October 26, 2016

"For almost a quarter of a century... the Nobel committee acted as if American literature did not exist — and now an American is acting as if the Nobel committee doesn’t exist."

"Giving the award to Mr. Dylan was an insult to all the great American novelists and poets who are frequently proposed as candidates for the prize. The all-but-explicit message was that American literature, as traditionally defined, was simply not good enough. This is an absurd notion, but one that the Swedes have embraced: In 2008, the Academy’s permanent secretary, Horace Engdahl, declared that American writers 'don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature' and are limited by that 'ignorance.'"

Writes the poet/critic Adam Kirsch (in the NYT). (Here's Kirsch enthusing over Philip Roth, who is, I suspect, in Adam Kirsch's basket of insulteds.)

Kirsch doesn't read Dylan's silence as a response to what Kirsch reads as an insult to to all the great American novelists and poets.
No one knows what he intends — Mr. Dylan has always been hard to interpret, both as a person and as a lyricist...
Don't criticize what you can’t understand...

So Kirsch goes back to Jean-Paul Sartre who refused the Nobel Prize for Literature and, unlike Bob, explained himself (at length, here). And beyond that, Kirsch finds explanation in Sartre's "Being and Nothingness," which talks about "bad faith... the opposite of authenticity":
Bad faith [is] possible because a human being cannot simply be what he or she is... [B]ecause we are free, we must “make ourselves what we are.” In a famous passage, Sartre uses as an example a cafe waiter who performs every part of his job a little too correctly, eagerly, unctuously. He is a waiter playing the role of waiter. But this “being what one is not” is an abdication of freedom; it involves turning oneself into an object, a role, meant for other people. To remain free, to act in good faith, is to remain the undefined, free, protean creatures we actually are, even if this is an anxious way to live.
And I answer them most mysteriously/“Are birds free from the chains of the skyway?”

ADDED: From Bob Dylan's great book "Chronicles: Volume One," here's something that cuts the other way from Kirsch's idea that Bob is about keeping himself for himself and not wanting to be the thing that is meant for other people. Page 16:
I could never sit in a room and just play all by myself. I needed to play for people and all the time. You can say I practiced in public and my whole life was becoming what I practiced.

64 comments:

MadTownGuy said...

"Adam Kirsch's basket of insulteds"

Wou;dn't "basket of insultables" scan better?

Brando said...

In fairness, after giving Obama a Nobel Peace Prize for things they hoped he might later do, it's about right that Americans treat the Nobel committee like it doesn't exist.

As they say, no one can humiliate you, you can only humiliate yourself.

AllenS said...

Dylan's silence, speaks volumes.

Sydney said...

So, Europeans are better at snubbing the Nobel than Americans?

Mick said...

Screw Nobel. They destroyed any credibility when they gave the Peace Prize to the Usurper Hussein Obama, who has started wars all over the Middle East. Dylan wants no part of the NWO politics of "Nobel".

David Begley said...

Dylan should send Laslo to accept for him as his proxy. Think the Nobel Committee has problems now?

Brando said...

"Dylan should send Laslo to accept for him as his proxy. Think the Nobel Committee has problems now?"

Lazlo is the poet laureate of this blog.

buwaya puti said...

Peace Prize is awarded by a different committee than the other Nobel - Peace - the Norwegians; all else - the Swedes.

Brando said...

"Peace Prize is awarded by a different committee than the other Nobel - Peace - the Norwegians; all else - the Swedes."

Good to know. Damn Norwegians!

buwaya puti said...

In any case, all these people have had a ridiculously narrow idea of literature.

For instance, one of the greatest American writers of the 20th century is never mentioned as literature - Samuel Eliot Morison. Nor did he win literary prizes for his magnum opus.

As the writer- editor of "United States Naval Operations In World War II" - the USN official history in 15 volumes - he wrote a prose epic of mechanized, industrial war, one of the glories of American literature, fit to stand in the American literary tradition with Francis Parkman and William Prescott - both also snubbed by academic "literature", such as it is.

Jupiter said...

