High Degree Thief

images-1Our 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.

imagesThis 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.

images-2We 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.

images-3 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?

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4 thoughts on “High Degree Thief

  1. There are a number of lexical solecisms in Chronicles. Somewhere, for instance, he uses “faculty” where he means (or where anyone else would have used) “facility” (or vice versa–I haven’t read it lately). But in context, it works, resulting in an almost Dickensian comedy. But not all of them go down so easily. “Incredulous” stopped me in my tracks, too. I remember thinking, “Didn’t he have an editor?” And then I thought, let’s suppose he did and this editor did point the error out to Dylan, explaining, “Incredulous doesn’t mean you can’t believe it–the word for that is “incredible”–or “unbelievable”–“incredulous” makes it sound like even the thing in question doesn’t believe itself.” And I could easily imagine Dylan–who has said he likes to turn things around and give them an unexpected twist–saying, “Oh, I like that. Leave it in.”

    As to your larger point Nina, the level of discourse about Dylan’s thieving ways seems to be slowly improving. Just check out the comments to this post:
    http://ralphriver.blogspot.com/2009/08/more-dylan-thefts-ii-rollins-pynchon.html

  2. John: Thank you for adding faculty/facility to our list of Bobapropisms. And many thanks for the link to that blog discussion. I checked it out and it is really substantive and worthwhile, and I recommend it highly.

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