June 14, 2017

Must I always be the thief?

It looks like Bob Dylan lifted lines from SparkNotes for his ramblings about "Moby Dick" in his Nobel Prize Lecture.
As [writer Ben] Greenman first pointed out on his website, Dylan seemingly invented a moment in Moby-Dick when a "Quaker pacifist priest" tells Captain Ahab's third mate, Flask, "Some men who receive injuries are led to God, others are led to bitterness." While Greenman was unable to find the relevant quote in several editions of Moby-Dick, Pitzer discovered that SparkNotes described the preacher as "someone whose trials have led him toward God rather than bitterness."

In all, [Andrea Pitzer on Slate] said she found at least 20 sentences in Dylan's lecture that resembled the SparkNotes entry on Moby-Dick. Representatives for Dylan, the Nobel Prize committee and SparkNotes did not immediately reply to a request for comment....

Dylan: "Tashtego says that he died and was reborn. His extra days are a gift. He wasn't saved by Christ, though, he says he was saved by a fellow man and a non-Christian at that. He parodies the resurrection."

SparkNotes: "Tashtego … has died and been reborn, and any extra days of his life are a gift. His rebirth also parodies religious images of resurrection. Tashtego is 'delivered' from death not by Christ but by a fellow man – a non-Christian at that."...

As Pitzer points out, Dylan's Nobel lecture does not mark the first time he's been accused of plagiarism. He's long borrowed lyrics from other sources, with his 2001 album Love and Theft drawing criticism for lyrics seemingly culled from Junichi Saga's book Confessions of a Yakuza and Henry Timrod's Civil War poetry. Even Dylan's paintings from his 2011 exhibit, "The Asia Series," came under fire for their similarities to well-known photographs taken by Henri Cartier-Bresson and Léon Busy.

In a 2012 interview with Rolling Stone, Dylan responded to the accusations of plagiarism pertaining to Love and Theft. "I'm working within my art form," he said. "It's that simple. I work within the rules and limitations of it. There are authoritarian figures that can explain that kind of art form better to you than I can. It's called songwriting. It has to do with melody and rhythm, and then after that, anything goes. You make everything yours. We all do it."
Pitzer: "Theft in the name of art is an ancient tradition, and Dylan has been a magpie since the 1960s. He has also frequently been open about his borrowings."

I was thinking about that old song: "Tears of rage, tears of grief/Must I always be the thief?" The answer, apparently, is yes!


campy said...

Can we impeach Trump over this?

JPS said...


Absolutely. Trump set the tone, created the environment. In an atmosphere of serial dishonesty set by the Trump campaign and initial presidency, Dylan no doubt wondered what was the use of scrupulous attribution. I don't see what further proof we need.

David Begley said...

Not again!

Laslo Spatula said...

Dylan had months to write his speech.

Put it off until the last minute.

The night before the speech he grabbed the equivalent of Cliff Notes and threw something together.

The Nobel Prize as college essay.

To bring this around, some college kid needs to quote Dylan as a source for his paper on "Moby Dick".

I am Laslo.

Otto said...

Quoting from a plagiarist to condemn that same plagiarist for plagiarism. Pure PM - passion has replaced reality .

Laslo Spatula said...

The Return of the Naked Bob Dylan Robot says:

Society relies on the Thief to show what has Value. As such, a Thief of Words can help us determine what we Believe.

"There must be some way out of here
Said the joker to the thief
There's too much confusion
I can't get no relief"

In these lines we see how the Thief is expected to supply "relief" from "confusion": the act of stealing answers the Worth of what is Stolen, and thus the Thief acquires not just Goods but Wisdom.

"Businessmen, they drink my wine
Plowmen dig my earth
None of them along the line
Know what any of it is worth"

In this passage are not the "Businessmen" and the "Plowmen" thieves? The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is 'No': while they partake of another's wine and earth they do not "know what any of it is worth". They do not know the Value of what they take, thus they do not possess the Wisdom of the Thief: they have absconded with Value, not Appropriated it.

"No reason to get excited
The thief he kindly spoke
There are many here among us
Who feel that life is but a joke"

The Thief views Society, and its concept of Ownership, a "joke". Everything that is acquired, whatever the method of acquirement, is Temporary: we do not takes these things with us when we Die. To think otherwise is to be part of the "Joke" -- the Belief that we truly possess anything at all, even Words.

