Readers of Robert Musil’s great unfinished novel The Man Without Qualities will recall the moment early on when the book’s anti-hero Ulrich decides to give up on life’s usual ambitions and become a man “ohne Eigenschaften,” “without qualities.” It was when he chanced to see a racehorse described as “a racehorse of genius.” If a racehorse can be a “genius,” what then? Concluding that “no matter what you do . . . it doesn’t make the slightest difference,” Ulrich decides to take a year-long holiday from life.
We aren’t quite at that extremity. But news that the aging pop singer Bob Dylan had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature did precipitate a wearisome sense of giddiness. Sara Danius, who made the announcement, acknowledged that some might find honoring a songwriter with this august prize “strange.” But, she explained,
if you think back to Homer and Sappho, you realise that was also aural poetry. It was meant to be performed, together with instruments. But we still read them, 2,500-some years later. . . . And in much the same way you can read Bob Dylan too. And you realise that he is great at rhyming, great at putting together refrains and great at poetic images.
Homer. Sappho. Dylan. Do you remember the game “One of these things is not like the other?”
We should acknowledge that Ms. Danius is not the only dispenser of such surrealistic comparisons when it comes to Bob Dylan. The chief wizard in that enterprise is surely Professor Christopher Ricks, the brilliantly cantankerous interpreter of Keats, Tennyson, Geoffrey Hill—and Bob Dylan. When Professor Ricks’s Dylan’s Visions of Sin appeared in 2004, it was the occasion of considerable astonishment and not a little merriment. Where Ms. Danius invoked Homer and Sappho, Professor Ricks wheeled on John Donne, Swinburne, Keats, Tennyson, and above all Shakespeare as precursors, sources, and rivals to the author of “Blowin’ in the Wind.” “Not since King Lear . . .” begins one comparison we are too charitable to pursue. Reviewing the book in our June 2004 issue, the poet Eric Ormsby noted that Ricks’s ostentatiously learned, Casaubon-like analysis “induces a sense of vertigo compounded by equal parts of hilarity and incredulity.” We can’t improve on that. To underscore the element of hilarity, we recommend our readers google “Monty Python protest song” and listen to Neil Innes’s parody of an early Dylan effusion. We say “parody,” but we suspect that even connoisseurs would have difficulty in distinguishing the send-up from the real thing.
Now, Bob Dylan was, and perhaps he still is, a talented songwriter. So were Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, Irving Berlin, and countless others. But where Porter, Mercer, Berlin, et al. were tuneful as well as verbally clever, Bob Dylan rode the wave of the Zeitgeist in a way that only the Beatles and possibly the Rolling Stones rivaled. Their place in cultural history is not so much in the box marked “Music” as in the one marked “Fantasy.” All three gave voice to a widespread sense of angst that, though puerile and self-indulgent, acted as a powerful moral solvent.
The PC aspirations of the Nobel Committee have recently resulted in a number of embarrassing awards.
It has been clear for some time that the Nobel Prize Committee, especially with regard to its soft prizes for literature and “peace,” has been more about politically correct cultural politics than literary accomplishment or activities that have encouraged international comity. We’ll draw a veil over recent winners of the peace prize. When it comes to literature, the PC aspirations of the Committee have recently resulted in a number of embarrassing awards. One signal presupposition animating their decisions is the fundamental tenet of multiculturalism: that all cultures, and all modes of cultural activities, are equal, and therefore that preferring or “valorizing” one over another is invidious. There is, as has often been pointed out, a sort of existential sleight-of-hand here, for while the equality of cultures and modes of cultural aspiration are the announced goals, in practice that equality involves an anti-Western and anti-traditional animus. All cultures are equal, but some are more equal than others.
We have here a process of leveling that turns out to be a revolution in values. The implication, as the French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut observed, is that “the footballer and the choreographer, the painter and the couturier, the writer and the ad-man, the musician and the rock-and-roller, are all the same: creators. We must scrap the prejudice which restricts that title to certain people and regards others as sub-cultural.”
But what seems at first to be an effort to establish cultural parity turns out to be a campaign for cultural reversal. When Sir Elton John is put on the same level as Bach, the effect is not cultural equality but cultural insurrection. And if it seems far-fetched to compare Elton John and Bach, recall the literary critic Richard Poirier’s remark, in Partisan Review in 1967, that “sometimes [the Beatles] are like Monteverdi and sometimes their songs are even better than Schumann’s.” Got it: Bob Dylan is as accomplished a poet as John Donne, if not Shakespeare, and it’s only right that he should be awarded the Nobel Prize in literature.
Doubtless Bob Dylan has his virtues. But those virtues are only incidentally literary.
The canny social commentator Andrew Klavan got it just right, we think, when he described the Nobel Committee’s latest folly as a “category mistake.” Doubtless Bob Dylan has his virtues. But those virtues are only incidentally literary (or, we would say, musical). His importance is as a social-cultural phenomenon, not as a poet. Curiously, Dylan himself may recognize this. As of this writing, more than a week after the Nobel Committee’s announcement, he has yet to acknowledge the prize. According to the London Telegraph, the Committee, having made multiple calls and sent multiple emails, has “given up” trying to reach him. Christopher Ricks once wrote a book on Keats and embarrassment. We doubt that so rebellious a soul as Bob Dylan is much given to embarrassment. But his years anatomizing hypocrisy may have given him a healthy and admonitory sense of the absurd.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 3, on page 1
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