October 17, 2016

Harvard classics professor who teaches a course on Bob Dylan gets vindication from Bob Dylan's winning the Nobel Prize.

The NYT has an article on Richard F. Thomas, "who has been gently teased by colleagues for teaching a freshman seminar about Bob Dylan."
Mr. Thomas uses the course, simply called “Bob Dylan,” to put the artist in context of not just popular culture of the last half-century, but the tradition of classical poets like Virgil and Homer....
There’s a stanza that goes: “I’m gonna spare the defeated — I’m gonna speak to the crowd/… I’m goin’ to teach peace to the conquered/I’m gonna tame the proud.” That’s pretty much a direct quote of lines spoken in the “Aeneid” by the ghost of Aeneas’s father, Anchises, who he sees in the underworld, and who basically says to him: “Other people will make sculpture. Your art, your job as a Roman, is to ‘spare defeated peoples, tame the proud.’”...

[H]e’s like Virgil or Ovid: someone who came late enough in the tradition and has enough tradition behind him — T. S. Eliot wrote about this — that he can control it and also be part of it, recreating and refreshing it.I don’t see any difference between a poet like Catullus or Virgil and Bob Dylan. I think they are doing the same things. It has to do with control of language, connecting of lyrics and melodies. That’s what makes it timeless....
I like that Thomas has never met Bob Dylan and doesn't see much need or even value to talking to him: "Whatever I asked him, he wouldn’t tell me. Dylan is very careful at controlling what he gets asked."

I agree. We were talking about something like that yesterday, and I was saying I didn't have any kind of feeling of wanting to know Bob Dylan personally. The Bob Dylan that matters to me comes through the art. That's the direct experience. No reason to want to go around that to get somewhere else when you're already here.

Well, I really like Professor Thomas and his Virgil-and-Ovid comparisons. I'm not going to criticize him. But seeing this article made me think the Nobel Prize is going to motivate and justify a lot of other teachers to build courses around Bob Dylan, to speak about him in lofty tones, and to impose him on the young. I'm picturing a lot of aging, self-indulgent professors devising their Bob Dylan courses....

You’ve been with the professors/And they’ve all liked your looks/With great lawyers you have/Discussed lepers and crooks/You’ve been through all of/F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books...

... and thinking that's not what Bob Dylan means.

ADDED: Here's Thomas's article "The Classical Dylan." Excerpt:
Like Dylan, Virgil was accused of plagiarism. There is an anecdote in Suetonius’ Life of Virgil 46 on the poet’s response to the critics’ charge of plagiarizing Homer: “Why don’t they try the same thefts? They’ll find out it’s easier to snatch Hercules’ club from him than a single line from Homer.” Dylan successfully stole three from Virgil, embracing T. S. Eliot’s maxim “immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” Poems that are layered with intertexts reveal depths of meaning through our recognition of those texts as we import other contexts that work together with new images, metaphors, and other poetic or musical effects. That is true of Virgil, Dante, Milton, and as we saw, it was true of “Lonesome Day Blues” and much else on Love and Theft. This way of writing indeed seems to be particularly a feature of the mature Dylan, starting with Time Out Of Mind. In his December 5th, 2004, 60 Minutes interview he says of “It’s Alright, Ma,” “I don’t know how I got to write those songs.” When asked if he can still write like that he replies that he cannot: “I did it once, and I can do other things now. But, I can’t do that.”

26 comments:

David Begley said...

Dylan should want to meet Althouse. Might be fun. And learn something. Marbury v. Madison.

Laslo Spatula said...

I wonder if they include the 'Christian period' Dylan, or just skip past?

I am intrigued by this era because it was a time everyone who considered him a visionary turned against him: we will allow you to grow only in the direction that makes us feel smart about ourselves.

There could be a class on only this era, considering how it has been whitewashed away.

I am Laslo.

Laslo Spatula said...

The Bob Dylan courses will be torn down soon enough: another Old White Male.

Class description

The Textual Appeal of Tupac Shakur
This class explores the philosophical, historical and literary influences of the late rapper and activist, Tupac Shakur.
Student learning goals
We will engage with the topic and themes of the course in a variety of forms including the close-reading of texts, creative writing, writing about visual culture, etc.


I am Laslo.

Jeff Gee said...

The day after the Nobel Prize announcement, here's Dylan growling out "Ballad of in a Thin Man" at Desert Trip, Coachella, as he prowls around the stage in an Armani jacket with no shirt under it. Bangs away at the piano for the last couple of verses. (I'm guessing about the Armani, but I betcha).

My only issue with Dylan's Nobel Prize is that it means Lazlo Spatula will have to wait till next year. Again.

Ann Althouse said...

"Dylan should want to meet Althouse. Might be fun. And learn something. Marbury v. Madison."

It is emphatically the province and duty of the lawprof blogger not to talk about law like a law professor.

John said...

