No Time To Think

Introduction

This is a story about a possible suicide combined with bloody and hypocritical revenge. It’s presented by way of the multifarious thoughts of the would-be murderer – thoughts which cover his failed marriage, his past infidelity, his rejection of present temptation and  his apparent commitment to a violent resolution. Yet we see him as a tragic figure, far from one-sidedly evil, and capable of admitting his faults. Ultimately he’s presented at least in part as a victim of his own nature.

The richness of the protagonist’s thinking comes across by way of three striking techniques. First, every alternate verse begins with a list of concepts, a stream of consciousness reflecting the rapid movement of his thoughts. Most are developed in the ensuing verses, while repetitions serve to indicate a hectic mind grappling with unresolved issues. Secondly, different facets of his character are represented by figures from Tarot playing cards – most importantly, Mercury and the Magician. And thirdly, the protagonist addresses himself in both the first and second person, as well as his wife in the second. In so doing he draws our attention to a major theme, the divided personality. Together the techniques present to us a tortured and fractured mind unable to control its darker side.

We can only come to a general idea about what happens. Certain things are reasonably clear, while others are left vague so that the listener is forced to accommodate multiple interpretations. It’s clear that we’re being privileged with a first-hand account of the narrator’s thoughts and feelings. And we can gather that he’s distraught about his wife’s infidelity, and that this leads him to beat up his rival, for which he goes to prison.1 He then sets about killing. It’s almost certainly himself he intends to kill, although the reference to ‘the victim that’s there’ suggests that he means to kill his wife or her lover.

The precise nature of his intentions doesn’t matter. The song’s primary concern is not with this, but with how someone can be driven to do something terrible. It’s a study in human psychology, and as such it’s about human motivation generally, and not just the narrator’s. The narrator’s violent intent at the end of the song can be attributed to facets of his character and a decline in his mental state. Self-deceit, pessimism and moral weakness all contribute. There are compensating characteristics, but these are too few to make much difference.

The post is quite ridiculously long. Apart from the Introduction and Conclusion the most important sections are 1, 2, 4 and 7. And failing that, just 2 and 7.


1. The Traitor

A theme of the song is betrayal. Both the narrator and his wife have betrayed each other, and it’s the narrator’s response to being betrayed which becomes the main focus. In verse seven, however it’s the narrator’s conscience which is treated as the traitor:

‘Your conscience betrayed you when some tyrant waylaid you’,

One way his conscience betrayed him was by acting as it should – urging him to give up thoughts of revenge. The narrator responds only begrudgingly however, going for a compromise:

‘I’d have paid off the traitor and killed him much later’

Thus, insofar as his conscience is the traitor, he’d have reached an accommodation with it and at least postponed his revenge.

But he didn’t postpone his revenge. This happened, we’re told, because ‘some tyrant waylaid you’. The narrator’s complaint about his conscience might now be that it didn’t divert him away from revenge when it should have done. A tyrant gets in the way. We need to know, then, who this interfering tyrant is who provides the narrator with the lame excuse of a frustrated conscience.


2. The Magician

It’s the magician:

‘But the magician is quicker and his game
Is much thicker than blood and blacker than ink
And there’s no time to think’

The magician has thwarted the narrator’s attempts to follow his conscience. If the narrator is now on a path to murder or suicide, it’s the magician who’s to blame. But who then is the tyrannous magician?

In the Tarot the magician is someone who ‘sells’. He frequents the marketplace and misleads by sleight of hand.2 So too this magician. He’s evil – ‘blacker than ink’ – as shown by his wares:

‘Anger and jealousy’s all that he sells us’

Since only the narrator can be blamed for his own anger and jealousy, the magician must be none other than an aspect of the narrator himself. He’s his more mercurial side, the side the narrator recognises in himself when he says:

‘Mercury rules you …’

Since the tyrant is the magician, and the magician is the narrator, it follows that the tyrant is the narrator.

