Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize
by David Yearsley, October 19, 2016
Was that great global spluttering sound we heard this week the five members of the Nobel literature committee gagging on the lutefisk that is their prize? Or was it the rest of the world guffawing in ecstatic disbelief when they realized that the choice of Bob Dylan as this year’s lit laureate was not a joke. Actually it was a joke, though one about as amusing as cod soaked in lye.
Leave it to the Swedish Academy to wipe away the last gelatinous blob of credibility or interest their annual awards might have retained up until the moment the Dylan announcement was made. To paraphrase Adorno, there can be no Nobel after Kissinger. The war criminal’s 1973 peace prize marked a new nadir of cynicism in the aftermath of his bombing campaign Cambodia.
That same year Marlon Brando declined a far more prestigious, and often more (indirectly) lucrative award—the Oscar—in protest over events at Wounded Knee and the portrayal of Native Americans by Hollywood. It was a promising period of refusal in Tinseltown, though not in Stockholm. Two years earlier George C. Scott had turned down the same statuette for his portrayal of Patton, pointing out straightforwardly that competition between actors, and by extension artists, is a bad thing. Likewise, Sartre didn’t accept his Nobel Prize for literature in 1964, explaining “that the writer must refuse to let himself be transformed into an institution.” Dylan became that long ago, even before he started doing Super Bowl spots. In the past he has pooh-poohed accolades and awards, but like the renegade street artist Banksy when he was nominated for an Oscar for his documentary Exit through the Gift Shop, Dylan appears ready to make another exception in his own case. After all, Dylan has already taken home his Oscar for Things Have Changed, and I seem to remember that Obama handed him some kind of medal a few years back at the White House.
The real symptoms of Stockholm syndrome are these: American warriors from Teddy Roosevelt to Barack Obama get the peace prize, and a pop star is crowned with the lit laurels.
Yet some famous writers cheered the news. Salman Rushdie, who doubtless had harbored hopes of one day being honored by the Swedes, grandiosely tweeted: “From Orpheus to Faiz, song & poetry have been closely linked. Dylan is the brilliant inheritor of the bardic tradition. Great choice.” A great choice because now there would be no pressure on the egomaniacal Rushdie to feel like getting that dreamt-of call from Stockholm would elevate him to literary immortality. Joyce Carol Oates’ praise for the “inspired” choice echoed with a similar sentiment. The Academy’s decision was not a slap in the face but a slap on the back to all writers who had previously invested an interest in the prize beyond the considerable cash pay out. Even Philip Roth must have been relieved at the Dylan news since with it the Swedish the Academy sealed its own irrelevance.
The Academy’s deliberations are notoriously secretive. Only when William Golding won the prize in 1983 did one ancient member, a guy named Artur Lundkvist, break the code of silence and lambast the winner as “as a small English phenomenon of no great interest.” Small is one word you can’t use about the phenomenon that is Dylan.
There are five Swedes on the literary committee. This year there were two men in their eighties, and three others, of which one is a woman, all born in the late 1940s. Here’s betting this trio of Baltic Baby Boomers kept plying the two old geezers with schnapps, while they pressed their generation’s case for Dylan for, as they put it in their citation, “creating new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”
One of the Boomers on this year’s now-infamous panel is Horace Engdahl, longtime Academy member and its former permanent secretary. In 2007 Engdahl briskly informed the Associate Press that America is “too insular and ignorant to challenge Europe as the center of the literary world.” His revenge on American letters is now complete: Yes to Dylan, means a final and resounding No to Roth, to McCarthy, to DeLillo, and to Pynchon. Yes they’re all men and all novelists, but far more deserving of the prize, if it still carried any meaning for the sustenance of literary culture.
Many writers, public intellectuals, and run-of-the-mill celebrities have already supported the Academy’s decision, arguing that the conception of literature should be expanded. So how about a prize in illiterature that searches out real bards who, like Homer himself, never wrote anything down but only sang and improvised their poetry? The Nobel could also go to authors of elegant Silicon Valley computer code or of New York graffiti. All these forms are valid expressions of human intelligence and creativity, but they are not Literature with a capital L. Is this elitist, vital, time-consuming? Damn right it is! That’s what the prize should be for.
I can sense the Dylan hordes unpacking their slings and lighting their arrows. Yes, lyrics can be literature. Yes, Oxford has anthologized “Desolation Row” and Cambridge has a Companion to him. Yes, plenty of poets and profs, not to mention millions of fans, praise his gift for, and contributions to, the English language. Yes, uniting words and melody is as old as language, maybe even older. Dylan should be praised but not given a Nobel Prize for it all. The market has already recognized his achievements, the world his talents. Nothing new will be discovered or achieved by this award except the self-destruction of the Nobel Prizes’ final iota of integrity.
However dumfounding the Dylan news was, it could have been predicted, especially in the way music, so crucial to many great writers from James Joyce (no Nobel for him) to the above-mentioned Pynchon (no Nobel for him either), has figured in the work of those authors who have received the award. The 2004 winner Elfriede Jelinek’s darkly brilliant and stingingly hilarious dismantling of classical music culture in her novel, The Piano Teacher, presaged a turn towards the popular in both literature and music. That tremendous, provocative book torched the concert hall, highbrow culture, and the misogynistic devils propping it all up.
There was however an echo of that faltering culture in the 2011 award that went to local hero Tomas Tranströmer (not surprisingly the Nobel committee is heavy on hand-outs to fellow Scandinavians) for a dozen slender volumes of crystalline dreamscape poetry. His entire oeuvre weighs about a tenth of Dylan’s collected lyrics packaged in book form.
Like Jelinek, Tranströmer was an avid pianist. One of his most famous poems Allegro, the one cited first by the Nobel committee five years ago, begins: “After a black day, I play Haydn, / and feel a little warmth in my hands.” (Tranströmer would later lose the use of his own right hand.) The fourteen-line poem ends with a vision of transcendent musical architecture and spiritual poise:
The music is a house of glass standing on a slope;
rocks are flying, rocks are rolling.
The rocks roll straight through the house
but every pane of glass is still whole.
This week’s rolling stone has shattered the glass house that was the Nobel Prize in literature.
(David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J.S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)