The Rambling Glory of Bob Dylan’s Nobel Speech

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He has had more lives than a cat, and all of them add up to one long life of enough honor and glory to sustain a small nation. They get Dylanified. (What, you didn’t read “Don Quixote” in grammar school, either? We need to read him with our ears as well as our eyes. Our songs are alive in the land of the living.” Dylan never needed to make that trade. The falling rain is monotonous. That gave him a deadline of June 10th. Whippin’ your way through traffic, talkin’ in the dark. At the end of his lecture, Dylan describes the moment in the Odyssey when Odysseus visits Achilles in the underworld. What sets great writers apart from the pack is their ability to connect with readers on a visceral level. Takin’ the pistol out and puttin’ it back in your pocket. And you’re pals with the wild Irish rover and the wild colonial boy. He claimed that he couldn’t attend the ceremony because of “previous commitments,” as if it were a college friend’s wedding. Dylan was grateful for the Nobel; he said as much in the brief remarks that he submitted to be read in absentia at the December ceremony. What he is saying is that he learned his consummate literary technique—how to wield metaphor and make simile sing, how to sew his songs with rhyme and spin a whole uncanny scene from a perfectly worded image—from the great vernacular tradition of American songwriting, a vast library stored not on shelves but in minds and chord-picking fingers. What I think he means is that the literary power that animates his songs can’t be fully accessed without the music. “When I first received this Nobel Prize for Literature, I got to wondering how my songs related to literature. Now we know—sort of. He takes such doubts seriously; clearly, he has some of his own. I doubt that Dylan will be writing a song about the lusty Lord Donald and his knife-stuck wife anytime soon, but what a song it would be. “The Odyssey   is a strange, adventurous tale of a grown man trying to get home after fighting in a war.” Whether that “grown man” is a funny, folksy redundancy or a stroke of genius (is he getting in a dig at Odysseus and some of his more juvenile inclinations?), I leave to more committed Dylanologists than I to debate. As you’ll recall, Bob Dylan won the prize in Literature last October, but, to officially collect the title—plus the roughly nine-hundred-thousand-dollar bundle of cash that comes with it—winners must deliver a lecture within six months of the Swedish Academy’s official awards ceremony in December, which Dylan skipped. Something I didn’t know what. You’ve seen the lusty Lord Donald stick a knife in his wife, and a lot of your comrades have been wrapped in white linen. What follows is an amazingly weird passage. And it gave me the chills.” Then came Dylan’s discovery of Leadbelly, another poet in the guise of a songster, and from Leadbelly it was a hop, skip, and jump to “the ragtime blues, work songs, Georgia sea shanties, Appalachian ballads and cowboy songs,” to American music in all its incomparable abundance: You know what it’s all about. “That’s what songs are, too. STAAB / CBS VIA GETTY

Dylanphiles, breathe easy: our man Bob is a Nobel Laureate at last. But, if Dylan got all that from listening to music, Robert Zimmerman had got it first, from reading books: “ ‘Don Quixote,’ ‘Ivanhoe,’ ‘Robinson Crusoe,’ ‘Gulliver’s Travels,’ ‘Tale of Two Cities,’ all the rest—typical grammar-school reading that gave you a way of looking at life, an understanding of human nature, and a standard to measure things by,” he says. Dylan, true to form, has played the whole Nobel thing mysteriously, maybe maddeningly, cool. Dylan starts with the profound influence that Buddy Holly had on his music and lyrics, and mentions a sort of holy anointment that seems to have taken place when he went to see Holly play, a few days before he died: “He looked me right straight dead in the eye, and he transmitted something. You can read it   here, and listen, too; Dylan made a recording of his text, speaking for twenty-seven minutes over a smoky, meditative jazz-piano arrangement. Dylan submitted his lecture, four thousand and eight words long, to the Swedes on June 5th. But was he grateful enough to actually seal the deal with a lecture? There’s endless assaults, poison gas, nerve gas, morphine, burning streams of gasoline, scavenging and scabbing for