This identity of narrator and magician is confirmed by the narrator’s own words. Were the magician’s existence – his ‘game’ –  merely ‘thicker than water’, there’d be no reason to see more than a blood relationship. But that’s it’s ‘much thicker than blood’ implies a relationship much closer than even a blood one.3

The magician, then is the narrator – at least in the sense that he’s a representation of the narrator’s more evil, mercurial side.

Accordingly, although the narrator complains that the magician’s speed leaves him ‘no time to think’, it’s really the narrator himself who’s limiting his options and so preventing his conscience from rescuing him.

Recognising that:

‘… your kindness throws him’

he goes out of his way to keep the magician in him content by acting impulsively on his desire for revenge. He has a strategy rendering impotent the kindness in him:

‘To survive it you play deaf and dumb’

In other words, he refuses to either listen to or discuss alternatives to revenge. It’s a hopeless strategy for, far from enabling him ‘to survive’, it puts him on a path towards suicide.


3. Infidelity And Attitude To Sex

Much about the narrator’s character can be gleaned from his changing attitude towards sex as the song progresses. Given his own infidelity, his reaction to his wife’s seems nothing short of hypocritical. As he says about himself:

‘You can give but you cannot receive’

Furthermore,  while prepared to admit he’s unfaithful, his attitude represents another instance of his trying to avoid blame. Just as he blames the magician, so he passes the buck here. In claiming to have been:

‘Betrayed by a kiss …’,

(assuming he’s referring to himself) he seems to be trying to put the blame on the kiss itself, instead of on himself.  And, in the line:

‘Your conscience betrayed you when some tyrant waylaid you’

(again, assuming he’s the addressee) he appears to be blaming his infidelity on both his conscience and the supposed tyranny of a seductress.

Infidelity, it would seem, is deeply embedded in his character.

Further evidence of this is his naturally using language suggestive of extra-marital liaisons. Destiny fools him, he says:

‘Like a plague, with a dangerous wink’

implying that normally he’s susceptible to being fooled by winks, even dangerous ones .

While later in the song we find him eschewing sexual pleasure:

‘For pleasure you must now resist’

this doesn’t indicate he’s a reformed character. Sexual licentiousness has simply been put on one side so that he can focus on revenge. He’ll gain nothing morally, and his action seems likely to exacerbate the feelings of loneliness hinted at in the second verse. He stands only to lose. In finishing with ‘the Babylon girl’, he seems in addition to be turning his back on what is both beautiful and natural, as represented by the rose in her hair. And in obtaining ‘one last real glimpse of Camille’ – presumably a courtesan like the Camille in Dumas’ La Dame aux Camélias – the inclusion of ‘real‘ suggests that in leaving her he’s turning his back on reality.


4. Salvation

The narrator’s attitude to infidelity becomes a focus of the song’s attention in another way. Not only is it presented as a betrayal, but as a betrayal of Christ. The victim is ‘betrayed by a kiss’ which was the manner of Christ’s betrayal, and furthermore it takes place:

‘In secret, for pieces of change’

The phrase ‘pieces of ‘ echoes the expression ‘thirty pieces of silver’ used by the gospel writer to describe Judas’ fee (Matt 26.15).

Like Judas, the narrator ends up suicidal, thinking he can’t be forgiven:

‘You can’t find no salvation …’

This is his tragedy. He fails to appreciate the possibility of spiritual renewal. Or else he thinks it’s for other transgressors who ‘offer their heads for a prayer’. Instead of taking the traditional representation of spiritual renewal, water, as a sign of hope, for him it’s just something which ‘gets deeper’ and leads him onto the ‘brink’ – presumably of damnation.

That all is not yet lost is also indicated by the wording of the narrator’s excuse for postponing thoughts of revenge:

‘That’s just the way that I am’

God told Moses, somewhat tautologically, ‘I am who I am’, and goes on to refer to himself as ‘I am’ (Exodus 3,14). It seems that in the above quote the narrator is unconsciously alluding to his own God-like nature. There is a sense in which he and God form a unity, if only he realised it.

