September 28, 2013

"There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke."

Sang Bob Dylan in "All Along the Watchtower," which I'm quoting because today's theme on the blog is tragedy and comedy and because I'm reading this NYT piece by Bill Wyman (not that Bill Wyman) about how it's conceivable — not that conceivable — that Bob Dylan could win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Mr. Dylan’s work remains utterly lacking in conventionality, moral sleight of hand, pop pabulum or sops to his audience. His lyricism is exquisite; his concerns and subjects are demonstrably timeless; and few poets of any era have seen their work bear more influence.
Just this morning — a propos of what I won't say — we were talking about examples of individuals who gain an audience and then see their self-expression reflected in how that audience understands them, and they reject their own expression because they don't like how it looks. Who has done that? I thought first of Dave Chappelle, and Meade thought of the Little Green Footballs blogger Charles Johnson. I came up with another name that doesn't really fit the category — Saint Paul — and Meade said Bob Dylan.
[Bob Dylan] dropped out of sight at the height of his fame; the cover story was a motorcycle accident, but as his autobiography, “Chronicles: Volume One,” makes clear, he really just wanted to raise his kids in peace, away from the hippies who harried his family. After going electric, he went country. In the late 1970s, as the New Wave era crested, the singer, raised a Jew, declared himself a Christian — and not the warm and fuzzy sort, either. What sort of pop artist works so diligently to systematically undermine his own popularity?
To me, the question is why turn on the audience. I'm interested in the performers — and I count blogging and preaching and politicking as performance — who've detected their own flaws in the mirror of the audience. That's what they think I'm saying? That's their idea of following me, emulating me, engaging with me? Seeing what they are, I want to be different.

It's hard to believe Bob Dylan would like the Nobel Prize. It's just a topic to write articles about and to get traffic flowing wherever they're published. Remember the backstory to the song "Day of the Locusts":
"Sara was trying to get Bob to go to Princeton University, where he was being presented with an honorary doctorate. Bob did not want to go. I said, 'C'mon, Bob it's an honor!' Sara and I both worked on him for a long time. Finally, he agreed. I had a car outside, a big limousine. That was the first thing he didn't like.... When we arrived at Princeton, they took us to a little room and Bob was asked to wear a cap and gown. He refused outright. They said, 'We won't give you the degree if you don't wear this.' Dylan said, 'Fine. I didn't ask for it in the first place.'..."
Anyway, I was thinking about that line "There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke," as we were talking about the old aphorism "Life is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel" (which I attributed to Racine, and a commenter said was really from Horace Walpole). Bob Dylan also sings about getting a letter in which he was asked how he was doing: "Was that some kind of joke?" But there's more to comedy than jokes, so his contempt for jokes shouldn't mark him as a nonthinker, even if we take the old Walpole saying as gospel.

ADDED: Meade notes that Dylan did put on that cap and gown and accept the degree at Princeton, and he's accepted a lot of other awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2013):

22 comments:

Henry said...

Mark Rothko.

Carol said...

Many people assumed Dylan was a protest singer but actually did very little of that sort of thing. Or it was vague and subject to interpretation, like Blowing in the Wind. I think he got right tired of the shtick as soon as he got into it, and if so good on him.

surfed said...

Mickey Dora

surfed said...

Bob had the ability to make every song (on the good albums) different from each other. The Beatles could do that. Not many others.

David said...

Obama won the Peace Prize, right?

So this is certainly possible.

Personally I would like to see Franklin W. Dixon get the award. My first favorite author.

traditionalguy said...

This is a very eye opening subject. The Judgement of a loving creator God who is also stuck on Holiness comes out as rejection of all imperfections; and Zimmerman/ Dylan is driven by that Hebrew Prophet's anointing to speak out about such imperfections and unrighteousness of men.

As a Prophet Dylan manages to put more into his words than we hear the first time. But then when we think about his words later they open up enormous messages that are incidentally set to music because Bob happens to loves performing music.

The apostle Paul whose words created 90% of what we gentiles call Christianity was another Jew that could do what Bob does. I suspect Bob was fascinated finding that same skill in Paul's Letters. Bob wrote an album or two of songs that affirm the truth of those Pauline scriptures.

When faced with Jesus still being alive, both of them accepted Him as the incarnated Son of God sent to be born as a man so that He could as a Priest offer his own human blood sacrifice showing a death replacement for our atonement was accepted in His resurrection. Hence the Prophets job is over and imperfect men are made complete.

