Bob Dylan’s 116th Dream (surely)
Bob Dylan, who been in the running for a Nobel every year since 1996, finally makes the cut as America’s most imaginative troubadour
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It had to happen, really. On 4 October, David J. Thouless, F. Duncan M. Haldane and J. Michael Kosterlitz were awarded the Nobel Prize in physics for unlocking arcane secrets of extreme matter. And because physics and music have always flirted with each other in the late-night dive bars of the soul, and because we now marinate in extreme states the world over, it makes sense that Bob Dylan has, after an interminably Borgesian entr’acte, finally, at long last, ultimately, won the Nobel Prize for literature.
Let’s say that again, because it sounds so delicious. Bob Dylan has won the Nobel Prize for literature.
And make no mistake, ecstatic reader, for it had to happen. Born Robert Allen Zimmerman, the artiste has persistently shone a spotlight so clear, cleared the dusty attics of love and longing, spoken for entire generations, gone electric, obscured into basement reclusion, toured never endingly, provided eternal soundtracks for desperate situations (Blood on the Tracks for heartache and wine, anyone?), thrown the bums a rhyme, and even done a Sinatra album. If you’ve been alive for the last 50 years, then, baby, he’s followed you down.
And the words never dry up, never want in beauty, never tire of perspicacity. They comfort while dripping acerbic. The Surrealists called this a systematic derangement of the senses, a defamiliarizing of the familiar. Bizarre juxtapositions pour out of a dexedrine clown. Einstein, disguised as Robin Hood, with his memories in a trunk. His adjectives strike deep—immaculately frightful, idiot wind, whispered escapades. His cadences are sometime-Shakespearean, sometime-gutter rhyme; his themes sometime-Biblical, sometime-metaphysical; his lyrical sensitivity both cosmic and human. The Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, borrowing a trick from the haiku, spoke of eyeball kicks, those strange dissonant images that cause aesthetic spasms and lead to newer, more twisted perspectives. Like Ginsberg, Dylan too is a Blakean—in his songs, mattresses balance themselves on bottles of wine, and inside the museums, Infinity goes up on trial. No one, after all, deflates as cheerfully as Dylan - You might think he loves you for your money / But I know what he really loves you for / It’s your brand new leopard-skin pill-box hat. Where does a love song go after that?
And now, from our sponsors, a word on form, medium and structuring substances: What do we call them, these fragments of a soul that has been bared to us over decades? Songs? Poems? Lyrics? In our hyper-modern, late capitalist liquid times, when the Venetian vases of high culture (Shakespeare! Dante! Bach!) jostle resignedly with ticky-tacky collectibles in cereal boxes (and Kanye West), what really is literature? In 2009, Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors brought out an edited anthology called A New Literary History of America, which contained essays on Huck Finn, Carl Sandburg and Tennessee Williams alongside those on Life magazine, Tarzan, the telephone, and the adult film actress Linda Lovelace. This is a brave new world, in which Deep Throat exists with the same cultural impunity as Gravity’s Rainbow and Mr. Tambourine Man. The times, they been a’ changin’ for a while now. And Dylan’s been in the running for a Nobel every year since 1996 (see Arthur Krystal, This Thing We Call Literature, OUP, 2016, p.2). As Pierre Macherey might put it, literature has given way to “the literary thing”. Anything that performs certain literary functions, then, is literature. Literature is always excessive, larger than life. Dylan’s influence on the articulated life of our collective mind is immeasurable, as great in the American imaginary as that of Woody Guthrie and Walt Whitman—both bards, first and foremost, of lonesome American destinies. As great, in the cultural universe of the English-speaking world, as does one dare? Shakespeare or Milton. What else is what’s bad is good, what’s good is bad, if not Shakespeare for our times, from the Grand Coulee Dam to the Mardi gras?
Also Read: Bob Dylan’s immortal lines
And consider the opening line, see how it blooms! Pynchon—A screaming comes across the sky. Dickens—It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Dylan—Someone’s got it in for me, they’re planting stories in the press. Dylan is nothing if not constantly inventive, both using and eschewing conventions, tropes and motifs embedded in popular song and high poetry for centuries; reusing thrown-away lines from forgotten poems, remoulding a whole tradition of storytelling through orality, through song: a tradition at least as old as Homer. And, like Homer, his name too has spawned its own adjective.
The Nobel committee, therefore, has awarded Dylan the prize “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. And if indeed it is the great American song tradition that has found and given the most sustained and immediate expression to the social, political, cultural and psychosexual landscape of modern America, then Dylan must be its most imaginative troubadour, fragile songmaker with eyes bluer than robin’s eggs, part-unwashed phenomenon, part-motorpsycho nightmare.
And you thought he looked like the silent type.