Long And Wasted Years

Introduction

At first glance the song is about a marriage which has failed and one of the partners’ attempts to mend it. However, various indications suggest that on a deeper level the song concerns the incarnation of Christ and the means of achieving salvation. The idea is explored through three individual characters – the narrator, the woman who’s being addressed, and the ‘enemy’. The narrator and the woman, would appear to represent respectively the divine part of Christ (God himself), and Christ the man. The enemy would appear to be Satan.

It’s never made explicit who the various parties represent, and as the song develops it becomes clear that none of the three can be completely differentiated from the other two. Accordingly something which applies to one of them is likely to apply to at least one of the others and, as it turns out, to the human race generally.

The narrator, then, seems to be Christ in his divine role. He begins by lamenting the split between the divine and human sides of his nature (the Father and the Son)and suggesting that the feeling of loss is experienced by them both:

‘Maybe it’s the same for you as it is for me’

He regrets the human race’s moral demise – ‘they may be dead by now’ – and urges his human part to take the action required to save it. Whilst the divine Christ is expressing his regret, it seems that the human Christ is in the desert presumably trying to come to terms with his divine role. Although on one level the song ends without the reunion of the divine and human sides of Christ, and so without the world yet having been redeemed, on another both that unity and the redemption are presented as eternal and so, in a sense, complete.


Space, Time and Eternity

It’s notable that various ideas and images are repeated as the song develops. Most importantly perhaps is the language used to express regret at the beginning and end of the song because it suggests that what goes on in time is also timeless, or eternal. The opening line is:

‘It’s been such a long, long time since we loved each other and our hearts were true’

and in similar vein the penultimate verse ends:

‘… it’s been a while
Since we walked down that long, long aisle’.

In each case the regret is about the time that’s passed since the divine and human parts of Christ were together, presumably a precondition of the latter’s being able to take on his role as redeemer. Both at the beginning and in the penultimate verse the phrase ‘long, long’ appears – ‘long, long time’ and ‘long, long aisle’. The repetition of the phrase makes us want to identify the temporal distance referred to in the first case with the spatial distance implied in the second. In our minds the temporal becomes just spatial, and so timeless, so that what on one level happened in the distant past, on another is eternal.

If the walk down the ‘long, long aisle’ is a marital metaphor for the union of the divine and human sides of Christ, then it’s that union which is both in the distant past and timeless. It’s in the distant past in that it represents the situation prior to the incarnation, before Christ had become human. And it’s eternal in that their union is no longer in time and so is permanent.

There’s another repetition in which temporal distance gives way to spatial. In the fourth verse we’re told:

‘I ain’t seen my family in twenty years’

and in the eighth there are:

‘Two trains running side by side, forty miles wide, down the eastern line’.

The ‘long long time’ is now represented as a period of twenty years separation, or ‘family’ upheaval, during which the Father has been separated from the Son. But in addition, those twenty years have become forty miles – that is twenty for each train – just as the ‘long, long time’ is going to become a ‘long, long aisle’.

And just as the replacement of the ‘long, long time’ with the ‘long, long aisle’ can be taken to represent the replacement of the temporal with the non-temporal, or eternal, so the replacement of twenty years with twice twenty miles can be seen as a replacement of the temporal with the non-temporal, or eternal. Once again the temporal separation between the two elements of Christ is no longer to be seen as having occurred. Father and Son remain together – ‘side by side’.

But not just that. The eternal togetherness of the divine and the human in Christ, suggested by the temporal separation’s becoming a spatial separation, is reinforced when that spatial separation itself gives way to unity. Again this is suggested by the language. Where one would expect the trains to be ‘forty miles apart’, in a curious expression we’re told they’re ‘forty miles wide’ – which suggests that the two trains are in fact one, very wide (very wide!) train. Just as a temporal separation has given way to a spatial separation, so the spatial separation has given way to complete unity.

The upshot is that from an eternal perspective Christ is to be perceived as a unified whole. In the post-incarnation period the human Christ is temporally separated from the divine, while this is belied by their eternal union.


Christmas and Easter

Nevertheless, from a purely temporal perspective it’s still the case that there has been a separation. This separation was brought about by the incarnation. It is presumably this which occurred, according to the last verse, ‘on that cold and frosty morn’. Since by tradition Christ was born in winter, the ‘cold and frosty morn’ would seem to be Christmas day.

The phrase used to refer to the separation is ‘our souls were torn’ and this can be taken in two senses. In the first, the Son and Father are ‘torn’ in the sense of torn apart, or separated from each other. In the second, this tearing would apply to each of the parts – since each part, divine and human, is itself totally God. It’s being ‘torn’ in this latter sense which is demonstrated in the narrator’s devastation at being separated from the incarnated Christ, and by the incarnated Christ’s torment which gives rise to his talking in his sleep:

‘Last night I heard you talking in your sleep, saying things you shouldn’t say’.

