Readers, How Does it Feel?


Readers, How Does it Feel?

Illustration: Juergen Dsouza/ Arré

The year is 2030, the stage is set. From the heavens comes down a voice crooning about love, loss, sacrifice, and feminist angst…

“I hope that you see this through
I hope that you see this true
What can I say?
Please recognise I’m tryin’, babe!
I have to
Work, work, work, work, work, work
He say me have to
Work, work, work, work, work, work!”

Bring your hands together, ladies and gentlemen. The Nobel Prize for Literature for 2030 goes to Rihanna for “having created new poetic expressions within the great world clubbing tradition”. President of Mars, Drake, declares this a universal holiday.

This will happen. Literature as we know it will die and Rihanna will be the newer, younger Toni Morrison with a dank nose ring.

What went down today is not about how much we dig Bob Dylan. Let’s just please take a breath to get all the clichés – “voice of generation” and “prince of protest” – out of the way and say an unequivocal yes to all of that. After all, we all have tumbled like a Rolling Stone, Blown in the Wind, and tried to Lay a Lady. His music (I may as well beat you to saying it), is perhaps the ultimate authority in understanding the socio-cultural dynamics in the US for a specific period. He provided the soundtrack as America ended segregation, started the Vietnam war, and crucified Nixon.

All that is undisputed. But this is not about the music. It is not about whether songwriting is poetry. It is not about whether we should now feel terrible about having passed over Leonard Cohen. It is about the apparently arbitrary definition of literature that we have just been given. It is about a post-modernist lens being applied to something we thought was classic. Timeless.

Around the time Dylan became a phenomenon, rebellious 15-year-olds in 1960s’ Greenwich Village were listening to his live sets and his records and consuming the coverage around it. They weren’t printing his lyrics down and reading them like John Keats or Lord Byron or Philip Larkin. The insightful songwriting that made them love him, and that became his hallmark, spoke to them and they consumed it as a performance. Not as poetry. Dylan wouldn’t be on the cover of Rolling Stone or be in conversation alongside The Beatles or Jim Morrison if he were a poet. Too many great poets have come and gone without that honour. Or any honour for that matter.

Literature is not performance. Literature is nothing but naked text on a page. It has to speak to you without any influence from its creator. None of the people who are tweeting furiously, as I write this have seen Dylan naked on a page… his words working as hard as his melody. His guitar. His curly hair. His polka-dotted shirt. Dylan is the whole package. Dylan is not just words.

Make no mistake, Dylan is one of the most finely cultivated images in history, incomplete without his cigarette or his harmonica, constantly reinventing himself to captivate the crowd.

The words, in all their unforgiving bareness, that he leaves behind are from his one published book Tarantula.

“aretha/crystal jukebox queen of hymn & him diffused in drunk transfusion would would heed sweet woundwave crippled & cry salute to oh great particular el dorado reel & ye battered personal god but she cannot she the leader of whom when ye flow, she cannot she has no back she cannot… beneath black flowery railroad fans & fig leaf shades & dogs of all nite joes, grow like arches & cures the harmonica battalions of bitter cowards, bones & bygones while what steadier louder the moans & arms of funeral landlord with one passionate kiss…”

And so on it goes. Brilliant, is it?

Dylan’s songs moved us. And they will continue to move a generation after us, but if everything that elicits a deep emotional response is literature, then why not give great tweets a Nobel? Why not Snapchat graffiti? Stand-up sketches? Why not movies? And since we’re doing crossovers, let’s give Murakami a saxophone and give him the bloody Grammy!

Make no mistake, Dylan is one of the most finely cultivated images in history, incomplete without his cigarette or his harmonica, constantly reinventing himself to captivate the crowd. As the New York Review of Books put it, “Dylan was consumable, a star on whose image any fantasy could be projected, a floating signifier of the greatest magnitude.”

From the rebellious to the Christian right, from immaterialism to drug abuse, Dylan is a brand and the brand is legendary. But what Dylan created is not literature. It’s not a contemplation into the human experience. It is the soundtrack to life.

But literature, is life itself.