Bob Dylan — Nobel Prize Lecture Is a Bow to His Literary Betters … – National Review
Bob Dylan is not overly endowed with humility: â€œI was heading for the fantastic lights. No doubt about it,â€ he writes, describing his early days in New York City in his memoir Chronicles, Volume One. â€œBut now destiny was about to manifest itself. I felt like it was looking right at me and nobody else.â€
Fair enough. If anyone in his profession was entitled to think those thoughts at the time, it was Dylan. And if you canâ€™t be candid in a memoir, when can you? Dylanâ€™s contribution to rockâ€™s songbook is unsurpassed. But Dylanâ€™s curious reaction to being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature last October is to me an indication that he was uncomfortable with the honor, which he declined even to acknowledge publicly for two weeks. Dylan is usually happy to accept awards but you could tell he wasnâ€™t sure he deserved this one because what he has written (apart from that singular, mystical, magnificent memoir) isnâ€™t literature. This week, leaving the Nobel committee breathless until just five days ahead of the June 10 deadline to submit the work, Dylan finally released (via text and spoken-word recording) the Nobel lecture without which the award cannot officially be bestowed. The lecture reveals an artist struggling with the burden of being placed at the apex of a category that isnâ€™t really applicable to his work. Dylan understands that to say his rock lyrics arenâ€™t literature is, given that heâ€™s not shy about acknowledging his importance in his field, to say that nobody elseâ€™s are either.
Dylan cites the oral tradition of Homer when he distinguishes between writing that delights the ear and the eye, and defends his style of writing by equating it with John Donneâ€™s lines, â€œThe Sestos and Abydos of her breasts. Not of two lovers, but two loves, the nests.â€ Dylan adds, â€œI donâ€™t know what it means, either. But it sounds good. And you want your songs to sound good.â€ The difference is that Donne actually does know what heâ€™s writing about, whereas even superior rock lyrics, frequently thrown together on the fly, neednâ€™t be infused with any meaning whatsoever. The pop-music maven who ventures a close reading of a song is usually disappointed by how little thought went into it. Dylan frequently says even he doesnâ€™t know what his songs mean.
Dylan spends much of the speech exploring three works of literature that underlay his development as a writer: Moby-Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front, and the Odyssey. He was just a boy when he read each of them, yet each of them would forever echo in his consciousness, and he speaks of their meaning and potency with a lightly-worn eloquence.Some of their tropes would recur frequently in his work â€” the wanderings of Odysseus, the disbelief and shock of Erich Maria Remarqueâ€™s anti-war novel, the Biblical fervor of Melvilleâ€™s Ahab. Odysseusâ€™s longing for home, Dylan writes, reverberates in unlikely places â€” ditties such as â€œGreen, Green Grass of Homeâ€ and â€œHome on the Range.â€ To cite these simple songs (by Curly Putman Jr. and Brewster Higley, respectively) in a Nobel speech is generous: If theyâ€™re literature, then maybe so is â€œPeggy Sueâ€ by Buddy Holly â€” whom Dylan also cites.
â€” Kyle Smith is National Review Onlineâ€™s critic-at-large.
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