And, of course, ‘the way that I am’ is a reversal of Christ’s saying ‘I am the way’. If he were to give up thoughts of revenge, he would be more Christ-like – in a sense forming a unity with Christ. This leads to a further understanding of the nature of his betrayal. If in betraying his wife he is betraying Christ, then his betrayal of Christ will be a betrayal of himself.

The result:

‘Stripped of all virtue as you crawl through the dirt
You can give but you cannot receive’

The amusing rhyme between ‘virtue’ and ‘dirt/You’ helps make the claim palatable. Nevertheless the narrator is reduced to seeing himself as the snake in the garden of Eden.


5. Similarities

A theme of the song is similarity. Often it’s impossible to tell who a line refers to. The result is that we have to deny individuals characteristics which would distinguish one from another. Not so the narrator who who considers himself a special case despite obvious similarities between his situation and those of his wife and his rival. As a result he proceeds to usurp the moral high ground and make them his enemies.

It’s his short-sightedness in this respect which causes the narrator to condemn his rival for a failing which applies to himself. His prediction:

‘He who cannot be trusted must fall’

shouldn’t just apply to his rival, as the narrator presumably intends. Since neither is trustworthy, the narrator has no justification for making an exception of himself. Had he realised this he might have seen how hypocritical he’d be to condemn his rival

A similar point can be made with respect to the line:

‘Your conscience betrayed you when some tyrant waylaid you’

Whether it’s his wife or himself he’s addressing, there’s no indication that he realises his words apply no more to the one than the other. If the action of a tyrant exonerates him, then they should also exonerate his wife.

And then again, the grammatical incompleteness of the line:

‘Betrayed by a kiss on a cool night of bliss’

makes it applicable both to the husband who has been unfaithful to the wife, and the wife for being unfaithful to her husband. The line, in not distinguishing between them, unites them in a way which should prevent the narrator criticising her when he is as guilty.

Finally, there’s a double similarity between husband and wife in the line:

‘Anger and jealousy’s all that he sells us’

The narrator is clear not only that his wife is going to be every bit as angry and jealous as he is, but that she too is under the influence of the magician. He should realise then, one would have thought, that if her anger and jealousy doesn’t result in violence, then neither should his.

.
6. First And Second Person

It’s curious that the narrator suddenly switches from using the second person to using the first. This happens when having said:

‘Your conscience betrayed you when some tyrant waylaid you’

he continues

‘I’d have paid off the traitor and killed him much later’

The significance is two-fold.

First, just as the narrator fails to see and act on similarities, so he creates differences where there are none. The effect is to enable him to treat the owner of his conscience as a different person, thereby seeming to exonerate himself from guilt.( It was your conscience, not mine, that did the betraying.) It’s the same technique he used when treating the magician as a separate character.

Secondly, it allows the owner of the conscience to actually be a different person – his wife. In this case he’s not merely exonerating himself from guilt, but criticising her by telling her what he’d have done in her position (paid off the traitor etc).


7. The Narrator As A Unity

A fundamental concern of the song is the need for a person to operate as an integrated whole, rather than a duality. The narrator’s moral weakness arises from his conception of himself as a combination of individuals. The point is reinforced by way of a pun on ‘eyes’:

‘I’ve seen all these decoys through a set of deep turquoise eyes’

The ‘eyes’ are ‘I’s – different autonomous individuals he sees as comprising the one person. And these I’s are themselves decoys, serving to divert him from what he’d achieve as an integrated whole. The point is made by way of splitting the single word ‘decoys’ so that it becomes two parts of the expression ‘deep turquoise‘.

The idea is represented in the seventh verse by the phrase:

‘Where the lion lies down with the lamb’

(Isaiah 11.6) which presents an ideal coming together of conflicting attributes. Within a human being, two conflicting aspects will act as a restraints on each other once they become reconciled.