Only once these rents have been mended can Christ go about the business of redemption. However, there’s no need to regret the separation because from the eternal perspective there is no separation – eternally the mending is outside time and so in a sense complete. This is made apparent in the final lines of the song:

‘… we cried because our souls were torn.
So much for tears. So much for these long and wasted years’

While on one level the implication is that the passing years have been a waste of time, on another it’s that nothing has been lost. This is because ‘so much for these long and wasted years’ can be taken to mean either that the long and wasted years were a waste of time, or alternatively that they failed to be the waste of time they seemed to be.

Similarly with the expression ‘so much for tears’. In the context of crying, it means crying has been useless, but in the context of ‘torn’ it means being torn doesn’t matter. Whether both meanings are intended will depend on how ‘tears’ is pronounced when the song is sung.

Whereas the incarnation is presented as a temporal tearing apart, Christ’s divine mission of redemption is represented as a train journey, an eternal event involving the united Christ. Unsurprisingly the former is associated with Christmas. And equally unsurprisingly the latter seems to be associated with Easter. This is by way of the expression ‘down the Eastern Line’, in which ‘Eastern’ suggests a journey whose destination is Easter and the fulfilment of Christ’s divine purpose.


The Family

While the family referred to in the fourth verse:

‘I ain’t seen my family in twenty years’

can be taken to refer to Father and Son, who have been separated since the incarnation, it is likely also to represent God’s family in the sense either of the Jewish people, or (taking the idea of the chosen race more widely) the human race. God the Father has lost touch with his people (seen as the chosen people being expelled from ‘their land’, Israel) since they became inheritors of original sin. Consequently, he sends his Son to put matters right – to ‘shake it up’:

‘Shake it up, baby, twist and shout …’

In the verse about the family there’s the phrase:

‘They may be dead by now’

– ‘dead’ suggesting that the ‘family’ is morally dead and so in need of Christ to save them.


Doubt

The Son’s incarnation in time has given him human characteristics and it’s these which have separated him from God. One of these is doubt about his own nature which we first find out about when the divine Christ says:

‘Last night I heard you talking in your sleep, saying things you shouldn’t say’

and follows this up by tentatively suggesting as a solution:

‘Is there anywhere we can go? Is there anybody we can see?’

We discover that the human Christ, at least, has already gone somewhere, the desert – not a place his divine counterpart had in mind:

‘What’re you doing out there in the sun anyway?
Don’t you know the sun can burn your brains right out’.

And in biblical accounts (such as in Matt 4.1-11) there is someone he can see – Satan.

The lines quoted can also be taken as Christ’s divine side chiding his human side for going into the desert, seen as taking a negative approach to his role. It’s that role – redeeming the human race – which requires Christ to become human. And in turn it would perhaps be his ultimate acceptance of that role which would amount to his temporal reunion with God.

The disastrous personal consequences of delaying this acceptance would go beyond Christ’s having his ‘brains burnt right out’ are seen to have much wider consequences:

‘I think that when my back was turned, the whole world behind me burned’

Whatever the occasion referred to, this implies that the demise of Christ through burning would be the demise of the human race.


The Enemy

The reference to the enemy in the verse is apposite given that Satan was present in the desert with Christ. Since the enemy has ‘an iron heart’ he would seem to represent those who lack compassion and it’s this which sets him at odds with Christ.

The lines about the ‘enemy’ can help make sense of the sun references  – ‘out there in the sun’ and ‘the sun can burn your brains right out’.

If Christ is in the desert doubting his divine role, then these references suggest that his being taunted by Satan is in effect Christ taunting himself. In other words, to this extent he is his own enemy. A Son/sun pun implies that the Son and the sun are one and the same. And if it’s the Son who can burn his brains right out, the destructive work of the sun would be the self-destructive work of the Son.

Accordingly, the enemy’s defeat, were it to occur, would be the Christ defeating himself – which can be interpreted as the divine side of Christ overcoming his human weaknesses:

‘My enemy crashed into the dust, stopped dead in his tracks and lost his lust
He was run down hard and he broke apart’

It’s appropriate for this defeat to be described in the past tense even though it has yet to happen, because time has given way to the eternal (in the sense of that which is outside time). While from a temporal perspective the enemy’s defeat is only a possible future event, from an eternal one it is timeless. Hence it is as true to say that it has happened as that it has yet to happen. In a similar way in the song, the redemption of the human race by Christ has still to occur and yet is eternal.

The identity between the enemy and Christ, in that the enemy represents Christ’s human weakness, is further reinforced in the lines just quoted. If the enemy ‘stopped dead in his tracks’, he’s being implicitly identified with Christ who is on the tracks of ‘the Eastern Line’.

