Let’s say you had a lot of time on your hands and decided to develop an algorithm to predict future winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature from America. You would have to start with known data, which means the previous winners. These include Sinclair Lewis (1930), Eugene O’Neill (1936), Pearl Buck (1938), T.S. Eliot (1948), William Faulkner (1949), Ernest Hemingway (1954), John Steinbeck (1962), Saul Bellow (1976), Isaac Singer (1978), and Toni Morrison (1993). Eventually, your algorithm would find any number of writers and poets that could be prospects. My pick would be Philip Roth, who is a novelist I have admired ever since reading Goodbye Columbus and his short story, “The Conversion of the Jews” (1959).
Now imagine suddenly you spilled your caffè macchiato on the keyboard, and the computer smoked and sizzled before spitting out a projected winner for 2016. Knowing that something probably went haywire, what would you expect to find? Fifty Shades of Grey author E. L. James? Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson’s speechwriter?
Presumably, this year someone on the Nobel committee did just that and out popped Bob Dylan.
The New York Times reports that Sara Danius of the Nobel committee justified the decision to give Dylan the award by claiming that, “his work spans the entire English-language tradition.” She insisted that Dylan be viewed as an Ancient Greek lyrical poet. “Homer and Sappho wrote poetic texts that were meant to be listened to,” she said. “It’s the same way with Bob Dylan.” The administrative director of the Swedish Academy, Odd Zschiedrich, concurred, adding, “No one has had music so prominently in their work.”
The Times also noted that the decision was not without controversy. It reported author Gary Shteyngart as saying, “I totally get the Nobel committee. Reading books is hard.” I agree with Shteyngart. Is the committee really concerned about retrieving the bardic tradition of antiquity? I doubt it. If they were, they would have found others more deserving like Simon and Garfunkel or Leonard Cohen.
This decision is yet another instance of bureaucratic mediocrity in which values get lobbed about indiscriminately and without reason. The value that finally won out here was celebrity, which Chris Hedges has described as a cult. It leads to glorification of the absurd, famously portrayed in the tale of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Unfortunately, you see it everywhere. Brazilian journalist and social critic, Olavo de Carvalho, calls this the imbecilização (imbecilization) of society.
Just as in 2009 when the Nobel committee awarded Barack Obama the Peace Prize, this decision says more about the committee than it does about Bob Dylan’s music. The absurdity is that there is still no peace in the Middle East (quite the contrary), and Dylan’s writing, far from encapsulating “the entire English-language tradition,” doesn’t come anywhere near that of his fellow laureates. Then again, it’s not supposed to do that. He writes song lyrics.
There has been talk lately in university circles about the death of the humanities. This decision doesn’t help. Physicists, chemists, medical researchers, and even economists have a greater claim to the Nobel prize, not only because their disciplines build upon previous work, but because their work is about finding the truth. We have given up on that in the humanities, concerning ourselves more with conducting social analysis for the purpose of creating a brave new world.
Dylan admits as much. In his 2004 memoir, Chronicles, he remarks clumsily, “So much for the truth. I was gonna talk out of both sides of my mouth and what you heard depended on which side you were standing.”
Next year, I’d like to see Country singer Alan Jackson get the award. His lines, “Way down yonder on the Chattahoochee, it gets hotter than a hoochie coochie,” are pure gold.