“Some people believe the Nobel Prize makes you bullet-proof. I never had that illusion.”
—Wole Soyinka, Nobel Laureate for Literature, 1986.
Like his fellow musician Gordon Sumner (aka Sting), who taught English before moving to a full-time music career, Bob Dylan always appreciated literature. On his personal website (www.bobdylan.com) he displays images of a number of books including those authored by him, by Jack Kerouac, and the Oxford Book of English Verse. Influenced by the music of Woody Guthrie and the writings of Kerouac, in 1959 the young Robert Zimmerman adopted the name of his inspirational idol —the noted Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. Over the next half century Bob Dylan proceeded with a combination of God-given creativity and sheer determination on a course that led to him becoming an American cultural icon for the arts in general and music in particular.
But I doubt whether even he imagined that he would be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in the fall of 2016. However, the Swedish Academy did choose him, making him the first American to receive it since Toni Morrison won it in 1993. Given that Dylan is primarily regarded as a songwriter-musician and not a writer, eyebrows were raised across the globe, and writer Jodi Picoult may be forgiven for quipping on social media that she now wonders if she can be eligible for a Grammy!
Controversy surrounding a major international decision such as this one depends entirely on popular perception. Naturally, while millions of Dylan’s fans are delighted by the choice, that is less because they regard their idol as a literary figure and more because they simply revere his work. Bruce Springsteen summed it up succinctly in his biography Born to Run by noting that Dylan’s songs were instrumental in exposing him to a “true vision” of the United States. Springsteen should know — his own ’80s mega-hit ‘Born in the USA’ succeeded in encapsulating the nationalistic sentiments of millions. Small wonder then that as their specific justification the Swedish Academy claimed that Dylan was being honoured by them “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”.
This is the first time that a musician has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature — raising the question whether it is incumbent on the academy to adhere to a purist definition of literature
That this was indeed one of Dylan’s many achievements is not in question here. But it may be argued that figures as diverse as Axl Rose (with ‘November Rain’) and Don McLean (with ‘American Pie’) have also creatively reshaped American music in a similar manner, and yet haven’t qualified (thus far, at least) for the prestigious Nobel Prize. However, Sara Danius, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, went a step beyond the realm of music and noted that Dylan was “a great poet in the English tradition” and one of the most recent influential figures in a long line of poets harking as far back as Homer and Sappho and possessing (albeit from the postmodern perspective) the type of historical significance normally attributed to the likes of Milton and Blake.
What must be pointed out here is that these are not simply Danius’s personal opinions; speaking as the representative of the Swedish Academy she voices the collective judgement of umpteen individuals who contributed towards nominating Dylan for the prize. The process by means of which Nobel laureates are chosen is extensive to say the least; nominations are solicited from professors of literature, former laureates and heads of literary academies, among others. The 18-member academy then has to accomplish the Herculean task of shortlisting candidates (which in itself is considered something of an honour for those who make it as far as the shortlist), and then closely examining the work of the handful of individuals from whom the final choice is made.
Seamus Perry, a distinguished faculty member at Balliol College, Oxford, has drawn parallels between Lord Tennyson (who aside from Robert Browning was arguably the best of the Victorian poets) and Bob Dylan claiming that both were “wholly individual” figures. Indeed, in keeping with this view of him Dylan himself once commented, “All I can do is be me, whoever that is.” However, though Perry’s own academic specialty is Romantic poetry and theory even he wisely stops short of comparing Dylan to the six great British Romantic poets. Without exception, all six of them would have rolled in their graves had Perry overstepped his limits.
Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ certainly has achieved the status of an international classic; however, it takes decades, often centuries, for time to blow away the subjectivity affiliated with fame and enable a figure to emerge as someone whom history, as opposed to just an academy, considers the best.
Why? Because much of Dylan’s genius has not yet survived the rigorous tests of canonicity. Like McLean’s ‘American Pie’, Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ certainly has achieved the status of an international classic; however, it takes decades, often centuries, for time to blow away the subjectivity affiliated with fame and enable a figure to emerge as someone whom history, as opposed to just an academy, considers the best. Dylan’s early and sincere endeavour at compiling a book of poems, titled Tarantula, failed miserably in the eyes of some, due to its convoluted and obscure writing. In light of recent events the book may be ‘rediscovered’ as an unsung classic, but it is unlikely that it will reach the heights of fame that some of his other works have managed to attain. Time will tell. True genius of course transcends the boundaries of occupation and even definition.