Alfred Nobel was aware that sometimes when you invite people to your party, they have other engagements. That is why he arranged for a substantial cash award to go with the prize. Cash has a way of resolving conflicts. What he did not foresee, was that a century down the road, the performing arts would become so immensely popular, and Western society so affluent, that a million dollars is not enough. Not nearly enough. He gets better offers all the time.

Hey, the Swedes want Bob Dylan, they need to up their game. The times, ....

buwaya puti said...

Oh, "United States Naval Operations in World War II" 15 volume set, hardcover, is available on the Althouse Amazon portal!

Not cheap, $940 new.

AReasonableMan said...

"The all-but-explicit message was that American literature, as traditionally defined, was simply not good enough."

There is some truth to this, which has been addressed by awarding the prize to voices on the edge of a mediocre US literary establishment. Even so, giving the prize to Dylan was a stretch. I would guess he knows this.

buwaya puti said...

Laslo must publish, and stay alive long enough to collect his award.

Henry said...

There is some truth to this, which has been addressed by ... being wildly inconsistent.

I mentioned the Sartre recusal on one of the previous Dylan threads. Sartre saw a conflict-of-interest in a creative writer accepting such a prize. Dylan may too, but he responds with silence.

Sartre appears to be much more self-conscience about his role as an artist. One reason he gives for rejecting the prize is that the prize is too bourgeois:

I do not thereby mean that the Nobel Prize is a “bourgeois” prize, but such is the bourgeois interpretation which would inevitably be given by certain circles with which I am very familiar.

The poor guy couldn't stop worrying about what people would think of him. Dylan has no such worries.

There is a middle way between having "no evident qualities and not being without qualities", in Thomas Merton's phrase:

The point is to have them as not having them, to excel with an excellence that is not one’s own but that belongs to Tao. Thus one is not admired, or even strictly “recognized,” and yet one is an obscure force in society none the less!

And here is Chuang Tzu discoursing on a man chased by his own ego:

...if he merely stepped into the shade, his shadow would vanish, and if he sat down and stayed still, there would be no more footsteps.

Steven Wilson said...

Good point about Morison. I do remember a particular passage describing one of the nighttime battles during the Solomons Campaign.
As an observer participant, if you were on board you were a participant whether you wished to be or not, Morison remarks on the dye colored geysers of water illuminated by star shell as a "sight vouchsafed to those who do business in great waters." Positively Churchillian.

And I was once told by a man who had taken courses to him that Morison also used this analogy which would send the academy to its collective fainting couch. "A standing army, like an erect penis, is conducive to domestic tranquility but prone to foreign adventure." The underlying or should I say upright and evident, truth of this statement would be no defense against the manufactured outrage that would drum him into the hinterlands.

buwaya puti said...

Sartre called the prize bourgeois to mean that it was going to be taken that it was ideologically aligned to the right, or at any rate in opposition to the left, or his flavor of the left.

He was doing so to conform to the Soviet political line, taken during the Pasternak controversy. Sartre was a committed commie as was his circle.

Patrick said...

To remain free, to act in good faith, is to remain the undefined, free, protean creatures we actually are, even if this is an anxious way to live."

This is,of course, what Dylan is doing. He just doesn't shout it from the roof tops.

William said...

I think I've played and replayed Beatle and Beach Boy songs far more often than those of Dylan, but Dylan's songs had the greater impact......@buwaya: Offhand, I think Churchill was the only writer who won for writing history. And Churchill won more for being Churchill than for his writings, which, in any case, were mostly done by his private secretary. You couldn't very well give Churchill the Peace Prize, but e deserved some honor.......It's good to see the Nobel People expanding their horizons. There have been some cookbooks that have had a profound effect on our lives. Also some bloggers should be in the running.

buwaya puti said...

Mommsen the historian won for literature.
On the whole he's been nearly forgotten, though possibly undeservedly.

Virgil Hilts said...

It is pretty weird that this prize was never won by Philip Roth. No problem with bob Dylan winning, but think Roth is a lot more deserving than many of the past winners.
Agree that the stupid Norwegians have undermined the "Nobel" brand with their peace choices.