Jeez, Ann. How many posts about the Dylan Nobel does this make? You are positively giddy. You sound like my daughter going on about Ricky Martin and Menudo in the 80's. She was a pre-teen and young teen at the time.

I agree with Mark Steyn. Music, no matter how good, no matter what the type, is not literature. They are two very different animals.

John Henry

Mid-Life Lawyer said...


"I agree. We were talking about something like that yesterday, and I was saying I didn't have any kind of feeling of wanting to know Bob Dylan personally."

I'm that way about all artists. I'm interested in what they do but not particularly interested in meeting them or hanging with them, at all. If I ran into Dylan, (or Lyle Lovett who I ran into in the hall of MD Anderson in Houston about a month ago - he was doing a promo on something), I would just say, "How you doin?" and keep moving. Which I did with Lyle Lovett whose show I had just seen a few days before.

John Christopher said...

I was at dinner Friday where I was the youngest man at the table and the only Dylan fan. I was even thinking then that I'm young enough to be raised by Boomers and absorb their culture whereas the 50 year olds at the table spent their college years reacting against it. They all wanted to talk about Kanye.

AReasonableMan said...

"That’s pretty much a direct quote of lines spoken in the “Aeneid” by the ghost of Aeneas’s father"

This doesn't raise a flag for anyone?

rehajm said...

Which bathroom does Bob Dylan music use now?

Sebastian said...

Like the Thomas piece. OK, so Dylan does a lot of things poets do. Going back to the classics, no less, imagine that. Didn't get a sense of why Dylan's work is any good. Perhaps excerpts posted here and there as part of the celebration don't do him justice.

Eric the Fruit Bat said...

I find it absolutely unremarkable that the work of Bob Dylan is the subject of a college level seminar. Perhaps I'm missing something.

Paddy O said...

Hard to say it but 50 year olds may have themselves been raised by Boomers.

tim in vermont said...

I got expelled from English class for using four-letter words in a paper describing the English teacher. - Bob Dylan, future Nobel laureate.

tim in vermont said...

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Laslo Spatula said...

Jeff Gee said...
"My only issue with Dylan's Nobel Prize is that it means Lazlo Spatula will have to wait till next year. Again."

I'm just waiting for the college course on my work.

Any day now.

I am Laslo.

EDH said...

"I’m gonna spare the defeated — I’m gonna speak to the crowd/… I’m goin’ to teach peace to the conquered/I’m gonna tame the proud.”

Hell, Trump should have rode the escalator down to that one instead of "Rockin" (in the free world).

mockturtle said...

He is not vindicated so much as the Nobel Prize is [further] trivialized.

And, yes, Laslo's work is far worthier of study and acclaim than that of Bob Dylan.

Quaestor said...

The worse thing about the Prize being awarded to Dylan is the controversy it has inspired. Some of the critics assail the award on "social justice" grounds, which sickens me to the core. But the more sickening still is the contrast with the Peace Prize award to Obama.

mockturtle said...

That is true of Virgil, Dante, Milton, and as we saw, it was true of “Lonesome Day Blues” and much else on Love and Theft.

Oh, yes. There was Virgil, Dante, Milton and....Bob Dylan.

mockturtle said...

Per Laslo: I wonder if they include the 'Christian period' Dylan, or just skip past?

I am intrigued by this era because it was a time everyone who considered him a visionary turned against him: we will allow you to grow only in the direction that makes us feel smart about ourselves.


Not unlike Caitlin Jenner, who was embraced--even celebrated--by the cultural elite until it came out that she was a Republican.

dustbunny said...

Mockturtle, just add Keats, Blake,Whitman. That's the company he keeps and the lineage he belongs to. You might not agree, but you would be wrong. Also, it is ridiculous when someone pulls out some silly lines to demonstrate Dylan's unworthiness. You can find crap in any artists work

mockturtle said...

Sorry, DB, but it's like comparing the Beatles to Beethoven, Bach or Brahms. Call me an ignorant reactionary if you like but I still won't buy it.

hombre said...

Why not? After all, Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Lydia said...

The critic Michiko Kakutani got it right 31 years ago:

Simply reading a song, we miss the ways in which the words interact with the music—how, say, the sardonic lyrics to many of the songs on ''Highway 61 Revisited'' counterpoint the upbeat, even exuberant tracks - and we are deprived, as well, of the point of view supplied by Mr. Dylan's raw, insistent inflections and distinctive phrasings. Numbers like ''Lay, Lady, Lay,'' ''Blowin' in the Wind'' and even ''Like a Rolling Stone'' feel considerably more trite as prose poems than as songs, and many of Mr. Dylan's weaker efforts —''New Pony,'' say, or ''Emotionally Yours''—simply collapse into pretentious posturing when separated from their propulsive tracks, which at least helped to endow them with a modicum of conviction on the records.

BN said...

All these hagiographic posts would be worth it if you'd just go ahead and post the secret basement tapes you've been hiding of Trump reading Dylan's poetry out loud.

That would be amazing! Believe me!