Bob Dylan and The Nobel Prize–What’s UP


October 26, 2016

Bob Dylan and The Nobel Prize–What’s Up?

by Adam Kirsch

www. nytimes.com

In the summer of 1964, Bob Dylan released his fourth album, “Another Side of Bob Dylan,” which includes the track “It Ain’t Me Babe.” “Go ’way from my window/Leave at your own chosen speed,” it begins. “I’m not the one you want, babe/I’m not the one you need.”

That fall, the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre played a variation on the same tune in a public statement explaining why, despite having been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, he would not accept it. “The writer,” he insisted, must “refuse to allow himself to be transformed into an institution, even if this occurs under the most honorable circumstances.” Mr. Dylan was talking to an imaginary lover, Sartre to an actual Swedish Academy, but the message was similar: If you love me for what I am, don’t make me be what I am not.

Image result for Bob Dylan and the Nobel Prize

We don’t know whether Mr. Dylan was paying attention to l’affaire Sartre that fall 52 years ago. But now that he has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, he seems to be following in Sartre’s footsteps. Indeed, Mr. Dylan has done the philosopher one better: Instead of declining the prize, he has simply declined to acknowledge its existence. He hasn’t issued a statement or even returned the Swedish Academy’s phone calls. A reference to the award briefly popped up on the official Bob Dylan website and then was deleted — at his instruction or not, nobody knows. And the Swedes, who are used to a lot more gratitude from their laureates, appear to be losing their patience: One member of the Academy has called Mr. Dylan’s behavior “impolite and arrogant.”☺ There is a good deal of poetic justice in this turn of events.

For almost a quarter of a century, ever since Toni Morrison won the Nobel in 1993, the Nobel committee acted as if American literature did not exist — and now an American is acting as if the Nobel committee doesn’t exist. Giving the award to Mr. Dylan was an insult to all the great American novelists and poets who are frequently proposed as candidates for the prize.

The all-but-explicit message was that American literature, as traditionally defined, was simply not good enough. This is an absurd notion, but one that the Swedes have embraced: In 2008, the Academy’s permanent secretary, Horace Engdahl, declared that American writers “don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature” and are limited by that “ignorance.”

Still, it’s doubtful that Mr. Dylan intends his silence to be a defense of the honor of American literature. (He did, after all, accept the Pulitzer Prize for “lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power.”) No one knows what he intends — Mr. Dylan has always been hard to interpret, both as a person and as a lyricist, which is one reason people love him. But perhaps the best way to understand his silence, and to praise it, is to go back to Sartre, and in particular to Sartre’s concept of “bad faith.”

Bad faith, Sartre explains in “Being and Nothingness,” is the opposite of authenticity. Bad faith becomes possible because a human being cannot simply be what he or she is, in the way that an inkwell simply is an inkwell.

Rather, because we are free, we must “make ourselves what we are.” In a famous passage, Sartre uses as an example a cafe waiter who performs every part of his job a little too correctly, eagerly, unctuously. He is a waiter playing the role of waiter. But this “being what one is not” is an abdication of freedom; it involves turning oneself into an object, a role, meant for other people. To remain free, to act in good faith, is to remain the undefined, free, protean creatures we actually are, even if this is an anxious way to live.

This way of thinking is what used to be called existentialism, and Mr. Dylan is one of its great products. Living like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone, is living in Sartrean good faith, and much of the strangeness of Mr. Dylan’s life can be understood as a desperate attempt to retain this freedom in the face of the terrific pressure of fame. In a profile in The New Yorker in that same year of 1964, Mr. Dylan was quoted as saying that he didn’t “want to write for people anymore” but rather wanted to “write from inside me.”

Image result for the nobel prize in literature

To be a Nobel laureate, however, is to allow “people” to define who one is, to become an object and a public figure rather than a free individual. The Nobel Prize is in fact the ultimate example of bad faith: A small group of Swedish critics pretend to be the voice of God, and the public pretends that the Nobel winner is Literature incarnate. All this pretending is the opposite of the true spirit of literature, which lives only in personal encounters between reader and writer. Mr. Dylan may yet accept the prize, but so far, his refusal to accept the authority of the Swedish Academy has been a wonderful demonstration of what real artistic and philosophical freedom looks like.

7 thoughts on “Bob Dylan and The Nobel Prize–What’s UP

  1. Perhaps both were aware how low in esteem the Prize had fallen… subsequent “winners” have proved this to be true…

    When murderers are awarded “peace” prizes you know the score…

  2. Adam Kirsch has been eating lots of sour grapes and seems to be the “know all”. There’s a lot more to what meets the eye, ear, nose or mouth.

  3. Quote:- “…his refusal to accept the authority of the Swedish Academy has been a wonderful demonstration of what real artistic and philosophical freedom looks like”

    I disagree.

    There is a whole world of difference between “…artistic and philosophical freedom”, and simple human politeness and matured graciousness.

    If the behavior of Mr. Dylan towards the award is true, then he is just a spoilt child, albeit a recognizably talented one. A typical example of an introverted child of 60’s Americana whose line-of-sight ended when the Pacific Ocean began.

  4. The Pirates are Here Now! Strange twist.
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/iceland-pirate-party_us_580e3d7ce4b000d0b157bfe1

    When The Ship Comes In
    WRITTEN BY: BOB DYLAN

    Oh the time will come up
    When the winds will stop
    And the breeze will cease to be breathin’
    Like the stillness in the wind
    ’Fore the hurricane begins
    The hour when the ship comes in

    Oh the seas will split
    And the ship will hit
    And the sands on the shoreline will be shaking
    Then the tide will sound
    And the wind will pound
    And the morning will be breaking

    Oh the fishes will laugh
    As they swim out of the path
    And the seagulls they’ll be smiling
    And the rocks on the sand

    Will proudly stand
    The hour that the ship comes in
    And the words that are used
    For to get the ship confused
    Will not be understood as they’re spoken
    For the chains of the sea
    Will have busted in the night
    And will be buried at the bottom of the ocean

    A song will lift
    As the mainsail shifts
    And the boat drifts on to the shoreline
    And the sun will respect
    Every face on the deck
    The hour that the ship comes in

    Then the sands will roll
    Out a carpet of gold
    For your weary toes to be a-touchin’
    And the ship’s wise men
    Will remind you once again
    That the whole wide world is watchin’

    Oh the foes will rise
    With the sleep still in their eyes
    And they’ll jerk from their beds and think they’re dreamin’
    But they’ll pinch themselves and squeal
    And know that it’s for real
    The hour when the ship comes in

    Then they’ll raise their hands
    Sayin’ we’ll meet all your demands
    But we’ll shout from the bow your days are numbered
    And like Pharoah’s tribe
    They’ll be drownded in the tide
    And like Goliath, they’ll be conquered

  5. Thumbs up to Bob Dylan for his silence. Maybe he does not like dynamite and gunpowder. Or maybe he does not want to be in the same league with someone who didnt keep his promise to close down Guantanamo,but instead dropped more bombs on more places and popularised drone warfare.

  6. That is the key. “If you love me for what I am, don’t make me be what I am not”. This is prize for Literature with a capital “T”. He Writes Lyrics for songs. Hmm Hmm.

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