Bob Dylan and Barack Obama's contested Nobel Prizes drew different receptions

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Young Bob Dylan. Image: Flickr/Paul Townsend

Through no merit of mine but rather due to a friend's generosity, I saw Bob Dylan perform in Toronto Wednesday night, and realized with a jolt that I'd never seen him live before. How did that happen?

He's been front of mind for me (he's always in there somewhere) since being awarded the Nobel Prize for literature last fall and dithering over it. He seemed to have a problem. Patti Smith accepted it for him, but he needed to deliver a lecture personally to receive the cash. He just beat the deadline.

The talk he gave -- hardly a "lecture" -- made clear that he’d needed to think it through. It's not because he's unliterary; he's read widely -- ridiculously so. When I first heard of him, I was a grad student who thought all answers lay in philosophy, so I was reassured when someone said Dylan once pulled an all-nighter reading Hume's skeptical writings on cause and effect.

He's an inquisitive mind and he ransacked literature for his songs as he'd explored philosophy, but that doesn't make them literature -- which was the crux of his dilemma. After learning of the prize, he said, "I got to wondering how my songs related to literature." "Related to" -- not "are."

He immediately goes to a moment, while young, when he saw Buddy Holly sing: "I was only six feet away...I watched his face, his hands...Then, out of the blue, the most uncanny thing happened. He looked me right straight dead in the eye, and he transmitted something." Whatever this is, it isn't literature. We're not in Booksland, Toto. It's the world of live performance and interaction: "I was playing for small crowds, sometimes no more than four or five...You had to have a wide repertoire, and you had to know what to play and when." It's about sensory presence. It's the oral tradition, not the written one.

Contrast his pensive response to that of another recipient of a perplexing Nobel: Barack Obama got it for peace, weeks after becoming president in 2009. (The Nobel judges, a presumptuous crew, seemed to think they could nudge him in a pacific direction.) Obama says he hasn't a clue why he got it but took it and delivered an essentially pro-war lecture in return. Decades younger than Dylan, he showed none of Dylan's inquisitiveness. Obama once had that, in the time his first book is set, but it got lost in his expanding ego. He essentially mocked the prize, while Dylan treated it respectfully if contrarily.

Dylan spends the rest of his lecture mining his relation to books. He cites Don QuixoteMoby DickThe Odyssey, which he says "worked its way" into "Home on the Range." (A great song, especially the "often at night" verse.) "I took all that with me when I started composing lyrics. And the themes from those books worked their way into many of my songs." Literature's a resource for songs, but that doesn't make him an "author," even if the judges were trying to claim him, as they did with playwrights Harold Pinter and Dario Fo.

He uses literature but he doesn't do it. It gave him "a way of looking at life, an understanding of human nature, and a standard to measure things by...I've written all kinds of things into my songs. And I'm not going to worry about… what it all means." He seemed unconvinced that the Nobel gathering would get it but he tried: "...songs are unlike literature. They're meant to be sung, not read. The words in Shakespeare's plays were meant to be acted on the stage..."

That's how he's treated his own works: as scripts. As long as you keep the words and rudimentary tune, you can bend and stretch them outrageously - so that any current Dylan performance can be like an attempt to guess the song he's now singing, though you've known it for years. Even his mumbling, like Glenn Gould's humming, can be a form of intimacy with his audience.

The "lecture" reads like a welcome commentary on his oeuvre. It makes me think of what my American lit prof said after we'd read poet Walt Whitman's lengthy essay, "Democratic Vistas." (Actually, to be precise in the manner of the oral tradition, he said it's something a colleague had said.) "It makes you realize the man had a mind."

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Image: Flickr/Paul Townsend

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