Eric the Fruit Bat said...

Catholic Priest: And this offends you as a Jewish person?

Jerry: It offends me as a comedian!

Laslo Spatula said...

Socially Awkward Guy Who Makes No Eye Contact says:

I once won an award: I got 'Honorable Mention' in my fourth-grade Science Fair.

I built a maze for a mouse, I designed it and everything, but I forgot to make a hole at the end where the cheese was, so the mouse could never get to it. The mouse just kept scratching and scratching at the wood in front of the cheese, until it finally just gave up and peed itself.,,

So, yeah, I got 'Honorable Mention' for that, even though all the Judges laughed at my poor mouse. Even my Mother laughed at me -- she told the Judges the mouse was smarter than I was, and they all laughed some more -- but that was still better than when she would belittle me for peeing the bed. She told me I would win First Prize for THAT...

I feel like that mouse sometimes: I'm in a maze, but no one put a hole where i could get through and get my cheese. I would love to win an award now, for anything, really: I would casually show it to the Girl with the Blue Hair working at McDonalds and say "Yeah, I won an award," all casual-like. That would be cool...

I still feel bad about my mouse: I let him down, in front of everyone. He was my buddy, the little guy: I guess I'm just the guy who does things like that....

Like no one else thinks these things.

I hope the Girl with the Blue Hair is working at McDonalds today.


I am Laslo.

buwaya puti said...

I've seen much worse science projects Laslo.
Ok, that may be too Asperger even for me.

Roughcoat said...

S.L.A. Marshall is another American military historian, along with Morison, who deserved and should have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Also, Cormac McCarthy. I know, I know, but still ... And (name-dropping alert here): I actually corresponded with him some years ago, I have one of his letters framed and mounted on the wall above my desk, so I'm biased.

Roughcoat said...

"United States Naval Operations in World War II" is in the public domain and available free, as a PDF ebook ... you just have to know where to look.

William said...

I liked Philip Roth far more than Saul Bellow. Is that idiosyncratic? How can you judge such things. Posterity has been kinder to F.Scott Fitzgerald than to Sinclair Lewis.......We're all stuck not just in our own prejudices but in the prejudices of our time and place......Dylan was an idiosyncratic choice of the Nobel people, and Dylan has replied in kind.....In any event, it is far more soothing to discuss this than the current American election.

Crazy Jane said...

The failure to recognize Roth -- expected for years by many, at least in the US -- discredits the Nobel committee, not Roth himself.

Roth has two problems. One is that he isn't enough of a feminist. The other is that he is a Jew who writes about the Jewish experience. He isn't the flavor of the moment in elite, intellectual circles. My bet is that his work will outlast that of many who have been awarded the prize.

I pay more attention to the science Nobels myself.

Roughcoat said...

Mommesen is still relevant and still worth reading, very much so. As someone who has and is currently writing/publishing in the field of ancient military history, I can tell you that historians of the ancient world are all, for the most part, working from the same original texts; which means that the writing of ancient military history is mostly a matter of interpretation, analysis, and writing style. Mostly, but not entirely -- military history of the very particular sort I'm writing is affected by the application of certain new technologies and the understanding and insights those technologies promote. But, really, in the end it mostly comes down to analysis, interpretation, and skill.

Case in point: Gibbon. Beautiful and enthralling writer, and still relevant. Although his very English hatred for the Byzantines is a serious flaw.

buwaya puti said...

Parkman's "Conspiracy of Pontiac" should be a High School English lit choice. Its a far, far better thing than any I have seen used. More full of anecdote, incident and action also. And more instructive in every sense. You want kids to come out of school with some idea of perspective, of a total world view.

Morisons "Admiral of the Ocean Sea" also, practicality precluding his masterpiece.

I'm not sure what of SLA Marshall would be appropriate. Not the analytic stuff, "Men Against Fire" or "Pork Chop Hill". You have a suggestion?

David said...

"Roth has two problems. One is that he isn't enough of a feminist." Ha. That's for sure.

Henry said...

