“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.

Why Bob Dylan Deserves the Nobel Prize (And, Perhaps, You Do Too)

The disapproving hubbub over Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize has been relentless and pretty predictable. First it was because he won and then that he did not immediately acknowledge winning. Then when he acknowledged it, he was not humble enough. And then he said he would not make it to the acceptance, which raised a cacophony of contempt. He claims he has a previous commitment, and up rises the hue and cry. I do not want to make excuses for him, but maybe he promised a grandchild a special day on that date or maybe he has a surgical procedure scheduled or maybe that is the one day a year he reserves for bathing in the blood of virgins to maintain his vigor so that he can continue touring at age 75. I have no idea, and neither do you.

Now the outrage is renewed at him sending a speech for someone else to read while Patti Smith plays a Bob Dylan song. In short, Dylan has been universally declared to be horribly, monstrously, inexcusably insufficient in his gratitude. Reports (rumors, really) have maintained that Dylan’s friend and manager, Jeff Rosen, lobbied for Dylan to receive the prize. I do not know if that is true or even how one lobbies for a prize in literature, but, if true, could it mean Dylan himself desired the prize he now eschews? The ingrate!

All in all, the castigation of Dylan’s ostensible ineptitude as a groveler seems odd. As Barack Obama wisely observed when Dylan did not swoon obsequiously at receiving the medal of freedom, “That’s how you want Bob Dylan, right? You don’t want him to be all cheesin’ and grinnin’ with you. You want him to be a little skeptical about the whole enterprise. So that was a real treat.” Just right. If Dylan fawned over Obama, his knee-jerk detractors would have called him a sellout or a toady. In related news, Dylan recently chose to skip the White House reception for this year’s American winners of the Nobel Prize.

All this hubbub, all the hue and cry, all the castigation is finally pedestrian, which is why I have not previously weighed in on the topic. Dylan, as always, is playing it, playing us, for all he can. Nonetheless, I now have a few observations about the reaction and the prize itself.

One of my favorite responses to Dylan winning the Nobel was from members of PEN America, the venerable organization for writers and writing professionals. Some, mostly not women and not people of color, praised the decision. Others, mostly women and people of color, were against. Almost all seemed supremely silly if not flat-out supercilious. The reactions for ranged from “hey, yeah!” to “it’s a bigger tent now.” The reactions against ranged from “songs ain’t lit” to a unilateral declaration that the award should have gone to a different Bob–i.e. Marley, who died in 1981. (Imagine the Nobel Prize committee freed to offer the prize posthumously. Instead of tracing Dylan’s art to Homer and Sappho, the prize could simply go this year to Homer and next year to Sappho. The Nobel Peace Prize could go one year to Jesus of Nazareth and another year to Caesar Augustus . . . for ushering in the long Pax Romana, of course.)

Now, as to why Bob Dylan deserves the Nobel Prize. The essence of why is captured in the reaction of the PEN members. The whole notion of awarding a singular prize for achievement to an individual–of recognizing one among billions–is inherently absurd. This one individual is the best literary artist in the world since last year and until next year. Whatever inherent value the Nobel has, it does not lie in including this one and thereby excluding all the others. We can see this reality in the committee’s occasional propensity to send messages.

For instance, why did Winston Churchill win the Nobel for Literature in 1953? The official reason is “for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values.” I am not aware of any extensive and serious literary studies of his biographical writing, whatever the historical importance. (Before you object, such exist for Dylan’s songs.) Churchill’s oratory certainly was soaring and important during the Second World War as it inspired Britain and thereby helped secure Europe, but is it “literary” in the way we usually mean that term? Clearly the committee meant to honor a man the members admired and felt gratitude for.

Or last year’s prize, which went to a Belarusian journalist, Svetlana Alexievich, who captures oral histories–not the regular novelist, poet, or (if we must) playwright who best fits our regular view of the literary. Bigger tent, indeed.

I do not want to disparage the literary contributions of Churchill, Alexievich, or any other author. In fact, I am all for an expansive view of the literary. I find the concept of genre generally problematic since the best artists seek to explode such confinements. Hence Bob Dylan and the song as literature. And Dylan is not even the first songwriter to win the prize, by the way.

Dylan is a wildly influential and widely admired songwriter. And, yes, that influence is greatly augmented by the relentless promotional machine of Columbia records, and, yes, he is ridiculously remunerated for his literary prowess. Let us not kid ourselves, though. The myth that the only worthy artist is an impoverished artist eschewing wealth and fame for the pure pursuit of the ideal was born of the Romantic era and was never true. For every John Keats there was a Lord Byron and his circle. It would be the rare artist who does not dream of and strive for reputation and financial success. Furthermore, when recent Nobels have gone to relatively obscure authors, the hue and cry was about their relative lack of influence. So which is it? Who is the Goldilocks Nobel winner who stands perfectly between success and saintly obscurity? Sully Prudhomme?

Dylan’s lyrics exalt what we think of as literature. This claim is true for any number of artists working in a variety of forms. The Nobel Prize undoes itself because it excludes multitudes of the deserving and even the superior. It excludes you, and it excludes me. Maybe neither of us should be much surprised at our exclusion, but it excludes everyone else as well–except the winners.

Now, if I have to read one more half-baked piece about how someone’s favorite artist deserves the Nobel in Literature far more than that ancient croaker Bob Dylan, I may have to stoop to Twitter to complain!

Full disclosure: As I was completing the preparation of this blogpost, Stephen King published an article in Rolling Stone with a similar argument. I would not be so churlish as to accuse him of supernaturally anticipating my essay and producing his own preemptively plagiarized offering even though such a plot element would fit with the general themes of his ouvre. Nor do I think that I would be unduly boasting if I pointed out that my essay is far superior in every possible way to his.