To the average observer perhaps, the Nobel Prize for Literature often comes across as frustratingly capricious. Yeats, Eliot, Mann, Hesse, Shaw and Kipling have all won it and while no one is disputing their respective talents it is significant, indeed almost embarrassing, that literary giants such as Tolstoy, Proust and Joyce have not. The academy has attempted to cover its tracks by asserting that Alfred Nobel had a very specific point in mind when endowing the prize for literature — he stipulated that it must be awarded to literary figures who demonstrated a pure form of idealism. Fulfilment of this eccentric condition may certainly explain why Morrison and Alice Munro are both Nobel laureates (though it neatly circumvents the political considerations entailed by their colour and gender), but one wonders what happened in 1949 and 1950 when the eminently cynical William Faulkner and world-weary Bertrand Russell won the prize respectively!
Whatever he may be accused of, though, lack of idealism is not one of Bob Dylan’s faults. Even the most ostensibly despairing of his lyrics are based on the intrinsic hope that society can and will change. A true child of the Woodstock generation, he felt strongly about humanity’s struggle against oppression, and was regarded as a hero long before the Swedish Academy implicitly labelled him one. With an eerie prescience his famous song ‘Times They Are a-Changin’’ claims: “Come writers and critics/Who prophesise with your pen/And keep your eyes wide/The chance won’t come again/And don’t speak too soon/For the wheel’s still in spin/And there’s no tellin’ who/That it’s namin’./For the loser now/Will be later to win/For the times they are a-changin’.”
His reception of the prize is in itself a harbinger of change, especially since it definitively blurs the hitherto stricter boundaries between literary genres. Churchill, for example, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature primarily for his memoirs and historical writings; however, 2016 is the first time that a songwriter has been the recipient of the award. Before being quick to criticise this point we need to ask ourselves whether it is incumbent on the academy to adhere to a purist or narrow definition of literature. Given the broad, international nature of the choices involved the answer to that must necessarily be ‘no.’ This explains why, in the past, Nobel laureates for literature have been awarded the prize for writings as diverse as poetry, novels, short stories, memoirs, philosophical essays, theatrical plays, literary criticism and biographies. Given this, it was but a matter of time before the prize was awarded to a creative figure specialising in songs.
Writers whose native language is not English, such as Gabriel Garcia-Marquéz, have had their works so extensively translated into English and other languages that their international reputations have preceded them when it comes to their being potential choices for the honour. However, Dylan’s win poses a set of interesting questions, not least of which is whether his work now merits being translated into languages other than English, and also whether it can effectively be translated without losing much in the process. This was not the case with former Nobel laureates such as Rabindranath Tagore, but since much of the magic of Dylan’s genius lies in the harmony between his music and lyrics it is unlikely that those not steeped in these aspects of American culture will be able to do justice to appreciating his endeavours.
While working at Doubleday, Jackie Kennedy took a personal interest in having the work of Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz translated into English so that it could be placed before a bigger audience. Once he bagged the prize in 1988, the English-speaking world devoured the translations of Cairo Trilogy made available to the public in the early 1990s. In their letter to Mahfouz the Swedish Academy clearly noted that “the poetic quality of your prose can be felt across the language barrier.” With Bob Dylan’s work, however, accomplishing such smooth linguistic transition would be challenging to say the least.
Thus while the Swedish Academy is to be commended for attempting to move with the times, there is more than one way in which this 2016 decision by its members can be perceived as controversial. But when one views the matter in aggregate that is hardly surprising, given that this time-honoured prize was financially endowed by a figure who himself was conflicted to say the least. As the inventor of dynamite — an inherently destructive, though useful, substance — Alfred Nobel ensured his place in the annals of history, regardless of what one may think of his invention from a moral perspective. Ironic it may be that his fortune was then used to endow prizes that have been bestowed on pacifists as diverse as Barack Obama and Malala Yousafzai. However, the choice of Bob Dylan as Nobel laureate for literature may prove to be the ultimate irony for which there really is no clear explanation. Or perhaps the answer is just blowing in the wind.
The writer is assistant professor of social sciences and liberal arts at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi.
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 23rd, 2016