A similar idea is present in the allusion to ‘the missing link’ in verse four. Just as there’s supposed to be an evolutionary stage between monkeys and humans which involves aspects of each, so there needs to be a link between the primitive and higher attributes of a person to ensure that the primitive can’t take control.

The narrator’s mistake is to deal with his more primitive side in isolation. He tries either to give it full reign, as when he supports the ‘magician’, or to crush it, as when he later decides that ‘pleasure’ is to be resisted. Both approaches contribute to his destruction. Although he comes to recognises what he’s done:

‘You’ve murdered your vanity, buried your sanity’

it’s significant that it’s parts of himself he sees as having being murdered, rather than himself as a whole. By contrast the ‘lovers’ think in terms of the whole:

‘They’re not even sure you exist’


8. Self-Deceit

Part of the narrator’s moral weakness is a tendency towards deliberate self-deception. This, too, is the result of treating himself as a duality in which one half deceives the other. That he’s deceiving himself, rather than others, is apparent from the fact that he’s addressing himself throughout.  Perhaps the most obvious instance of self-deception is  when he convinces himself that he’s a creature of destiny:

‘… destiny fools you’

To know you’re being fooled is not the same as actually being fooled. By continuing to believe he’s being fooled even after recognising the fact, he must be guilty of deliberate self-deception.

Self-deception would also seem to be present in the constantly repeated wording of the title – ‘No time to think’. On several of the nine times it occurs, it’s being used as an excuse –  for example, for not combating his mercurial side, represented by the magician, or for not thinking about whether he’s actually being fooled by destiny. Never does he back up his claim that there’s no time to think.  On the contrary, he’ll find time to ‘play deaf and dumb’ and to find solace in drink.

He claims to be a ‘soldier of mercy’ but this too seems to be self-deception.  Although we don’t know if he carries out his plan for revenge, there’s little evidence of mercy in the song. At best it presents only half the truth given that in the same line he admits to being ‘cold’ and delivering ‘a curse’.

Similarly, his claim to have been pitied immediately gives us reason to doubt that it’s true. The pity came:

‘In secret, for pieces of change’

implying it came from a prostitute, who one assumes might have found it expedient to an act. It seems unlikely he would have overlooked this.

Finally, there is self- deception in the claim that he can’t help being like he is:

‘But that’s just the way that I am’

In fact there’s a double deceit here since he seems to be contradicting what he’s just said in the previous line:

‘I’d have paid off the traitor and killed him much later’

Given that he doesn’t actually pay off the traitor and delay killing him, he must be deceiving himself when he says without qualification that doing those things represents the way that he is. He knows full well that the way that he is, is more prominently represented by his mercurial side.

All this self-deception is highly ironic given his comment in the penultimate verse:

‘But no, you will not be deceived’

Where he himself is the deceiver, it would seem he is all too easily deceived.


9. Pessimism

A deficiency in the narrator’s outlook lies in his unwillingness to accept reality. A reality of his life is his association with prostitutes, and this he gives up for no moral reason and despite the detrimental effect on his mental well being.

There’s another way in which his unwillingness to accept reality comes out. This is his pessimism. Again, the effects are detrimental in causing the depression which develops into insanity. In the second verse he complains:

‘You fight for the throne, and you travel alone,
Unknown as you slowly sink’

The long vowels, internal rhyme and assonance all contribute to a tone of despondency. Why is he despondent, especially when there’s a ‘throne’ to fight for. Why is he resigned to travelling alone? Why doesn’t he stop himself sinking? If it’s a slow sinking, it’s clearly not the case that there’s no time to think. One feels that another person in a similar situation, instead of being so pessimistic, might well relish the opportunity it provides.

The empress  – a Tarot figure associated with nurture and sustenance – would appear to be a source of further hope. But not for him:

‘The empress attracts you but oppression distracts you’ 4

The narrator pessimistically assumes that his oppression must prevent  him from embarking on new life with the empress.

