Category Anxiety: Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize

It’s been a weird year (the weirdest I can remember at least), and Thursday morning’s announcement that Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature made it weirder still. But, overall, it is weird in a welcome way.

Pre-announcement speculation centered on the possibility that the prize might be awarded to an American. Given that Toni Morrison was the last American recipient of the literature prize way back in 1993, this seemed overdue. But the names most frequently tossed around as possible U.S. honorees were Thomas Pynchon, Phillip Roth, and Don DeLillo. Dylan’s victory came in from out of the blue, and marks the first time a musician was so honored. As the Nobel Committee’s press put it, Dylan was awarded the prize “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

Well put, and on the mark, but it raises further questions, such as: “Yeah, but does this make Dylan’s lyrics-set-to-music ‘literature’? Is it comparable to Derek Walcott’s poetry? Or Borges odd, surrealistic philosophical ficciones? Or the work of those edged out of the running this year, such as Joyce Carol Oates or the Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o, or, for that matter, Pynchon, Roth, or DeLillo? Is Dylan’s work in the same category as theirs and, if not, is this a fair measure of comparison for them?

Many novelists and essayists think not. Irvine Welsh, of Trainspotting renown, tweeted “I’m a Dylan fan, but this is an ill-conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies.” (All I can say is: what hath Trump wrought?) Novelist Hari Kunzru quipped “This feels like the lamest Nobel win since they gave it to Obama for not being Bush.” And finally Gary Shteyngart, Kurt Vonnegut’s heir presumptive: “I totally get the Nobel committee. Reading books is hard.”

It would be wrong to write such complaints off as mere ressentiment or sour grapes. Nothing implied by Welsh, Kunzru, or Shteyngart detracts from Dylan’s achievement, and Welsh explicitly admits it. What they do draw attention to is the fact that the novel, the essay, the poem, is a different sort of accomplishment than the popular song, one that is steadily losing ground similar to non- or quasi-literary assembly-line artifacts of “the culture industry.” Literature stands in peril of becoming a lost art, if not exactly a lost cause: at present, it demands conservation rather than displacement.

The written word has always been arrière garde, even when it is, like Beckett’s or William Gaddis’s work, self-consciously avant garde. Reading the written word, as much as writing words meant to be read rather than sung, is a deeply rooted practice that needs to be preserved even as it is as renewed, so that future generations can experience and embody the goods proper and specific to literary art. As the image, or sound, or image/sound hybrid, colonizes writing, we might become poised to lose our grip on those practices and goods – goods such as the empathetic understanding conveyed by the novel, or the ability to see aspects and disclose worlds as in poetry. By giving the prize to Bob Dylan, the committee contributes to this slow, incremental abandonment of “the literary world.” A world of tweets and mp3 files without Tolstoy or Pushkin is not much of a world.

There is something to this kind of gripe. Category mistakes can and do matter, and it isn’t immediately clear that lumping Dylan and Gabriel Garcia Marquez into the same genus isn’t a serious category mistake, one that gives novelists and poets a raw deal. But it isn’t immediately clear that it is a serious category mistake either. I think that one can marshall at least three convincing reasons why Dylan deserves the Nobel.

First, “the great American song tradition” is a tradition to be reckoned with. If anything American is to be counted a world-shaking cultural force, it is its music, from Blues and Jazz, Folk, Country and Bluegrass, Rock and R&B to Hip-hop and Electronica. “The American Song tradition’s” recognition by the Nobel Committee is a clear acknowledgement of its importance, and in honoring Bob Dylan it is tacitly tipping its hat toward the likes of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and Robert Johnson, and a host of others who in effect put Whitman’s vision of democratic culture to song, and made it ring out in a popular idiom. No mean achievement.

