Bob Dylan: A Nobel Note

Is mortifying Baby Boomer nostalgia something of which one could justly accuse a Swede? And I thought it was going to be my hero Don DeLillo’s year! At the most reactionary end of the spectrum of my divided feeling, I almost receive this as a kind of patronizing insult to American literature—in the mode of, “We overly sophisticated Europeans, we may have literature, but you delightful Americans, what will you think of next, you have…troubadours!” Dylan was not unaware, even in his early days, of what was at stake in this cultural conflict, though the crowning irony is that he (and popular culture) occupies the captain’s tower on the sinking ship now:

Praise be to Nero’s Neptune
The Titanic sails at dawn
And everybody’s shouting
“Which Side Are You On?”
And Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot
Fighting in the captain’s tower
While calypso singers laugh at them
And fishermen hold flowers
Between the windows of the sea
Where lovely mermaids flow
And nobody has to think too much
About Desolation Row

To say that the Nobel committee’s decision is by and large a pandering disgrace certainly isn’t to say for a second that I haven’t loved some Dylan songs in my time, though I am admittedly not an expert on his career or catalogue. To continue my generational analysis, I grew up during the mid-’90s 1960s revival, and I played Bob Dylan Unplugged over and over again on my little Walkman throughout my adolescence, and beneath every encrusted layer of my cynicism I remain moved by the moral sublimity and persistent relevance of

If God’s on our side
He’ll stop the next war

But, and I admit this is completely unoriginal, Blood on the Tracks is my favorite and the above—a break-up song of gale-force bitterness (even perhaps misogyny) that overlays a hallucinated Western mythology of Blood Meridian proportions onto a failing marriage—is my favorite from that album.

I woke up on the roadside, daydreaming about the way things sometimes are
Visions of your chestnut mare shoot through my head and are making me see stars
You hurt the ones that I love best and cover up the truth with lies
One day you’ll be in the ditch, flies buzzing around your eyes
Blood on your saddle

In a more sentimental mood, I would choose “Tangled Up in Blue,” whose final verse I dedicate to the Nobel committee on this autumnal morning of our gentle disagreement:

We always did feel the same
We just saw it from a different point of view

[Update: I wrote the above before reading what people were saying about Dylan’s Nobel win on social media, and now, given the shape I see this controversy taking, I should clarify my own position. I am not conflicted because the literature Nobel was awarded to a songwriter per se; it is the image of Dylan, and of sixties counterculture and American pop culture more generally, that the Nobel committee means to honor through Dylan, and it is that legacy I am dubious about, especially in this appalling hour of the wolf in American politics. But on the broader question of whether it is appropriate to construe song lyrics as literature, how is there even a debate to be had? The texts of the Homeric epics and of the Athenian tragedies were composed to be sung, which means that the founding document of western literary criticism, Aristotle’s Poetics, is nothing other than an analysis of song lyrics (not to mention those other texts-for-performance that we canonize and cherish, the play scripts of William Shakespeare). Of course song lyrics are literature! This is not some revolutionary new viewpoint from the cultural studies department but is traditionalism itself.]


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