(This is my latest column for the print version of CounterPunch, edited slightly.)
“And if my thought-dreams could be seen
They’d probably stick my head in a guillotine.”
Thus quoth the Bard, more than half a century ago. At the time, these lines were an electrifying insight into human nature, lighting up dark corners of the psyche not usually explored in popular music. They were also a jolting reversal of the usual protest song dynamic: a righteous hero denouncing evil from a position of moral purity. Here, at the end of a long, incandescent jeremiad against a sick society, we see the “prophet” suddenly subjecting himself to the harsh judgment he had just rendered. “Yeah, this place is Hieronymus Bosch on stilts — but you should see what’s howling in my head!’
We all have a night mind, we all have thought-dreams which, if exposed, perhaps might not get us guillotined but could well kill the image we present to others — and to ourselves. And this is true even for the most liberated, hip or “woke” among us. (Like Dylan’s own sheepish confession in his memoir, Chronicles, that back in the day he’d harbored a secret liking for Barry Goldwater because the politician reminded him of Tom Mix, the movie cowboy. Now that’s perverse!)
So imagine if there were a magic machine that let us explore our own guillotinable notions — or indeed, to range through the night-mind of the whole human race, encountering lurid thought-dreams beyond our previous imagining. A magic machine where every forbidden thought or fear or desire, even things abhorrent to our own daylight mind, could be approached, encountered, explored — and this in deepest privacy, in the safe confines of our homes, our normal daily reality. Who could resist dipping — or plunging — into such a dream-world? Yes, of course, we speak of the internet.
And these explorations need not be anything aberrant, illegal or immoral in themselves, but simply retrograde to what we think of as our truest, essential self. A gentle kindergarten teacher who finds herself looking with lurid fascination at beheadings on YouTube. A kind and loving social activist who is inexplicably drawn to the revolting racist bile she sees on Reddit. A married, smalltown bank manager who peruses gay porn or transgender websites, idly dreaming of alternative lives that in reality he would never pursue. An obsessive haunted by irrational, humiliating fears who seeks comfort – or exacerbation – down the digital alleyways of half-baked data and feverish need. The permutations are endless. Every dark impulse, every passing fantasy, every perverse or unsettling notion thrown up by the imp of the mind: all of this available, in endless profusion, 24/7, all over the world.
Now imagine if all of these self-exposing thought-dreams were being recorded by the magic machine. Imagine if this compromising material could be made instantly available to the security organs of an overweening nation-state or the overlords of a rapacious corporate power. What you would have then is an apparatus of repression, blackmail and control beyond the wildest dreams of the most tyrannical regimes, religions and ideologies in all of human history. Any dissident, any heretic speaking out against the power structure could be undermined politically, if not destroyed psychologically, by the exposure of their night-mind, their guillotine-worthy thought-dreams, by those who hold the keys to the magic machine.
And this need not apply only to those who had roused themselves to denounce publicly the crimes and rapine of the powers that be. No, even that quiet bank manager, that suffering obsessive, might draw back from making waves – or supporting any wave-makers – in the knowledge that their personal strangeness could potentially be exposed. This fearful but not unreasonable assumption is, in part, the fruit of the many whistleblowing revelations about the surveillance state and the incredibly pervasive reach of our hi-tech behemoths (Google, Facebook, Amazon, etc.) in recent years. We have all been taught to assume that everything we do and say and show on-line is being watched, stored and laid open to state and corporate scrutiny. And we are right to do so.
Yet because this magic machine has tapped into our of most primal impulses, because it offers the ever-alluring but ever-elusive promise of filling the holes torn in our psyches by our individual upbringings and by the cruelties, chaos and contradictions in any and every social, political and cultural milieu we find ourselves caught up in, we keep exploring – and recording – our thought-dreams with it. We can’t stop feeding it with kompromat against ourselves, can’t stop giving malevolent forces – who care nothing for us beyond what they can wring from us for their own power and profit – the key to the inner sanctum of our souls.
There is also the fact these malevolent forces have made it virtually impossible to carry out your daily life without giving them access to your lives and thoughts. Increasingly, in order simply to function in the modern world, you must tell them who you are, where you are, what you are buying, reading, watching, listening to.
So the Laureate’s lyrics are no longer metaphorical lights cast into our secret darkness. They are now the literal truth: our thought-dreams can be seen. And they can be used, should the powerful wish it, to put our heads in a guillotine.