“You know sometimes Satan comes as a man of peace”: Alfred Nobel, Bob Dylan, and the Expropriation of the Prize

Originally conceived in response to a call for academic papers

“He’s a great humanitarian, he’s a great philanthropist.” (Bob Dylan, “Man of Peace”)

Alfred Nobel:
Patron of Peace
Deviser of Dynamite
Purveyor of International Plaudits

Bob Dylan:
Prophet-Poet to the Peace-nicks
Detonator of Doctrine
Ambivalent Abjurer of Acclamation

Nobel’s prize-giving progeny have bestowed literary laurels on Bob Dylan, a move that–surely unintentionally–has advanced Dylan’s agenda of disruptive subterfuge. You hadn’t noticed? As Bob Dylan himself has said, “I’ve always believed that the first rule of being subversive is not to let anybody know you’re being subversive.” (Theme Time Radio Hour Archive, Episode 45: Trains). Bob Dylan is a subversive, and the Nobel Prize Committee has taken the bait.

The Nobel Prize in Literature purports to honor the greatest living literary artist at the moment, which is, as I have noted before, an absurdity on its face and of little importance beyond the fleeting elevation and enrichment of one lucky scribbler and his or her publisher. In 2016, though, perhaps for the first time, the prize’s recipient has appropriated the prize itself as artistic grist simply by dint of its conferral, and the prize has suddenly become relevant to artistic endeavor.

The prize simultaneously overplays and normalizes Dylan’s work. We can already see this dynamic in Dylan’s audacious non-responsiveness, the bafflement and delight of the public, the bemused hostility of and exploitation by the media, and the sundry responses from other writers. Every album Dylan releases, every major interview he gives, and even his paintings and occasional car commercials ignite a similar conflagration of anger, confusion, amusement, and celebration.

Witness the hype over Dylan’s purported penchant for plagiarism. Dylan has, if you have not heard, appropriated the words and phrases of others and incorporated them into his lyrics, his memoirs, and even some interviews. He had long appropriated tunes in practice of what is known as the “folk music process.” For instance, his earliest songwriting efforts, such as “Song to Woody” and “Blowing in the Wind,” lift their tunes from other songs (“1913 Massacre” and “No More Auction Block,” respectively). Fittingly, those songs often have their own antecedents and progenitors. Similarly, his paintings are sometimes based on photos taken by others and used without the permission or even the awareness of the photographer.

Some have defended Dylan’s mode as conceptual art, an accepted and well established creative act. Still, perhaps because he is Bob Dylan, pop star, the media have largely condemned him as a cheater as though there were no difference between the Dylan lines

More frailer than the flowers, these precious hours
That keep us so tightly bound
(“When the Deal Goes Down”)

And the all-but-forgotten “Poet Laureate of the Confederacy’s”

A round of precious hours
Oh! here, where in that summer noon I basked
And strove, with logic frailer than the flowers.
(Henry Timrod, “Rhapsody of a Southern Winter Night“).

Synthesizing something novel from what exists is as creative and artistic an act as coining work of pure originality. Unless of course you are a college student working on a paper. That’s plagiarism!

This proclivity for appropriation is key to grasping Dylan’s methodology. We can call it reflective magpie-ism. I have maintained elsewhere and continue to maintain that Dylan is at his core a satirist–a subverter of cultural assumptions and their consequent expectations. This stance of his is a feature of all his public acts–artistic or otherwise–and informs his Promethean public personae, which turns the mirror (or is it a lens?) back toward the audience. Jonathan Swift noted that the viewer of satire sees everyone’s face but his own reflected back (“Battle of the Books”). Dylan understands and counts on that phenomenon. He invites and relies on us to project wants, expectations, and norms onto a mirror, which casts back on us. In fact, his 2012 concert tour featured elegantly framed mirrors of various sizes on stage facing the audience. Flashes from fans’ cameras presumably were rendered useless–an excellent metaphor for the Dylanesque. Our own desire to see and capture more of Dylan results in a glaring awareness of our self-blindness.

Glaring blindness.

I wear dark glasses to cover my eyes
There are secrets in ’em that I can’t disguise.
(Dylan, “Long and Wasted Years”)

Dylan’s dark glasses (an emblem of blindness!) are presumably not perfectly opaque, at least not from the inside. From the outside, the viewer sees nothing of Dylan’s secrets and only a distorted reflection of the self. Dylan’s use of personae and masks is well documented, but here he suggests that a mere disguise is not adequate to hide the secrets his eyes would betray. But there is a price. The dark glasses must filter his vision. As with sunglasses, colors may pop more readily–a boon to any poet/lyricist–but shadows may be darker still. The dark glasses create a dualist, even Manichaean, perspective of reality, one that lends itself toward the binary stance of most satire. Dylan’s satiric outlook, though, is less corrective than it is disruptive, less about shaming than subverting. Dylan does not want to point a finger (at least, not anymore) as much as rattle the cage, which he has always done. But, as we can see from the quotation above, he is not about to expose himself to the same scrutiny–an unremarkable act of hypocrisy.

Dylan’s critique and cage rattling extend beyond his lyrics. They infuse the personae he adopts and all his public acts or conspicuous inaction, which have amused and vexed observers for decades. The Nobel Committee’s choice stimulated this exercise to commence once again. Witness the great upheaval the conferral of the prize provoked followed by the indignity at Dylan’s bizarre silence. Then, when Dylan deigned to respond, there was amusement mixed with anger at the ambiguity and inadequacy of his response. Dylan’s refusal to attend the ceremony culminated in a torpid reading by the American ambassador of Dylan’s rather excellent and modest speech and a shaky rendering of a Dylan classic by his old companion Patti Smith. The ceremony was both touching and infuriating, elegant and absurd. The Nobel Committee would have been perfectly justified giving the prize to another just as worthy or worthier writer, but few would have instantly co-opted the conferral itself so adroitly. The awarding of the Nobel became a small part of the Dylan mystique–not the rock star Dylan mystique but the mystique of the subversive Dylan–the disrupter. Dylan owned the prize and the process as the world gawked and gasped, and he barely said or did a thing. How explosive a figure is he!

Alfred Nobel, that endower of peace who bequeathed dynamite to the world, has once again unwittingly loosed the devil, this time via his legacy prize committee. Dylan has long sought to overthrow dogma even as he spouts it, to play at once the icon and the iconoclast. The Nobel Prize conferral has become just the latest expedient in his long scheme of artistic subversion.

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