Bob Dylan has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Not everyone is happy about it. For some it remains an absurdity to present his art as an example of excellence. For others, while the excellence is undeniable, its categorization as literature remains problematic. These questions are not my chief concern here.
I confess that don’t know a great deal about the details of the Nobel Laureates in Literature. I also confess that this want of knowledge doesn’t much bother me. If one were to build a list of greatness in literature for all time, how many of these particular writers, dating back to 1901, would even merit consideration?
Put another way, when I look over the Nobel Laureate list, I feel somewhat in the kind predicament that Bilbo, delivering his farewell speech in Hobbiton, dealt with by means of this obscurity: “I don't know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.”
Now, I do know this for a solid fact. Nobel Committee has, more than a few times, well and truly beclowned itself with this Award. A clear illustration: It would appear upon even cursory glance, that more tiresome and superstitious propounders of socialism have earned the Award, than brave dissenters seeking to break free and expose socialist tyranny.
In light of that knowledge, I can say emphatically that the Nobel Committee did not, this time at least, beclown itself by bestowing its Award on another tiresome and superstitious socialist. That a large mass of Bob Dylan fans, especially of the academic sort, would like folks to think the Committee has done this . . . well, let’s just say that speaks to the level of tiresome, superstitious socialism still dominant among American elites.
But Bob Dylan is not a socialist. (If he ever was one, he obligingly shook off that superstition well before I was born, and I’m almost 40 years old — just to illustrate how behind the times these aging fellow travelers are.) Scouring for suitable descriptors of the political variety, I’d go with patriot and traditionalist; though I would make haste to add that political descriptions are ill-fitting on this troubadour.
Bob Dylan is surely still a Christian as well. Every time he’s in the news I run into a common phrase along the lines of “but Dylan eventually renounced organized religion.”
No, he didn’t. I have searched for the source of this pernicious platitude more than once; and have concluded that its origin can only lie in the imagination of certain interested journalists. Call it the elegy of discomfited secularists.
So it is only natural that the odious utterance creeps into quite a number of the write-ups of Dylan the Nobel Laureate. Again, take it from me, in the bluntest terms I can muster without breaking our “no profanity” rule: It just ain’t so.
Dylan boldly, publicly and unmistakably announced he had given his life to Christ in the late 70s. Numerous credible people confirmed his conversion prayer, his attendance at church, his participation in an intensive discipleship class, etc. Scripture was always a rich vein to mine for lyrics; now it became the Holy Word of God. He subsequently released two albums of unambiguously Christian material, some of it bad, some of it overbearing, much of it mediocre, some of it brilliant and powerful.
He has never renounced that faith. He’s offered cryptic talk and eccentric comments. He’s befuddled admirers and detractors alike. Mostly, he has composed songs and performed them. But Christian imagery, colloquialisms, doctrine, history, diction, symbolism, quotation, all these and more, have absolutely permeated his music, despite a very wide diversity of genre. I don’t believe any album has failed to include at least one song which only a nincompoop could mistake for non-Christian in content. In a word, you have to be an idiot to believe Bob Dylan is anything other than a man who considers himself an imitator Christ.
That having been said, it is of course true that not everything in his art or life has been dedicated to Christian evangelism. He’s done lots of things. Starting in the early 80s, he set aside the strictly theological themes and explored others of a very wide variety. He did a disastrous tour and album with the Grateful Dead. Many are the songs in these last 35 years he has written that leave off any overt theology, or any at all. Many there are also that merely use the above-mentioned elements as props to tell some other story.
Moreover, it’s pretty clear that before Bob Dylan became a Christian, he had lived a wild and colorful life. It is unlikely that all that accumulation of sinful habit vanished in the blink of an eye after his conversion. No doubt his life was still swarming with those false teachers, warned against so vividly by St. Peter in his Second Letter, who prey on infant Christians and try to draw them back into sin.
I will also allow that Dylan no longer cleaves to the particular variety of Christianity to which he initially converted. That late-1970s pop-fundamentalism has deepened into a more mature faith, and definitely a more reserved one. The world of Christian thought is vast and varied, and ‘round every corner a narrowing heresy awaits. I certainly do not insist that Bob Dylan is an orthodox Christian in the traditional sense.
Furthermore, Dylan, far from renouncing his Jewish roots, has quietly retained many diverse connections to that religion, including through the Hasidic organization Chabad. (Secularists may forget that this organization’s small outpost in Mumbai suffered the savage treachery of Islam’s crazed sons back in 2008; we may conjecture with confidence that Bob Dylan has not.)
What this all comes down to is that the Nobel Committee has given this most prestigious Award to one of America’s most prominent, if mysterious, Judeo-Christians.
Thus my somewhat puckish headline is, on the merits, perfectly defensible. For my part I salute the Nobel Committee for its inspired bestowal, and congratulate the man for this deserved recognition of the immense riches of his art.
A few other notes:
¶ As even the dedicated Dylan critic Andrew Ferguson acknowledges, Bob Dylan’s privacy is plainly dear to him, and he has succeeded very well in preserving it, to the benefit not only of himself but his admirers. His public image is mostly that of an enigma; the secretive troubadour composes his songs, performing regularly; he emerges rarely in any other context, and almost entirely on his own terms, usually for a pugnacious or peculiar interview, occasionally with fascinating videos, advertisements, or musical partnerships. And that’s that. The Laureate Troubadour abides.
¶ Something should be said about Dylan’s antic and inventive comic streak. Alas, all but the very best analysis of humor merely weakens the delight of the joke; so I’ll just proffer some sample songs that seem particularly hilarious to me:
“On the Road Again” (1965)
“Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” (1965)
“Can You Please Come Out Your Window” (1965)
“Black Diamond Bay” (1976)
“We Better Talk This Over” (1978)
“Man Gave Names to All the Animals” (1979)
¶ The question of whether the composition of songs, even magnificent songs of depth and range, rises to the level of literature, is not one that can be easily disposed of. Shorn of the musical accompaniment, a great many even of Dylan’s best lyrics feel wain and desiccated, or simply incoherent. Readers unfamiliar with the songs as performed inevitably lose much of what makes them great. Dylan set eccentric but undeniably fearsome polemics to a jaunty, upbeat folk-rock tune in “Positively 4th Street,” and the effect simply cannot be conveyed on bare paper. A parallel contrast is observable in the chiming guitar (courtesy Mark Knopfler) and amiable piano of “Precious Angel,” a song that, lyrically, features blunt and uncompromising theological statements selected from John 4, 2 Corinthians 4, Romans 6, and Revelation 9. One may read, on paper, the lyrics to this song with some profit; but again, the diminution of experience in comparison to the full power of the performed song, will persist no matter what any committee bestowing prestigious literary awards may do. Still, as noted above, I could really give a rip about the Nobel Committee’s exulted dignity, alleged by some to have been debased by this choice of Laureate. If the final result is that more people listen to and enjoy the music of this great American, all the better for mankind.