Experiencing the Postmodern Psyche in “I’m Not There”

I am posting this piece I wrote several years ago, in honor of Bob Dylan’s silence, in the wake of the Nobel committees decision to give him a technocratic prize, symbolic of mainstream values. Perhaps unwittingly, or unconsciously, the committee’s attempt to tie him into the larger canon of human literature, which fails to address a conversation he has been attempting to stay in friction with since the very beginning of his career. A conversation that assumes expertise, and progress, and success, rather than authenticity, is the priority.

In 2008 I wrote about the film directed by Todd Haynes, I’m Not There (2007). It is on the surface an exploration into the psyche of Bob Dylan, but underneath it is an exploration of the psyche of the 1960s — and underneath that an exploration of the human psyche itself with its archetypes and complexes alive, personified, and driving the meat of the body in varied directions. In playing with the layers and personifications of one human psyche, Haynes is able to depict the Postmodern inconsistencies of today’s society.

The 1960s was the beginning of human perception and behavior within the Postmodern theoretical frame. This is not to say that Postmodern theory originates in the 1960s, but that society and individuals became “Postmodern” in that era. As societal structures began to loosen and dissolve, people were able to more readily reinvent themselves, playing out various unconscious personalities more dramatically within a single lifetime. At the same time, society itself began to break apart into more and more experimentally organized, and sometimes disorganized, social structures. In a forward for an anthology on ecopsychology, James Hillman writes, “Postmodernism has deconstructed continuity, self, intention, identity, centrality, gender, individuality. The integrity of memory for establishing biographical continuity has been challenged. The unity of the self has fallen before the onslaught of multiple personalities” (Ecopsychology xvii).

Using the shorthand of a familiar icon like Bob Dylan, Haynes discusses the relationship between the personal and the social within an individual’s psychological processes. He plays with the mythologies of “Bob Dylan” to depict familiar scenes, characters, and music not as historical factual elements in the life of Dylan but as a collage of pieces that make up an individual multifaceted psyche. In this way, Haynes comments on every psyche, and on the larger social psychology of our Postmodern existence as it has been evolving since the transformations of the 1960s.

In her book Wisdom of the Psyche, Ginnette Paris writes “the goal of a depth-psychological analysis, in a nutshell, is to become minimally aware of the reigning myth that shapes us, that expands or contorts our being” (178). The reigning myth in I’m Not There is that of the ’60s era, a myth of reappraisal and deconstruction, which Theodore Roszak describes in his 1995 forward to The Making of a Counter Culture: “Never before had protest raised issues that went so philosophically deep, delving into the very meaning of reality, sanity, and human purpose. Out of that dissent grew the most ambitious agenda for the reappraisal of cultural values that any society has ever produced” (xxvi). The film depicts this reappraisal from a distance of 30 years, including a second layer of deconstruction, our current view. The viewer sits in a place of total Postmodern immersion watching the film’s depiction of the beginning. As Paris writes, “Instead of looking for Truth, depth psychology — post-modern in its own original way — invites us to pay attention to the distance or the proximity between the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves as well as the stories others relate about us or to us” (184). Through a Depth Psychological analysis of Haynes’ film, the imaginal landscape of Dylan’s psyche unfolds an image in close “proximity” to that of the current state of the Postmodern American psyche with all it’s contradictions, defenses, longings, disappointments, and fantasies.

In the opening line of I’m Not There, the narrator says “There he lies. God rest his soul, and his rudeness. A devouring public can now share the remains of his sickness, and his phone numbers. There he lay: poet, prophet, outlaw, fake, star of electricity. Nailed by a Peeping Tom, who would soon discover even the ghost was more than one person.”

What follows this line is an intricate collage of six characters, all hypothesized aspects of Dylan’s psyche, played by six different actors. The characters are a young black boy calling himself Woody Guthrie and riding the rails wrapped in a romantic identity inspired by the Depression Era even though it is 1959; a poet who spells out his name as “Arthur Rimbaud” before a government committee; Jack Rollins, a left-wing folk singer who becomes disillusioned and later finds Jesus; Robbie Clark, a movie star made famous for playing Jack Rollins in his first movie; Jude Quinn, a hip, jaded, drugged-out music legend speaking in metaphor and innuendo as played by actress Cate Blanchett; and Billy the Kid, still alive years after his supposed death, now old and grizzled, hiding out in a surreal landscape of characters from Dylan songs.

