Our excellent and tireless archaeologist, Mr. Scott Warmuth, has once again discovered shards of English in Mr. Bob Dylan’s output that can be traced to other material. His muse having abandoned him mid-sentence sporadically throughout Chronicles, Dylan paged frantically through a 1961 Time magazine for phrases that could help him describe the cultural and political context of the 1960s. Then, either snickering with a shoplifter’s cheap sense of victory, or showing the mild and unreadable mien of the habitual liar , he dropped them into the holes in the sentences he’d left hanging. The purloined passages were skillfully sutured into the body of of nimble, vivid, and engaging prose that surrounded them, and lay there undetectable to the reader’s ear, and unattributed to their original author. The devil is in the details, is he not.
This seems like a lot of work, but we know that Bob Dylan is practiced at his crimes. Stymied by the task he set himself to write a song that muses restlessly about the frustration and torpor of age, and the burden of memory, he paged through the memoirs of a dying Japanese gangster and luckily found just the phrases to round out lyrics that had left him stuck. Once again, another convenient, unattributed and unthanked writer saved our lazy and duplicitous hero the trouble of inspiration.
We can relieve the anger and disappointment at Bob Dylan’s dereliction of originality, and we can give in and join him. The possibility can’t exist that Bob Dylan can scan text, store, retrieve, and synthesize language more quickly and unconsciously than we can. Nor that as the years go by, his reliance on facile memory and synthesis has grown. He’s a charlatan, picking and purloining and pretending, consciously, and betraying the sacred myth of the pure original artist. Let’s prove we can do it too. Give yourself a challenging writing assignment, something that demands a high degree of expressive and descriptive language, and that demonstrates a compelling and distinctive voice. Pull something off the shelf–maybe Montaigne’s essays, or last month’s Harper’s, or Mickey Mantle’s biography, or Bob Dylan’s memoirs. Flip through, pick out some phrases that appeal to you. Insert them into your piece of writing, disguising any seams in the tone, and voila. No irony here. If he can do it, you can too.
I give up. What is the great pleasure people have in accusing Bob Dylan of fraudulent artistry? Scott Warmuth merely does the hard work of research, it’s the rapturous dismay of Dylan’s audience that I wonder about. What is the standard for originality in art? John Heartfield puts his name to collage pieces that are no more than jigsaws of found materials. Duchamp signs this fountain, or scrawls a mustache on a print of the Mona Lisa, and these objects end up in museums and textbooks. Christopher Logue’s War Music rewrites the Iliad from English translations, and if you think this is an adolescent exercise in postmodern playfulness, I urge you to read some of it. It’s fascinating and moving and extremely strange. Anne Carson has done similar work with classical literature. We don’t condemn Logue because Homer can’t be financially or personally harmed by Logue’s theft? But that still leaves the problem of being impressed and captivated by Logue’s unoriginal work. What are exactly the standards of originality and ethics in creation that Bob Dylan is violating? Who gets to get away with these violations, and who doesn’t?