So, Do, La, Fa, Me, Do, Re

Bob Dylan and his Nobel

Ultimately if Dylan, who has been known to introduce himself as a “song and dance man”, wants to be recognised as a writer depends solely upon his discretion, says Barnamala Roy.


“He is (not) going to the carnival tonight on Desolation Row.”

His appearance at the “carnival” becomes even more dubious with Dylan’s website removing the acknowledgement of his Nobel win, temporarily added for the promotion of his book of lyrics. The Nobel Committee has failed in its attempts to yield a response from Bob Dylan regarding his Nobel win, and he reportedly ended a performance at Las Vegas(allusively) with “Why Try to Change me Now” on the day the prize was announced. While a section of his fans are doting over his silence and validating how genius (like Bob’s) functions in unpredictable ways, Sara Danius- the Nobel academy’s permanent secretary has appeared unflustered about Dylan’s evasiveness. In case Dylan wishes to abscond the party on November 10th held in his honour, the celebrations would not be disrupted- she has conveyed to The Guardian.
Even before Dylan credited the declaration with a reply, print, visual and social media have been rife with discussions about the Nobel Committee’s unusual choice of awarding the Nobel Prize in Literature to a musician. To dispel any confusion regarding the award’s intention at the outset, let me quote from the Nobel’s website. “Not only belles-lettres, but also other writings which, by virtue of their form and style, possess literary value” will be considered eligible for the prize and older works can be nominated afresh “if their significance has not become apparent until recently”. Superficially, Dylan’s works fit both these criteria.

A brief look at the different trends within the Nobel’s history reveals that the Eastern countries were irked by the Nobel candidatures of Jaroslav and Brodsky and there the question veered around the political intention of the Nobel Committee, rather than the impartial literary acknowledgement of their works.

In the instance of Bob Dylan, the speculations have been more on the grounds of the ‘literary’ and almost no one is focusing on the political intent of awarding Dylan’s creation of “new poetic expressions within the American song tradition” as late as 2016 (with the impeding American elections).

What can be attributed as the greatest ‘literary’ feat has likewise shifted in course of the prize’s history- ‘ideal tradition’ has drifted towards a finest portrayal of the human predicament. The standards of ‘humanistic’ depiction have also been contested, as in Cela’s case, with a darker and intense Beckettian conception of human realities, mentioned in the Nobel’s guidelines. The dominance of the novel within the tradition of the Nobel has been interrupted by increasing attention to poets, dramatists Dario Fo (1997) and Harold Pinter (2005) and the recognition of journalistic works of Svetlana Alexievich (2015).  With criteria of the honour undergoing revision in terms of the thematic, generic or the stylistic, the spirit of inclusion compromising with the standards has never fallen out of question. Most strongly, what has come up with Dylan’s Nobel win, is the failing of the Committee in safeguarding stringently the terrains of literature. To not let populist sentimentality that elevates kitschy pop to high art gain ground to avoid the fiasco of say, a Chetan Bhagat walking away with the Nobel, someday. The contours of literature as a discipline have always been very malleable and in context of on-going debates about the definition(s) of the literary, lyrics have been promptly cited as always already belonging to/in literature.  The Bard’s sonnets to the Romantics with their upsurge of lyricism (Coleridge and Wordsworth’s 1798 Lyrical Ballads) stand testimony to the high valuation of lyricism within the literary tradition. Besides that, Tagore has already preceded Dylan in his Nobel-win as a lyricist with his ‘Gitanjali: Song Offerings’ (1913), as agreed upon quite unanimously and edified by Amit Chaudhuri’s recent write-up for The Guardian.

The defenders of the literary (who cannot undermine Tagore’s literariness) would predictably argue that the Nobel was honoured to him in recognition of his formidable gamut of literary works in which ‘Song Offerings’ only act as stand-in.

I am left wondering about the position that necessitates guarding the boundaries of a terrain that as of now remains unchartered.

Derek Attridge has forgone the distinctions of a literary and non-literary language in his books, The Singularity of Literature and The Work of Literature where he credits inventiveness, originality and singularity (uniqueness) as the qualifiers for the ‘literary’. This echoes the Nobel’s attribution to Dylan- “for having created new poetic expressions within the American song tradition”. Also, the Swedish Academy’s decision to grant the honour so late in the day can be explained by Attridge’s analysis that literary potential of any given work may become recognizable in the future. He further argues that the literary is not a stable category and any work’s inventiveness operates at the permeable borders of the literary and is capable of re-inventing the category (of the literary) itself.

