Bob Dylan is still the 2016 Nobel Laureate for Literature.
It wasn’t LSD in the water or a viral hoax or a rip in the Matrix. The Swedish Academy, two words without a hint of masculinity, showed some stones.
They just got the category wrong. The Nobel should have been for Alchemy.
Dylan does indeed turn base material into gold, in both language and self creation. As for the Elixir of Immortality, if he held the cup in his hands he’d be as likely to pour it over the azaleas as drink it himself, just for the sheer Bobness of the act. And because he believes he knows something.
To the many literati who were miffed at his selection, let me offer a way to hear Dylan’s work that might change your mind.
Go to Spotify. Download Bob Dylan as Artist. 495 songs. Shuffle mode. Put on your headset. Don’t press play.
Close your eyes and let your imagination find a neutral space. Pretend you are in a strange city, wandering alone on a grey afternoon. Careless hours in front of you. A sudden flash of lightning sends you scurrying for shelter. A loud bang, then a downpour. A little theater nearby with a wide awning. That’s where you run, shoulders huddled against the rain.
The little theater has a matinee, just starting. The ticket is cheap. The lobby is warm. You don’t know a thing about the play or the author. The ticket lady mumbles something you don’t quite catch. Your seat is in the balcony, looking down at the stage. Lights dim.
A lone figure enters stage right and by sleight of hand produces what may be a guitar from behind a curtain as he makes his way stage left. Though the spotlight follows him, he seems incongruously vague, as if seen through a mirage. A quick thrill absorbs the stagecraft. The stage, with your eyes on his momentum, seems impossibly vast, although you could cross it in five long steps. Light and sound invoke an eerie, changeling weather. The figure changes postures a dozen times in the trek across the boards, at times seems hellbent, sometimes lost, awestruck, love mad, rankly dark, abruptly comic. You feel a tension release as the figure arrives stage left and seems to solidify into view. You shut your eyes a moment. Wait, is that the same hat? There is a long, still pause and then the figure strums the guitar…
Ready? Press play.
Back with us? You look a little wobbly.
That is the Dylan you’re looking for. The one who deserves the Nobel.
Not hundreds of songs, but one song, spanning an extraordinary life in thought. One man on a stage, one voice with ten thousand inflections, locations, identities. Anyone can be heard from, everyone is present. Ma Rainey, Beethoven, Queen Mary, Einstein, the Jack of Hearts, Mr Jones, Shakespeare, Abraham, Jesus, Blind Willy McTell, Miss Lucy, Jack Frost, Johanna, Hattie Carol, Tom Paine, T S Elliot, St Augustine, Barry Goldwater, Nettie Moore… thousands more. Only God and Watson know the full troupe.
Time, place and character shift, the tale twists round like a mobius strip, images fly fast and often farcical. Everything is risked. No wall is respected. Gain and loss wean a rapturous danger. Always the question, what is the key to this play we’re in? What, finally, is true? Dylan seems guided by an artistic intuition that binds the most ludicrous extremes of our experience. The sheer flood of ideas, images, contradictions, can be staggering to absorb.
Yet when we come out of the little theater, into the present weather of our actual lives, it isn’t the tornado of thought we’ve survived that makes us feel changed. It isn’t Dylan’s magnificent tour of fame’s apparatus, though that is thrilling.
What changes us is the startling–uncanny–discovery that our own story intersects with his music at some critical juncture. We find we too are singing our life song in our head. We too are the eye of a maelstrom, we too are ensconced in a mystery. And it is Dylan who masterminds the confluence. Words put together in a way we’ve never heard before, appear, by his hand, to be a thought we’ve held for a lifetime. Some prime element at our core resonates in a higher orbit. There is a mystical transaction, even if you bridle at that thought.
Bob Dylan inspires a sense of fusion with his art so beguiling it ignites a fundamental alteration of the self.