13 October 2016

A Long and Narrow Way


And if my thought-dreams could be seen
They’d probably put my head in a guillotine
"It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)" 
First, some axioms. Points. Nodes. Notes. (After which, a few fragments.)

From Alfred Nobel's will: "The said interest shall be divided into five equal parts, which shall be apportioned as follows: ...one part to the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction..."

Even if every winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature were universally acclaimed as worthy, there would still be more worthy people who had not won the Prize than who had. Thus, the Nobel Prize in Literature will always be disappointing. The history of the Nobel Prize in Literature is a history of constant, repeated disappointment.

The Nobel Prize in Literature's purpose is not to recognize the unrecognized, nor to provide wealth to the unwealthy, nor to celebrate literary translation, nor to bring attention to small publishers. Occasionally, it does one or more of these things, and doing so is good. It would be nice if any or all of those were its purpose. I'm not sure what purpose it does serve except as a sort of Hall of Fame thing, which reminds me of what Tom Waits said at his induction to the Rocknroll Hall of Fame: "Thank you very much. This has been very encouraging."

As with many things, Coetzee probably got it most right: "Why must our mothers be 99 and long in the grave before we can come running home with a prize that will make up for all the trouble we have been to them?"

"Ballad of a Thin Man" via Sotheby's
My personal pick for a Nobel Literature laureate among the writers who seem like plausible candidates — that is, among the small group of writers whose names continue to be mentioned, year after year — is Ngugi wa Thiong'o. Among such American writers, I guess I'd pick Pynchon (not just for the early work — Mason & Dixon is a wonder, and Against the Day continues to seem to me to be the best science fiction novel of the 21st century), though I doubt they'd give it to him because he's pretty much guaranteed not to show up for the ceremonies. Among writers never/seldom spoken of for the Prize, I can hardly come up with a list without narrowing it somehow; for instance, U.S. writers I would like to see in contention include Ursula Le Guin and Samuel R. Delany, as well as countless poets, various nonfiction writers, a playwright or two (Wallace Shawn! Suzan-Lori Parks!), and maybe some unclassifiable weirdos. (I certainly feel no excitement for the idea of Philip Roth or Joyce Carol Oates winning, the two Americans typically mentioned.) We live in a very rich time for literature of all sorts, whether popular or elite.

But — brace yourself — hard as it is to believe, my personal desires are irrelevant to the Nobel Prize in Literature. I'm not even Swedish!

Anyway, I'm quite happy with Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize in Literature because I like Bob Dylan's songs. Thus, the Prize as such seems to reflect well on my taste, and I want to defend it because my taste is mine and therefore I like it. If the Prize went, as it sometimes has, to a writer I don't especially care about, or whose work I don't especially like, I would feel annoyed, because isn't the job of prizes to flatter my taste?

I suppose this is how people who have passions for corporate sports teams feel when their favorite corporate sports team wins the corporate sports team tournament.

I adore Dylan and thus I agree with the Nobel Prize Committee. Their referees this year have made good calls, generally, though of course if I were one of the referees this year, the calls would have been even better.

No, I don't think Dylan is a poet in a strict, contemporary sense. He doesn't have to be. It's not the Nobel Prize in Poetry. ("Literature" is always in the making.) Dylan is a songwriter and a performer. Separating his lyrics from performances of those lyrics can be clarifying, but it does violence to the work, leaves out an entire realm of communication. Nonetheless, his lyrics have proved portable, his music malleable, as he himself has often shown in performance (listen to "The Times They Are A-Changin'" on MTV Unplugged or "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" from Live 1975 for just a couple of the many examples) and countless musicians of various styles have proved (one of my favorites is Chris Smithers' version of "Visions of Johanna"; also, Antony & the Johnsons' "Knockin' on Heaven's Door"). 