I know Nobels go to old people, but I remember reading Goodbye Columbus as a teenager and I'm over 50 now. I can't think of Philip Roth without thinking of him as a character of the past. Giving a Nobel to Roth seems like giving an Emmy to Mitch Miller.

Beach Brutus said...

"Giving the award to Mr. Dylan was an insult to all the great American novelists and poets who are frequently proposed as candidates for the prize."

.... but songwriters are poets. The American literature with the greatest impact for the greatest number of people for the past 60 years has been found through music. Maybe the award to Dylan means there's hope for Merle Haggard or Bob McDill.

Roughcoat said...

Also: Bernard De Voto (for Nobel Price for Lit.). Magnificent.

Skeptical Voter said...

Well okay--he won't go to Scandanavia to accept the Prize. But will he bother to cash the check when they mail it to him?

narciso said...

there was a hilarious review of the latest film based on roth's novel, where the critic totally was unaware of the source material,

turtle said...

Noble: the man who invented High Explosives that changed the course of war, forever.
Yeah, That peace loving guy.

William said...

I've read a lot of historians. I think the goal is to impart information, and style takes a backseat to clarity. I haven't read Mommsen, but Gibbons is the only great stylist that I can recall. Churchill would attach some brass fixtures to his mostly ghost written later books. He has style, but I don't know if his later books hold up all that well.......Caro did a fine job in his biography of LBJ. It's a great work, but I'm not so sure it's a great work of art.......The sad fact is that non fiction can never burrow in and become part of your psyche the way fiction can.

buster said...

He may be doing it just for effect. Being known as a Nobel Prize winner who refuses to acknowledge being a Nobel Prize winner is way cooler than just being known as a Nobel Prize Winner.

Ray said...

The only Nobel Prizes worth a damn are the ones in the sciences.

Inkling said...

If you're patient, you might be able to pick up Morrison's monumental work, The History of US Naval Operations in WWII, all 15 volumes of it, for $130 used. It has sold for that price before.

http://camelcamelcamel.com/History-United-States-Naval-Operations/product/0762854316

Just set up a CamelCamelCamel alarm and wait.

autothreads said...

When Bob Dylan was awarded a honorary doctorate of music by Princeton in 1970, the world got a pretty decent song, Day of the Locusts, out of it. I'm hoping something similar will happen with the Nobel.

buwaya said...

"The sad fact is that non fiction can never burrow in and become part of your psyche the way fiction can."

Thats a personal thing I suppose. I can recall histories much better than I can recall novels.

Prescotts "Conquest of Mexico" for instance, that we had in illustrated Spanish translation (it was the standard work in Spain too!). That is a book.

buwaya said...

Purnells illustrated "History of the Second World War" that came out in serial magazine form, ultimately in eight massive volumes. I acquired bits and pieces, but my great-uncle had the whole thing. I would pore through through it every time we went to their house, and would stop off there from the schoolbus for that reason alone. Well, that and chocolate and churros.

It had all the major historians of the time (1960's) still in the business - AJP Taylor, Basil Liddell-Hart, John Keegan, Martin Blumenson, Martin Caidin, and etc. and etc. Its a huge thing.

I still desperately want a copy, but thats just irrational vanity. It deserves a place of honor but we have no room for that.

Way more formative than any novel.

SurferDoc said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Darrell said...

If the Nobel Committee wanted silence they would have given the award to Simon and Garfunkel.

Jose_K said...

An American just won the Booker Prize. Until 2014, Americans were not allowed to because ,Margaret Atwood said, they would win the prize every year

Lydia said...

Dylan may be a teeny bit embarrassed at being given a prize denied Tolstoy.

Bob should turn down the money and rework Tolstoy's words about not receiving the prize:

"I was very happy to know that the Nobel Prize was not awarded to me. It deprived me of a big problem of how to use this money. I am certain that this money...can only bring evil.”

Jose_K said...

Singer wrote in Yiddish and won
Last year an non fiction writer won the Prize.
So did Churchill.
Not only Americans have been ignored: Borges, Murakami, Tolstoi, Joyce, Tolkien( too popular was the reason). French writers were ignore thanks to Sartre

Don M said...

