opinion

Commentary Dylan to Literati, You go your way and I'll go mine

Updated: Wednesday, December 7, 2016, 1:08 AM

Bob Dylan performing in Los Angeles in 2012.

By William Nesbitt

While this year's Nobel Laureates will gather in Stockholm on Saturday, Bob Dylan has let the Academy know that he will be absent, unable to collect his Nobel Prize in literature due to other commitments.

Why won't he be there? Will he deliver the Nobel lecture, as required, within six months of receiving the prize? Does he even deserve it?

People seem nearly as divided as they were 51 years ago, when Dylan performed his first electric concert on July 25, 1965, in Newport. Some were annoyed because of poor sound quality. Others were upset over a perceived abandoning of political songwriting, or about Dylan's shift from acoustic to electric. Most everyone got over it.

The current debate began in October, when he was named the recipient of the prize.

There are many people who see it as a long time coming, a laurel wreath formally crowning a massive literary entity. Others see it as yet another barbarian slamming and bursting through the gate, the latest sign of civilization's erosion. They view his initial reluctance to recognize the award and his decision to back out of the awards ceremony both as proof.

It's easy to be of two minds. Bob Dylan is a songwriter and a writer who plays several instruments, but we know him primarily as a singer. Words are on the page, they are textual, they are visual. But words can be put on paper and words can be spoken and sung aloud. The containers we encase them in are arbitrary, of the moment, and born of convenience.

Poet and critic T.S. Eliot put forth some ideas that help guide this argument. Much of Eliot's writing assumes a highly educated reader steeped in classical literature. Nonetheless, in 1919 he wrote an influential essay titled "Tradition and the Individual Talent" that recognized an "ideal order" of literature established and maintained by previous literary texts but also permeable by future work.

These future works must have more in common than not with the preexisting works but at the same have something original that separates, perhaps even elevates them, above the older works. The difference can't be too pronounced, as the links between old and new must not be strained too far.

This grouping of established works is what we call the canon or The Canon, a set of universally agreed upon works that exemplify the best that literature, music, and art have to offer.

And that is what really bothers some people, not just that Dylan may be in some sort of musical canon, but the conferment of the Nobel Prize, which says that he is an authentic writer, that he now is installed and enshrined within the literary canon.

Dylan is guilty of that most egregious of sins. He has crossed more than race, gender, class, or age; he has transcended genre.

We get confused if you do more than one thing, and we don't like to be confused or challenged. People rush to point out that his songs have printed lyrics, that he wrote a book of experimental prose poetry called Tarantula, and that he wrote an exquisite early history of his life titled Chronicles: Volume One.

Dylan's award points to a possible future in which the canon becomes a cannon, not just a boundary protecting our sense of what everyone should read and listen to and look at - what we should pay attention to - but a force, a weapon, battering against artificial and outdated ideas of what is and what is not acceptable.

As Eliot has already argued and as history has already proven, the Shelves of Literature and their fidelity may shift, creak, groan, flex, and even bend a bit to accommodate new works, but they will not break. The center may expand, but it will still hold.

William Nesbitt is a professor of English and the chair of the department of humanities at Beacon College in Leesburg, Fla. wnesbitt@beaconcollege.edu

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