In the chaos and horror of the sinking of the Titanic, there is a watchman aboard. He’s asleep — dreaming of the disaster befalling him and those he’s charged with watching. “The watchman he lay sleeping, the damage had been done — he dreamed the Titanic was sinking, he tried to tell someone.”
This figure is Dylan, I think — Dylan the prophet. He sees what’s happening to himself and his country and his world, but his vision is like a dream, and that’s all he can testify to. “I had this dream,” he says. “Maybe it’s important — maybe it means something.”
Cameron’s film Titanic is one of the most important works of art of our lifetimes. It looms as large in the culture now as the actual sinking of the actual Titanic. Dylan’s song is as much about this film as it is about the real ship that sank. The song is a conversation with the film.
It was a conversation Cameron started, putting lines from Dylan songs into the mouth of Jack, the film’s protagonist. “When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose,” Jack says in the poker game in which he wins his passage on the ship. “I’m just a tumbleweed, blowin’ in the wind,” he says to Rose.
People criticized Cameron for this, calling the lines anachronistic — though of course the lines were as old as the hills when Dylan used them. Now, in Dylan’s account of the sinking of the Titanic, he references Cameron’s film repeatedly.
He creates his own climax, however, but it is in many ways the same as Cameron’s climax, in which death and loss are redeemed by sacrifice. Jim Dandy in Dylan’s narrative smiles ruefully when he realizes that the ship is sinking, because he doesn’t know how to swim. He has a place in a lifeboat but he gives it to a crippled child — and then when death has its triumph, Jim Dandy’s heart is at peace, untouched by the horror. He has defeated death by sacrifice, just as Jack does in the film.
What’s left is meditation on the apocalypse — and Dylan gives that to the ship’s captain, facing his end kneeling before the wheel:
In the dark illumination
He remembered bygone years,
Read The Book Of Revelation
And filled his cup with tears.
You will remember that the priest in Cameron’s film quotes from Revelation when the ship goes down:
And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea.
And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.
Or so the watchman dreamed . . .
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