This one’s gonna be talked about for a very long time ~ Bob Dylan winnin’ the Nobel Prize for Literature 2016. While most of us who grew up listening to Bob Dylan and his songs became our anthems in our rebellious college days ~ heck they are still our anthems for some of us are yet to give up our rebellious ways ~ the recognition Dylan got by being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 2016 is a cause for celebration. After all the Swedish Academy, in its citation, while awarding the Nobel Prize in Literature to the American musician Bob Dylan credited him with “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”, didn’t it? But for purists of the long sonorous literary traditions, it is an aberration after all Dylan hasn’t penned any tomes. Yep, this one’s gonna be talked about for a very long time ~ not that there wasn’t much to talk about the Nobel Peace Prize being awarded to people who really didn’t deserve it ~ say Barrack Obama to name one.
Be that as it may, the Swedish Academy has certainly redefined literature and unshackled it free from traditions that are not inclusive of all people’s experiences and realities. So yes, perhaps now what is underscored more than the cannons and technicalities of language appears to be the contents of human experiences, human emotions and human aspirations. Here you might notice that the most perfectly written piece of “literature” is more often than not unreadable ~ as much as sometimes the most correctly rendered piece of music is the perfect cure for insomnia. So yes, what the Swedish Academy appears to say is that it is not always the cannons and the techniques but the indefinable qualities and capabilities of touching the human heart that defines good literature ~ the same goes for music and any other art form.
So it isn’t surprising that Dylan also won an honorary Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for his “profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power”. And as Sara Danius, the Permanent Secretary at the Swedish Academy replied when asked if the Nobel Prize signalled a broadening in the definition of literature: “The times they are a changing, perhaps”, the times they are not only a changin’ but they must change because the ordinary person’s stories must be said and heard even if not through the medium of the perfect cannons and technicalities of language. You must remember that Dylan confronted social injustice, war and racism, quickly becoming a prominent civil rights campaigner – and recording an astonishing 300 songs in his first 3 years. And what are his songs? They are stories of a world that continues to negate and nullify the pains, the suffering and the loss of the vast majority of the people across the globe.
So, it is possible that by recognizing Dylan’s “new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”, the Swedish Academy is also finally acknowledging the social injustice, war, racism, civil rights violations, discriminations, etc., so rampant across the globe. Once again, this underscores the message over the medium, especially because Dylan’s messages are universal. Awarding the Nobel Prize for Literature to Dylan also appears to be a signal to the world of the necessity to democratize literature, which the tiny ‘literary’ elite continue to believe to be their sole prerogative and purview. So, really what is literature? What is poetry? What is a story of literary value? Who owns their definitions? The very fact that Dylan was considered for this very same Prize several times earlier speaks for the wind of change blowing in some people’s minds on these very same questions for quite a while.
And then, don’t forget that it was for Gitanjali, a song book, for which Rabindranath Tagore won a Nobel for Literature in 1913 ~ so the battlelines for whether lyrical works come under the purview of literature or not were drawn a very long time ago ~ and actually won. Literature purists may shake their heads in disgust but for Dylan’s fans, recognition for him “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition” comes as great news ~ and I will have One More Cup of Coffee for the Road before I say “Yay” and rock some with Dylan. Meanwhile I will keep on hoping that the Swedish Academy would soon cast their eyes on Leonard Cohen.
The author is editor of Nagaland Page. This was earlier published in Nagaland Page.