Why the criticism of Bob Dylan’s Nobel win is absurd – Sudipto Das

Bob Dylan London 1966

Sudipto Das

There are many other deserving lyricists, it may be argued. Why Dylan? That’s an argument that doesn’t quite make sense. It’s like two kids fighting, each claiming her mother is more beautiful than the other’s. –  Sudipto Das

At the outset, I should admit that part of this article’s title comes from Satyajit Ray’s anthology of film critique, Our Films, Their Films, where the legendary filmmaker, writer, composer and painter discusses Indian and foreign films. In the case of Ray, “our” and “their” are not used in the sense of discrimination. But in the context of this article, they are, or more like dissociation.

The context here is the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature 2016 to Bob Dylan “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. Hell broke loose in certain elite quarters with this announcement. It was, as though, the more than a century old legacy of giving the Nobel Prize to the “best” and the most “deserving” had been shattered.

There are a few common—and clichéd too—threads of criticism. The first one is of course the question about the eligibility of the winner. It has been loathly and scathingly said that Bob Dylan is a mere White American folk and rock singer. What does he have to do with literature? After all he is just a lyricist who has written his own songs. It’s as though he should have been disqualified on the ground of writing lyrics, similar to disqualifying athletes in the Olympics on the ground of using banned drugs. In the realm of “acceptable” literature, “lyrics” is perhaps a banned thing. How can Dylan even be considered for the award? As though it’s blasphemous to even consider the lyrics of rock music as an acceptable form of literature. Or, if I may paraphrase, lyrics is not “our” literature.

Second, questions have been raised on the quality of the poetry in Dylan’s lyrics. It’s as though a mere trapeze act of a circus is being compared to produnova. Or perhaps, if I may again paraphrase, a tribal music is being blasphemously placed in the same rung as that of Mozart’s symphony. Again, it’s the same theme: how dare you drag “their” lyrics into “our” poetry?

The third criticism is rather overtly racist. It’s being touted as an award given “again” to a White American. It’s as if, had Dylan been an African-American, everything would have been fine. I wouldn’t even talk about this.

The scathing attacks on Dylan turned out to be quite nasty, with The British Indian novelist Hari Kunzru tweeting, “Is any previous Nobel laureate known to have incorporated so many other people’s words, unattributed, into his work?”

Someone else said, “Times they are a-changin’ with Dylan’s win—but not in a good way.”

The nadir was surely the comment that came from The Telegraph columnist Tim Stanley: “A world that gives Bob Dylan a Nobel Prize is a world that nominates Trump for president.”

Now, let’s examine each of the points on which the award is being criticised.

First, let’s look into the point of giving the award to a lyricist. People may have forgotten that more than a hundred years ago, Rabindranath Tagore had received the Nobel Prize in Literature for Gitanjali, Song Offerings. Many of the critics may not know, but anyone who has read Tagore knows very well, that each poem in Gitanjali was actually written for a song. Rabindra Sangeet, or the Tagore Songs, is an integral part of the rich and vast repository of Bengali music, and the lyrics of the songs are held in very high esteem by the Bengalis, at par with Tagore’s non-song poems. In fact, many of us believe that Tagore’s lyrics are stronger than his poems. Some of his best creations indeed take the form of songs.

So Dylan is, in fact, the second lyricist to have earned the Nobel Prize in literature. It’s interesting though, that in the case of Tagore, the Nobel committee had said that he was being given the award “because of his profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse, by which, with consummate skill, he has made his poetic thought, expressed in his own English words, a part of the literature of the West.” It never referred to his poetry as lyrics or part of any music. But in the case of Dylan, they said he is being awarded the Nobel “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

In fact, after the announcement, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, Sara Danius, clarified the very point of Dylan’s eligibility, in spite of being a songwriter. “He’s a great poet in the great English tradition, stretching from Milton and Blake onwards,” she said. “And he’s a very interesting traditionalist, in a highly original way. Not just the written tradition, but also the oral one; not just high literature, but also low literature.”

She had come to realise, Danius elaborated, that we still read Homer and Sappho from ancient Greece, and they were writing 2,500 years ago. “They were meant to be performed,” she added, “often together with instruments, but they have survived, and survived incredibly well, on the book page.”

Many critics who are lamenting at the elevation of a lyricist to such a high pedestal are missing a very important point which Danius has clarified explicitly. Most of the ancient literature in any civilisation and culture was composed in the form of songs. The Rig Veda, the first book written by humanity some 3,500 years ago was meant to be sung. The roots of the Indian classical music can be traced back to the ways in which the Rig Veda used to be sung. A later corpus of Vedic literature, the Sama Veda, is often referred to as the Sama Geeti, the Songs of the Sama Veda. The first ever poems to have been written were in the form of lyrics. It’s just a prejudice between “our” superior poems against “their” inferior lyrics that has resulted in the totally misplaced criticism of Dylan on the ground that he is a mere lyricist. If we want to discredit a lyricist, then the composers of the Rig Veda along with Homer and Sappho and many other have to be denigrated too.

