On hearing that Bob Dylan had won the Nobel Prize for Literature, my son Spencer emailed me to ask, “When do they announce the Nobel Prize for Best Supporting Actress?”
It’s a funny line, but for those of us who care about the state of the arts, it’s gallows humor. The Dylan prize is a cry of victory from a generation of vipers — my generation — that has succeeded in sending what was once the greatest culture on earth into a spiral of decadence.
Which is not to say a single bad thing about the songs of Bob Dylan. They’re great. I love them. And he’s an icon of American music, like Louis Armstrong and Frank Sinatra. But if Satchmo or Frank got the prize, I would say the same thing. Because they didn’t create literature. And neither did Dylan.
It’s a category error, but it’s a category error with an agenda, or at least a skewed and stupid point of view. A Nobel committee that gave Barack Obama the Nobel Peace Prize for being inaugurated while black has confused Things We Like with Things of Greatness. It is the signature mistake of the Baby Boomers.
In announcing the prize, Sara Danius, the Nobel Committee’s permanent secretary, said Dylan “is a great poet.” No, he’s not. He’s not a poet at all. He’s a popular songwriter and yes, I would say he’s a great one. I like to listen to his songs anyway, and so do a lot of other people. But popular songs are not poetry and they’re not literature.
Those who argue for the bad prize confuse this issue by pointing out that some great poetry has been written to be performed to music (the Iliad) or that some great poems have been set to music well (Blake’s Jerusalem). This is blowing smoke. For the most part, the simplicity of American popular tunes restricts the language of popular lyric-writing in a way that does not allow it to reach the level of poetry. You could spend and well spend a year or two of your life studying the way Milton describes, not the fall of Lucifer from heaven, but how the ancients incorporated that fall into their own mythologies:
“How he fell
From Heav’n, they fabl’d, thrown by angry Jove
Sheer o’re the Chrystal Battlements: from Morn
To Noon he fell, from Noon to dewy Eve,
A Summers day; and with the setting Sun
Dropt from the Zenith like a falling Star
On Lemnos th’ Aegean Ile.”
The density of thought, the precise arrangement of words (the placement of “Dropt” has the effect of a hangman’s trapdoor opening) and the milking of classical beauty to enhance Christian mythology could and should be subjects of entire treatises. And that’s before you even get to the deep philosophy that underlies the comparison of the two cultures.
You could likewise spend two years studying, “It ain’t me, babe. No, no, no, it ain’t me, babe,” but you would be wasting your life and making as big an ass of yourself as did the Nobel Committee. I love many popular songs but if popular songs are poetry, it is only because our idea of poetry is degraded past recognition. Thanks, Baby Boomers!
What the Nobel Committee has done is not celebrate literature, but enshrine the moment when the inheritors of the West’s magnificence began to throw their inheritance away in the name of their own superiority. That superiority existed then and exists now only in their imaginations and it will vanish with them. Technologically, some small number of them have made this world a better place. Culturally, they have rendered it so idiotic and shallow that I wonder where their children will learn the wisdom to use their technology well.
Nations rise and fall. Art and the Word of God endure. Those who do not steep themselves in the things that last, will be buried along with the things that pass away. So let it be for my generation.
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