October 17, 2016
I only wish Bob Dylan had won two Nobel Prizes
by Ian Dreiblatt
Last week, we covered the fact that Bob Dylan has just won the Nobel Prize in Literature, in a piece whose response to the news can be summarized by extracting one of its sentences: “Whatever.”
That piece also promised we would avoid “encomiums and rebuttals” to the choice. But actually, while the Voltron-like perfection with which the authors of MobyLives generally converge makes it an unusual move, I must take issue here with my excellent colleague. Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize is one of the best things that’s ever happened—it’s basically the pyramids, the printing press, and now this—and, Simon, this aggression will not stand, man.
So, yeah. Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature and the internet reacted like a drunken hillbilly had stumbled into its favorite monocle shop. Fuck the internet. Lost in much of the fracas is the fact that Bob Dylan is one of the most accomplished and sophisticated artists this nation has yet produced. He also has been uncompromising in the face of censorship, brought his voice to epochal struggles for justice, and continued wandering the earth in genial unassumingness. More than that, he has written some astoundingly wonderful stuff. Individual results may, of course, vary, but I think the best response to hearing a powerfully sincere voice sing the words “The wind howls like a hammer” is to keel over and die, because that is a gorgeous and insane thing to say and now your heart is a darkening shimmer of pure ancient sunlight on stone.
Here are some of the objections I’ve heard:
This is just pandering to boomer nostalgia: I think what you mean to say is “Bob Dylan’s work has made itself intimate with the breath of the largest generation in the history of the world,” plus a lot of other people, which actually seems at least nifty-to-nifty-plus.
Bob Dylan does songs, not literature: Hey, nice monocle. Bob Dylan makes art out of words. The primary medium for those words is song, accompanied by a group of people pawing, usually sloppily, at instruments.
But really, though. I typed out the words to some Bob Dylan songs, and they do not read like great literature: Much as Knut Hamsun’s Growth of the Soil might sound stupid if you sang it. Bob Dylan isn’t a “lyricist,” and these aren’t books temporarily embarrassed into the human voice. He writes in a form that happens to coincide with what the majority of people who have ever lived have understood by the word “literature.” It works when you sing it.
I miss my annual book-buying recommendation: Well, sure, that’s fair. It’s hardly a reason to begrudge Dylan the prize, though, and you are, after all, allowed to learn about great writers through other channels. There are also plenty of past winners you may not be caught up on. Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson? Grazia Deledda? Frans Eemil Sillanpää? Have you completed that collected prose of Winston Churchill yet? And even if so, all is not lost — Bob Dylan has at least ten records that are demolishingly, ridiculously good. The Nobel Committee recommends that you to listen to them. (Other people are good at singing his songs, too.)
But I prefer Leonard Cohen / Joni Mitchell / The Boss / Ani / ______: I mean, don’t look at me. This shouldn’t be too hard, though. You’re going to need a couple good arguments, the patience to explain them to eighteen people, and a ticket to Stockholm. And it probably couldn’t hurt to bring some aquavit?
But Bob Dylan’s work doesn’t merit close study: Well, some people think it does. But more to the point, it’s not the Nobel Prize in Thesis-Fodder. Early in his career, Bob Dylan was the world spirit behind a harmonica, encapsulating the tectonic upheavals of his civilization with perfect, boring eloquence. Two years on, he had become so much weirder that now, half a century later, we can legitimately roll our eyes at the overuse of “The motorcycle black Madonna two-wheeled gypsy queen and her silver-studded phantom cause the gray flannel dwarf to scream” as an example of intriguing surrealism — which is to say we’re completely spoiled.
No, “I’m takin’ you with me honey baby when I go” is not stunning as a sequence of words, but it is awfully sweet — sweet enough to nudge you into remembering yourself. The storytelling in songs like “Isis,” “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of the Hearts,” “The Wicked Messenger,” “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” and many others glows with the makeshift subtlety of powerful folk narrative. Personal songs like “I’ll Keep It With Mine,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” and “My Back Pages” lucidly evoke the bewildered, terrifying, often great experience of being a person. And enchanted-monkey-grinder freak-outs like “Tombstone Blues,” “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream,” and “The Mighty Quinn” propose spirited adjustments to the configurations of the possible, pulling out the chemistry set to make some good laughs, a lot of interesting smells, and the occasional explosion.
That’s just, like, your opinion, man: Well obviously.
Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize is the same thing as Donald Trump: You are a nincompoop et cetera. Delete your account et cetera.
As a final note, I would like to make one humble suggestion. Maybe you, like me, feel that Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize in Literature has made all the world’s sugar just a little sweeter this week. Maybe not. Even if you’re appalled by the choice, there’s one person you really shouldn’t blame, and that’s Bob Dylan, who has been trawling for a Nobel to roughly the same extent that the dinosaurs were asking for that asteroid. However you feel about the Nobel, there really is no good reason to punish yourself by declining the invitation to revisit the Eden-under-power-lines of Bob Dylan’s catalogue. Dust ’em off. They’re better than you remember, and will do your heart some good.
No luck yet getting Slavoj Žižek that Daytime Emmy, but watch this space.
Ian Dreiblatt is the director of digital media at Melville House.