Old-World Maps, John Donne & Love: Beyond Here Lies Nothin
The opening line to Bob Dylan 33rd studio album Together Through Life is aptly a simple declaration of love. Beyond Here Lies Nothin conjures up a balmy rumba-laced Howlin’ Wolf indebted atmosphere of wine-red sensuality and darkness. Within this perfumed room of sound, love is invoked. A powerful, mysterious love– that is, in its intensity– ‘the only love I’ve ever known’. This is where we begin:
well I love you pretty baby
you’re the only love I’ve never known,
just as long as you stay with me
the whole world is my throne.
beyond here lies nothin
nothin I could call my own.
The central idea being that, when united with this potent love, things change– reality becomes reconfigured somehow– a single moment becomes infinity and ‘the whole world is my throne.’ Everything is orientated around this flame of love. This feeling recalls John Donne’s The Sun Rising wherein the persona declares:She’s all states, and princes I;
Nothing else is;
Beyond Here Lies Nothin seems to conjure up the Blakean idea of ‘eternity in a grain of sand’– an allusion Dylan has tempted us with before– except, everything here resides and is encapsulated through love– love shared between two. ‘Two shall become one flesh’. This physical connection being a symbol for the multifaceted life that is created infinitely through relationships– love is creative, edifying and crucially, love is shared. It cannot exist alone: it must be shared, experienced together. Outside of this love there is nothing. And yet everything is within it, encompassed, like an entire universe within a tiny space, love contains and transfigures everything within its very nature.
Outside of love, there are ‘boulevards of broken cars’. What was once dynamic is now lifeless, broken shells. Glass ‘windows’ are everywhere– fragile and inflexible and transient. Outside of love, there is ‘nothing done and nothing said’. Everything has stopped; there is no movement or communication– just static objects ‘of the past’. And against this imagery– the music rumbles, Tex-Mex accordian descending in caresses– vibrantly crafted, pulsating, disclosing, free and even loving.
I have read reviews of this song that accuse it of nihilism. But if anything this song critiques such sterile perspectives– love is the fruitful keyhole through which to view the world– outside of this, there is nothing, nihilo. Love turns nothing into something.
One of the other motifs this song pulls into its syrupy intertextual glue is the concept of navigation maps. In the sea-navigation maps of the middle ages, the ‘known realms’ were charted and named whilst the ‘unknown realms’– areas unexplored, mysterious and yet to be discovered– were thought of as being the ‘ends of earth’ and therefore branded ‘Beyond Here Lies Nothin’. In the final verse Dylan sings:
well my ship is in the harbour
and the sails are spread
listen to me, pretty baby
lay your hand upon my head
beyond here lies nothing
nothing done and nothing said.
Images of a seafaring hope that seem to find connection with this navigational enterprise. The beginnings of a new journey– new expression, new flourishes of life, creating new landscapes. This love is always shifting– sailing onwards– exploring new horizons, together.
In a strange creative turn we have this picture of ‘lay your hand upon my head’. Is this sexual euphemism (‘whorish as ever’), a spiritual allusion (‘offer their heads for a prayer’) or just loving affection. It resonates with all three–opaque and multifaceted. Nevertheless, what fascinates me is that it is ‘here’– ‘the head’– that is essential. Beyond here lies nothin. Outside of this mysterious fragile human consciousness being literally touched by love, there is nothing.