The living U.S. Nobel Laureates in Literature are Toni Morrison and Bob Dylan. Obviously, American literature (what means "American"? what means "literature"?) is far more capacious than any two people, no matter how talented or accomplished, can represent, but nonetheless, look at the idea of American literature embodied in those two figures together: there's a perspective there on history, myth, and experience, on culture and creation. Both are popular artists, despite their obscurities and weirdnesses and highbrow allusions. They draw on and contribute to what can be called, for all such a term's inadequacies, an American vernacular. They are both obsessed, in their own unique ways, with the old, weird America, its slave songs, murder ballads, hymns, blues, and jazz. There is something that feels very right to me about the pairing of their oeuvres, the way their poetries sing stories together.

I don't really care about the Nobel Prize, though. All prizes are awful. I won't defend the Nobel as a prize. Say what you want about it; I don't care. (Unless they give it to me. Then I'd care and I would accept the prize and I would do whatever they wanted me to do, because hey, why not? And the money would be nice.)

I care a lot about Bob Dylan, though — not the man, who I doubt I'd get along with very well, but his work, which awes me. The song "Blind Willie McTell" alone would be enough to assure its writer of a place in the pantheon, and he's written dozens more of equal wonder.

To draw a bit of attention away from the ultimately useless questions of "Is it poetry?" or "Did he deserve to win?", here are some random, fragmentary thoughts on just a few corners of Dylan's body of work:

Everyone who has any liking for Dylan at all likes some Dylans more than others. I don't at all care for the current torchsong-singing Dylan. The last album I really adored was 2003's "Love and Theft", though there are individual songs on the later albums, particularly Tempest, that I enjoy. But there's a looseness to his later work, a tendency to let songs go on and on with the same rhythm, that doesn't do much for me. My favorite period is the 1970s, the period from roughly Self-Portrait through At Budokan, a period I often prefer in bootlegs and alternate versions of individual songs rather than the album versions, but which also includes my single favorite album, Blood on the Tracks. Maybe it's because I was born the same year as Blood on the Tracks, and maybe it's because I grew up listening to Dylan — but I didn't grow up listening to the '70s Dylan, since my father, the Dylan fan in the house, seemed to have given up on Dylan after he went electric. By the time I entered high school, I knew all the words to the first five albums, but had no idea there were later albums. Those later albums would be a revelation, first with Highway 61 Revisited, then Blood on the Tracks. A friend in college had the first official Bootlegs album, and we listened to it like a secret hymnal. (I feel a bit sad that I heard "official bootlegs" before I ever heard the real boots, but the official ones are pretty great, and now that the Basement Tapes have been released, there are only a handful of unofficial tracks I really love.)

Two somewhat unheralded albums are among my favorites: Hard Rain and World Gone Wrong. Hard Rain is punk Dylan — live recordings in bad weather, with all the instruments going out of tune and the musicians furiously trying to get through their set. That album's versions of "Maggie's Farm" and "Stuck Inside of Mobile..." are especially fierce, but it's all great, wild, angry, dissonant. World Gone Wrong is one of a pair of albums (with Good as I Been to You) that brought Dylan back from the brink and rejuvenated him for some of his later masterpieces. Good as I Been to You is good, but World Gone Wrong somehow goes beyond it, and sometimes vies for position as my favorite Dylan album: it's just Dylan and his guitar, singing old songs. Each track is wondrous, a reinvention that is also a summoning.

I love how much of a magpie Dylan is, a thief and a scoundrel, a channeler of all he's ever heard. I said a year ago, and still say: "Dylan's references, allusions, echoes, riffs, cut-ups, and copies expand his work and connect it to networks of meaning." Also: "Dylan is all poses, all artifice, and he always was. He's not, though, a postmodern ironizer; his earnestness is in the earnestness of his artifice. (His art is real for as long as he performs it.)"

Ahh well, enough of this. Go listen to some songs.

This is hard country to stay alive in
Blades are everywhere and they're breaking my skin
I'm armed to the hilt and I'm struggling hard
You won't get out of here unscarred
It's a long road, it's a long and narrow way
If I can't work up to you, you'll surely have to work down to me someday...
"Narrow Way"