Thereafter negatives abound:

‘You can’t find no salvation’,

‘You know you can’t keep her’ – presumably his wife,

and, on release from prison:

‘You’re stranded, but with nothing to share’

Absurdly, the ‘but’  following ‘stranded’ makes having nothing to share sound like a pleasing contrast. If only the narrator would adopt a similarly positive outlook in the more auspicious circumstances he finds himself in!


10. Violence

Throughout the song the narrator has been presented as a realistic human being with recognisable faults. However, it might seem that his attitude to violence represents a departure from this. On a superficial interpretation he might even seem obsessed with violence. Certainly he makes a number of direct references to it. For example, about his sense of oppression he says:

‘…  it makes you feel violent and strange’

and when contemplating suicide:

‘Bullets can harm you …

There are also a number of indirect references, where violent expressions are used metaphorically such as in:

‘You’ve murdered your vanity’

and in the reference to blood in ‘thicker than blood’.

It would be wrong to see the narrator as a born psychopath, though. His thought processes show how his violent character developed gradually, and how one thing led to another.  It’s not particularly his fault, even that he feels ‘anger and jealousy’. It’s a common reaction in circumstances like his. And although he doesn’t deal with his impulsiveness well, he can’t be blamed for having impulsive tendencies in the first place. His feeling ‘violent and strange’ starts only after the onset of ‘oppression’. And his first violent action would seem to be a matter of breaking someone’s jaw, rather than murder. It’s only after his release from prison that he seems to have decided to use a gun.


Conclusion

We don’t know what happens at the end of the song, and we don’t need to know. We know what might have happened, but what the song is concerned about is why. The narrator isn’t to be dismissed as some sort of weirdo  who ought to have been locked up for longer. He’s us – a typical person. He’s unfaithful, and when he succeeds in not being unfaithful it’s for the wrong reason and only furthers his mental decline. He’s pessimistic, prone to self-deception and too readily finds excuses for acting without sufficient thought – all common human failings.

‘There’s no time to think’ – but there should be. The reason there isn’t is the narrator’s propensity to conceive of himself as a conglomeration of separate parts rather than as an integrated whole. He casts his mercurial side separately as ‘the magician’, and it’s the magician he blames for an impulsive, cruel attitude.. Had the narrator operated as an integrated whole, he’d have been able to keep his more reprehensible qualities in check. He’d have remained a flawed human being, but avoided becoming a tragic one.

1 The only indications of his wife’s unfaithfulness are the narrator’s response and that she sleepwalks, presumably – like Lady Macbeth – as a result of an inability to deal with guilt. There is no explicit mention of her lover.

2 As far as I can tell there’s little agreement on what the various Tarot cards symbolise. Accordingly I’ve confined my comments to what tends to appear in the pictures on cards. On the whole what the figures represent in the song is best worked out from the song itself. It’s significant, though, that some writers see the Magician as influenced by Mercury, and the Empress as representing growth and fertility. The narrator’s attraction to the empress might then be seen as an attraction to fatherhood.

3 There’s an illusion here to infidelity and betrayal. Although ‘game’ primarily refers to the magician’s business or raison d’etre (which I’ve loosely rendered as ‘existence’) it also has connotations of prostitution, as in ‘on the game’. The magician then can be seen not just as making the narrator renege on his feelings about revenge, but as responsible for his changing attitudes to sex.

4 See note 2.

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6 thoughts on “No Time To Think

  1. Hy David,
    not to name Dylan as the narrator is always good for the timeless spirit of the song, but for a better understanding, its allright if you also tell a little bit out of the real life.
    All his lyrics show a clear knowlwedge about the situations and problems, he had to deal with, if you take I`m not there, or iditot wind, he also knew that it was up to him to solve or change something, he felt nearly all the time some oppressive vibes from his wife, there was a constant jealousy, unbased or not. I think, he often felt stashed in a, for him prison-like situation and this feeling can easily cause aggressive and violent reactions, on the other hand he really was a two-timing slim and he in this way didnt take care of his wife and kids. We all know, that the forces to break out of this family thing were stronger and if you, as a man, walk this road, you need a kind of construction, where you can believe in and to set aside your own guiltiness, how the things went on. Back to 1977, its nothing more to talk about and better not to think about the loss of his great love, but we see, since then Bob Dylan will often reflect the failures of thes years.
    And whats more comfortable? To be the lion or the lamb ?
    Have a nice time.
    Marco

