“Someone’s got it in for me, they’re planting stories in the press. Whoever it is I wish they’d cut it out quick, but when they will I can only guess.”
(“Idiot Wind,” 1974)
Dylan has received more than his share of criticism about his handling of the news on October 13 from the Nobel committee that he was the recipient of the coveted 2016 prize for literature – an honour bestowed thus far only on masters of the solely written word (read: no music attached to it). The committee’s choice created its own controversy as well, with literary types up in arms about the authenticity and value of Dylan as a literary figure. Of course anyone familiar with Dylan’s work beyond the obvious hits is not one bit surprised by the committee’s choice – or, for that matter, Dylan’s ensuing lack of emotion or interest in the award itself. Painfully shy and long since fed up with the prying and annoying general public, this award to Dylan primarily means another ceremony where people will ask him uncomfortable questions and act strangely around him. It means he will have to fly commercially for about ten hours, dealing with hassles the whole way. These scenarios alone would make him refuse to attend the ceremony. Even at a White House performance for the 2012 Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony, he couldn’t bear to attend the afternoon meet-and-greet, choosing to show up only for his performance and then bolting after a quick handshake with a delightfully amused Barack Obama, who later wrote this piece about the day Dylan came to visit:
“Here’s what I love about Dylan: He was exactly as you’d expect he would be. He wouldn’t come to the rehearsal; usually, all these guys are practicing before the set in the evening. He didn’t want to take a picture with me; usually all the talent is dying to take a picture with me and Michelle before the show, but he didn’t show up to that. He came in and played ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’.’ A beautiful rendition. The guy is so steeped in this stuff that he can just come up with some new arrangement, and the song sounds completely different. Finishes the song, steps off the stage — I’m sitting right in the front row — comes up, shakes my hand, sort of tips his head, gives me just a little grin, and then leaves. And that was it — then he left. That was our only interaction with him. And I thought: That’s how you want Bob Dylan, right? You don’t want him to be all cheesin’ and grinnin’ with you. You want him to be a little skeptical about the whole enterprise. So that was a real treat.”
Obama, a Dylan fan, gets it. Obama’s note about his experience with Dylan in many ways explains why Dylan has refused to embrace the Nobel Prize with any kind of fervor or excitement. It seems that in the midst of all the grandiose explanations as to why Dylan is being so unappreciative about this are very simple reasons for his behavior, which stem back to his personal history and his music. Dylan fans are not surprised by his behaviour because they have been inspired by his work in profound ways. Dylan’s lyrics are a haven for the disaffected, the grieving, the struggling, and the proud. Dylan’s work gives hope to the fallen, encouragement to the hopeless, and attitude to the powerless. Most importantly, Dylan’s words make you question authority, institutions, and long-standing beliefs. They remind you to be wary. They urge you to trust, but carefully. In this way, Dylan’s treatment of the Nobel committee’s announcement is itself poetic in its silence. Dylan fans can see it.
Up until now, Nobel recipients have not treated this accolade in such a seemingly disrespectful way (a notable exception, Jean-Paul Sartre refused his in 1964. Read more about it here). But Dylan makes you ask important questions: “Why should we care about this prize?” “Why do we hold it in such high esteem?” “Why does Dylan’s refusal to acknowledge the award and attend the ceremony bother me so much?” These types of questions develop our intellect and sharpen our senses to institutions we have thus far not even bothered to question. Who made Alfred Nobel the purveyor of all that is great in humanity over the course of the last 115 years? Is it, at its core, simply another “prize” that highlights important achievements while promoting and propagating itself in the meantime? The beleaguered committee, already incredulous at Dylan’s refusal to attend the ceremony, has announced that he is “expected” to give a speech within six months – as if Dylan will do this just because he is expected to. Is this an award or a sentencing?
Awards at their root are all contests of sorts. Dylan has never solicited an award, nor has he ever created with “winning” in mind. If you’re competitive, chances are you’re annoyed by Dylan’s actions because you cannot relate to someone not caring about such a large “prize” or accolade. How could a guy just sleep on this opportunity? There has to be a motive. But there isn’t. We think there is because of the enormity of his talent, while part of his talent is simply making us think.
While you can interpret Dylan’s actions as rudeness or even a purposeful snub to prove a point, it’s very likely that both Dylan fans and detractors have put way more thought into this than the man himself. If you put it into perspective in light of his life and body of work, you can quickly see how accolades mean very little to him. The late great Leonard Cohen, himself a brilliant wordsmith, gave a short quote upon hearing of Dylan’s Nobel Prize for Literature: “To me,” he said, “[the award] is like pinning a medal on Mount Everest for being the highest mountain.” There is a lot of weight in this quote. Cohen the great thinker, in comparing Dylan to Everest, asks this question: Does Everest need to be told it’s great? Does it care that it’s the highest mountain? People have tried to scale Everest in the same way that they’ve attempted to navigate the life and work of Dylan, and many have failed. Both are an enigma and a challenge, and neither will give up its secrets willingly. But one thing we know for certain: neither poet nor mountain will bear its identity being shaped objectively. If there is a root element at play here, perhaps it is this profound truth.