"But you and I, we've been through that
And this is not our fate
So let us not talk falsely now
The hour is getting late"

The focus on the Thief and not the Value of what is Stolen, then, is to "talk falsely." Priorities are inverted: the Thief understands his priorities by his actions, while the actions of others remain unexamined, though "the hour is getting late". Again, we do not takes these things with us when we Die -- a deathbed revelation the Thief already understands.

As such, the Thief is stealing Life, not Property. The Thief understands that this can be of value to others:

"No, I do not feel that good when I see the heartbreaks you embrace
If I was a master thief perhaps I'd rob them"

In this case Theft can bring the true Understanding of Love: Love and Theft, to the Thief, are one and the same, for is not Love the act of stealing another's Time? Does the one who is Loved realize the Value of that Time if not for the Thief?

The Thief understands this, and understands his burden: it is him to say

"Tears of rage, tears of grief,
Why must I always be the thief?
Come to me now, you know
We're so alone
And life is brief."

Naked Bob Dylan Robot, powering down.

I am Laslo.

Laslo Spatula said...

Notice how Naked Bob Dylan Robot dovetails his last quote into the quote of Althouse's post's title.

The Naked Bob Dylan Robot understands Althouse.

I am Laslo.

Ignorance is Bliss said...

I nominate Naked Bob Dylan Robot for the Nobel Prize in literature. If songwriting is literature, surely blog commenting is as well.

Laslo Spatula said...

That's right: Laslo is stealing Betamax3000's "Naked Bob Dylan Robot".

Thieves everywhere.

I am Laslo.

tim in vermont said...

Absolutely. Trump set the tone, created the environment. In an atmosphere of serial dishonesty set by the Trump campaign and initial presidency,

Remember when he said "If you like your honesty, you can keep your honesty"? I know that wasn't actually a lie because only an idiot would believe it... I think Obama qualified on that count and lacked mens rea to be a liar.

I feel bad for Bob though. I bet he bought the Cliff Notes in paperback and doesn't even own a Google Machine. Besides, WS stole pretty much all of his plots wholesale. Hamlet was an old play, after all, but WS elevated it.

tim in vermont said...

I don't doubt for a minute he was moved by Moby Dick when he read it though. But I always figured Bob for more of a Huckleberry Finn guy.

tim in vermont said...

Cliff Notes as libretto. I'm going with it.

Owen said...

Laslo: brilliant.

After I read/heard Dylan's Nobel piece, I was intrigued by his intonation and the general flow/structure of it. I constructed a charitable hypothesis, that it was not just a hot hasty mess to score that check before deadline. I tried to see it as Homeric, with a strong strange beguiling meter and theme that carried us all away into the Mediterranean isles of his myth-making.

I think I was wrong...

Will Cate said...

"Love and Theft"

SayAahh said...

The 80's are calling. They want their notes back.

Rocketeer said...

That check will cash just the same. I'm inclined to believe Dylan did this by design, knowing this would come to light fairly quickly, and he's snickering about it at this very moment.

On a side (personal) note, I was in Woodstock/Saugerties last weekend and drove up to Big Pink just to check it out. I've never been a huge Dylan fan - he's alright, but I like The Band better - but last week's visit makes it kind of weird to read Dylan news this week in a way I can't quite explain.

Roger Sweeny said...

What? No one has yet trotted out, "Good artists copy. Great artists steal"?


Bad Lieutenant said...

Hee hee hee hee... What da ya want for $900,000? ... a rrrrrrrrubber biscuit?

readering said...

Shakespeare used Plutarch for his Roman plays, including Julius Caesar. But SparkNotes?

Owen said...

Rocketeer: "...can't quite explain."

I can't explain it either. I experienced Dylan somewhat directly (through a few albums) but the most piercing exposure was Joan Baez singing his stuff. OMG I just died for her. Her power was largely vocal but the lyrics packed a terrific punch.

I cannot imagine visiting Big Pink. Both far less and far more than you expected? Things do not always carry the emotional freight we assign.

The Godfather said...

Wasn't the point of Dylan's speech that he doesn't write literature, he writes songs? Cribbing the rather pretentious summary of Moby Dick underscores that message, nes pas?

Rocketeer said...

I cannot imagine visiting Big Pink. Both far less and far more than you expected? Things do not always carry the emotional freight we assign.

I'm not a child of the 60s, culturally speaking - born in 1967 - so I didn't really visit with any expectations at all. That said, when I drove up it did kind of unexpectedly hit me that The Band was a counter-countercultural music force at the time, if that makes sense, and this rather nondescript house embodied that relative normalcy, and was powerful as a result.