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  2. Thanks for commenting Marco. I don’t doubt that Dylan draws on his own experience when writing songs. You say, though, that to refer to Dylan’s life provides better understanding. I’m not sure that it does. It certainly doesn’t help me understand the song better. It seems to me irrelevant whether Dylan was writing autobiographically, or semi-autobiographically, or was merely drawing on other people’s experience and his imagination. What matters is how the song stands up as a work of art, and for that it has to be judged on its own merits.

    Although I don’t see that Dylan’s life shows anything of artistic relevance about the song, I do think that the reverse might well be the case. Those people interested in Dylan’s life might well find the fact that he’s written a song like this enables them to understand him better. But that’s a different matter.

    It occurs to me that if a writer’s life were relevant to how his works are to be understood, this would impose intolerable limits on our understanding. We know hardly anything about Shakespeare’s life, for example, or even for certain if he wrote the plays attributed to him. But while this is a bane to historians of literature, it’s none at all for to people seeing the plays. I suspect we know little about Dylan’s life too, in his case because he likes to keep it private. Are we to assume that this imposes an unacceptable limitation on our understanding? Of course, someone might reply that that’s not a reason for failing to take into account what we do know. But what do we know? Isn’t there a danger of thinking we know more about his life than we do? And wouldn’t this bogus knowledge skew our understanding of his songs if we tried to apply it? Almost certainly much of what we think we know is just gossip, so the safest bet I’d say would be to ignore it.

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  3. Hi David,
    when i think of Dylan and his songs i believe in one main thing he said:
    It`s not a character,I´m singing about like in a book or in a movie.
    It´s me who´s singing that, plain and simple.
    The people in my songs are all me.
    Only to know this is enough to know him better.
    And if you cut off a song from any relation to the person, why then you call your site bobdylansonganalysis and not plain songanalysis
    Then Dylan will also have a little smile or grin or a blink in his eyes, cause he`s doing the same way right now diving the eternal chain of throughts and voices..
    Have a good time
    Marco

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    • Why on earth do you believe him when he said that! As D.H.Lawrence said, ‘Don’t trust the artist, trust the tale’. But that doesn’t mean I’m cutting off the song ‘from any relation to him’. The title of the site just reflects the fact that he wrote the songs. Nevertheless, in no end of songs Dylan most manifestly is doing other things than simply writing about himself. Of course they reflect his personal experience, and aspects of his own character, so the people in his songs would all be him in that sense. And there’s another sense. Like those of many fine writers his characters are universal. In other words he’s writing about human nature, and that of course includes himself as much as anybody. If those are the sorts of things he meant by the people in the songs all being him, then I’m with him. But the songs themselves provide pleny of evidence that he’s not just writing about himself in a narrow sense. Anyway, there’d be no point. It would remove about nine tenths of the songs’ value.

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  4. Hi David,
    I didn´t want to blow your desk and I hope that you feel not to much attacked for this rename sentence. I like your reviews and some times I like to critize.
    What i meant that it´s also possible to take Bob Dylan and his songs a bit more personal instead of given all responsibility or nonresponsibility to a narrater.
    As you pointed out, none of us is sitting in the tower, but I stay with the argument, that people like Dylan have to go through some of these neverchanching existential experiences before he is even able transforming them into songs.
    Independence of time, of ages, every man on earth has to go though them.
    And from this point on, we´re not so far away from eachother in looking on the song.

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  5. Your comments are very welcome Marco. And I’m sure some people will agree with you more than with me. That’s fine. I’m not trying to impose a view. Even so, from what you’ve just said, I agree we’re not all that far apart on this song. But it’s worth having the conversation, not least because it helps me get clear about what I think.

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