When I heard that Bob Dylan had received the Nobel Prize for literature, I was mildly surprised. He writes music, popular music. As did George Gershwin and Irving Berlin, both of whom almost certainly wrote better music. I have nothing against Mr. Dylan’s music, except that it was written by a scruffy young man who has remained a scruffy young man all his life. At least, that is an achievement. As the years accumulate around him, Mr. Dylan has remained a scruffy young man, right down to his recent achievement, bewildering the Nobel Committee, whose members still do not know what Mr. Dylan is going to do about their award to him. Is he yucking it up with his pals while the prize committee awaits his decision?
He is not known for his sense of fun or, for that matter, for having many pals.
I think the Nobel Committee might have done better had they given him the Nobel Prize for music, though they do not recognize music. Is it because they agree with Jacques Barzun, one of the great thinkers of the last century who lived on into the 21 century (he died at 104)?
Barzun wrote that of all the arts, literature was the greatest, for it appealed only to one’s intellect. It could not appeal to one’s aural sense or visual sense or even to one’s sense of touch. Beethoven and Mozart and Bach could arguably through their work command the attention of a chimpanzee for at least a little while. Think of one of Beethoven’s fortissimos. Surely a chimpanzee would take note of it. And Michelangelo or Rodin might snag the chimp’s attention with one of their huge sculptures. Even a painting might attract the transient notice of an anthropoid. But not even a book of poetry by Shakespeare or a novel by Dostoyevsky could fetch the interest the most intelligent anthropoid for a moment unless the creature was hungry or needed a projectile to heave.
The literary mind has only its imagination to work with, and the reading mind has only its imagination to appreciate the literary mind’s output. This I believe explains why so many dull minds have turned to television.
There you will find the clang and bang presented to the TV audience by cameras and microphones, and some emotional television personality. If you look long enough you will find Mr. Dylan, not reading from any of his infantile writings but strumming his guitar and occasionally blowing on his harmonica. In his nasal twang he is singing: “The answer ma fren is blowin’ in the win’, the answer is blowin’ in the etc.” What is the answer? For that matter, what was the question?
His music is OK. He has been called a troubadour and that is OK, too, but it is not great art and, for that matter, when the committee members gave their peace prize to Barack Obama, they did not give it to a great statesman or even a statesman. They gave it to a fixture of popular culture: Mr. Obama, the first black man to be elected president, though he is only half-black. His mother was white. Popular culture is not very exacting. Perhaps someday the people of Norway will be as tolerant as the people of America or even more tolerant. They might elect a full-blooded black as their leader.
For years now, the Nobel Committee has seen its standards impinged upon by popular culture. Thus, a pop singer wins an award for literature. If juggling were popular in society, a juggler might have won the award. As I say, I have nothing against Bob Dylan. In fact, I even admire the fact that a scruffy 75-year-old man can keep the Nobel Committee guessing: Will he acknowledge the award or will he not? He acknowledged the award eventually. Now will he show up to accept the award? Who knows?
Given the fact that the Nobel Committee has acted as irresponsibly as it has, I am glad Bob Dylan is putting them on, though I fear he will make another of his cosmic statements about it. Will he find it blown in the wind?
R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. is editor in chief of The American Spectator. He is author of The Death of Liberalism, published by Thomas Nelson Inc.