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Bob Dylan and the Significance of Not Signifying Anything

Mitchell Abidor
October 24, 2016
by Mitchell Abidor I HAVE TO ADMIT I’m thoroughly enjoying the discomfiture of the Nobel Committee over Bob Dylan’s refusal to acknowledge his being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. That the committee made a mockery of the world of letters by giving the award to a man who passed his prime more than forty-five years ago makes it only fitting that they should be red-faced now over being treated with such disdain by the recipient. There is no way to excuse Dylan’s conduct. His refusal to even take phone calls is not the principled stand of a Jean-Paul Sartre, refusing the prize because he didn’t want to be seen choosing the West in the Cold War. It is simply the act of a wealthy man whose overweening arrogance, bred in him by his sycophantic senior-citizen fans, allows him to think he looks somehow interesting by standing above the vulgar world of prizes. The Nobel Prize plays an invaluable role in revealing writers to us we’d not known. Patrick Modiano, the great French writer, was all but unknown in the U.S. until he won the prize in 2014. It seems now that there’s a new translation of his work every month. Svetlana Alexeievich, a little known (and translated) oral historian, won the prize last year, and it opened the world’s eyes to her. And what about writers whose life work deserves recognition, even though they are well known? Dylan’s prize means that Philip Roth will likely never receive it, the committee having wasted America’s turn on a man unworthy both artistically and humanly. IN FACT, Philip Roth is a good point of comparison for Dylan. That Dylan’s songs defined the 1960s is unquestionable. There’s barely a spot in the world today where there’s not some hippy strumming his guitar singing a badly accented version of “Blowin’ in the Wind.” But that was written more than fifty years ago! Would anyone think that Roth was a great writer if he hadn’t written anything of worth since Portnoy’s Complaint? Well, the world has pretty much failed to remember anything of Dylan’s since 1970’s New Morning, or at the most, 1975’s Blood on the Tracks. Nothing since then has really entered the public consciousness. Maybe if the Nobel Committee had been bold in 1968, one could (perhaps) say he deserved the prize, but quantity is not quality, and that Dylan continues to churn out records signifies nothing, because he no longer signifies anything. The poet Amy King responded to an American PEN query whether Dylan deserved the prize by answering that “Bob Dylan now has a chance to do something truly great for literature: reject the Nobel prize for Literature.” Not that she supports Dylan’s arrogance, but rather because someone needs to tell the Nobel Committee that “much of the greatest literature requires depth of thought, nuance, and often shines a penetrating light on aspects of the world that are difficult to process, like genocide and survival, on lives lived through sacrifice, obscurity and facing phobias and isms that threaten and transform individuals, to name a very few. Moreover great literature often requires time spent communing with words on pages, a very solitary (and as of late, increasingly unpopular) thing.” She’s right. The Nobel Prize is a reward for a lifetime’s striving to make sense of humankind, or to express reality in a unique way. And if you’re not Stephen King, you do it for a small crowd. You can’t hum Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles. Young people on the Charles Bridge aren’t singing Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s Satantango, though had the great Hungarian writer received the prize more would be reading him. Awarding Dylan the prize was rewarding our intellectual laziness. Dylan’s lyrics are not T.S. Eliot’s poetry, which won the prize in 1948. Would anyone dare put “Lay Lady Lay” on the same level with The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock? Or the interminable “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” alongside The Wasteland? There’s literature and there’s lyrics, and they should never be confused. BUT YOU MIGHT SAY that Dylan’s lyrics reached and touched millions around the world and moved them in ways they’d never been moved before. So, my friends, did the Village People’s “Macho Man.” And let’s not overestimate Dylan’s role during the ’60s. If he was the background music to the civil rights movement (hardly; Bernice Reagon and Pete Seeger and scores of black gospel and protest singers provided that movement’s soundtrack), it was something he wasn’t all that happy about — and by the time the Vietnam War had become an issue, Dylan had turned his back on the protest movement. The Stalinist critic Irwin Silber criticized Dylan for turning inward, and he was wrong to do so -- Dylan, as an artist had the right to do whatever he wanted -- but it’s nonetheless true that Dylan as a voice of protest was a short-lived and vastly overestimated phenomenon. We got along quite well without him when the U.S. was bombing Vietnam, (though we continued to re-purpose his older ditties), and had there been no Dylan songs the Freedom Riders would simply have sung “We Shall Overcome” slightly more often. In any case, other songs from the Civil Rights era, like Eric Andersen’s “Thirsty Boots” and Phil Ochs’s “Here’s to the State of Mississippi” are far more hard-hitting and better songs. Dylan is, of course, superior to Victor Willis, the lyricist behind “Macho Man.” But is he that far superior that he can mock literature and those who love it, as he is now doing? I think not. And I’m certain a chastened Nobel Committee has learned a well-deserved harsh lesson and wishes it had a do-over. Mitchell Abidor, our contributing writer, is the author of many volumes of translation. His translations of the poet Benjamin Fondane can be found in the collection Cinepoems, published by New York Review Books.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.