Bob Dylan’s Nobel lecture follows the basic recipe for lectures by Nobel literature laureates: he tells his artist’s origin story; he considers a history of literature and his place in it; he acknowledges the moral scaffold from which Nobel laureates are expected to address their good fortune.
He’s transparent about the mimicry that rules his origin story. He sees his own destiny, an “archetype,” not just a teen’s idol, in the person, dress, mannerisms, voice, and material of Buddy Holly. And he describes the process of learning a cultural identity that other artists describe in terms of a setting or condition or identity whose mandate they awaken to. Imre Kertesz, Hungarian victim of Nazism, describes his “Eureka!” moment, “Thus I was able to observe, not as a child this time but as an adult, how a dictatorship functions.” Toni Morrison in her lecture uses the figure of a griot, an archetype Morrison can claim as an ancestor, to invite the possibility of a language that can “reach toward the ineffable.” Bob Dylan tells us “By listening to all the early folk artists and singing the songs yourself, you pick up the vernacular. You internalize it.” Through extraordinary desire but ordinary discipline, Dylan simply memorized the histories, conditions, and identities he chose to embody.
And by acting out Moby-Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front, and The Odyssey, Dylan reveals to us the process by which he became a modern interpreter of men of great awareness and action, who go forth into the certain dangers of ordinary life, of greed, of power, of mythic nightmares, of their own willful insanity, and the destruction they survive, wreak, witness, or don’t survive. He set up his own place in literary history the same way he set himself up with histories and identities: he read hard enough until whatever he saw, heard, felt, understood in other writers’ characters could speak right through him and be heard as his.
And the moral scaffold is another cheat. “All that culture. . .what happened to it? It should have prevented this.” (Intoned, no less, over light-jazz piano tinkles.) This is the Nobel Question which has provoked manifestos, laments, and koans from literature laureates. Bob Dylan asks it only from behind a mask, as part of his Paul Baumer impersonation. Dylan pretends to be a young man asking why millennia of the ordered, truthful, beautiful work of righteously inspired men and women hasn’t persuaded us to stop choosing indifference and violence and destruction–pretends to be a made-up young man in a well-made and truthful fiction. If you think Dylan is being naive or trite with his what happened to western culture? question, please think again. Dylan asks the question from inside itself in the moment he provides the listener with the common pleasure of having a great story read aloud by a gifted reader.
Storytelling for Bob Dylan, unlike his fellow laureates, is a matter of minutes, not hours, of my attention. Four minutes, eleven minutes, three minutes, to show me, with recitations that rhyme and scan, a boat going to Italy; a man who tries but can’t flirt with a waitress; soldiers in the Civil War and their mothers; what it feels like to love someone more than is good for them or not enough; whether age is refined or exhausted vision; whether action is ever worth it. And his lecture is another performance of musical speech, which has to beat the clock to tell stories.
PS: When I was a child I had a favorite record of Sterling Holloway reading The Jungle Book. Every time whoever this man was said ” great greasy Limpopo” in his strange rough and sweet voice, which did not quite sound like an ordinary adult, even a theatrical adult, I could see right then and there branches draped with wet green stuff hanging low over pools of steaming water filled with alligators. Listening to Dylan reciting his Nobel lecture, I feel mainly that same dreamy pleasure of being read to by someone who knows what they’re doing. That 8th paragraph on the printout, the one that starts “You know what it’s all about,” it sounds like he picks out all of it–bourgeois town, the Revelator, a boggy creek, muffled drums, stick a knife in his wife, comrades–all this wild stuff, on one breath. He raps “justification for discrimination.” Try saying this clearly: “Overhanging branches that he makes a leap to reach for to save himself from a raging river.” Now try saying it vividly.
I’ve got tickets in hand for his 3 shows at the lovely Capitol Theater in Port Chester next week. Bob, think about reciting paragraph 8 for us.