Praiseworthy

Jean-Simon Berthélémy, Costume Designs for Lesueur’s Ossian, ou les Bardes (link).

I am not a Bob Dylan devotee. His work is not personally significant to me and has not been transformative in my life. My offhand judgment of his music was that it was more of a soundtrack of a certain time than something that gave shape to any person’s radical actions. It is inventive enough in its form to avoid the charge that he was merely aestheticising rebellion, but just as it makes no sense to divorce his lyrics from his music, it makes no sense to discard the Bob Dylan image, either: the solitary young bard who has drawn from the disparate streams of American life and distilled them to their bracing essence. In the wake of the Nobel announcement I’ve seen him described as a ‘synthesiser’ of Americana, blues and black music, which is probably accurate enough but is also a graciously over-kind choice of words from the point of view of those he ‘synthesised’ (it’s interesting how many gods of the ’60s pantheon, who supposedly remade the art world, were in fact ‘synthesisers’ of other people’s work — Dylan and Andy Warhol immediately come to mind).

I say all this having no objections whatsoever to Bob Dylan winning the Noel Prize for literature. I don’t think it diminishes or demeans or dilutes the definition of literature to give it to him. As usual in these situations where some feel a boundary has been crossed, it is more worthwhile examining the compulsion to define the exact boundaries of ‘literature’ rather than the definitions themselves.

Is it that the announcement puts to grief the received notion of literature as huge, sad novels about middle-of-the-way people with huge, sad lives, a view of a particular (economic, racial) group, which is presented by publishers and critics as more artful and more deserving of literary plaudits? I suspect this is where the objection comes from that giving the prize to Dylan cheapens the award: he’s not Serious enough. And let me first suggest that this could only be seen as a legitimate reaction in a context in which Dylan’s music, and the music it directly inspired, had long ago been snatched up into the combine of the ‘classic rock’ industry and packaged as the anthem of the working man (and I do mean ‘man’). Sufficiently Nobel-worthy works emanate from the exquisite silence of the novelist’s study, not blasting out the bay of the auto parts garage.

Of course, you can make the equal and opposite error, and claim that it was about time a poet of the commonfolk was recognised. But you can no more divine the mystic soul of the working class by listening to Bob Dylan than you can by picking up a copy of Rolling Stone. Really, the discomfort of the legitimate literary world, because attention has momentarily shifted away from them, is beside the point (although, regardless of tax band, giving the Nobel Prize to Dylan is undeniably a pick-me-up to white hegemony in toto, which has been in chaotic retreat for a while now). Every Nobel laureate trails a shadow list of other people who were more deserving; this is the structural constraint of the ‘contest’ itself. Even so, I was unaware of any clamour to give this already well-celebrated figure another prize, and there were definitely others for whom the attention would have done more good.
 
But behind the question of who ‘deserves’ a Nobel is the equally pressing problem of why there is such a strong sense of ownership over the prize. And I believe there is such concern shown in a case like this, when absolutely nothing you do or say will influence the Nobel committee’s judgment, because over a long period of time, literature has shed every power it ever had except its sense of obligation. Simply, the only remnant of a long-lost belief that reading literature could change you for the better is a vague intimation that you should read more.

Strange, then, that while a Nobel prize might make you more curious to read that writer, it hardly gives that writer’s work the force of obligation to read it. For better or worse, literary prizes are no replacement for this perceived innate quality of literature that is judged good because it ‘endures’ (and the committee itself regularly undermines the idea that its prizes are awarded based on lifelong achievement). Yet the failure here to fast-track works into the canon is decidedly for the best: the free-floating anxiety of obligation is one of the most pernicious diseases of literary studies. It frightens people into believing that they will never know literature, and it sends students of literature into a chase after cultural capital instead of insight. The idea that literature has the power to improve us no longer has any purchase, and yet when outrage erupts over Bob Dylan, Nobel laureate, I suspect this is the reason why there is such an upset: the charge is that either Dylan can’t improve us, or others could do it better. Thus another source of outrage that a figure so readily at hand should be chosen: I bought that album years ago!

And yet, another view of art exists. It survives by the challenge it sets for us as readers and human beings, not just as water-carriers of a heavy tradition. This view maintains that the only thing we can properly call art is those works that confront us with a different view of the world, one that compels us to consider how to act in light of that distance. It is not a straightforward recipe for becoming a better person, but a challenge to set our sights higher than mere enjoyment — even the pleasure of accolades.

Does Dylan’s music do this? Sure, although other people are better suited to evaluate this power of his. Do the passed-over potential recipients of the Nobel Prize do it too? Undoubtedly. Can the Nobel Prize establish literature as the living, breathing art of insight it has always threatened to become? Certainly not.

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