What of SLA Marshall would be worthwhile? I would start with his history of the First World War. The first chapter is by itself a masterpiece.

Roughcoat said...

Don M:

Totally agree re Marshall's "First World War."

The problem with World War II histories comes down to this: if they were written before the Ultra secret was revealed in the 1970s, they're irrelevant, they're mere artifacts. They may be beautifully written, but even so they are essentially mere artifacts. Same goes for anything written about the Ostkrieg, the war in the East, before the fall of the Soviet Union and the opening of Soviet archives to Western scholars (and Russian scholars, for that matter).

The exception to both rules is personal accounts, memoirs, and the like. But even then: don't trust any personal memoir written by a German, especially a German officer. Even the supposed "nonfiction" memoir by Guy Sajer is suspect in this regard. It might just rank as one of the greatest war novels ever written. But is it history? I wonder.

Roughcoat said...

Re the history of the Conquest:

Prescott is great and brilliant, the shoulders all subsequent historians of the Conquest stand upon. But I much Hugh Thomas -- maybe because he stands on Prescott's shoulders (as he readily admits). Also like Thomas's history of the Spanish Civil War (unabridged edition).

Roughcoat said...

And I much prefer historical nonfiction to fiction. IMO, and with few exceptions (Cormac McCarthy, Homer, e.g.) the best historical nonfiction is superior to the best fiction. But, as I said, that's IMO. What you value most, nonfiction or fiction, depends largely on what you believe the function of literature to be.

buwaya said...

"Guy Sajer"

Worth a read - or rather, essential.

Like Ernst Junger.

True? I don't know. But its more the flavor than the testimony.
Yes, its right to consider them novels - what do the details matter at such micro scale really.

buwaya said...

" Also like Thomas's history of the Spanish Civil War "

This is the standard work and indispensable.
Also everything else by Hugh Thomas, inclusing of course his "Conquest"
I admire his "Cuba or the Pursuit of Freedom" a lot also.
I have everything in print of Hugh Thomas.

But he is not lively. On the Spanish Civil War he has more facts than Beevor, say, but I would recommend Beevor to anyone with a casual interest.

buwaya said...

"The problem with World War II histories ..."

You are missing a dimension of the facts, but not necessarily the most relevant facts.
And what happened operationally happened, regardless of the intelligence background.

There isn't a lot that any of the codebreaking stuff can add to "Breakout and Pursuit", Blumenson, or Mortons "Fall of the Philippines", or Field Marshal Slims "Defeat into Victory".

buwaya said...

" I would start with his history of the First World War. "

Never read that, just got the kindle version via the Althouse Amazon portal!

Roughcoat said...

I'm not missing anything. I've read all the major pre-Ultra histories. Describing what happened operationally and tactically is in many instances incomplete without explaining the role Ultra and other code-breaking successes played in shaping the course of those operations and tactical encounters. That goes for Morton's book and for all the Green Books as well. Regarding Slim, you're clearly ignorant of the fact that one of the best generals in World War II became one of the best generals because made extensive and exhaustive use of intelligence provided by decrypts and related code-breaking efforts. You probably don't know this because you've evidently confined your reading about Slim to the period of postwar history predating the revelations concerning Slim's intelligence sources. Of course Slim could not talk about this in any depth in "Defeat Into Victory" because it was against British law for him to do so; and so he helped to propagate the story that his successes in the CBI Theater were due largely to his genius. He was indeed a genius of sorts, especially in his ability to analyze and act correctly on the intelligence he received. One can have the precise intelligence about the enemy's plans and but unless it is properly interpreted and acted upon, such intelligence is worthless. This was in large measure the reason for Freyberg's failure to repulse the German assault on Crete. Freyberg had absolutely precise information, courtesy of the wizards in Bletchley Park and their Ultra decrypts, about the Operation Merkur, down to the hour and exact minute when the German aircraft were scheduled to appear over the island; and he also knew exactly where their paratroopers were to be dropped and the objectives they were tasked to seize. Yet he still couldn't stop them. It wasn't until the 1970s when the Ultra secret was revealed that this information about the Battle for Crete became known. Here is an instance, and a typical one, in which an operational history of the battle was woefully incomplete without a full understanding of the role Ultra played in the battle -- and, paradoxically, in Freyberg's defeat, despite the accuracy of the intelligence available to him. In a very real sense it is incorrect to say "what happened happened" because: as Ultra revealed, there was so much more to what happened than what we knew or assumed in the immediate postwar years.

buwaya said...