Freeman Hunt said...

I would imagine that those awards put you in an odd position if you're not interested in the awards and are also a considerate person. What do you do? Refuse these people who are trying to compliment you? Throw it back in their faces? You could do that. Go along with it and be nice about it even though you think it's silly? You could do that. You have to pick.

Freeman Hunt said...

"individuals who gain an audience and then see their self-expression reflected in how that audience understands them, and they reject their own expression because they don't like how it looks"

You'd think this would happen constantly. Is it possible to be a writer who does not feel this, even if the reaction is not to reject one's own expression?

Almost Ali said...

I liked the reference to Charles Johnson (Dylan is beyond me).

Whatever happened to Charles Johnson. He was brilliant, but also a somewhat stealth liberal - who in the beginning guided LGF more down the middle. But you just knew "he" was coming, that at a precipitous public moment he would make a hard left. And he did, off the deep end.

Cronenberg David said...

Jimi did it better, said Bob. Jimi said he felt Bob wrote to his soul. Simpatico. I was in the VN war defending Juarez from El Paso--home and grave of lawyer John Wesley Hardin and junkie hangout of Bob at the time, hence the title (misprinted). Once propped to Ohio at behest of girlfriend and heard Jimi's version for the first time at coffee shop juke box. Slammed 50 quarters, 3x per. Never got tired of the song. Tired of the girl. New Morning, that's the Nobel. Or Blood. Met him years later in Malibu. Doing drugs. He didn't like Kris K. At least while high. I was kinda working for Kris, so maybe he was busting my chops. Wonder Boys. Big Lebowski. His genius illuminated when songs surprise in another aesthetic context.

Gary Rosen said...

Dylan didn't reject his "expression". He rejected his audience because he decided he didn't want to live the fishbowl life of a pop star. A very good decision IMHO, especially because he was already financially secure from songwriting royalties.

DrMaturin said...

Never happen. The Nobel Prize only goes to Literature with a capital L. And almost never to native born Americans. Check out this website (not sure if it's been updated since then):

http://www.greatbooksguide.com/altnobel08.html

sykes.1 said...

Last I heard, Dylan was once again an orthodox Jew. Several critics have pointed out that his lyrics often either quote or paraphrase Biblical verses, and that his music has always had a strong religious tone.

Kerouac is another cultural icon with a religious base. Despite his own and surrounding dissipation, he was a practicing Catholic and celibate.

LarryK said...

Great post. Dylan's assessment of the late 60s counterculture in Chronicles is also must reading for anyone who thinks he's a die-hard lefty (classic Chronicles quote on the hippies who worshipped him: "I wanted to set fire to these people").

Arguably, someone who come just after Dylan and tried as hard to alienate his core audience was David Bowie. Bowie was even more innovative and diverse musically between 1973 and 1983 as Dylan was between 1968-79. Both seemed slightly out of synch with the immediate times, but were really just one step ahead. I also think that for both it was artistic exploration and a who-gives-a damn what they think attitude rather than a deliberate effort to piss anyone off, but who can say for sure.

traditionalguy said...

The Nobel for. Literature was awarded to a. Californian named. Steinbeck in the early 60s.

agrifoliar said...

Nirvana's In Bloom.

Robert said...

In a world in which Nobels are awarded to terrorists like Yassir Arafat and dudes who didn't do a fucking thing like Barack Obama, and that people like Bradley Manning are worthy of nomination,

yes, it's reasonable to decide that Bob Dylan deserves one, as well.

Robert said...

In a world in which Nobels are awarded to terrorists like Yassir Arafat and dudes who didn't do a fucking thing like Barack Obama, and that people like Bradley Manning are worthy of nomination,

yes, it's reasonable to decide that Bob Dylan deserves one, as well.

Smilin' Jack said...

Sang Bob Dylan in "All Along the Watchtower,"

A watchtower is a vertical edifice. It extends up and down. There is no such thing as "along" a watchtower. Awarding a Nobel Prize in literature to someone who does not know that will be another nail in the coffin of western civilization.

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

"People who think honestly and deeply have a hostile attitude toward the public." -- Goethe

TheThinMan said...

Up and down the watchtower? Pretty lame. I like All along better.

TheThinMan said...

"LET us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;"

Even more impossible than all along the watchtower!