Dylan's power, that it's all in the tropes. But there's more to his lyrics than subtext. There's a plain meaning, and it matters.
I'm not suggesting that a reactionary artist can't be a great one--remember Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot fighting in the captain's tower. I am saying that failing to confront the plain meaning of Dylan's music as well as its morality is a sin of its own.
Is there any great artist who appeals to only one sex? This question shouldn't be incidental to the Dylan discussion, but it is. Though most critics acknowledge his sexism--as in, So what else is new?--there's been no real examination of his sexual politics and its relevance to the rest of his politics. Hostility to women is a recurring motif in Dylan's songs, from "Like a Rolling Stone" to "Idiot Wind." His love songs, and there are many, bask in feminine submission, as in the ballad on Infidels (1983) that asks, "What's a sweetheart like you doing in a dump like this?" and answers "You know a woman like you should be at home/That's where you belong/Watching out for someone who loves you true/Who would never do you wrong."
What do women think of this shit? We don't really know, since rock crit (like lit crit) is such a male preserve. But it's safe to say that Dylan's current public is skewed toward the (straight) male end of the sexual spectrum. His heroic persona is a big reason why.
Take Dylan's trademark elusiveness: The self is masked; nothing is revealed. This stance is a major signifier of machismo in American culture, always has been. Think of all those masked superheroes, or the hard-boiled guys in film noir whose eyes are shown in shadow. Think of Noah's son, cursed because he saw his father naked. Dylan is steeped in that saga. He's a keeper of the patriarchal flame.
Consider this roster of Dylan themes: suspicion of worldly women--and therefore the world; rejection of modernism, especially when it threatens old values; rigid, sin-burned religiosity; the falsity of social life; the corruption of love; and, lately, the perversion of divine order. These values resonate with the paranoid tendency in machismo. When Dylan was younger, they were tempered by his rebellion against oppressive (white male) power, but now it's the disruption of godly rules and hallowed hierarchies that he rebels against, "infamy on the landscape," as Dylan writes in the liner notes for World Gone Wrong (1993). He doesn't work on Maggie's farm; he lives there.
I don't claim that Dylan is determined by machismo--there's much more to him than that. But I will say that he reaches many men of a certain age and status on precisely these grounds. He digs beneath their ambivalent embrace of sexual equality, the insistence that they acknowledge their interests as a sex, and he proposes that these demands insult the fundamentals. Liberals won't accept that regressive message when it's wrapped in conservative politics, as it often is in country music. But because Dylan is as critical of injustice as he is of liberation, he overrides such reservations. And if you take a purely textual approach, it's possible to forget that his mystique rests substantially on his sexual politics. Dylan is a liberal man's man.
Nostalgia for the patriarchy becomes acute for many men when they age, as their fathers diminish and die. For Dylan this yearning is a kind of prayer. "The iron hand it ain't no match for the iron rod," he sings in "When He Returns." The rod of ages he clings to--and his worshipers cling to--is a phallus. I'd say that's the key to the cult of Dylan. He's the holy writ in a phallic rite. It's why he's always inspired obsessive codifying and deciphering missions and why his songs are treated as sacred texts. They aren't just poems; they're parables from the mouth of... the prophet.
Faced with the nasty aspects of this artist, Ricks urges "faith in Dylan," adding, "this needs to encompass his faith and our having faith in him." That's not criticism; it's hagiography--and it violates the best of Dylan's subterranean homesick injunctions, the one I think of whenever I sit down to write a piece:
Don't follow leaders
Watch the parking meters.