On Burma I have Slim and Louis Allen "Burma: The Longest War"
And a lot else incidental, etc.
What would you suggest?

I don't see too much of an effect that Ultra (was it Ultra for Jap codes?) had on the campaign, certainly not in 1942 and in 1944-45 it does not seem like it mattered all that much. The balance of power was overwhelming on the side of the allies. And in spite of everything they got surprised operationally at Kohima. The later campaign was a whole lot of logistics muscle and innovation while it seemed they were fighting a cripple.

William said...

Gibbons famously said that the period of the Antonine emperors was the happiest era in human history. I suppose for people of his wealth and class it probably was. For others not so much. In any event all that peace and harmony was a form of stasis. Shortly after Gibbons wrote Decline and Fall, the French Revolution broke out. There are lots of bad things you can say about the French and Industrial Revolutions, but you can accuse them of stasis. There were a lot of birthing pains and it was a breech delivery, but a better world came if of it, a far better world than Gibbons could even imagine.......Historians get things wrong. Strictly speaking their work isn't non-fiction. They may get the names and the dates right, but they frequently miss the real import of the events they describe.........The uses of enchantment: There's a BBC show called Jonathon Strange and Mr. Norrell. The show details the adventures of two magicians (!) during the Napoleonic Wars. One magician, a figure somewhat based on Gibbons, wants to collect old books of magic and use the lessons to be learned therein only for the defense of the established order. The other magician is more of a romantic. He wishes the spells to be distributed freely and for more people to practice magic. Moreover, he wishes some of the old spells to be broken........I suppose you could say that the French Revolution or, alternately, the legitimacy and primacy of the monarch are different spells. We break these spells and cast new ones, but they're all just spells.

William said...

The saying is that the past is never really past. That's true for those who lived through it, but if it happened before you were born it becomes "once upon a time" time. Then we tell magical stories about the events that happened. Who really knows why Rome fell or the French Revolution happened? We make up stories to explain these events. It's fun to pretend that the random events of history conform to some sort of pattern.

Robert Houghton said...

The Nobel literature prizes are a capricious as they are unfair. To be ignored by the Nobel prize people can be seen as a badge of honor. Jorge Luis Borges deserved it as much as anybody, and he was studiously ignored for over 40 years until he died of old age. I can think of a few American writers who deserved, but would never get the Nobel Prize for literature. Phillip Roth has been mentioned. How about Thomas Pynchon, Cormac McCarthy, Don Delillo, David Berlinski's incredible writings on science and mathematics, Isaac Asimov's columns on just about anything, Vladimir Nabokov, a Russian turned American, turned Swiss, etc. I can't say if Bob Dylan deserved the award, or if it was just a studied insult to America in general by the elitist snobs on the Nobel prize committee, but congratulations to Mr. Dylan on snubbing them.

Kirk Parker said...

William,

"[Churchill's] writings... were mostly done by his private secretary."

The other William (i.e. Manchester) would beg to differ.


"The sad fact is that non fiction can never burrow in and become part of your psyche the way fiction can."

Never read The Road to Wigan Pier, then? Or Homage to Catalonia? Or even Shooting an Elephant? Come on, man, the last is just a short essay.

(And it's a total accident that these are all Orwell--they are what came to mind on the spur of the moment. I'm sure there are others. Indeed for essay-length non-fiction it's hard to beat Paul Graham, perhaps most notably his essay on the essay.)

Kirk Parker said...

Oh, jeez.

And Barbara Tuchman.

Especially Barbara Tuchman.

Anything by Barbara Tuchman.

Forget that, rverything by Barbara Tuchman! Though A Distant Mirror is a personal favorite.