June 14, 2017
Bob Dylan’s Nobel Lecture is better than we deserve
by Ian Dreiblatt
By now you’re presumably aware of the Swedish Academy’s brilliant decision last October to award noted non-potato-chip Bob Dylan the Nobel Prize in Literature.
To paraphrase a great thinker: Yes, y’all. Yes.
After the dizzying high of the original news, robust struggle among comrades to respond appropriately, nervous glances at the calendar, an absolutely fucking phenomenal acceptance speech, and a look back at Dylan’s humble interstellar origins, we can at long last report that Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan (NLBD) has cleared the final hurtle imposed by the Nobel Academy: he has delivered his Nobel Lecture — required of every laureate within six months of accepting the prize (NLBD, for whom that clock started ticking last December 10th, made it just under the wire, recording his in LA on June 4th).
It is, in a word, magnificent — sincere, earthy, intimate, fairly bonkers, and furiously intelligent. (You can and should read all 4,000 words of it right here, or, better yet, listen to NLBD reading it, over some deliciously ill-advised ivory-ticklin’, below.) NLBD, who was surely at least as surprised as the rest of us when he won the Nobel, opens with consummate modesty and reasonableness:
When I received this Nobel Prize for Literature, I got to wondering exactly how my songs related to literature. I wanted to reflect on it and see where the connection was. I’m going to try to articulate that to you. And most likely it will go in a roundabout way, but I hope what I say will be worthwhile and purposeful.
He goes on to trace out the story of how he came to his improbable artistic maturity, with the bewilderment we might expect from any suburban kid suddenly turning around to find he is an old man who has broken the collective heart of humanity and won the Nobel Goddamn Prize for it. Beginning from a youthful obsession with Buddy Holly (“He was everything I wasn’t and wanted to be”), he gets his hands on a copy of Leadbelly’s “Cottonfields” (“Changed my life right there and then”), branches out to Leadbelly’s labelmates, and masters the American vernacular song (“I could make it all connect and move with the current of the day”).
“But I had something else as well,” NLBD continues. “I had principles and sensibilities and an informed view of the world.” These he credits to the “typical grammar school reading” he was assigned as a kid, and the remainder of the lecture is devoted mostly to a beautifully sincere reading of three books: Moby-Dick (“…everything thrown in and none of it hardly rational. Highbrow, lowbrow, chasing illusion, chasing death, the great white whale, white as polar bear, white as a white man, the emperor, the nemesis…”), All Quiet on the Western Front (“a book where you lose your childhood, your faith in a meaningful world, and your concern for individuals”), and the Odyssey (“You too have had drugs dropped into your wine. You too have shared a bed with the wrong woman. You too have been spellbound by magical voices, sweet voices with strange melodies.”). He ends, foregoing any kind of summation or theory of literature, with an entreaty:
Our songs are alive in the land of the living. But songs are unlike literature. They’re meant to be sung, not read.
Response to the lecture from the Transinfinite Realms of Beyond has been exceedingly positive. Speaking across the phantasmal gate between existence and non-being, for example, noted medieval Italian writer and longtime friend of the blog Dante Alighieri remarked, “Just beautiful. Why can’t I express myself with such eloquence?” Marshalling the collective resonances of the earth’s petrichor and evening light into a fleeting emanation of language, renowned poet and leading Melville House staff crush Sappho added, “Great work, Bob! We all believed in you, and you’ve done us proud.”
Terrestrial responses were more prosaic — some very prosaic, in fact. The Washington Post’s Travis M. Andrews described the speech as “essentially a thesis on his influences, both in literature and music.” The Charlotte Observer published a good-natured-if-perversely-flippant response by a high school English teacher named Kay McSpadden, under the headline “In Nobel speech, Bob Dylan reminds us reading can be fun.” In an attempt to set a new land record for cranio-rectal insertion, the National Review’s Kyle Smith, his onion breath detectable at great distance, dribbled that Dylan had “bowed to his betters: real writers.” (I know: ugh.) And on Twitter, the execrable John Podhoretz delivered a predictable “bye bye literature.”
Others proved more able to hear the beat in Dylan’s speech and dance to it. Alex Beam wrote a gloriously ebullient celebration in the Boston Globe, which begins, “Oct. 13, 2016, the day that Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, was one of the happiest days of my life.” (You and me both, buddy.) The Atlantic’s Spencer Kornhaber noted, “With these knotty book summaries, rendered in prose that’s alternately plain and purple, crammed with details, seething with feeling, [Dylan]’s paying tribute to art’s irreducibility.” Best of all was Alexandra Schwartz’s wonderful rumination in the New Yorker:
Don’t tell me Dylan can’t write like the best of them. He is totally immersed not only in what he has read but in his memory of it; the books are alive in him, and as he talks about them we, too, begin to see them afresh. What sets great writers apart from the pack is their ability to connect with readers on a visceral level. We feel their work in our brains and in our guts, in the blood coursing in our veins and the adrenaline swelling our necks, in the way our hearts contract with pain or swell with joy as we read. That is clearly what great literature has done for Dylan, and he makes us feel it, too, in the way that he writes about the books he loves, with a passion stripped of any pretense. And that is what Dylan has done for us, in that alchemical combination of the notes he plays and the lustrous words he puts to them.
And so closes a weird, invigorating, sometimes annoyingly-Dylan-quote-filled, but on balance gloriously Dylan-everything-filled chapter in the history of world culture. Thank you, Alfred Nobel. Thank you, Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan. Thank you, Swedish Academy.
Update: Yes, I’m aware of the silly micro-scandal currently brewing about NLBD’s misquoting Moby-Dick and possibly lifting language about the book from SparkNotes. I do not give one solitary shit, neither should you, and I’ll squelch my natural disinclination toward writing about Bob Dylan and his Nobel Prize to explain why, in detail, tomorrow. Till then, drink plenty of water, for this, too, shall prove an unworthy ship to go down with.
Double Update: As promised.
Ian Dreiblatt is the director of digital media at Melville House.