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Bob Dylan Rescues Literature From The Literary Set


“I just read the Dylan Nobel Lecture. Bye bye literature.” — John Podhoretz on Twitter, June 7, 2017

The announcement that Bob Dylan had won the Nobel Prize in literature raised some eyebrows, including the laureate’s own: “When 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.”

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 moment—with a succession of such moments, in fact—than the self-styled song and dance man, or of one less willing to be bound by precedents, even his own. “The times, they are a changin’.” 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 Dylan’s acceptance speech could almost have been written to illustrate the famous words on “tradition and the individual talent” from an earlier Nobel laureate. In an essay whose centenary will roll around in 2019, T. S. Eliot argued that “the 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.”

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 “his own generation in his bones”: Days before Buddy Holly’s plane went down, the rock ’n roll legend looked Dylan “straight dead in the eye” from a concert stage and “transmitted something . . . like somebody laid hands on me.” Then the “radio music” of Dylan’s 1950s youth made way for the folk music revival of the ’60s, whose “vernacular” and “rhetoric” he made his own.

But the bulk of Dylan’s lecture might have been written to demonstrate what Eliot described as the literary artist’s “feeling” for the “simultaneous existence” of “the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer.” The Dylanization of “The Odyssey” in the speech is utterly classic: “He’s a travelin’ man, but he’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.”

Homer’s “Odyssey” is just one example Dylan gives of the “typical grammar school reading” (today, students would be lucky to read these books in college)—“Don Quixote, Ivanhoe, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, Tale of Two Cities”—whose themes were the “something else” beyond contemporary influences Dylan says he needed “to write songs unlike anything anybody ever heard.” Once again Dylan seems to be channeling Eliot, who claimed that the “historical sense” for literature not only “makes a writer traditional” but also paradoxically makes him “most acutely conscious of his place in time”—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 “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Eliot defended tradition, but also wrote as if emotions, feelings, and artistic experiences were the ends of literature.

As intellectual inheritances go, it’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 ’69 classmates in search of “more immediate, ecstatic, and penetrating modes of living.” High modernism is a landing on that descending staircase.

So when Dylan talks about the “sensibilities” he acquired from his reading, he’s in line with Eliot. But when he also says he picked up “principles,” “an informed view of the world,” “a way of looking at life, an understanding of human nature, and a standard to measure things by” from the classics, he’s making claims that have been increasingly out of fashion since Edgar Allan Poe. Dylan is taking a stand against the “art for art’s sake” bromide that has been the virtually unchallenged assumption of the artistic world for more than a century now. He’s asserting that literature exists not just to move us, but also to teach.

One of the things it can teach us—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 “transgressive”—is that human nature is not ultimately satisfied by the ceaseless hunt for intense experience. That, as we see in Dylan’s songs, there is a downside to managing your affairs “like Verlaine’s and Rimbaud.”

The Nobel laureate has put himself solidly in the camp of Aristotle, who said poetry teaches young people “to judge rightly, and to delight in good characters and noble acts,” of Horace, whose “Ars Poetica” says literature should “instruct” as well as “delight,” and of Sir Philip Sidney, who argued that poetry civilizes and enobles us: “no philosopher’s precepts can sooner make you an honest man than the reading of Virgil”—because poetry can strike,” “pierce,” and “possess the sight of the soul.” Dylan couldn’t be in better company.