Our Literature, Their Literature: Why The Criticism Against Bob Dylan’s Nobel Win Is Absurd
Laureate Bob Dylan’s works have touched the hearts and souls of millions across the world, inspired the youth and given voice to the voiceless and faceless.
Those discrediting him must think twice for times they are a-changin’.
At the outset, I should admit that part of this article’s title comes from Satyajit Ray’s anthology of film critique, Our Films, Their Films, where the legendary filmmaker, writer, composer and painter discusses Indian and foreign films. In the case of Ray, “our” and “their” are not used in the sense of discrimination. But in the context of this article, they are, or more like dissociation.
The context here is the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature 2016 to Bob Dylan “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. Hell broke loose in certain elite quarters with this announcement. It was, as though, the more than a century old legacy of giving the Nobel Prize to the “best” and the most “deserving” had been shattered.
There are a few common – and clichéd too – threads of criticism. The first one is of course the question about the eligibility of the winner. It has been loathly and scathingly said that Bob Dylan is a mere White American folk and rock singer. What does he have to do with literature? After all he is just a lyricist who has written his own songs. It’s as though he should have been disqualified on the ground of writing lyrics, similar to disqualifying athletes in the Olympics on the ground of using banned drugs. In the realm of “acceptable” literature, “lyrics” is perhaps a banned thing. How can Dylan even be considered for the award? As though it’s blasphemous to even consider the lyrics of rock music as an acceptable form of literature. Or, if I may paraphrase, lyrics is not “our” literature.
Second, questions have been raised on the quality of the poetry in Dylan’s lyrics. It’s as though a mere trapeze act of a circus is being compared to produnova. Or perhaps, if I may again paraphrase, a tribal music is being blasphemously placed in the same rung as that of Mozart’s symphony. Again, it’s the same theme: how dare you drag “their” lyrics into “our” poetry?
The third criticism is rather overtly racist. It’s being touted as an award given “again” to a White American. It’s as if, had Dylan been an African American, everything would have been fine. I wouldn’t even talk about this.
The scathing attacks on Dylan turned out to be quite nasty, with The British Indian novelist Hari Kunzru tweeting, “Is any previous Nobel laureate known to have incorporated so many other people’s words, unattributed, into his work?”
Someone else said, “Times they are a-changin’ with Dylan’s win — but not in a good way.”
The nadir was surely the comment that came from The Telegraph columnist Tim Stanley: “A world that gives Bob Dylan a Nobel Prize is a world that nominates Trump for president.”
Now, let’s examine each of the points on which the award is being criticised.
First, let’s look into the point of giving the award to a lyricist. People may have forgotten that more than a hundred years ago, Rabindranath Tagore had received the Nobel Prize in Literature for Gitanjali, Song Offerings. Many of the critics may not know, but anyone who has read Tagore knows very well, that each poem in Gitanjali was actually written for a song. Rabindra Sangeet, or the Tagore Songs, is an integral part of the rich and vast repository of Bengali music, and the lyrics of the songs are held in very high esteem by the Bengalis, at par with Tagore’s non-song poems. In fact, many of us believe that Tagore’s lyrics are stronger than his poems. Some of his best creations indeed take the form of songs.
So Dylan is, in fact, the second lyricist to have earned the Nobel Prize in literature. It’s interesting though, that in the case of Tagore, the Nobel committee had said that he was being given the award “because of his profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse, by which, with consummate skill, he has made his poetic thought, expressed in his own English words, a part of the literature of the West.” It never referred to his poetry as lyrics or part of any music. But in the case of Dylan, they said he is being awarded the Nobel “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”
In fact, after the announcement, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, Sara Danius, clarified the very point of Dylan’s eligibility, in spite of being a songwriter. “He’s a great poet in the great English tradition, stretching from Milton and Blake onwards,” she said. “And he’s a very interesting traditionalist, in a highly original way. Not just the written tradition, but also the oral one; not just high literature, but also low literature.”
She had come to realise, Danius elaborated, that we still read Homer and Sappho from ancient Greece, and they were writing 2,500 years ago. “They were meant to be performed,” she added, “often together with instruments, but they have survived, and survived incredibly well, on the book page.”
Many critics who are lamenting at the elevation of a lyricist to such a high pedestal are missing a very important point which Danius has clarified explicitly. Most of the ancient literature in any civilisation and culture was composed in the form of songs. The Rig Veda, the first book written by humanity some 3,500 years ago was meant to be sung. The roots of the Indian classical music can be traced back to the ways in which the Rig Veda used to be sung. A later corpus of Vedic literature, the Sama Veda, is often referred to as the Sama Geeti, the Songs of the Sama Veda. The first ever poems to have been written were in the form of lyrics. It’s just a prejudice between “our” superior poems against “their” inferior lyrics that has resulted in the totally misplaced criticism of Dylan on the ground that he is a mere lyricist. If we want to discredit a lyricist, then the composers of the Rig Veda along with Homer and Sappho and many other have to be denigrated too.
