Spiritual Love Songs: Bob Dylan’s Love in Vain

Love songs are a topic well suited to relate to several levels of understanding: from erotic references to the longing for a companion, a soul mate, up to inner processes of soul and spirit that use worldly love merely as an analogy.

Love in Vain was released in 1978 on the album Street Legal, which was recorded in a matter of days between tours in Japan and Europe, to mixed criticism.

Do you love me, or are you just extending goodwill?
Do you need me half as bad as you say, or are you just feeling guilt?
I’ve been burned before and I know the score
So you won’t hear me complain
Will I be able to count on you?
Or is your love in vain?

The lyrics may be read as an anxious question: Does my partner really love me from the bottom of her / his heart? Does our relationship have a future? Is it worth getting more involved with each other? After all, warnings of disappointments do not come without good reason.

Attempting a spiritual approach to Love in Vain

How can the lyrics be understood at a spiritual level? The speaker could be the voice from within, the jewel in the lotus flower of the buddhists, the divine spark, the rose of the heart of the rosicrucians. She asks the person who carries her around in this physical world: Are you the one who helps me return to my true home? The listener is aware of this voice from within, he can hear it. That means he is a seeker who has matured for the path of the soul through experience – maybe his own, maybe those of the predecessors in his immortal system, i. e. previous incarnations.

Many people are blessed with such sensitivity. But it does not suffice to hear the voice from within. The path is about not only listening to it, but to make room in one’s life, to change priorities, to follow her impulses and consistently put them into practice, to even regard them as more valuable than any other goals in life.

The voice from within may be immortal, but it is bound to a mortal human being and requires its help. It has been linked to many people before: the karmic predecessors, former incarnations. Some may have heard her calling, but no one has adhered to it far enough to set her free from earthly bonds. Time and again she had to postpone her hopes to the next incarnation. And now she asks again if her current host is earnest about the path:

Will I be able to count on you, or is your love in vain?

Have you realized that there is but one exit to the world of opposites and suffering?

The following sentence reminds me of a story of master and pupil:

Do you need me half as bad as you say, or are you just feeling guilt?

Master and pupil are swimming in a river. The master pushes the pupil under water and keeps him there for a while. When he finally releases the pressure, he tells his student, who is gasping for breath: When you desire liberation of your soul with every aspect of your being just as much as you desired air to breathe a moment ago, then your desire is pure and strong enough.

Spiritual growth out of sight of ego and rational mind

It is a very human approach to try to understand (and possibly control) exactly what is happening. However, when the soul is purified on a spiritual path, a considerable part of this transformation takes place out of reach of the ego and the rational mind.

Are you so fast that you cannot see that I must have solitude?
When I am in the darkness, why do you intrude?
Do you know my world, do you know my kind?
Or must I explain?
Will you let me be myself?
Or is your love in vain?

So the seeker must learn to accept a certain powerlessness. A state of inner calmness, peacefulness, helps the soul grow in minimal disturbance. A newly planted seed will not prosper if it is dug up again to see how much it has grown already. The human needs to faithfully await the moment he will understand some more of the impulses from the soul. Inner calmness does not mean inactivity: The seeker may actively play his role in the world. All he needs to do is let go of emotions of fear and hope, fights and arguments, personal ambitions, … anything that stirs him up more than necessary. He will stop striving for fulfillment where he knows it cannot be found.

The third verse: Maturity

Our physical world is such a great place because it offers vast opportunities for an abundance of experiences. It is a decisive step in spiritual development to realize: Whatever this world may offer, I now know that nothing can satisfy the longing of my soul.

Well I’ve been to the mountain and I’ve been in the wind
I’ve been in and out of happiness
I have dined with kings, I’ve been offered wings
And I’ve never been too impressed

The third verse may be the personality’s answer to the soul’s calling. What am I really seeking? Am I prepared to follow the voice from within into uncharted territory? The human being reflects her (his) experiences: She knows about the opposite sides, about happiness and sadness, wealth … Striving for perishable fulfillment ain’t worthwhile. The meaning of life must be at a different level, it has to be everlasting, immortal and therefore untouchable for human hands.

Jesus and the rich young man

Love in Vain was written shortly before Dylan’s conversion to Christianity in 1979. Quotes from and references to the bible, however, had been traditional in folk music for a long time.

Are you willing to risk it all / Or is your love in vain?

This may be a reference to the episode of Jesus and the rich young man (Mark 10:17-31, Matthew 19:16-30, Luke 18:18-30): he adored Jesus, but was not prepared to give up his possessions and follow Jesus’ example unconditionally.

What field of life does the voice from within testify to?

All right, I’ll take a chance, I will fall in love with you
If I’m a fool you can have the night, you can have the morning too
Can you cook and sew, make flowers grow?
Do you understand my pain?
Are you willing to risk it all?
Or is your love in vain?

He who entrusts himself to the divine spark within, will be lead to realize the narrow limits of his own being – a humbling experience. This may help to let go of one’s own ambitions. Do you know the secrets of life? the voice asks. Can you cook and sew, can you make flowers grow? Do you understand my pain – to be bound to matter and your being?

Does Dylan ridicule feminism by relating to cooking and sewing? Maybe these lines refer to the contrast between activities humans can control (cooking, sewing) and the impact of finer forces which operate outside the reach of human control (making flowers grow). We may be gardeners, but we do not master the energy that lets the seed unfold. All we can do is prepare conditions that allow life-spending energies to act.

The seed in the human soul needs nourishment in order to grow: un-earthly etheric energy from the primordinal field of life. While this energy may be present everywhere, it can only reach the divine spark through a purified heart. In this sense, cooking may be read as preparing nourishment for the divine spark, and sewing may signify weaving the soul dress. (The traditional song Scarborough Fair, popularized by Simon & Garfunkel, can be read as exactly this task: weave a dress for the maturing spirit-soul from unearthly materials = energy. Another reference may be Harry Styles’ “Hope you’re wearing your best clothes” in Sign of the Times.)

Like many Dylan songs, this one has been covered by various artists. A version I really like was recorded by Polish artists Stanisław Sojka und Janusz Iwański (known as Yanina):