Bob Dylan has won the Nobel Prize for literature. And quite right too. But many people seem discomfited by the news, as if the award might represent a token gesture by the Swedish Academy. It doesn’t. The award is serious and we should take it seriously.
The protests seem to fall into two camps. The first camp argues that Dylan is a musician, not a poet, and that therefore the award, while being made to a great artist, is a category mistake. The second camp grants that Dylan can be considered a poet, but that his poetry does not merit being ranked alongside that of Yeats, Eliot, Pasternak, Brodsky, Tranströmer and others.
The first argument does not identify a category error so much as exemplify one. For the categorical separation of music and poetry is itself a mistake; a catastrophe, even, and so misguided that only a complete suspension of our critical faculties can allow us to support it. Granted, our ideas of poetry and music have during the course of history come apart. But how have poets and musicians responded to this absurdity? By trying to bring the two back together.
The greatest poets have sought to make their poetry as musical as possible, not by setting them to music necessarily, but by bringing out the musical qualities of language. It is language’s music, after all, which makes poetry poetry. In turn, the greatest musicians have sought to make their music as poetic as possible, by enriching it with images and ideas which their compositional ingenuity has spun into gleaming jewels which light up our world and stretch our ability to feel it. But without poetry, music is just facile play.
The singer-songwriter, then, is modernity’s absurdly convoluted name for the poet. That the term is one of implied praise shows the low esteem in which we hold ‘mere’ singers and cynical, profit-driven songwriters. But these shifting values distract us from the fact that Homer and Hesiod were singer-songwriters no less than Virgil, Chaucer, Wagner, Michael Tippett, Leonard Cohen, Amy Winehouse and Laura Mvula.
What of the second camp, who argue that Dylan’s literary qualities fall short of the quality represented by the Nobel committee’s pantheon of modern writing? To make this argument one must appeal to an established notion of literary quality, a task which our benighted age has made nigh-on impossible unless you conceal your working. Here, though, is a notion of literary quality with which we can evaluate the art of the poet:
Poems exist to draw our inner gaze. They hold this gaze and direct it either onto a mirror – in which we see images of ourselves and the world around us – or through a window, which allows us to see beyond our world into what is still only becoming a part of it. The task of the poet, in other words, is to teach us to see things, things that are already there, or things that are becoming, and to give these things a weight which resides in the music of the words chosen to point to them. The things poetry helps us to see can’t be seen without the poet’s help, so we must have the words and their music to hand when we look at them.
What, then, does Bob Dylan teach us to see? Dylan, perhaps better than anyone, raises a smudged and shaking mirror to the shallowness and lack of intellectual ambition which have come to stand as our age’s foremost images of excellence. In Dylan’s singer-songwriting we can apprehend with hideous clarity the easy self-satisfaction of the protestor who thinks constructive engagement is for losers and phonies. Above all, Dylan expresses our epoch’s celebration of the protraction of adolescence; a glorified refusal to be understood, because no one understands the real me. So much modern art exists to perpetuate and celebrate our facile self-regard, but Dylan’s music oozes it. Its whole texture is shot through with its insufferable smugness, from its inexplicable contentment with a handful of inanely doodled rhymes and empty riddles, to the performer’s blatant refusal even to sing it properly. His cracked vocal timbre, and habit of singing against the stress and flow of his own verses, so beloved of his millions of fans, articulates with breath-taking clarity the spirt of the adolescent’s stubborn refusal to realise his confused view of the world, and his place in it, is not a mark of genius but a waste of everybody else’s time.
Hence the injured tone of much of Dylan’s songs, and his performances of them. His music is the sound of everything being everybody else’s fault, the music of the drop-out. And nowhere in this great poet’s oeuvre is Dylan’s basic spirit more visible than in the great masterpiece which opens Highway 61 Revisited. ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, perhaps the only song in which Dylan bothers to articulate a few consonants, is pure, vitriolic schadenfreude. It is a song dedicated, in other words, to an emotion whose universally shameful status is revealed by the fact that only the Germans were brave enough to provide a name for it.
The song sneers at its victim’s reversed fortunes but our uncritical, lazy sneering-along with it has prevented us from seeing that the song has come to applaud precisely what it denigrates. A rolling stone may gather no moss, but rolling stones were precisely what the sixties were bent on celebrating, and are what we so slavishly persist today in celebrating about them. We love Dylan because we want, like him, to be a rolling stone.
But the Ancient Greeks had another word for the rolling stone. That word is ‘idiot’. An idiot, according to the Ancient Greeks, is someone who stands aside from the political and cultural spheres, who cuts themselves off from critical participation in the world.
The Nobel Prize for literature, at long last, has been awarded to a complete idiot. As an image of excellence, nothing could be more fitting. A Western culture which has for decades prized idiocy above all other moral and aesthetic qualities and accomplishments has finally come clean. How does it feel, ah how does it feel? Long have we asked. Now we can answer. It feels, as idiots should, stupid.