Now, on to the next point: the quality of Dylan’s poetry. It has been alleged that Dylan’s poetry is like the flickering of the stars in front of the bright light emanating from the likes of T S Eliot, W B Yeats, Ezra Pound, D H Lawrence, et al. It’s like saying Hyderabadi Biryani is inferior to Risotto alla Milanese.
It’s true that Dylan’s poetry is much simpler compared to that of the contemporary modernist and neo-realist poets. But the same was true for the English translation of Tagore’s Gitanjali. Tagore wrote till the 1940s. By then, the poetry in the West and also to some extent in India had shelved its simplicity and become quite elitist. Anyone with a basic understanding of English would appreciate the simple lines of Keats and Wordsworth. The same is true for Tagore, even though he wrote much later than the former. But the same is not true for the modernist poets. There was suddenly “our” poetry and “their” poetry. The elitist group became the guardians of “our” art and literature, relegating anything non-elitist or populist to “their”. The common people would find it extremely difficult to appreciate the more and more complicated forms of art unless they had the relevant context. The popular art forms survived in the movies and songs and the schism between “our” and “their” increased.
The elitists always have a tendency to look down upon anything that is popular. But does it always make sense? Irrespective of how deep or shallow the lyrics of Dylan are, they have inspired the youth, given voice to the voiceless and faceless revolutionaries, aroused the oppressed and given joy to people across the world. And, if a thing of beauty is a joy forever, doesn’t a line of Dylan, which has given joy to millions of people, qualify to be beautiful?
Such is the influence of Dylan that more than ten thousand miles away from his home, someone by the name Lou Majaw has been organising a Bob Dylan festival in Shillong, in the northeastern part of India, every year since 1972 on 24 May, Dylan’s birthday. How many living people would have touched the heart and soul of so many, across the globe, like Dylan? How many songs would have transcended the boundaries of ethnicity and cultures, like Dylan’s songs?
Paraphrasing, perhaps, the most popular song of Dylan, it can be aptly said,
Yes, how many songs must a man compose
Before you call him a poet?
The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin' in the wind...
It can be argued that any popular form of art always has more receivers than a classical or elite form, and hence associating the quality of the art to its popularity is not the right thing. It’s true that the YouTube video of Gangnam Style has more likes than that of a Mozart symphony, but it would be naive to say the former is superior to the latter. At the same time, not many would claim that the Gangnam Style has touched them, inspired them and brought light to their lives. Dylan’s songs have been doing exactly that, for more than 50 years now.
Tagore seems to be very relevant in this context. He had once lamented that simple things are not that simple to be spoken of. “I spent much money and visited many lands,” he had said, “to see the mountains, to see the oceans. But I forgot to take the two steps from my home and behold with my wide open eyes, the drop of dew swinging from an ear of paddy.”
Dylan is like the “drop of dew swinging from an ear of paddy”, a very simple thing of beauty. He doesn’t have to be as grand as the mountains and the seas.
Appreciation of art is always a subjective matter, and it’s dependent on context and situation. The rustic and frivolous sounds of the tribal tumdak drum, played by a Santal, under the intoxicating spell of mohua, may not be palatable to the connoisseurs of the grandiose Dhrupad music who are rather used to the lofty rhythms of pakhwaj. But the simple and spontaneous Santal music is as dear to the Santals as is Dhrupad to its serious connoisseurs. To compare the two would be missing the point. It’s sacrilegious to even attempt to demean the former on the ground of being simplistic and shallow, when pitted against the latter. Anyone who does that smacks of arrogance, and ignorance too. The tumdak player might not have practised for 16 hours a day under the tutelage of a legendary guru, but that doesn’t mean his music, his art is shallow. A nightingale’s voice is as untrained as might be the Santal drummer’s, but both are musicians without any parallel; both are natural, raw, spontaneous and simple, without any pretence or artificial embellishment. It’s not for nothing that folk music in India is called loka sangeet, the music of the people.
There are many other deserving lyricists, it may be argued. Why Dylan? That’s another argument that doesn’t quite make sense. It’s like two kids fighting, each claiming her mother is more beautiful than the other’s.
In Bengali, there’s a saying, pagole ki na bole, chagole ki na khay, translated as “The mad says anything, and a goat eats anything.” The critics often say anything. Let’s not get bugged with their histrionics. They may even fail to appreciate the beauty of the dactylic hexameter of Homer or the mandakranta feat of Kalidas, because neither is neo-realism and expressionist.
It’s rather prophetic that Dylan had once said:
Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who
That it's namin’
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin’.
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