Is Bob Dylan's silence on winning the Nobel Prize another marker of his radicalism?

A lot of fuss is being made about Bob Dylan’s failure (or refusal?) to acknowledge his Nobel Prize in Literature. A member of the jury awarding the prize has dubbed Dylan’s behaviour as “impolite and arrogant”. Attempts to contact Dylan have been in vain. “The simple words ‘winner of the Nobel prize in literature’, which appeared on the page of The Lyrics: 1961–2012, have now been removed. Bob Dylan, Nobel laureate, is once again plain Bob Dylan,” observed an article in The Guardian (21 October).

Bob Dylan. AP/File photo

Bob Dylan. AP/File photo

No doubt, held up against lavish responses usually associated with winners of awards such as these these, Dylan’s silence could seem unusual to some. But to many, it may elicit a response that is quite different. To this approving lot, Dylan’s silence could function as just another marker of his radicalism. In the past, Dylan has written about being wanting to be “out of the rat race”.

It may even seem that in his stoic refusal to acknowledge the prize, the poet seems to convey the defiant radicalism his music and poetry have often been taken to stand for: a refusal to be co-opted by the officialdom. Of course, many among his fellow travellers do today feel let down by what they perceive to be Dylan’s betrayal of the politics of protest that fired so many of his songs in the stormy 1960s.

But this is not how author Mike Marqusee analysed Dylan’s transformation. In his book Chimes of Freedom: The Politics of Bob Dylan’s Art, Marqusee wrote: “Dylan’s break with politics and the movement that had been his first inspiration unleashed his poetic and musical genius; it freed him to explore an inner landscape. His lyrics became more obscure; coherent narrative was jettisoned in favour of carnivalesque surrealism; the austerity of the acoustic folk troubadour was replaced by the hedonistic extravagance of an electrified rock n roll ensemble. The songs depicted a private universe — but one forged in response to tumultuous public events.”

Is it possible that Dylan’s present silence is an extension of this trajectory — a desire, perhaps, to toy with the Swedish Academy for their decision? After all, the Academy doesn’t quite seek the consent of the chosen before they confer the honour of the Prize. Dylan’s actions could justifiably outrage if this was not the convention. But as things stand, the only way to turn the Nobel down is after the fact.

That is precisely what French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre did when he rejected the Nobel Prize in 1964. In a letter to the Academy, reproduced in the New York Review of Books (October 17, 1964), Sartre wrote: “I was not aware at the time that the Nobel Prize is awarded without consulting the opinion of the recipient, and I believed there was time to prevent this from happening. But I now understand that when the Swedish Academy has made a decision it cannot subsequently revoke it.”

Explaining that his reasons for rejecting the prize were “personal and objective”, Sartre said: “… my refusal is not an impulsive gesture, I have always declined official honors… A writer who adopts political, social, or literary positions must act only with the means that are his own — that is, the written word. All the honours he may receive expose his readers to a pressure I do not consider desirable. If I sign myself Jean-Paul Sartre it is not the same thing as if I sign myself Jean-Paul Sartre, Nobel Prizewinner.”

The writer, Sartre says, “must therefore refuse to let himself be transformed into an institution, even if this occurs under the most honorable circumstances, as in the present case.”

Dylan may or may not follow this route. But this silence adds to the mystery — and controversy — surrounding the Academy’s decision to make the definition of literature more capacious. At the very least, regardless of how things end up, Dylan’s frustrating behaviour will add to the pantheon of memorable responses the award has evoked. From Sartre’s to novelist Doris Lessing’s — who, when she was told of having been given the honoour, said, in response: “Oh Christ!”


Published Date: Oct 24, 2016 01:12 pm | Updated Date: Oct 24, 2016 01:12 pm


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