William Gass, the American literary critic, has a wonderful essay called “The Test of Time” where he asks what a work of literature must do to survive. In a little aside he answers, “The test of time is not a test at all. It is an announcement of a temporary victory. I am still alive. The dead do not report.”
Gass in his essay often looks at works which are reborn. One thought of Gass’ comments when one heard that the Nobel Committee had awarded 2016 Prize for Literature to Bob Dylan. The award in many ways was both curious and welcome.
Bob Dylan survives, in fact, thrives, as a part of a collective memory, recreating through this, the world of the ’60s.
To me, he is part of the great ritual cults of the time, inseparable from the memory of Rolling Stones, Joan Baez and the Beatles.
I always felt that the Beatles should get a Nobel because in a deep and fundamental way, they transformed the way we spoke about language, body and dissent.
I see Dylan’s award as a collective honouring of a generation, the closest the West came to having the equivalent of a Bhakti movement, an uprising in folk art, music and religiosity where vernacular and dialect uprooted the standardised canons.
This was a generation that echoed of Vietnam and the battle against racism. One cannot forget that Dylan was one of the people present on the podium when Martin Luther King spelt out his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Martin Luther King Jr. (Photo credit: Reuters)
Three things were clear about that generation. They challenged the legitimacy of the official, the canonical and the textual by creating an explosion of the folk, the dialect and the oral.
The rise of the oral/aural in the ’60s was one of the great moments of literature. Dylan, deeply influenced by the legendary folk singer Woody Guthrie, brought to music many of these characteristics.
Through orality and the power of folk, they created in the ’60s a moment when folk and a people’s movement created a culture of conscience which literally rocked a nation.
I include among this group, a generation of great intellectuals including Russel, Benjamin Spock, Noam Chomsky, and Edward Said. They were as beat and as important as Dylan, Baez, Simon and Garfunkel or John Lennon.
Dylan is singular but he exists because he is part of that unforgettable generation. He was the new troubadour of the time, echoing the wandering minstrel of the medieval era.
What marked this generation was that dissent spread into every domain from education and sexuality to music and science.
When the Nobel Committee announced the award, one felt a rare moment of nostalgia where the music and memory of a generation comes alive as the “Tambourine Man” belts it out again. At one level, the decision is welcome but not surprising.
Of late the Nobel committee has sprung some interesting choices, widening the idea of literature.
First was its award to Dario Fo, who revived the idea of the clown and the jester, providing a street theatre critique of Italian politics.
Second its award last year to Svetlana Alexievich, recognising that works of journalism are Nobel worthy. By recognising the folk, the journalistic, the oral, the committee was going beyond the dominance of the text.
The hegemony of literature had to yield to the oral man who sustains literature, metaphor and memory to this day.
The committee for literature showed a width and cosmopolitanism the peace committee could learn from. Dylan, it realised, combined folk, mass and classical in a way few critics could comprehend.
He was a poet laureate like Robert Frost but needed no official imprimatur. He understood that words to come alive needed to be performed. Between lyric and music, a different world could be created.
The danger is that Dylan can be reduced to a monument or a memorial, a piece of officialdom by a generation that may not understand the context from which he emerged.
Today as one thinks of “Woodstock”, a literal kumbh mela of music and protest, or Dylan singing “Blowing in the Wind” a few minutes before King’s dream speech, one realises that the ’60s were a dream time of dissent, deviance and creativity that the few generations can match.
Dylan’s Nobel is a tribute to that era of eccentrics and creators who lived lives that could not be canned.
In a way, as Arab Spring and Syria haunts us, a time for a new Woodstock seems in the offing, to sing again of a time that desperately needs change where the refugee and exile can meet the troubadour, the clown, the Beatnik in a new celebration of creativity and life.