â€œI just read the Dylan Nobel Lecture. Bye bye literature.â€ â€” John Podhoretz on Twitter, June 7, 2017
The announcement that Bob Dylan had won the Nobel Prize in literature raised some eyebrows, including the laureateâ€™s own: â€œWhen I first 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.â€
Dylan took his own sweet time working it out. He gave his acceptance speech for the 2016 award last week, just days before the deadline he had to meet or forfeit the prize money of almost $1 million. In the course of his reflections, Dylan came to some wildly unfashionable conclusions.
It is difficult to think of an artist more closely associated with a particular cultural momentâ€”with a succession of such moments, in factâ€”than the self-styled song and dance man, or of one less willing to be bound by precedents, even his own. â€œThe times, they are a changinâ€™.â€ So, constantly, are his performance styles and takes on his own repertoire. Show up at a Dylan concert hoping to hear the songs the way you know them from the recordings, and you are sure to be disappointed.
So it may seem odd that Dylanâ€™s acceptance speech could almost have been written to illustrate the famous words on â€œtradition and the individual talentâ€ from an earlier Nobel laureate. In an essay whose centenary will roll around in 2019, T. S. Eliot argued that â€œthe historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.â€
In his lecture, Bob Dylan seemed to be doing his best to prove that he is that man.
Bob Dylan in Tradition and Talent
First, he certainly carries â€œhis own generation in his bonesâ€: Days before Buddy Hollyâ€™s plane went down, the rock â€™n roll legend looked Dylan â€œstraight dead in the eyeâ€ from a concert stage and â€œtransmitted something . . . like somebody laid hands on me.â€ Then the â€œradio musicâ€ of Dylanâ€™s 1950s youth made way for the folk music revival of the â€™60s, whose â€œvernacularâ€ and â€œrhetoricâ€ he made his own.
But the bulk of Dylanâ€™s lecture might have been written to demonstrate what Eliot described as the literary artistâ€™s â€œfeelingâ€ for the â€œsimultaneous existenceâ€ of â€œthe whole of the literature of Europe from Homer.â€ The Dylanization of â€œThe Odysseyâ€ in the speech is utterly classic: â€œHeâ€™s a travelinâ€™ man, but heâ€™s making a lot of stops. . . .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.â€
Homerâ€™s â€œOdysseyâ€ is just one example Dylan gives of the â€œtypical grammar school readingâ€ (today, students would be lucky to read these books in college)â€”â€œDon Quixote,Â Ivanhoe,Â Robinson Crusoe,Â Gulliverâ€™s Travels,Â Tale of Two Citiesâ€â€”whose themes were the â€œsomething elseâ€ beyond contemporary influences Dylan says he needed â€œto write songs unlike anything anybody ever heard.â€ Once again Dylan seems to be channeling Eliot, who claimed that the â€œhistorical senseâ€ for literature not only â€œmakes a writer traditionalâ€ but also paradoxically makes him â€œmost acutely conscious of his place in timeâ€â€”makes him, as we might say, cutting-edge.
The Legacy of the Classics
But when Dylan describes what he actually acquired from the classics, he is reaching back behind the kind of tradition Eliot was talking about to an even older vein of criticism. Eliot, after all, was a giant of literary modernism, whose practitioners were ultimately (if conflictedly) the heirs of romanticism. In â€œTradition and the Individual Talent,â€ Eliot defended tradition, but also wrote as if emotions, feelings, and artistic experiences were the ends of literature.
As intellectual inheritances go, itâ€™s not many steps from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, J.W. Goethe, and Lord Byron in romantic pursuit of liberation, authenticity, and intensity down to Hillary Clinton and her Wellesley â€™69 classmates in search of â€œmore immediate, ecstatic, and penetrating modes of living.â€ High modernism is a landing on that descending staircase.
So when Dylan talks about the â€œsensibilitiesâ€ he acquired from his reading, heâ€™s in line with Eliot. But when he also says he picked up â€œprinciples,â€ â€œan informed view of the world,â€ â€œa way of looking at life, an understanding of human nature, and a standard to measure things byâ€ from the classics, heâ€™s making claims that have been increasingly out of fashion since Edgar Allan Poe. Dylan is taking a stand against the â€œart for artâ€™s sakeâ€ bromide that has been the virtually unchallenged assumption of the artistic world for more than a century now. Heâ€™s asserting that literature exists not just to move us, but also to teach.
One of the things it can teach usâ€”in flat contradiction of the romantic myth that has had the bien pensants in its grip from Oscar Wilde to our contemporary artists whose highest accolade is â€œtransgressiveâ€â€”is that human nature is not ultimately satisfied by the ceaseless hunt for intense experience. That, as we see in Dylanâ€™s songs, there is a downside to managing your affairs â€œlike Verlaineâ€™s and Rimbaud.â€
The Nobel laureate has put himself solidly in the camp of Aristotle, who said poetry teaches young people â€œto judge rightly, and to delight in good characters and noble acts,â€ of Horace, whose â€œArs Poeticaâ€ says literature should â€œinstructâ€ as well as â€œdelight,â€ and of Sir Philip Sidney, who argued that poetry civilizes and enobles us: â€œno philosopherâ€™s precepts can sooner make you an honest man than the reading of Virgilâ€â€”because poetry can strike,â€ â€œpierce,â€ and â€œpossess the sight of the soul.â€ Dylan couldnâ€™t be in better company.