Skip to content

So Swiftly the Sun Sets in the Sky

October 16, 2016

“Disillusioned words like bullets bark
As human gods aim for their mark
Make everything from toy guns that spark
To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark
It’s easy to see without looking too far
That not much is really sacred”

– Bob Dylan

This past Thursday, Sara Danius, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, announced that her organization had bestowed the Nobel Prize in Literature to Bob Dylan. The basis for their award is “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

If you spent any time on the computer that day, you likely couldn’t avoid the announcement and the inevitable chatter that followed. It’s the exact type of thing that rouses the WWWInternets, while important matters wither on page eight. I haven’t spent much time with it, but even then noted that the literary world had some things to say. Salman Rushdie, a prize-wining author, whose most famous novel, The Satanic Verses, is known mostly because it hurt the feelings of a powerful religious zealot who then ordered a worldwide manhunt and death sentence, praised the selection. He said that Dylan has inspired him since his schooldays. One of the world’s most popular living authors, Stephen King, was also pleased.

The beauty and pain in this album is as potent as any novel I've ever read. The odd thing is, I appreciated that when it was first released, long before I could have personal experience. Now that's good literature.

The beauty and pain in this album is as potent as any novel I’ve ever read. The odd thing is, I appreciated that when it was first released, long before I could have personal experience. Now that’s good literature.

There was some grumbling from authors, but without digging into it, I didn’t find any bitter words from anyone that I recognized. I suspect some were disillusioned that the prize went to Dylan instead of a “real writer,” but nonetheless had the good manners to keep their bitterness quiet. Jodi Picoult, an author of best-selling fiction and a Dylan admirer, couldn’t hold back a small dig, “does this mean I win a grammy?”

Sara Danius suggested this album as an entryway. The LP is cover is worn after 40 years. Twenty years ago, I was the sole English speaker in a small shop while away on a business trip. I was shocked to see the CD on their shelves of stuff for sale. I looped the CD through my laptop that entire trip. The crummy speakers didn't help much, but I didn't let that stop me from rediscovering "Visions of Johanna."

Sara Danius suggested Blonde on Blonde as an entryway to Dylan. My LP is cover is worn after 40 years. Twenty years ago, I was the sole English speaker in a small shop while away on a business trip. I was shocked to see the CD on their shelves of stuff for sale. The CD looped through my laptop that entire trip. The crummy speakers didn’t help much, but I didn’t let that stop me from rediscovering “Visions of Johanna.”

I can surely appreciate how writers, publishers and others in the literary world might have their own reasons for having opinions on the awards. That’s only natural, don’t you think? It strikes me as odd however, how any of this can evoke strong emotions one way or the other from outsiders. Does it really matter who receives an award from the successors and assigns of a 19th century Scandinavian man? By the looks of things, I guess so. We place a lot of importance on institutions such as the Nobel Prize Committee, even if it is just another self-made fabrication for us to question or even bully when it disappoints us.

I don’t read enough literature to know who should have received what the world recognizes as the most prestigious award in this field. I think it must be safe to say however, that there are any number of deserving candidates. I’m perfectly content letting them have their fun and choosing whomever they want and it seems to be harmless.

Maybe someday, the Swedish Academy will open up its process and let the public weigh in with their own selections. Everyone will have their say. The Nobel Prizes would then be made just like baseball picks its all stars, where ballot stuffing is encouraged. Indeed, the Academy could follow the lead of Mars Candy, a global confectioner, who let us choose the colors of the artificial dyes it puts on the candy we buy. Maybe that’s the endgame for the “democratization” promised by the advent of the internet. We the majority. Until then, I say that we just listen the Academy’s findings and consider whether we want to take a harder look.

Dylan’s music has been on my stereos, ranging in quality from rough to lovely, for most of my life. Early on, my friends and I heard him in the car on FM radio stations and on scratchy records in our parents’ basements. I still have a couple images of Dylan on my walls. And yes, there are a few Dylan books on the shelves. When I learned that he was named this year’s recipient, I wasn’t moved much one way or the other. Good for him, I guess. But it doesn’t change the way that I have already listened to his music or will listen to it again. Nor should it. That would just be strange if it did.

The Swedish Academy tells us there's a story in here.

The Swedish Academy tells us there’s a story in here.

We don’t know what Dylan thinks of this week’s hubbub. He hasn’t said. When Danius was reminded by a Swedish reporter that Dylan isn’t normally “nice and smiley” when he receives awards, she wasn’t moved. If we want to respect the benefactor, I think we have to put the recipient’s smile aside. That would seem to be an odd criterion on which to judge literature.

