Intellectuals around the world are getting particularly loud about the awarding of the Nobel Prize to Bob Dylan. Being one myself, I’m not surprised.
You see, intellectuals work within a space where everything matters. All the time. They do serious work. They research serious topics. They talk about serious matters. This is the way their brains are wired. The world is a place where meaning is everywhere, crying out to be extracted and organized. And they are the ones set to this critical task.
Because of this, many intellectuals tend to segregate space. There is a space for everything in the world. Certain things are serious, reverential, sacred. And those things and people that don’t arrive with the proper variety of gravitas are intruders, to be mocked and shunned according to the whims of the keyholders.
The Nobel Prize is the ultimate example of the sacred space. Here, literature is given a valued place beside hard sciences and world-shifting socio-political initiatives. It’s the one time of the year when the world recognizes the language arts as a critical part of the human experience rather than the isolated domain of elitists and blowhards.
It is from this perspective that the vitriol aimed at the selection arises. Last year’s winner was Svetlana Alexievich, a Belarussian journalist who relentlessly hammers away at authoritarianism and its debilitating effects upon a population and its culture. That is something worth applauding. Her work has weight, they say. It means something.
Bob Dylan? Well, he’s a popular musician. That’s a different category.
But therein lies what’s really at the heart of this. The truth is that Bob Dylan has achieved too much popular success for these artists and scholars to think of him as someone worthy of the prize. The musician part is beside the point. He already has a voice. Thousands of people line up to see him “perform.” For God’s sake, he did a freaking IBM commercial. Oh, they’re “fans,” they’ll be sure to tell you. But fandom is antithetical to literary merit. I’m not a fan of Faulkner. I’m a scholar who respects and values his work. There’s a difference, right? And more to the point: it’s a meaningful difference.
Now is he worthy of the Nobel? Well, it’s sort of like the Heisman Trophy. It’s a source for debate, but ultimately it is an award handed down by a private organization with its own ideas about what “literature” means and what greatness within that space is constituted by. Sure, the selection smacks of the committee’s desire to reinsert itself as a significant cultural icon in a world that cares much more about sports titles and the doings of Kardashians than they do serious things like what’s on the cutting edges of mathematics, economics, and literature. But that’s their prerogative. And it’s not like they’re giving the award to the third string quarterback for the University at Buffalo. This is a storyteller whose words have reshaped a genre and inspired cultural opinions in a way James Joyce could only dream of. If it’s really about “worthiness” that we quibble, well that worthiness could only be about personal preference or a narrowed view on what is deserving of the honor of being called “literature.” And if intellectuals lose the ability to assert their esoteric claims on the latter, they fear, the erosion of their tenuous space within the culture just advances across another meter of sand. Never mind that a Nobel Prize for a popular musician might get people to do more of the very thing they want people to do– that is, to read actual words and think about their significance, in this case rather than just humming along to the melodies of songs they’ve never bothered to know the subject of– the explosion of their carefully-determined syllabi looks all too much like another step towards the abyss.
I want to be clear. I’m neither lauding nor denouncing the selection. (Though those of you who know about my project or have read my recent blog post about the place of music in my own “song” (But Still They Lead Me Back to the Long and Winding Road) well know, I am both a great admirer of Bob Dylan and an apologist for music as literature.) I just think that those who are screaming about it (and to be fair, many intellectuals have applauded the choice) are doing a great disservice to the humanities by presenting so insular an argument. Things have already gotten bad enough for intellectualism in this country. The notion that scholarship (particularly science) is a social and political enemy is spreading in nefarious ways as it is, and here in New York the term “professor” is actively being used in a congressional debate as if it were a synonym for “felon” (I can’t imagine what would be happening if the candidate in question was a scholar of feminism rather than law.) We don’t need exclusionary academic politics making it seem like intellectuals are that much more out of touch with the rest of humanity. Personally, I have enough trouble selling books as it is!
So all I’ll say is congratulations, Bob. Whether you “truly” deserve a Nobel Prize or not, who is anyone to deny you the accolades of a long career of critical importance? As an American and a storyteller, I’m proud to count you as one of my own. Not like all those damn Brits and their physics and economics laureates . . . screw them and their “topological phases of matter! I’ll take “The Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” any day . . .