WASHINGTON — When I heard that Bob Dylan had received the Nobel Prize for literature, I was mildly surprised. He writes music -- popular music. As did George Gershwin and Irving Berlin, both of whom almost certainly wrote better music. I have nothing against Dylan's music, except that it was written by a scruffy young man who has remained a scruffy young man all his life. At least that is an achievement. As the years accumulate around him, Dylan is still a scruffy young man, even when he recently bewildered the Nobel committee, whose members did not know what he was going to do about their award. Was he yucking it up with his pals while the committee awaited his decision?
He is not known for his sense of fun, or for having many pals.
I think the committee might have done better had they given him a Nobel Prize for music, though they do not recognize music. Is it because they agree with Jacques Barzun, one of the great thinkers of the last century who lived on into the 21st century?
Barzun wrote that literature was the greatest of all the arts, for it appealed only to one's intellect. It could not appeal to one's aural sense or visual sense, or even to one's sense of touch. Beethoven and Mozart and Bach could arguably command the attention of a chimpanzee through their work for at least a little while. Think of one of Beethoven's fortissimos. Surely, a chimpanzee would take note of it. And Michelangelo or Rodin might snag the chimp's attention with one of their huge sculptures. Even a painting might attract the transient notice of an anthropoid. But not even a book of poetry by Shakespeare or a novel by Dostoyevsky could fetch the interest of the most intelligent anthropoid for a moment -- unless the creature was hungry or needed a projectile to heave.
The literary mind has only its imagination to work with, and the reading mind has only its imagination to appreciate the literary mind's output. This, I believe, explains why so many dull minds have turned to television.
There you will find the clang and bang presented to the TV audience by cameras and microphones and some emotional television personality. If you look long enough, you will find Dylan, not reading from any of his infantile writings but strumming his guitar and occasionally blowing on his harmonica. In his nasal twang he is singing: "The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind,/ The answer is blowin' in the wind." What is the answer? For that matter, what is the question?
His music is OK. He has been called a troubadour, and that is OK, too. But it is not great art. And when the Nobel committee members gave their peace prize to President Barack Obama they did not give it to a great statesman, or even a statesman. They gave it to a fixture of popular culture. Obama, the first black man to be elected president, is only half black. His mother was white. Popular culture is not very exacting. Perhaps someday the people of Norway will be as tolerant as the people of America, or even more tolerant. They might elect a full-blooded black as their leader.
For years now, the Nobel committee has seen its standards impinged upon by popular culture. Thus, a pop singer wins an award for literature. If juggling were popular in society, a juggler might have won the award. As I say, I have nothing against Bob Dylan. In fact, I even admire the fact that a scruffy 75-year-old man was able to keep the committee guessing -- will he acknowledge the award, or will he not? He acknowledged it eventually. Will he show up to accept the award? It was revealed Monday that he will not.
Given the fact that the committee has acted as irresponsibly as it has, I am glad Bob Dylan is putting it on, though I fear he will make another one of his cosmic statements about it. Will he find it blown in the wind?