Saturday, June 10, 2017

Dylan's Nobel Lecture in Literature

"The speech is extraordinary and, as one might expect, eloquent. Now that the lecture has been delivered, the Dylan adventure is coming to a close," Sara Danius, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, which awards the prize, wrote in a blog post.

The very idea that the Nobel folks would award their literature prize to a songwriter has been, to put it mildly, controversial. I grew up the child of a Swedish-American mother who spent pretty much all her moral energy in life trying to be respectable. And as the wife of a Lutheran preacher, she had multiple daily opportunities to practice her art. So when I think of an august group like the Nobel Literature committee, I imagine my mother times oh, 100. A group that asks regularly, "What will people think?"

Given the outcome of this little experiment, the Nobel folks will probably retreat to some known safe haven of respectability for a long time to come. Because for the serious fans of respectability, the whole idea has been a fiasco. At first, Dylan didn't even respond to the announcement of a Nobel Prize. The Swedes found this hopelessly rude. The academic writers who would have been thrilled by the honor were quick to point out that the problem was that he wasn't a "real" writer anyway. Finally, Dylan accepted with some polite PR boilerplate but he didn't promise to actually make the awards ceremony. Patti Smith was sent to cover A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall and promptly botched the lyrics. She was immediately forgiven because her rendition was so moving but I am sure the pearl clutchers were left wondering, "what else could go wrong?" Still, Dylan could collect his nearly $1 million prize if he managed to deliver a lecture within 6 months. He just made it. And the speech is remarkable.

Dylan's behavior in all this confusion needs a bit of context. Here's a guy who went to work after only one year of college. He was focused on writing short-form poetry meant to be sung, with the primary singer (himself) hamstrung by a limited range. Many considered his voice laughably unpleasant. He cobbled together a one-man-band kit consisting of a guitar and harmonica and bravely offered his wares to anyone who would listen. His words were so compelling, however, that soon A-list musicians would be covering his work. While all of this is pretty interesting, none of it sounds like the sort of thing that would be found in the CV of a Nobel winner in literature. In fact, I am certain that Dylan suspected it was all a hoax.

So when it came time to write a speech outlining the effects of literature on his work, Dylan looks like he was forced to fall back on material he learned in high school—Moby Dick, the Odyssey, and All Quiet on the Western Front. There are damn few high schools that teach such books anymore and the number of students who actually learn them is probably close to zero. Fortunately, Dylan's father had moved the family to the small mining town of Hibbing Minnesota where he was enrolled in arguably the nicest public high school on the planet. In 1918, the owners of the Hull-Rust-Mahoning mine discovered that downtown Hibbing was sitting on an extremely rich seam of high-grade iron ore. It would have to move. To grease the skids, the town was offered a large cash payment which the mostly immigrant miners decided to spend on a new high school. They would eventually spend over $4 million (an incredible number in the 1920s) on a magnificent structure that still inspires awe. But the high school was to be more than a beautiful building, it was supposed to be a place where even poor children from mining families could get an elite education if they just did their homework. So while Dylan got by on his high school education, what an education it was. (We even know the name of his high school literature teacher, B.J. Rolfzen)

What is noteworthy about Dylan's choices is that in many ways, they are category killers. He says of All Quiet on the Western Front, "After reading it, I never wanted to read another war novel. I never did." This partly explains why the Nobel Committee awarded their prize to a "mere" songwriter—much of what passes for literature these days is irrelevant tripe in the form of academic navel-gazing. Too many categories have been killed long ago. Sometimes I wonder if the same cannot be said for the subject of economics—guys like Veblen and Keynes did some serious category killing in their day. It's hard to point to anyone currently writing who has anything new to add.

The Nobel Prize for Literature is clearly an award Dylan did not need. Even the $million payoff is a rounding error for someone who has sold over 100 million records, and the honor pales next to the dozens of awards for his music. But even though this was probably all just annoying for him, he managed to put together a speech both meaningful and profound. He didn't have to do it but for those of us who appreciate his cultural contributions, I am glad he did.

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