Now, on to the next point: the quality of Dylan’s poetry. It has been alleged that Dylan’s poetry is like the flickering of the stars in front of the bright light emanating from the likes of T. S. Eliot, W. B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, D. H. Lawrence, et al. It’s like saying Hyderabadi Biryani is inferior to Risotto alla Milanese.

It’s true that Dylan’s poetry is much simpler compared to that of the contemporary modernist and neo-realist poets. But the same was true for the English translation of Tagore’s Gitanjali. Tagore wrote till the 1940s. By then, the poetry in the West and also to some extent in India had shelved its simplicity and become quite elitist. Anyone with a basic understanding of English would appreciate the simple lines of Keats and Wordsworth. The same is true for Tagore, even though he wrote much later than the former. But the same is not true for the modernist poets. There was suddenly “our” poetry and “their” poetry. The elitist group became the guardians of “our” art and literature, relegating anything non-elitist or populist to “their”. The common people would find it extremely difficult to appreciate the more and more complicated forms of art unless they had the relevant context. The popular art forms survived in the movies and songs and the schism between “our” and “their” increased.

The elitists always have a tendency to look down upon anything that is popular. But does it always make sense? Irrespective of how deep or shallow the lyrics of Dylan are, they have inspired the youth, given voice to the voiceless and faceless revolutionaries, aroused the oppressed and given joy to people across the world. And, if a thing of beauty is a joy forever, doesn’t a line of Dylan, which has given joy to millions of people, qualify to be beautiful?

Such is the influence of Dylan that more than ten thousand miles away from his home, someone by the name Lou Majaw has been organising a Bob Dylan festival in Shillong, in the northeastern part of India, every year since 1972 on 24 May, Dylan’s birthday. How many living people would have touched the heart and soul of so many, across the globe, like Dylan? How many songs would have transcended the boundaries of ethnicity and cultures, like Dylan’s songs?

Paraphrasing, perhaps, the most popular song of Dylan, it can be aptly said,

Yes, how many songs must a man compose
Before you call him a poet?
The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind…

It can be argued that any popular form of art always has more receivers than a classical or elite form, and hence associating the quality of the art to its popularity is not the right thing. It’s true that the YouTube video of Gangnam Style has more likes than that of a Mozart symphony, but it would be naive to say the former is superior to the latter. At the same time, not many would claim that the Gangnam Style has touched them, inspired them and brought light to their lives. Dylan’s songs have been doing exactly that, for more than 50 years now.

Tagore seems to be very relevant in this context. He had once lamented that simple things are not that simple to be spoken of. “I spent much money and visited many lands,” he had said, “to see the mountains, to see the oceans. But I forgot to take the two steps from my home and behold with my wide open eyes, the drop of dew swinging from an ear of paddy.”

Dylan is like the “drop of dew swinging from an ear of paddy”, a very simple thing of beauty. He doesn’t have to be as grand as the mountains and the seas.

Appreciation of art is always a subjective matter, and it’s dependent on context and situation. The rustic and frivolous sounds of the tribal tumdak drum, played by a Santal, under the intoxicating spell of mohua, may not be palatable to the connoisseurs of the grandiose Dhrupad music who are rather used to the lofty rhythms of pakhwaj. But the simple and spontaneous Santal music is as dear to the Santals as is Dhrupad to its serious connoisseurs. To compare the two would be missing the point. It’s sacrilegious to even attempt to demean the former on the ground of being simplistic and shallow, when pitted against the latter. Anyone who does that smacks of arrogance, and ignorance too. The tumdak player might not have practised for 16 hours a day under the tutelage of a legendary guru, but that doesn’t mean his music, his art is shallow. A nightingale’s voice is as untrained as might be the Santal drummer’s, but both are musicians without any parallel; both are natural, raw, spontaneous and simple, without any pretence or artificial embellishment. It’s not for nothing that folk music in India is called loka sangeet, the music of the people.

There are many other deserving lyricists, it may be argued. Why Dylan? That’s another argument that doesn’t quite make sense. It’s like two kids fighting, each claiming her mother is more beautiful than the other’s.

In Bengali, there’s a saying, pagole ki na bole, chagole ki na khay, translated as “The mad says anything, and a goat eats anything.” The critics often say anything. Let’s not get bugged with their histrionics. They may even fail to appreciate the beauty of the dactylic hexameter of Homer or the mandakranta feat of Kalidas, because neither is neo-realism and expressionist.

