The Nobel Prize for Literature may not be as rigorous and respected as the Nobels in the hard sciences, but neither is it as corrupted as the Peace Prize; like the Nobel in Economics, it’s still very much subjective and open to argument, and it has a distinguished roster of past winners. Naturally, the unorthodox decision to give the award to Bob Dylan – probably the most outside-the-box choice since Winston Churchill in 1953 – has people buzzing about the Nobel, and that alone is a victory for a category that has tended, in recent years, to honor authors who are not that widely read in the English-speaking world. For my part, while I will freely admit that my reading list rarely includes literary fiction, Dylan is the first winner since William Golding in 1983 that I’ve actually read (in Dylan’s case, not just his songs but his fascinating if sometimes enigmatic autobiography, which among other things includes tales of literally telling hippies to get off his lawn when he lived in Woodstock in the years after the famous concert there). I went through the list of past winners and the others I’ve actually read before Golding would be Solzhenitsyn, Steinbeck, Camus, Hemingway, Churchill, Yeats, and Kipling, although of course there’s a good dozen or so widely-read writers besides those that many people have at least consumed in high school or college reading lists (I’ve read only bits of Shaw, Sartre and Sinclair Lewis; I may have read some Gabriel García Márquez in high school, but can no longer remember any of it).
If the prize can go to poets – even speechwriters, although Churchill’s oratory was credited by the Nobel Committee only as an addendum to his works of history and biography – there’s no reason it can’t go to those who set their lyrics to music, and Dylan was only considered after five and a half prolific decades of work of enormous scope and influence. He may not be everyone’s musical cup of tea, but then he’s not being honored for his singing voice. Unlike a lot of lazy Hollywood liberals, Dylan’s work has mostly avoided knee-jerk cliches and forced his listeners out of their comfort zones – he always resisted being pigeonholed as a political spokesman, and his meandering spiritual journey has taken some unexpected turns. That’s partly a result of his combination of high intelligence and broad reading, a background rather different from many in the pop music world. Sure, his lyrics have sometimes been too abstruse and sometimes nonsensical, but we honor writers for their best work.
One of my favorite Dylan tracks of all is 1978’s Changing of the Guards, and its cryptic but evocative lyrics (to say nothing of its mournful sax-driven musical sound) seem apt to our present hour. Dylan sets the stage amidst the wreckage and despair of a long battle, perhaps a seige:
Sixteen banners united over the field
Where the good shepherd grieves
Desperate men, desperate women divided
Spreading their wings ’neath the falling leaves
After a litany of broken hearts and apocalyptic portents, he closes with the certainty of the end of an era and the specter of chaos that yawns before any hope for final reward (he announced his conversion to Christianity not long after its release):
Gentlemen, he said
I don’t need your organization, I’ve shined your shoes
I’ve moved your mountains and marked your cards
But Eden is burning, either brace yourself for elimination
Or else your hearts must have the courage for the changing of the guards
Peace will come
With tranquility and splendor on the wheels of fire
But will bring us no reward when her false idols fall
And cruel death surrenders with its pale ghost retreating
Between the King and the Queen of Swords
The guards are changing indeed.