Second, if Dylan’s Nobel ought to raise eyebrows, the criticism those arched brows imply ought to be directed at the Nobel Board of Directors rather than Dylan himself. While Alfred Nobel’s will established prizes for Physics, Chemistry, Literature, Medicine, and Peace, permission was given to the board to add other prizes to the menu at their discretion. The board established a prize for Economics in 1969, but subsequently refused to establish prizes in any other discipline.[i] As Nobel sought to award those whose work contributed to “the greatest benefit for mankind,” it is hard to argue against the inclusion of prizes for a whole host of sciences, humanities, and arts. It is hard to see keeping the list static as anything other than an arbitrary reluctance to change, hewing to the letter and not the spirit of Nobel’s original will. The lack of a prize in Mathematics has rightly irked Mathematicians from the Prize’s beginnings in 1901. Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre were awarded prizes more for their philosophical endeavors than their literary accomplishments. And it is hard to maintain that, of all the social sciences, only Economics has benefited the human race in any substantive manner. There is no reason not to include more disciplinary categories as Nobel-worthy: Fine Arts, Earth Science, Biology, Sociology, Anthropology, Philosophy, and, yes, Music, have also contributed significantly to the enhancement and enrichment of life on this planet. If expanding the range of Nobel Prizes would diminish the size of each award to recipients, I think that should be at best a minor concern. The award is valuable for its honor and prestige, not as a paycheck. Dylan does not need the prize money, but he surely deserves the recognition. It would be easy for the Nobel board to reverse their precedent, and given all the category anxiety this year’s literature prize has generated, they should do so promptly.

Finally, if anyone’s lyrics count as poetry, Dylan’s do, and not just because of their intrinsic worth, but because they are so thoroughly integrated into the imaginative web of “real” literature. Charles Sanders Peirce, in his Semiotic theories, insisted on the triadic nature of all signification: there is the sign itself, the Object signified, and the interpretant, the understanding one have of the sign/object relation. Understanding for Peirce, however, is holistic: there is no act of understanding that is not itself determined by other sign/object/interpretant triads – signification “goes all the way down.”[ii] Dylan’s “infinite semiosis” reaches down through the signs wrought by Eliot, Pound, Dylan Thomas, Whitman, and Shakespeare, among many others. One of Dylan’s finest lyrics, “Tears of Rage”[iii], not only resonates with Shakespearean themes and imagery made American, but is a précis of King Lear itself:


We carried you in our arms on Independence Day
And now you throw us all aside and put us all away
Oh, what dear daughter ‘neath the sun could treat her father so
To wait upon him hand and foot, yet always tell him no

Tears of rage, tears of grief
Why must I always be the thief
Come to me now, you know we’re so alone
And life is brief

It was all so very painless when you ran out to receive
All that false instruction which we never could believe
And now the heart is filled with gold as if it were a purse
But, oh, what kind of love is this which goes from bad to worse

Tears of rage, tears of grief
Why must I always be the thief
Come to me now, you know we’re so alone
And life is brief

We pointed you the way to go and scratched your name in sand
Though you just thought it was nothing more than a place for you to stand
I want you to know that while we watched you discover no one would be true
That I myself was among the ones who thought it was just a childish thing to do

Tears of rage, tears of grief
Why must I always be the thief
Come to me now, you know we’re so alone
And life is brief[iv]


If that’s not prize-worthy poetry, I do not know what is.




[i] http://www.nobelprize.org/faq/questions_in_category.php?id=2#17

[ii] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Peirce’s Theory of Signs”, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/peirce-semiotics/

[iii] “Tears of Rage”, originally part of the esoteric and renowned “Basement Tapes”, was first recorded by The Band and included in their first release Music From Big Pink. Richard Manuel, The Band’s pianist and lead singer, wrote the music and asked Dylan to write lyrics. “Tears of Rage” is a good test of Dylan’s talent as a poet, as he had no hand in writing the music. For this one, I’d give him an “A”…..

[iv] https://www.google.com/webhp?sourceid=chrome-instant&ion=1&espv=2&ie=UTF-8#q=tears%20of%20rage%20lyrics

(The Band’s original version of “Tears of Rage” can be found here. My favorite version is a rare take on the song by Jimi Hendrix, recorded in a hotel room with his friend Paul Caruso.  Unfortunately, no on-line links can be found; the version is included in Hendrix’s posthumous collection West Coast Seattle Boy.)

Michael Quirk

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