It’s rather prophetic that Dylan had once said:

Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who
That it’s namin’
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin’.

» Swarajya, 18 October 2016 : Sudipto Das, an IIT alumnus, is an author, musician and columnist. His debut novel The Ekkos Clan published in 2013. Trained in western classical music, he is the founding member of a music band Kohal. During the day, he works as the VP Engineering in a semiconductor firm in Bangalore.

4 Responses

  1. Nobel panel signals desire for Bob Dylan to sing at ceremony – The Economic Times – AFP – Oct 30, 2016

    The Swedish Academy said on Saturday that Bob Dylan is not obliged to attend the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm, but is required to hold some sort of lecture or even sing a song.

    Dylan could provide anything from a short speech, a performance, a video broadcast — or even a song, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, Sara Danius, told the public Swedish Radio.

    “I hope he will do what he desires to do,” she said, adding that the academy will “do everything it can” to adapt the festivities to his wishes.

    Dylan finally broke his silence on Friday, saying he plans to pick up his Nobel prize for literature in Stockholm on December 10, calling it “amazing, incredible”.

    “It’s hard to believe,” the US singer-songwriter told Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper on Friday. “Whoever dreams about something like that?”

    Asked if he would attend the Nobel prize winners’ banquet, which is hosted by Sweden’s King Carl XVI Gustaf, Dylan said: “Absolutely. If it’s at all possible.”

    The 75-year-old was named this year’s laureate on October 13, but a prominent member of the Swedish Academy that awards the prize complained a week later that he had not responded to repeated phone calls.

    The academy member, Swedish writer Per Wastberg, accused Dylan of being “impolite and arrogant”, and said it was “unprecedented” that the academy did not know if Dylan intended to pick up his award.

    But Danius told TT news agency that Dylan was “humble, friendly and humourous” during a 15-minute phone conversation with him on Tuesday.

    Asked why he did not respond to the Academy’s calls, Dylan told the Daily Telegraph: “Well, I’m right here.”

    Dylan, whose lyrics have influenced generations of fans, is the first songwriter to win the literature prize.


  2. Bob Dylan removes mention of Nobel prize from website – The Guardian – London – 21 October 2016

    It took Bob Dylan the best part of a week to acknowledge that he had been awarded the Nobel prize in literature, and even then only in the most dismissive way: an update to a page on his website plugging a new collection of his lyrics. But now it appears even that paltry nod went too far for the mercurial music legend.

    The simple words “winner of the Nobel prize in literature”, which appeared on the page for The Lyrics: 1961-2012, have now been removed. Bob Dylan, Nobel laureate, is once again plain Bob Dylan.

    That single sentence was the sole public recognition Dylan had given to the prestigious award, announced last week in Stockholm. According to Sara Danius, the Nobel academy’s permanent secretary, attempts had been made to contact Dylan about the award via close associates of his, but he had kept silent.

    Dylan, though clearly aware and proud of his monumental legacy—recent years have seen a succession of releases of archive material under the umbrella title of “the Bootleg Series”, in which he has deluged fans with unreleased material and opened up his working methods to scrutiny—has always stepped away from attempts to corral him into being something he does not want to be.

    In 1965, at the height of his fevered elevation from singer to spokesman for a generation, he was asked at a San Francisco press conference whether he thought of himself primarily as a singer or a poet. “Oh, I think of myself more as a song and dance man, y’know?” he replied.

    In July 1966, following a motorcycle crash at the peak of his fame, Dylan disappeared from public view. Though it was claimed he had broken several vertebrae, he was never treated in hospital, and he later admitted in his autobiography, Chronicles: “I had been in a motorcycle accident and I’d been hurt, but I recovered. Truth was that I wanted to get out of the rat race.”

    Whether the latest twist in the Dylan-Nobel saga is the result of an administrative foul-up or a deliberate choice is unknown—stars’ websites are usually run with extremely limited input from their notional owners, and it’s entirely possible Dylan never knew either that his site had made reference to the prize or removed it. Though it is, of course, less likely that his manager, Jeff Rosen, would be unaware.

    Some fans have suggested Dylan should refuse the title of Nobel laureate—though the Nobel committee does not acknowledge refusals, and continues to list its winners whether or not they want the prize – because the Nobel prize’s founder, Alfred Nobel, was an armaments manufacturer. “My only caveat about the award is that it cheapens Dylan to be associated at all with a prize founded on an explosives and armaments fortune,” Will Self told the Guardian.

    However, Dylan—in keeping with his refusal to be categorised—has often associated himself with things that are, to say the least, unexpected. He has in the past appeared in adverts for Victoria’s Secret lingerie, Cadillac and Chrysler cars and Pepsi.


