Shoot me, but there's no other way to say this: Bob Dylan's Nobel lecture, delivered six months too late, nearly put me to sleep. And I wish I could add 'metaphorically'.
Seriously, it took me over an hour to get through the transcript of the piece, which he delivered on audio to the tinkling of a piano, in less than half that time. It's not so much the delivery of the speech that did this to me rather than what went into it. But then, I guess, I wasn't expecting anything better.
Last year, when Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, I happened to be one in the minority (or so it seemed like at the moment) of those who found the decision outrageous. I minced no words in making clear my disappointment, in spite of being a fan of his music. Like everyone else who'd had their say on the Internet, I expected the controversy to die out. But nope. Dylan, always a tough cookie, seemed to play his cards even more complicatedly this time.
First, he wouldn't acknowledge the prize, let alone provide the desperate press with any sound bite. Being media savvy was never his forte and it seemed unfair to expect him to rise up to such a demand, especially after he had sparked culture wars across the globe.
The Swedish academy clearly wasn't expecting such a (non) response, especially since the prize money in question amounts to over $900,000.
The Swedish academy clearly wasn't expecting such a (non) response, especially since the prize money in question amounts to over $900,000. But then, we are discussing a man here whose net worth is estimated to be $180 million. Many of us won't know how many zeroes that involves.
After failing to contact Dylan for weeks, one member called out his behaviour as "rude and arrogant", but it couldn't persuade the winner to make any significant amends. He didn't attend the formal banquet, but the Swedes are polite people, so they honoured him in absentia.
Then came the difficult part—of getting the moody maestro to deliver the lecture, which has traditionally been given by every literature prize winner since 1901. After six months, that prized document is finally in the public domain, much to the relief of the awarding committee and the thrill of those who were already over the moon by the thought of adding the epithet 'Nobel Laureate' before the 75-year-old cultural icon's name.
So, little wonder that most people think the lecture is a big deal. Expect, after reading it, I've been left to wonder about the state of literary appreciation in our time and the miserable misfit that I must be in it.
Dylan begins humbly enough, with a statement that many will agree with vigorously.
"When I received the Nobel Prize for Literature, I got to wondering exactly how my songs related to literature," he says, "I wanted to reflect on it and see where the connection was. I'm going to try to articulate that to you―and most likely it will go in a round-about way."
He then goes on to talk about three literary masterpieces that have deeply influenced his lyrics: Herman Melville's Moby Dick, Eric Maria Remarque's classic novel of World War I All Quiet on the Western Front, and Homer's epic, Odyssey.
The lecture would have turned out to be a fascinating piece, had he not summarised each of these books in painstaking detail, peppered with his signature flourishes, street talk and the endearing colloquialism that make his songs so distinct.
The lecture would have turned out to be a fascinating piece, had he not summarised each of these books in painstaking detail, peppered with his signature flourishes, street talk and the endearing colloquialism that make his songs so distinct. A truly literary mind would have found a more sophisticated form to stitch these thoughts together, instead of rambling on about the plots of these riches of world literature.
Almost all Nobel Laureates have spoken of their influences but usually in a far subtler idiom. JM Coetzee, in 2003, delivered his lecture as a parable based on Robinson Crusoe— his way of signalling his enduring debt to the text as well as to its creator Daniel Defoe. Orhan Pamuk gave a moving tribute to his father in his Nobel lecture of 2006. Dylan's speech, in contrast, lacks intellectual mastery and there's not enough of a tender personal touch to make up for it.
It's tempting to (mis)read the lecture as Dylan's attempt to play up canonical works of Western literature, curiously all three written by men, to vindicate his work. It's as though by simply invoking the inspiration behind his lyrics, he hoped to vindicate their literary value—and redeem the Nobel committee in the eyes of those who have faulted it for conferring such a towering honour on him.
Dylan is already a part of the PhD mill, his songs are hotly discussed, debated, written about, celebrated and theorised (though maybe not sung) within the academia. Now his Nobel lecture, bearing references to great literary texts, is bound to add to the excitement of those who feared they may be running out of topics to write their dissertations on.
For the rest of us who love literature, Dylan's songs will always be there to entertain ourselves with.
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