Dylan has received honors from the Pope and from US Presidents. Who knows (or cares) how many times the music industry has awarded him. Usually, he’s shown outward expressions of humility or even ambivalence with these ceremonies. Known by his peers as having an encyclopedic knowledge of American music dating back to the 19th century, Dylan says that he’s just another musician “extending the line” from those that came before him. If there’s any truth to that, fancy company might not move him the way we might otherwise expect.

You’ll get no argument from me if you think that the Academy could have done better. Danius later explained that Dylan is a “great poet in the English-speaking tradition.” Maybe he is, maybe he isn’t. But she’s close enough to the mark for me. Borrowing from Saul Bellow, Dylan’s music is a “hovel in which the spirit takes shelter.”

The value of literature lies in these intermittent “true impressions.” A novel moves back and forth between the world of objects, of actions, of appearances, and that other world from which these “true impressions” come and which moves us to believe that the good we hang onto so tenaciously – in the face of evil, so obstinately – is no illusion.

No one who has spent years in the writing of novels can be unaware of this. The novel can’t be compared to the epic, or to the monuments of poetic drama. But it is the best we can do just now. It is a sort of latter-day lean-to, a hovel in which the spirit takes shelter. A novel is balanced between a few true impressions and the multitude of false ones that make up most of what we call life. It tells us that for every human being there is a diversity of existences, that the single existence is itself an illusion in part, that these many existences signify something, tend to something, fulfill something; it promises us meaning, harmony and even justice. What Conrad said was true, art attempts to find in the universe, in matter as well as in the facts of life, what is fundamental, enduring, essential.

– Saul Bellow in his 1976 acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Literature

The Swedish Academy got off to a bad start when it declined to award Leo Tolstoy the Nobel Prize in Literature. Yes, that Tolstoy. One can marvel how they recovered to become such a prestigious institution.

The Swedish Academy got off to a bad start when it declined to award Leo Tolstoy the Nobel Prize in Literature. Yes, that Tolstoy. One can marvel how they recovered to become such a prestigious institution.

*********

* The blog post title comes from Dylan’s lyrics in Jokerman.

41 Comments
  1. I’m traveling, and I hadn’t heard until I read this post. My reaction? Dylan’s a great songwriter — great, mind you — but a Nobel for literature? Whatever. I wonder if he’ll write an acceptance song.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think Dylan must be as surprised as anyone. “Whatever” seems like a perfectly good response from someone like me, who doesn’t have anything to do with the world of literature, save for the books and the relevant magazines that I read. In other words, I’m “just” a reader.

      Like

  2. Ah, you beat me too it. I’ve been writing a Dylan post in my head since the announcement and the ensuing complaints. Well said.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Yes, well said. The criticism doesn’t really bother me. I’m always happy to see Bob’s work get recognized, but at the end of the day, it’s a meaningless award. Winning it or not winning it doesn’t validate or invalidate his work.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Blood on the tracks is a brilliant album, from start to finish.

    I feel like we, as a generation, share in that prize for seeing through the raspy voice to the beauty. So we, you and I and countless others go the Nobel. We can be gracious for Bob!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ha! Yes, maybe we should get a perseverance award or something like that. He’s had some albums that didn’t offer nearly as much as some of his best. Exhibit A for “well, that could happen to anyone.”

      Blood on the Tracks is a masterpiece. Flat out brilliance.

      Like

      • I’m thinking of running with this thought. Adding “shared Nobel Prize in Literature, 2016.” I might just get a raise out of it. Or a rise.

        Like

        • If anyone’s confused or hesitant about it, offer them a mint.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Tic Tac? 😂

            Like

            • No – move on from there. I’ve never thought that they were all that tasty. They were just alluring because of the rattle from the plastic box. They made themselves look so silly, ridiculous, with that stupid press release. That alone is reason to leave them rot on the store shelves. Don’t worry, there’s enough preservatives in them to last many years if you change your mind. They will be there a long time.

              Liked by 1 person

            • I take mess that make my breath ghastly, so I use them a lot, and not just to bribe French officials 😏

              Like

            • Those French bureaucrats are so easily swayed by a smooth move. 🙂

              Liked by 1 person

            • Ah, but I neglected to grope him after both of us had fresh breath!

              Like

            • Did you read the instructions on the box? Maybe they were in French?

              Liked by 1 person

            • Oh Lord. You know all my secrets. Please don’t pay such close attention to my blog stories. I would hate it if you had to testify against me!

              Like

  5. I love that we can quibble and discuss and disagree over whether Bob Dylan deserves the Nobel Prize. I LOVE it! Because it means that, if only for a moment, we don’t have to think about weightier things like politics and elections and war and famine and all the difficult and angry things in our world. We have to go back again, of course, and think of those more important things. But, it still made my heart happy that for just a few moments this week I only had to think of Dylan. And, that was a gift.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jackie, The Baseball Bloggess.