These six personified aspects of Dylan progress through terrain both real and imaginal of the 1960s and into the ’70s, acting out changes in politics, culture, art, music, identity, and perception. Even the filmic styles of I’m Not There echo this time transition, as the style moves from Warhol and French New Wave Cinema through Beatlemania black-and-white and Jean-Luc Godard’s deconstructionist revolutionary period, to 1970s auteur styles such as Peckinpah, Scorsese, and Nichols (director of The Graduate). At one point early in the film, three Godard-style shots of black background with white text are edited in between live action shots with the words “A View of the World,” “Belonging to,” and “One Generation.” All of these elements help to build not simply a background for the characters of the film but a generational experience equivalent to a seventh character.

Changes in each of the Dylans can be matched by changes in cultural, psychological shifts experienced by the 1960s generation. The romantic notions of our historical past held by the young black boy calling himself Woody Guthrie become the surreal, destructive imaginal world of Billy the Kid as the generation moves from the utopist ’60s to the dark confusion of the ’70s — just as Robbie Clark’s relationship with his wife Claire spans the length of the Vietnam War, and in that time moves from the hopeful fresh beginnings of their love affair to jaded alienation, ending in divorce. Jack Rollins starts as a folk icon, becomes disillusioned and angry, fed up with the Modernist agendas of the Old Left. He transforms into Jude Quinn, who falls further and further into burnt-out despair, talking in meaningful riddles that few understand, and then returns as Jack Rollins born again as a Christian. But this Rollins is being featured in a documentary in which it is clear that he has become once again an icon of “truth,” only now for the Christian Movement. Each of these transitions is a metaphorical expression of the “One Generation’s” psyche as the ’60s generation moved from hopeful youth culture to disillusioned adults seeking some sort of spiritual solace in the 1970s.

Hillman writes that the purpose of personifying is “to save the diversity and autonomy of the psyche from domination by any single power” (32). This is what Postmodern theory also attempts: an escape from the black-and-white thinking of Modernism. By personifying our current psyche through Bob Dylan, Haynes reveals our current deconstructed state. As Paris writes: “To see how a myth is fabricated, one might look at how it is deconstructed, undone, deleted. To break free, one needs not only the construction of a new myth but the deconstruction of the old one. Otherwise, the worn-out myth remains active but hidden, and because hidden, destructive” (179).

The myth Haynes deconstructs is not the myth Jude Quinn deconstructs for us on the screen but the myth that comes after it. By being shown this myth of deconstruction undone, can we break free from it? Are the seeds of a new myth within Haynes’ vision, within our collective vision of our Postmodern existence?

Hillman writes of the impact on the psyche when one begins to imagine multiple persons within: “Personifying means polycentricity, implicating us in a revolution of consciousness — from monotheistic to polytheistic. It will feel like breakdown and regression” (35). As a culture, we can easily walk through the polycentric myth of Bob Dylan’s psyche, which is our psyche. We are now polycentric — the breakdown has occurred.
Toward the end of the film, Jude Quinn speaks of folk music as one would speak of myth, describing the mystery within “traditional music” and his frustration with those that would hold tight to a defensive, literal approach. He says of the music, “I think its meaninglessness is holy.”

This line expresses the exciting potential of where we now stand. As we approach our future — deconstructed, fragmented, and torn apart, each of us with our own polycentric community of internal people — is our meaninglessness holy? Most Americans could easily identify with the final words of Billy the Kid: “I don’t know who I am most of the time. It’s like you got yesterday, today, and tomorrow all in the same room. There’s no telling what can happen.”



Hillman, James. Re-Visioning Psychology. New York, NY: HarperPerennial, 1992.

—————. “A Psyche the Size of the Earth: A Psychological Forward.” Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind. Eds. Theodore Roszak, Mary E. Gomes, and Allen D. Kanner. San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, 1995. xvii-xxiii.

I’m Not There. Dir. Todd Haynes. Perf. Cate Blanchett, Ben Whishaw, Christian Bale, Richard Gere, Marcus Carl Franklin, Heath Ledger. Killer Films, 2007.

Paris, Ginette. Wisdom of the Psyche: Depth Psychology After Neuroscience. London: Routledge, 2007.

Roszak, Theodore. The Making of a Counter Culture: Reflections on the Technocratic Society and Its Youthful Opposition. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1995.