  3. The widely circulated news item that the Nobel Committee cannot contact Bob Dylan to inform him of his win in the Literature category is probably not true.

    The Nobel Committee will not publicly announce the winner of an award until they have first confirmed with the awardee that he or she will accept the award.

    The Nobel Committee is terrified of announcing a winner in an award category and then having the winner publicly reject the award.

    So the story that Bob Dylan will now not pick up the phone and talk to the Nobel Committee is just media drama to showcase Dylan’s supposed indifference to winning the award.

    What is to be anticipated is Dylan’s speech at the award-giving ceremony in Stockholm—if he deigns to give one.

    Or maybe he will just sing the fancy invited guests a song.


  4. An elusive winner – Mahir Ali – Dawn – Karachi – 19 October 2016

    ALMOST everyone was taken by surprise last Thursday when the Swedish Academy named this year’s recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature. And it is perfectly possible that no one was quite as surprised as the honoree himself.

    By the beginning of this week, the academy had failed to get in touch directly with Bob Dylan. At a concert in the US on the night after the award was announced, he did not allude to it even obliquely. As of yesterday, his official website carried no mention of the accolade.

    Subtly defensive in its citation, the Swedish Academy was probably aware that its decision would invite a backlash, notwithstanding the fact that Dylan had regularly been nominated for 20 years. In 1997, the year the Nobel went to the wonderful Italian playwright Dario Fo — who, coincidentally, died just hours before this year’s announcement in Stockholm — Dylan was apparently second on the list, as the academy was determined, for a change, to pick someone whose popularity had already been established.

    But then, as the academy must have been aware, Dylan is something of a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, to quote a previous laureate whose award was similarly controversial. The American singer-songwriter has arguably built a career on his unpredictability and capacity for reinvention. He was regularly being booed during an international tour 50 years ago for having the audacity to opt for rock ‘n’ roll after establishing himself as a singular songwriter who delivered his verse accompanied by just an acoustic guitar and a harmonica.

    The fact that Dylan did not call a press conference right away to express his gratitude ought not to have alarmed anyone. It does not necessarily follow that he will turn down the Nobel, as Jean-Paul Sartre did in 1964. Any number of awards have come his way, beginning with an honorary degree from Princeton in the early 1970s and including a special Pulitzer for his exquisitely composed memoir, Chronicles: Volume One, a dozen years ago.

    The Nobel, though, ostensibly has nothing to do with his prose, which has included a (perhaps deliberately) incomprehensible novel titled Tarantula. It’s for his vast body of songs. The question of whether they qualify as poetry or literature has spawned a predictable degree of dissent.

    These are fatuous questions, because ultimately they are unanswerable in terms that would satisfy everyone. What is indubitable is that, like the greatest writers before him, Dylan has introduced indelible phrases into the English lexicon. More than half a century after he came up with the terms, answers are still blowing in the wind and times always will be a-changing. No young generation since 1963 has substantially disagreed with the plea: “Come mothers and fathers/ Throughout the land/ And don’t criticise/ What you can’t understand/ Your sons and daughters/ Are beyond your command/ Your old road is/ Rapidly ageing …”

    Songs such as that were poetry to some ears, but it was a couple of years later that academia began paying heed to what was happening. The Stockholm Academy’s permanent secretary, Sara Danius, cited 1966’s Blonde on Blonde as an appropriate place to begin for those unfamiliar with Dylan’s oeuvre. The recommendation makes sense at one level, because the double album is peppered with exquisitely poetic gems, including ‘Visions of Johanna’ and ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’.

    However, a true appreciation of Dylan’s genius entails beginning with his first (largely old-folk) and second (entirely self-composed) outings on vinyl, and trying to understand how, just a few years later, he was knocking on posterity’s door with the plethora of incredibly innovative images that crop up on the superlative al­bums Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde.

    Folklore has it that he was never the same following a motorcycle accident 50 years ago that briefly put him out of circulation and en­abled him to reassess his trajectory. He sparkled again in the mid-70s with Blood on the Tracks and Desire, a pair of vastly different albums that once again underscored his versatility as both a songwriter and a singer.

    An unfortunate bout of Christian fundamentalism lay ahead, but Dylan eventually recovered from that and lived up to his designation as a wandering troubadour, having embarked on what has been categorised as a ‘never-ending tour’. His last two albums, largely echoing the repertoire of Frank Sinatra, have been dismal, and his original compositions in the past couple of decades have attracted accusations of plagiarism from lesser-known poets.

    Be that as it may, the Nobel may be belated, but it is nonetheless well deserved, even if it is seen as a sop to Americans alarmed by the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency — and even if, as the Canadian poet and performer Leonard Cohen put it, it’s like pinning a medal on Everest for being the highest mountain.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: