Thursday, October 13, 2016

Nobel for Bob Dylan: The counter-culture generation feels vindicated, feels redeemed. But it does not really add up

Bob Dylan's counter-culture anthem 'The answer is blowin' in the wind' is not what won him the Nobel Prize for Literature for 2016, but that is one lyric that all his admirers and worshippers -- yes, there are worshippers -- associate with him. No harm done. It's a peacenik's song, which reflected the mood of a section of the youth in America and elsewhere. But he wrote and sang many other things, strangely mangled songs interspersed with extremely bad symbolism. The songs were good enough for the cultists, and the bad symbolism seems to have satisfied bad English literature academics like Christopher Ricks, who once wrote a defense of Milton, against the abortive attack by T.S.Eliot, and who finds in Dylan's songs deep, dark religious stirrings. He is not really off the mark, except that Dylan uses the religious bits in a nicely clouded language, which can give a sense of profound thought without being really profound. Many of his songs are really complicated to be songs, and perhaps the Nobel prize is for his courage to stick with the difficult mix of ideas, which do not really mean anything because he has not thought them out. Of course, we will get the pat counter-argument that poets do not think, that they write and ideas, including religious and philosophical ones, are just a part of the interesting brew of ideas and emotions. But as one looks at some of those complex songs, they do not make much sense. The ideas are strewn in the lines of the song, giving the impression of being thoughtful, meditative but doing nothing of the sort.

Look at this 1962 song, A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall, certainly not a popular one, where Dylan seems to strike out in his bid to weave symbolism into the emotion:

Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?

Oh, where have you been, my darling young one?

I've stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains

I've walked and I've crawled on six high crooked ways

I've stepped in the middle of seven sad forests

I've been out in front of a dozen dead oceans

I've been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard

And it's a hard, and it's a hard, it's a hard, and it's a hard

And it's a hard rain's a-gonna fall.

This is surreal at its worst and nothing more.

It would however be unfair to say that he did not get to write the truly poetic line with all its simplicity as can be seen in his popular lyric, The Times They Are A-Changin', where the voice of the author is confident and even prophetic, with a mix of Walt Whitman and the Sermon on the Mount as can be seen in these lines:

Come senators, congressmen

Please heed the call

Don't stand in the doorway

Don't block up the hall

For he that gets hurt

Will be he who has stalled

There's a battle outside and it's ragin'

It'll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls

For the times they are a-changin'

That's good, very good. But it hangs out there. Clear-worded, clear-eyed. But it still hangs in the air, with no ground to stand on. It was indeed the mood of that generation, which was confusion personified.

Look at his ballad-like composition, Like A Rolling Stone, which is witty and scathing and wee bit ironical. It's playful, but you realise that it's a good one as long as it lasts and does not hold beyond that. This passage makes it clear why it is going nowhere:

You used to be so amused

At Napoleon in rags and the language that he used

Go to him now, he calls you, you can't refuse

When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose

You're invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal

Scathing social criticism in song. But it does not seem to rise above that. But songs are songs and it is wrong to demand too much out of them.

That's indeed the point there. Somewhere, despite the adulatory ullulation of the fans, Dylan remains not too serious a writer, however one tries to invest his words with meaning and magic.

It looks like that the Nobel committee in a moment of utter intellectual weakness, turned itself into a Grammy award jury.

Dylan is indeed an iconic figure for a generation and for the 1960s, though he is not the best among them. But the mistake that the Nobel committee has committed is to doff its hat to popular culture, which is not what the Nobel Prize for Literature is all about. They had made a wrong decision last year in choosing Svetlana Alexiavich and her unremarkable reportage. The Nobel committee members are human, and they need to forgiven for their misjudgements.

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