food, influenza, typhus, dysentery.” Don’t tell me Dylan can’t write like the best of them. He sounds like a lounge singer lost in contemplative patter, just letting the thoughts flow. Pour yourself a whiskey, honey, pull up a chair, and stay awhile. And that is what Dylan has done for us, in that alchemical combination of the notes he plays and the lustrous words he puts to them. “ ‘Moby-Dick’   is a fascinating book, a book that’s filled with scenes of high drama and dramatic dialogue,” he says, sounding very much like the schoolboy he was when he claims to have read it. You know that Washington is a bourgeois town and you’ve heard the deep-pitched voice of John the Revelator and you saw the Titanic sink in a boggy creek. But his songs will stay forever alive, up here. He speaks of “All Quiet on the Western Front” in the second person, as if it is he, or we, who are German soldiers in the trenches, feeling the wretched cold cut through our coats and tasting the blood in our own mouths: “Day after day, the hornets bite you and worms lap your blood. I wanted to reflect on it and see where the connection was,” he begins. Achilles tells him that trading a long life of peace for a short one of honor and glory was a mistake. It is essentially a lengthy book report, in three parts, about a trio of classics that Dylan read when he was very young, and which has informed his music all his life: “Moby-Dick,” “All Quiet on the Western Front,” and the Odyssey. The lecture’s first revelation is that Dylan has spent the past eight months asking himself the same question as the rest of us. “Songs are unlike literature,” he says. He is dead for eternity; “if he could, he would choose to go back and be a lowly slave to a tenant farmer on Earth rather than be what he is—a king in the land of the dead,” Dylan says. He is onto something true and vital here: that literature is not simply   writing, or even   good writing, but above all a way of examining the conditions of the human soul, and of trying to inform and guide one’s own. That is clearly what great literature has done for Dylan, and he makes us feel it, too, in the way that he writes about the books he loves, with a passion stripped of any pretense. When he finally showed up in Stockholm, during an April tour stop, to receive the Nobel medal, he looked more like a   cat burglar than a laureate, sneaking into the private prize hand-off through a service door, wearing a hoodie, leather jacket, and gloves. Not for him, the sombre pomp of the podium. “They’re meant to be sung, not read on a page,” as Shakespeare’s plays are meant to be acted. “I could make it all connect and move with the current of the day.” He still can. As Dylan gains steam, though, his plainspoken descriptions of the books start to glow with an unexpected beauty and power. Welcome to Dylan Self-Mythologizing 101.) These are, it happens, exactly the literary qualities that people who quibble over whether Dylan’s work is literature tend to ignore. He’ll try to articulate the connection, he says: “And most likely it will go in a roundabout way, but I hope what I say will be worthwhile and purposeful.” Roundabout it is. “I had all the vernacular all down,” Dylan says. This seems remarkably humble and honest, considering how many people have been up in arms about Dylan winning the writing prize at the expense of a poet or a novelist. One day, he, too, will go down under the ground. You don’t fit anywhere. You heard the muffled drums and the fifes that played lowly. In a recording of his Nobel lecture, which he submitted this week, Bob Dylan sounds like a lounge singer lost in contemplative patter, just letting the thoughts flow.CreditPHOTOGRAPH BY JEFFREY R. Enough of this debate over whether the lyrics stand up on a page without the melodies. We feel their work in our brains and in our guts, in the blood coursing in our veins and the adrenaline swelling our necks, in the way our hearts contract with pain or swell with joy as we read. He is totally immersed not only in what he has read but in his memory of it; the books are alive in him, and as he talks about them we, too, begin to see them afresh. You know that Stagger Lee was a bad man and that Frankie was a good girl. You’re a cornered animal. And what would he have to say about literature, and his newly glorified place in it? The language is almost entirely descriptive, mind-bogglingly so; it is as if Dylan is writing for an audience that   has never heard of the books he names.