“Bob Dylan is a fire burning in an otherwise lukewarm, middlebrow, environment,” the fantastical guitar player John Fahey once said, “An inextinguishable conflagration. Bob Dylan is a life. A presence. A radiation point. A sun.” We live in Dylan’s world, now, in a mainstream in which the singer as poet, as auteur, as someone with something to say is taken for granted. It was Dylan, more than anyone, who took Truth from out of the Victorian attic and put it into rock ’n’ roll; put it on the AM radio. More than any individual, I think, he pulled the American mainstream away from its near absolute commitment to a style of middlebrow-po-faced-imperial-parochialrighteousness that helped drag us, among other places, into Vietnam.
How did he do this? I don’t think it was the lyrics. A friend of mine who died, almost literally, of melancholy once turned to me and apropos of nothing said, “When you hear the young Dylan play acoustic guitar, and harmonica, and sing, something inside you collapses like a house of cards.”
Forget music, for a moment. Bob Dylan’s contribution to the world is insuperably large; a solar constant, like warmth and light. You need only know that until John Lennon met Bob Dylan, he didn’t believe a pop song could express more than “Love Me Do.” Lennon was seething with words, class resentment, big ideas; but he had to see Dylan, to meet him in the flesh, as Melville once met Hawthorne, to know he could make of his art a functioning correlative to his inner chaos. In the coffee shop where I write these words, they’re playing Bruce Springsteen’s The Ghost of Tom Joad, and this is not only an album, not only a career, but a worldview that wouldn’t exist without Dylan. Is it really such a stretch to close your eyes, butterfly effect it in your head, and imagine a world in which we didn’t get to hip-hop with no Dylan?
Nonetheless, Bob Dylan is a musician, not a poet, and to demonstrate it I will now do something cruel.
And did we not recall
That Egypt’s north was in the dragon’s tail?
As if a form of type should fall
And dash itself like hail,
The heaven’s jumped away,
Bursting the cincture of the zodiac,
Shot flares with nothing left to say
To us, not coming back
Unless they should at last,
Like hard-flung dice that ramble out the throw,
Be gathered for another cast.
The union central is pulling out
The orchids are in bloom
I’ve only got me one good shirt left
And it smells of stale perfume
In fourteen months I’ve only smiled once
And I didn’t do it consciously
Somebody’s got to find your trail
I guess it must be up to me
In the first example, from Richard Wilbur, my favorite living American poet by far, language must express itself as both thought and music, because, you know, there is no music to propel it otherwise. Wilbur has spent a lifetime refining an ancient practice, of making a hard, seemingly intractable thought dance to the rhythm of his chosen words—and in so doing, in working through the difficult thought, for a moment, the cosmos is placed at our fingertips. In the second, which is from my favorite Bob Dylan song by far, the words are colloquial, spare, painterly, and without the accompanying music, inert. The first is poetry, the second are lyrics. You don’t go to the hardware store for oranges, as they say, and if you want poetry, you don’t go to Bob Dylan.
Everyone cares about the Nobel Prize in Literature, even though no one, in the long run, can take it seriously—not for how often it is awarded awkwardly, politically, or with nothing more apparent than one committee’s high-minded obscurantism in mind. Bob Dylan is a genius, and for his genius, he’s been rewarded in every way; with fame, money, acclaim. He deserves all of it, but he doesn’t deserve the Nobel. It may be that Dylan’s claim to posterity will be larger than Murakami’s or Roth’s (or Wilbur’s or Didion’s), but that isn’t what is at issue in awarding the highest prize in literature to a pop musician. The objection here hinges in the definition of the word literature. You wouldn’t give the literary prize to an economist or a political saint. You shouldn’t give it to Bob Dylan.
My thinking goes as follows, and who knows, I’m probably wrong. But the distinctive thing about literature is that it involves reading silently to oneself. Silence and solitude are inextricably a part of reading, and reading is the exclusive vehicle for literature.
This is historically contingent in every way: Literature as a silent and lonely activity is scarcely older than the printing press. The philosopher Gilbert Ryle once wrote, half teasingly: “It was not until the Middle Ages that people learned to read without reading aloud.” Reading silently, a kind of crossroads is formed. Your voice, on the page, becomes my voice, in my head. In reading, the mind is made separate from the mechanistic and perspicuous world, and a self is formed that is not precisely in or of that world. In reading, you experience that rarest loneliness, a loneliness that reminds you: You exist.
If, reading this, you are thinking, “Ha! This is a convenient way of thinking for the least competent among us, isn’t it?” I would wholeheartedly agree, only adding: We pathetic literati have a few days to pretend to world importance. We just lost another.