Why Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize in literature has revitalised the award

bob dylan nobel prize for literature the saint
Photo: Creative Commons

I was walking out of a lecture on Thursday 13 of October, a few minutes past noon, when I got the notification on my phone from The Guardian app that Bob Dylan had just been announced by the Swedish Academy as the Nobel Prize for Literature 2016 winner. I didn’t even know that the award was to be announced that day. At no point in my life had I cared too much about the award, which, despite its undeniable prestige, seems overrated and perhaps not necessarily representative enough of the great literature that is out there. I still don’t understand why Winston Churchill deserved it, for example.

Frankly, I don’t see the appeal of an award given in the name of one of history’s most catastrophic inventors, especially in a field where academia usually can only reach meaningful judgement after a long time has passed, and the author’s works have withstood the passage of time. Yet, at that moment, I could barely restrain myself from dancing in the middle of North Street out of my excitement.

My immediate reaction was to stop whatever music I was listening to at that moment and play perhaps my favourite Dylan song, ‘Jokerman’, from his 1983 album Infidels. The song –especially combined with its wonderful video – provides a rich experience that for me captures the essence of all great art. Its dense lyrics that range from Biblical imagery (“Standing on the waters casting your bread”, “You’re going to Sodom and Gomorrah”) to references to the turbulent modern world (“Nightsticks and water cannons, tear gas, padlocks / Molotov cocktails and rocks behind every curtain”) address this mysterious figure of some “Jokerman”.

Yet, it’s hard to identify who that is. Is it Jesus? Is it Hitler? Ronald Reagan? Dylan himself? The lyrics, especially when read through the lens of the video – which juxtaposes images of a large selection of the history of art, historical figures, and Dylan himself with video footage of him singing the song, an atomic mushroom cloud, and short cartoon sequences – seem to support more than one interpretation. In fact, this multi-medial experience, as I understand it, addresses the whole of humanity, through an archetypal, morally ambiguous figure drawn from the vast history of storytelling. It’s about what’s best and what’s worst about us, as seen through the lens of myth and fiction, which is a big part of what literature is about. Very few writers do this better than Dylan.

At this point you’d ask me why Dylan deserves the Nobel prize for literature. After all, ‘Jokerman’ is only fully experienced when you watch the video, and just reading the lyrics can never substitute the beauty of Mark Knopfler’s wonderful guitar playing in the song. However, while the song cannot be reduced to its lyrics, the use of multiple media by Dylan is more of an exploration of the art form that is the use of language, and that is at its heart poetry branching out into new territory.

Dylan, through his sophisticated art delivered in a popular medium, mocks the concept of high and low art to a point where such a distinction no longer makes sense. Anyone who has watched the ‘Jokerman’ video will understand exactly what I mean.

So why now? And what does this award mean for Dylan? It’s not like he needs any more recognition, he’s already a legend counting Grammys, Oscars, a place in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, and many more distinctions. He’s also recognised by academia, as can be demonstrated by the number of scholarly works written about his work and the many classes offered by English departments in universities across the world on it. He even holds an honorary doctorate from the University of St Andrews – a fact that makes me even more proud to study here. As Leonard Cohen, another great songwriter and poet, put it, giving Dylan the award “is like pinning a medal on Mount Everest for being the highest mountain.”

It is true that the Nobel Prize shouldn’t mean that much to Dylan himself. It’s overrated anyway, and one of the institutions that have in the past perpetuated this false dichotomy between high and low art. Yet, this is exactly why this decision by the Swedish Academy matters. It seems that the times, they are a-changin’ for the Nobel Prize, and this is a historic moment. Literature, in the eyes of those who see the Nobel Prize as some sort of standard, has expanded its scope, and song, as the art form that gave birth to literature – Homer’s epic poems were, after all, originally sung accompanied by music – has finally been given the recognition it deserves. What better way to do that by awarding the greatest master of song?

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