A further identity is implied in that in losing his lust, a devilish form of love, the enemy is like the divine and human lovers of the first verse who once loved each other but whose love needs to be restored. And just as the lovers’ hearts are no longer ‘true’, so the enemy’s heart is described as ‘iron’, indicating a lack of emotional warmth.

Furthermore, that the enemy ‘broke apart’ would clearly seem to identify him with both the divine and human sides of Christ which have themselves broken apart.

While the enemy is clearly made out to be Christ, at the same time the language implies he is destroyed by Christ. This is by way of the verb ‘run’ being used in connection with both Christ and the enemy. The enemy is ‘run down hard’, and this implies that he’s crushed by the trains – Christ – in that these are ‘running‘ side by side.

Two more identities can be seen which involve the ‘enemy’. The first is with the family which the narrator hasn’t seen in twenty years. We’re told:

‘… they may be dead by now,
I lost track of ’em after they lost their land’.

Since the ‘enemy’ stopped ‘dead in his tracks’ there’s an implicit identification of the enemy with the family which may be dead. And since the family is God’s chosen people, there’s the further implication that God’s chosen people – the human race – is its own enemy.

The second identification arises from this. If the human race is the enemy, and the enemy is Christ, then it follows that the human race is Christ. And since Christ is responsible for bringing about the redemption of the human race, it follows that the human race has a responsibility for its own redemption.

On the one hand the human race is its own enemy, and on the other it is its own saviour.


Anachronisms And Further Identities

A continuation of the sun imagery provides a way of strengthening the identity between the divine and human in Christ:

‘I wear dark glasses to cover my eyes; there are secrets in them I can’t disguise’

There’s perhaps a hint here of St Paul’s dusty mirror image for our understanding of God, ‘For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face.’ (1 Cor 13.12). What are the secrets? The Pauline mirror analogy suggests it’s Christ’s own divinity – a divinity about which at this stage he is only dimly aware.

There is another way of interpreting the line. The reference to sunglasses can also be taken literally. Sunglasses, though appropriate for the desert, in the present biblical context appear anachronistic. This is just one of a number of anachronisms in the song, all of which help to reinforce a particular idea – the pre-eminence of the eternal over the temporal. The anachronisms do this because their presence can only be tolerated if in some way the temporal has been eclipsed.

Others anachronisms include modern idioms and expressions adapted from other songs:

‘Shake it up, baby, twist and shout’

as well as the trains and train track references.

An additional, though related, effect of all these anachronisms is to suggest a further identification. Since their presence in a song with a biblical setting has the effect of extinguishing the temporal distance between past and the present, it’s not just the human race two millennia ago which is identified with Christ, and so is responsible for its own redemption.  It’s also the human race as represented by us now. The anachronisms bring us into the picture. We too are Christ, and as such we take on a responsibility for our own redemption.


Conclusion

Ultimately the song provides a view from an eternal perspective according to which God, the incarnated Christ, the enemy, the chosen people and the human race up to the present day, are all one. On a temporal level there’s a separation between God and Christ, which amounts to uncertainty about the redemption. From an eternal standpoint this is resolved. But it isn’t just resolved by presenting God and Christ as united. Along the way Christ is presented as a flawed human, his own enemy, an enemy which he must overcome if the redemption is to occur. Since the human race is also identified with the enemy and therefore Christ, it too by implication has a role in its own redemption.

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2 thoughts on “Long And Wasted Years

  1. … try to see Bob Dylan more personally, just open your ears and you will hear this redemption to a time when his most important relationship of his life broke. Maybe in 1974, could be later or little bit sooner, walking down the island, maybe Rhode Island, I dont know, talking, crying about how it could come this way, after 8 years love, family and Kids, motorcycle accident, back problems.
    This is fitting for me better, every sentence of the song.
    Bob Dylan feels and thinks like any other man.

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  2. Thanks for your comment Marco. Up to a point I agree with you – it is possible to see the song as about a marital relationship, and perhaps Dylan’s own. I probably should have made much more of that. So, the length of the relationship seemed no more than a day; counselling might have helped keep them together, not having seen the family for twenty years can be taken literally, the two trains are the couple supposedly together and yet far apart, etc.

    Nevertheless I think my real point is that the song isn’t just autobiographical. It is that, but a lot more as well. The bits which make it a song about loss are heartfelt, perhaps, and I can quite see how it might be appreciated just for that. But what makes the song really good (in my view) is the way in which it’s open to being interpreted on another level. There’s an awful lot that just doesn’t fit with the idea that it’s just about loss, whereas pretty well everything fits with the idea that the speaker is Christ. I seem to remember Dylan saying somewhere that he originally set out to write a religious album, so for that reason it wouldn’t be surprising to find songs open to religious interpretations.

    My revised view, then, is that the song is both autobiographical and religious. If we’re alive to both interpretations our listening experience is inevitably going to be all the richer.

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