The Death Knell for Literature?
“Nobelpriset i litteratur år 2016 tilldelas Bob Dylan som skapat nya poetiska uttryck inom den stora amerikanska sång tradition. The Nobel Prize in Literature for 2016 is awarded to Bob Dylan for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition."
This is how the Nobel Prize in literature for 2016 was announced. As Sara Danius, the Swedish academic, announced the words of the winner there were murmurs, applause, laughter even. Afterwards, Danius, in an interview said "We’re really giving it to Bob Dylan as a great poet – that’s the reason we awarded him the prize. He’s a great poet in the great English tradition, stretching from Milton and Blake onwards.” There was a reaction of course. Responses came from the public on social media and from online comment sections in newspapers. Some thought there had been some mistake, others ridiculed it, many joked about writers winning music awards and so on. There was sarcasm, mimicry, belittlement and just shock. It was all true. The Nobel Committee had awarded the Nobel prize in Literature to Bob Dylan.
Soon after, a split emerged. There were people who thought the winner was a worthy one, others thought it was totally preposterous. Salman Rushdie, in his usual ramblings on Twitter, wrote Dylan was a worthy winner, which was not so surprising considering who he "follows" on the social media site. After the announcement was made Rushdie said "I intend to spend the day listening Mr Tambourine Man," along with some of his other pop songs. This was odd considering the songs are hardly the length of Orlando Finto Pazzo, an opera by Antonio Vivaldi, so perhaps he intended to listen to them several hundred times over, in any case it was an odd statement to make. This perhaps says more about Rushdie than anything else. To give this year's Nobel laureate the thumbs up will certainly make you popular in some circles but some writers are actually more forthright and candid on these things, the more serious ones I should add.
Pierre Assouline, the Moroccan novelist and journalist, wrote in La République, under the heading of "the Nobel honour of arms to American literature". Horace Engdahl, who was the former secretary to the Nobel Committee, said the following in 2008. “There is powerful literature in all big cultures, but you can't get away from the fact that Europe still is the centre of the literary world…The US is too isolated, too insular.”
In terms of the Nobel Committee and the name Bob Dylan, which he has been cited in connection of winning the award in recent years, Assouline says, "we had always intended it as a joke". He, later in the piece, what we assume to be his little joke, asks why not give the Nobel Peace Prize for Dylan’s anti-war activities in the 1960s on the campuses. The writer ends the piece by citing a "poem" Bob Dylan wrote in 2008; it is quite dreadful. But the Nobel Committee did not give him the prize for that. There are other voices in the literary world who criticised this Nobel Committee, even in the English-speaking world.
Irvin Welsh, the popular Scottish novelist who wrote Trainspotting offered his candid thoughts on the subject. On his Twitter account, he tweeted ”this is an ill conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies." Others praised the award including Andrew O 'Hagan, who is on the editorial board at the London Review of Books, shortly after the announcement of the win, there was a short piece in the London Review of Books website on Bob Dylan, there were other mutterings too but people, generally do not appear to see the implications of awarding this prize to Dylan. Most of the literary publications on both sides of the Atlantic barely uttered a word against Bob Dylan. There was nothing in the London-based publication when the 1997 laureate, Dario Fo died, neither has there been either mentions of past Nobel winners. One publication, The New Yorker, perhaps went a bit too far in their praise of Bob Dylan.
Alex Ross, the music critic for the publication, wrote the day after Dylan’s Nobel win, the following headline “Bob Dylan as Richard Wagner.” One question we may ponder is what does Mr Ross know about Richard Wagner, who, as reputation has it, is regarded by most as one of the best and most important opera composers in the entire canon. Of his grand opera Tristan and Isolde, the Guardian newspaper, wrote, some years ago the following.
The influence of Tristan und Isolde extended far beyond that of music. Thomas Mann's entire output is saturated with it. Wagner's text intrudes into the desolate territory of TS Eliot's Waste Land like a memory of a great vision irretrievably lost. Joyce's Finnegans Wake draws on it to re-define language, just as Wagner redefined harmony. Virginia Woolf's Jacob's Room circles it as part of the novel's attempt to draw contrasts between actual and idealised experience... All you can do when faced with the opera is sit back, surrender and be amazed.
It just happens Alex Ross picked Tristan und Isolde to compare with the lyrics of Bob Dylan. In terms of Ross’ knowledge on Wagner all we have to do it take a look at previous articles he has written for The New Yorker. The last article he wrote before this one was a piece on Richard Wagner himself, he has also written them on different operas, so we know he is not an amateur in discussing these things. Far from it. In the article he quotes some of Dylan’s lyrics:
A saxophone someplace far off played
As she was walking on by the arcade
As the light burst through a beat-up shade
Where he was waking up
She dropped a coin into the cup
Of a blind man at the gate
And forgot about a simple twist of fate.
Few Wagner fans, and one would hope Dylan fans also would compare this with the likes of Wagner. It is an interesting piece with lots of references and research. He quotes Thomas Meehan, writing for Time magazine in 1965, asking “is Bob Dylan the best writer in America today?” Before answering this question, John Steinbeck was still alive, Saul Bellow was yet to win his Nobel Prize, Norman Mailer already had written several masterpieces, James Baldwin was also writing, as was Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Robert Frost, Jack Kerouac, Ralph Ellison and of course many others. It would not be too scandalous a thing to call all these writers better than Bob Dylan. In any case, it is doubtful Dylan was greater than all of these writers. In fact some would even go on to say it would be absurd to even compare them as Mr Dylan has not even written a book, if you discount his autobiography. There are perversities of one kind or another at play here. Later in the article Ross says the similarities between Wagner and Dylan are “more than trivial”. “Still”, writes Ross
it’s never the music alone. The Prelude to “Tristan” is an immensely seductive stretch of orchestral writing, but it functions as a shimmering backdrop to a drama that delivers shocks of contrast: for example, Isolde rasping, “Who dares to mock me?” as she enters. Dylan, too, burns brightest when music and lyrics operate not in tandem but at cross-purposes. In “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar”—listen to the 1980 live version with Mike Bloomfield —the band barges through a basic blues stomp while Dylan spits out lyrics that wallow in a mystical mire.
The fact of the matter is two worlds are colliding into one. There are serious-minded people labelled arrogant, elitist, supercilious and out of touch. This is because they argue that Bob Dylan should never have been awarded this prize. Many are dumbing down, for example serious newspapers now advertise abysmal stuff, they have mass culture surrounding their pages, literary competitions are now falling foul of this, the Man Booker prize has to become more “accessible” than it has ever been before and now the Nobel Committee have decided as much. Traditional plays are being performed less and less frequently, instead they are given a modern setting, and often with celebrities rather than actors, musicals are overtaking much of this. It would not be so surprising if popular culture and literature, along with opera, and everything else will all become one and there will be nobody left to question it because they will all be silenced. Soon enough we may hear those fatal lines Macbeth utters:
Hear it not, Duncan; for it is a knell
That summons thee to heaven or to hell.
The question remains then now Bob Dylan has been awarded this prestigious prize, are we to be summoned to heaven or to hell?