An understandable line of argument has been Dylan, along with other musicians, have various musical accolades to their credit and giving Dylan the Nobel as an addendum is costly as it deprives a contestant with purely writer-ly talents.

A litterateur’s prose or poetry would never qualify for say, the Grammy or ‘The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’. While such considerations are valid to not let the prize get completely usurped by artists from other fields and the balance needs to be tilted heavily on the side of the litterateurs to maintain fairness, recognizing the ‘literary’ in other art forms is also necessary for the Nobel Committee. If nothing else is achieved by the prize, at least, musicians whose compositions are not solely musical notations, might get a tad more attentive towards lyrics. Perhaps not with a Nobel looming on their minds, but by the prestigious award recognizing this field, we understand why literature has and should percolate into other artistic forms. The cultural effect of the prize could accelerate the field(s) to reinvent the category of the literary, echoing Attridge. This reinvention reminds me of a recent interview with Hong Kong based musician Samson Young who mentioned ‘frivolity’ as the guiding principal of his interdisciplinary musical works which fuse visual art, audio recordings, radio broadcasts and live performances.

An article on Spiked admits an unwavering fondness for Bob Dylan’s music but objects to the Nobel spokesperson’s comparison of his “The Times They Are a’-Changing” to the poetry of Homer and Sappho. I agree to the infeasibility of the comparison, but only because literary value can barely be determined so relatively, and not because I think his lyrics do not stand a chance to epic poetry.

Apart from his foray into filmmaking and a gig at novel-writing through Tarantula, Dylan’s copious imbibing of influences ranging from the French Symbolist poet, Rimbaud to the Beatniks has been notable.

Impact-value has been esteemed in the history of the Nobel and that Bob’s revolutionizing of the protest genre in song writing has been revisited in engagements with lyrics that fit the American Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam war, generational rage against classicism and racism. The stress on ‘Universal Interest’, especially practiced during the 30-s, becomes prominent in Bob’s seamless movement from particular to general in his lyrics that resist easy politicizing.

Some have been according to him the status of the man of letters in view of his songs brimming with references of the greatest poets, writers and their works- for instance, “Desolation Row”. These have been taken as tributes to literature to justify his win. However, I find this justification rather reductive on the grounds of paying homage that only confirms his readership of a few great works and which is no benchmark what-so-ever to his literary potential. The power of his lyrics alone can confirm it- that people have repeatedly recognised and literature departments across the world have offered courses on them. In a article, a teacher conveys her experience of teaching his lyrics in literature classes with various age groups of pupils- not only as isolated texts or to lyrically drive home the import of global crises, but also as means to illumine other works of literature. She speaks of thirteen year olds conceptualising surrealist posters to interpret “Tambourine Man” and of intertextual dialogues with Othello through “Shelter from the Storm” in cases of mature students.

Another question that has been bothering me is – are the people’s resentment against Dylan winning the prize doubly intense because of his popularity as a public icon?

Writers translated from their native languages like Kawabata have often gained transnational readership with a Nobel win and it is true that Dylan, already a global phenomenon, falls outside this category.

In Leonard Cohen’s words, awarding him with the Nobel is tantamount to pining a medal on the Mount Everest for being the tallest mountain.  That the prize and its winner mutually add value to each other and the equation is not allegedly reduced to the Nobel receiving a Dylan has to be ensured by striking a balance.

In 1964, Jean Paul Sartre explained at length his declining of the Nobel Prize in Literature in terms of his social and political position; it was also in keeping with his refusal of all official honours. Speculations have since then circulated regarding the politics implicit in the decision of honouring him in the field of literature when his philosophical works clearly overshadow the literary, and whether this also guided his declining to some extent.  Ultimately if Dylan, who has been known to introduce himself as a “song and dance man”, wants to be recognised as a writer depends solely upon his discretion.

The question remains: if Bob Dylan follows Sartre and Pasternak in refusing the honour, should the committee tend towards a more water-tight approach in the future when it comes to nominating works and artists?




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Barnamala Roy has recently completed her post graduation in English from Presidency University, Kolkata. Dismissed in turns as discursive, despondent and dreamy, her varied interests include films, philosophy, writing, translating, cooking and bird-watching.

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