Literature Nobel for Dylan:the times they are a-changin’

Aditya Mani Jha New Delhi | Updated on January 16, 2018 Published on October 13, 2016


Award for his ‘poetic expressions’ within the ‘American song tradition’

In a 1984 interview to Rolling Stones magazine, singer-songwriter Bob Dylan said, with the same philosophising that characterises his lyrics, that “it’s hard to speculate what tomorrow may bring.”

Well, it would have been very hard to speculate that Dylan, 75, a soulful voice of conscience for an entire generation, would win a Nobel prize for literature, as he did on Thursday to top an awards-rich career in which he won 11 Grammys, an Academy Award, a Pulitzer citation and a Presidential Medal for Freedom.

Dylan did, of course, write Tarantula, an experimental work of prose-poetry, in 1965-66, but it was universally panned. A New York Times review noted acidly that the book “is not a literary event because Dylan is not a literary figure.”

On Thursday, however, the Nobel committee said, in its announcement, that Dylan was being honoured for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” On social media platforms, there’s been a fair bit of cheery roasting of the choice of Dylan for this award (on the grounds that there are others more worthy of it), but as one commentator noted, Dylan deserves “a special Nobel just for being Bob Dylan.”

All through the combustible 1960s, Dylan’s politically charged songs — ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, ‘A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall’ and ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’ — played an influential role in the civil rights movement. Along with Joan Baez, Pete Seeger and others, he channelled a counterculture movement that arose as an alternative to the corporatised pop music industry.

Dylan’s music and his stance on the political implications of folk music, however, evolved over the years; he repeatedly expressed his frustration at having been “co-opted” as a civil rights messiah.

Dylan is the first American to win the award since the novelist Toni Morrison won in 1993. The Nobel committee has, in the past, famously expressed its disapproval of American literature. In 2008, Horace Engdahl, the Permanent Secretary of the Nobel Prize jury, said: “The US is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature...That ignorance is restraining.” The award for Dylan represents a way out of this debate: appreciation of music, after all, is not premised on an understanding of the lyrics.

The last left-field choice for the Nobel, Italian playwright and performer Dario Fo (who won in 1997), similarly transcended the debate over translation through his visceral anti-establishment monologues. The words may have been Greek to many, but the villains of his stories — fascists, patriarchs and control-obsessed bureaucrats — are a universal tribe. It was serendipity, therefore, that Dylan won on the day that the 90-year-old Fo passed way at a hospital in Milan.

Published on October 13, 2016
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