      That’s a great state to be in if only for a small part of the day. I agree with you on that. I just think that we’d all be better off without the line-drawing over every last thing. I’m funny that way. Let’s leave those strong emotions for the important matters, like whether to pull for the Toronto Blue Jays (no) or the Cleveland Indians (yes.) 🙂

      Like

  6. It’s hit or miss whether I know the award recipients prior to the announcement, but in this instance, I was simply happy for him, although I’m less confident it means much to him. After all these years I can be listening to the well-worn vinyl and receive the lyrics with fresh attention. I think that says something. When I first heard the announcement I was simply happy to hear it!

    Like

    • Debra,

      Same here. I read and pay some attention, but not nearly enough to have an informed view on these things. It seems to be a lot more insular than the movie, TV and the awards. I think I would have to spend many more hours a day reading and studying literature to contribute anything worthwhile to the argument for or against the award from the Swedish Academy.

      Still playing your LPS? Good for you. That’s what we call up here “intentional listening.” No convenieces can be afforded to a listener with the LPs.

      Like

  7. Dylan is a true cultural treasure.

    Like

  8. True, it means little or nothing to him, but his words have meaning for everyone. The first time I heard Blowing in the Wind, and Jimi Hendrix play Watchtower (yeah, I’m pretty old) I knew this was music for the world as it is and the people that we are. I have never lost that.

    Like

  9. Gail,

    Hendrix brought Watchtower to new levels. He took a perfect song and turned it into a different version of perfect. He certainly made it music for the people that we were (are?).

    Like

  10. Blood on the Tracks is, for me, Dylan’s last great album. He’s written some good songs since then, but none make up a collection that can match this one.
    Ω

    Like

  11. Allan, it’s just one of those things. It’s possible that it can’t get any finer. As for the new stuff (everything since “Blood on the Tracks”) I think “Time Out of Mind” may be my favorite.

    Like

  12. Like most institutions they probably awarded it to someone famous in order to ride the coattails of Dylan’s fame for their own publicity. I can see why “real writers” would be a little upset as that is a closed and bourgeois world; but the only feeling I can conjure is a shrug of the shoulders and a blank stare.

    Great writing as always Bruce.

    Like

    • You know Gary, your response of a shrug of the shoulders and a blank stare may be the same as Dylan’s. Presumably, we’ll find out one of these days. As I understand these things, nobody’s heard from him yet.

      Like

  13. I confess I found it fun, Bruce. I like surprises and I certainly appreciate diversions from the world politic. To the critics I would simply say, “Don’t think twice, it’s alright.” –Curt

    Like

    • To which they might respond to the Swedish Academy and to you, “you only wasted my precious time. Years of dedication to my craft and an interloper with a harmonica takes an award meant for a writer…” The WWW seems to have been made for such topics.

      Like

  14. kdk permalink

    I was kind of delighted by the selection of Dylan and found the Academy’s open-minded consideration refreshing. Occasionally these accolades go to unusual choices, yes? Like Obama’s Peace Prize (and let’s hope it’s different folks selecting for each)(though if not, that could explain a lot about the decisions). But I totally buy the notion that fine storytelling can take on new forms. The times they are a changing.

    Like

  15. Huge Dylan Fan here. His lyrics astound and move me. But I do think your piece is reasoned, well-thought-out, and your mention that Tolstoy never won the prize hand my mind blowin’ in the wind. Fascinating stuff. Thank you.

    Like

  16. I enjoy your blog posts so much-please don’t ever stop! I knew when I heard that Bob Dylan won the Nobel prize that you would write about it. I couldn’t wait to read your comments, which as always are measured and thoughtful and include brilliant quotes from others. Thank you. And I love the Saul Bellow quote.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. PS- Now that I think of it, I could have titled my last two posts with the title you gave here. 😳

    Like

  18. David Dye (World Cafe) covered this news and while I don’t remember who he interviewed, it was a good one. They played bits of various songs after reading the lyrics aloud first, and my thought was “good for Bob”.

    Like

  19. A very interesting selection for the award, and one I feel neutral about. I am of the opinion that literature is so diverse and affects people in thousands of different ways, it is practically impossible to find only one author who can be honored. I have no quibble over Dylan, but I do have to laugh at Picoult’s jab–not an author who has a lot of room to complain, in my opinion. Great post!

    Like

  20. I think you expressed so well this perspective on the award for Literature. The fact that it’s a prestigious award, that Dylan’s work is worthy of praise, and there is more than one way to look at the marrying of the two, and those don’t really touch the heart of the matter anyway. And I will say, my, what an impressive Dylan collection you have! I admit I’m envious.

    Like

Kindly tell me, friend

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: