I can’t say I’m very invested in the debate about Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize in Literature, but I can picture how the deliberations might have played out. The plus side is fairly simple. His songwriting played an enormous role in shaping the sensibilities of a seismic cultural shift in the 1960s and thus (insofar as it was a seismic shift) of cultural trajectories thereafter. I imagine all at the table would also grant that Dylan has proven himself both a great and highly prolific songwriter.
But, respond the naysayers, songwriting is at least as much about instrumentation and melody and musical coordinates as it is about the verbal. Dylan may have had as profound an impact on culture as such previous winners as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Toni Morrison, but does the verbal element in the songs, on the page without the music, reach the same level of word-built architecture as One Hundred Years of Solitude or Song of Solomon? Or if one defines “literature” more broadly to include the musical elements, then does the next short list include McCartney/Lennon and a host of other songwriting megastars? Such stars deserve their awards but should a literature award be reserved for more purely literary forms? Or should we just give awards for art in general, avoiding all discrimination of genres?
The arguments that weighed against the choice of Dylan must have been no light load. Perhaps we could say that a purely formalist assessment of the words Dylan has written weigh against the choice. This is not to slight the formal beauty of Dylan’s output (I share the enthusiasm for the early Dylan songs of dubious love, social justice, and the crash of human nature into the historical moment, but for the full artful textures of songs and lyrics, give me Blood on the Tracks), but when measured specifically against other winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature, one might argue that the verbal element on the page in Dylan has not the same stature. But then the historical assessment — the gigantic, multidisciplinary cultural impact – swings back in his favor.
I will leave the pendulum swinging, or if you prefer, suspended in mid-air, to make a curious observation about Dylan’s songs and historical impact. For being such a powerful catalyst for the counter-cultural tide of late 1960s hippiedom and all that came after it, Dylan’s own temperament is not at all “hippie.” If he is a poet, he is a Beat Generation poet, with a little extra 1930s social protest thrown in. Sure, there are threads of idealism, or at least an awareness of the seismic cultural shift (“the times they are a-changing”) in Dylan, but for the most part, any idealism in Dylan remains simmering under the rubble of gritty realism, and tales of hard times in boxcars and back alleys, and a chip on his shoulder that won’t go away (think of “The Idiot Wind’s” chilling response to the woman who misunderstands him, or the all-time masterpiece of schadenfreude, “Like A Rolling Stone,” or even the cynical humor in the love songs). One more easily pictures him among the black-clad poets of North Beach than among the colorful bell-bottomed waifs of Golden Gate Park. It’s easy to imagine Dylan fidgeting in impatience at the naïve idealism of the flower child generation, although the movers and shakers of that generation, from Jimi Hendrix to the Byrds, were drawing vital energy from Dylan’s repertoire.
The irony of that disconnect between Dylan’s innate cynicism, his street realism, and let’s say it – his crankiness – and the beautiful, flowery idealism he helped spawn, may in fact be one way of explaining his smirk at his own fame, the distemper that always seems to dog the space between him and any award he receives. It’s almost as if he sees his counter-cultural minions – and the award committees honoring him – and he looks skyward and says, “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.” Or to focus back on the irony of the Nobel Prize itself, he wants that recognition for his art – for the sheer formal beauty and power of the songs – but shakes his head at the fact that the real recognition is coming not for that formal beauty but for the historical impact of his songs, an impact curiously out of sync with the Beat-shaded sensibility in which they were written. I imagine that Dylan gets the irony. Perhaps much more than the award committees do. Can we blame him then, if commingled with genuine gratitude, he brings that quiet Dylan smirk to the ceremony?
See also Led Zeppelin and Dr. Freud