June 15, 2017
Allegations that Bob Dylan plagiarized his Nobel Lecture are absurd
by Ian Dreiblatt
Yesterday, we wrote at some length about Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan’s recent Nobel Lecture, in which NLBD, beatifically wearing his trademark colors of aloof bemusement, self-effacing grandiosity, serious good humor, and genial hyper-Americanness, talks about his artistic awakening from scruffy Minnesotan waif to epochal songwriter and Nobel Prize-winning country-western DJ, through an impassioned reading of three books: Moby-Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front, and the Odyssey.
In a brief post-script, we also promised to comment on the small tempest currently stirring over allegations that NLBD may have misquoted Moby-Dick, and even done some down-home plagiarizin’, in the lecture. So here we go. To paraphrase William Carlos Williams: tuck in your socks, friends, we are stepping through mud.
The fracas, such that it is, seems to have started out nobly enough. On his blog last week, editor, novelist, and Melville House All-Star Ben Greenman noted something funny about one of the lines Dylan pulls from Moby-Dick, in which a Quaker priest, watching a sailor fall into the sea like a phantom, says, “Some men who receive injuries are led to God, others are led to bitterness.” Of encountering the quote, Greenman writes:
…I was intrigued, both because the insight is a compelling one and because I did not remember it from the novel. In fairness, it’s been a little while since I read the whole thing straight through, and it’s a long book at that, more than 200,000 words. I went and looked, mostly around Chapter 126, “The Life-Buoy,” which contains the falling phantom in the air. I couldn’t find it. I looked at another edition, and couldn’t find it there either. I went online, found an e-text, and searched on the relevant keywords, “injuries” (which doesn’t appear, at least not in plural form) and “bitterness” (which appears only once, in relation to the resentment experienced by men who are placed in charge of men who are superior to them “in general pride of manhood”). I searched in the Kindle edition, found nothing (though there were six occurrences of “subterranean”).
While it does appear that NLBD made the quote up, and while—sure—that’s a flub, Greenman makes the observation in good spirits, and goes on to consider it without a trace of gotcha:
Was it on purpose? Was it the result of a faulty memory? Was it an egg, left in the lawn to be discovered in case it’s Eastertime too? Answering these questions would be drilling into the American Sphinx, and beside the point anyway. As it stands, it’s very much in the spirit of his entire enterprise: to take various American masterworks and absorb and transform them. The mystery of it makes a wonderful lecture even more wonderful.
Which is both beautiful and persuasive.
But alas, the lecture has also attracted less generous scrutiny. This past Tuesday, Andrea Pitzer used Greenman’s post as the jumping-off point for a more prosecutorial piece in Slate, in which she accuses NLBD of having plagiarized language about Moby-Dick from the book’s SparkNotes page. Here, for example, is a passage she pulls from the lecture:
Finally, Ahab spots Moby…. Boats are lowered…. Moby attacks Ahab’s boat and destroys it. Next day, he sights Moby again. Boats are lowered Again. Moby attacks Ahab’s boat again.
Though this hardly counts as vivid language in the context of Dylan’s wild, melted garden of a lecture, Pitzer suggests it’s been lifted from a passage in SparkNotes:
Ahab finally sights Moby Dick. The harpoon boats are launched, and Moby Dick attacks Ahab’s harpoon boat, destroying it. The next day, Moby Dick is sighted again, and the boats are lowered once more… Moby Dick again attacks Ahab’s boat.
Other phrases Pitzer accuses NLBD of stealing include “ramming the Pequod and sinking it,” “encounters other whaling vessels,” and “wife and child back in Nantucket.” She also refers to a singer recording standards as a form of “appropriation,” compares the relevant SparkNotes to Duchamp’s urinal, and suggests that Dylan’s prime motivation in writing the lecture was “ensuring that he would get paid.”
I call horseshit. Is it actually news if Dylan glanced at SparkNotes while he was writing the speech? More striking than the existence of these textual similarities is the assertion that the phrase “embodiment of evil” can be originarily sourced to SparkNotes. For that matter, it is certainly not appropriation for a singer to do standards (this is the entire definition of “standards”), and the insinuation that NLBD (who has about $180 million to his name) is in it for the paycheck is joltingly lousy. (The Duchamp thing is a joke, I think?)
If NLBD did borrow a few descriptive phrases from an online summary of Moby-Dick, distractedly or on purpose, what, exactly, does that mean? That a seventy-six-year-old singer who last week celebrated his twenty-ninth straight year of touring may have refreshed his memory about something he read sixty years ago before discussing it in his Nobel Lecture? That seems only considerate of him. NLBD did not apply for this honor, delivering lectures has never been part of his job description, and he has made it very clear that the whole situation threw him for kind of a loop. He made his deadline in spite of this. Thank you, Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan.
More to the point, the plot of Moby-Dick has little to do with what’s wonderful in the lecture: the way it speaks unpretentiously, open-heartedly, kind of weirdly, and in an intimately personal cadence to the experience of becoming Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan. It is, as the Ancient Egyptians used to say, true of voice.
What I mean is that Bob Dylan has given us a vibrant, nourishing, unstable-yet-definitive document of Bob Dylanity, and we’re invited to exult in it. Shaming the guy instead for googling before he spoke into history seems a lot less fun.
As for NLBD, it’s next stop: sainthood!
Ian Dreiblatt is the director of digital media at Melville House.