On Bob Dylan’s Nobel Speech

Plato said that changes in music and sports were also indications in changes in constitutions of polities. Changes in politics are usually also indicative of changes in souls. Music mirrors human souls and the direction they are taking, good or bad. The mind and body may be closest together in music. The notion that we can understand politics without understanding the music we sing or the music that our children hear is itself unpolitical, indeed unphilosophical.

“Though students do not have books,” Allan Bloom began his well-worthwhile reading chapter on “Music” in The Closing of the American Mind (1986), “they most emphatically do have music. Nothing is more singular about this (1960’s on) generation than its addiction to music.” It was not only wise to know what the words being sung meant, but also what their rhythms indicated and suggested. In many ways, it was not a side issue to politics and education. It was politics and education that became largely the same thing.

Bob Dylan was born Robert Zimmerman in 1941 in Duluth, Minnesta, but his family of Russian and Lithuanian Jewish background lived in near-by Hibbing, one of the colder spots in the country. He changed his name to Dylan after the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. He held that freedom includes the freedom to change the “arbitrary” name given to one at birth. This freedom, logically, obscures the relation of one’s-self to the parental and ancestral lines that ground one’s genealogical origins.

Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016, though his address has just been released. He was a major figure in music, politics, painting, and general culture since the early 1960s. His musical productivity in terms both of quantity and quality was prodigious. Dylan’s well-presented Nobel Lecture is worth considerable reflection.

Since Dylan, a musician, was given a literary prize, he wanted to understand the relationship between his kind of music and what we normally mean by literature. He begins his account by telling us how, when he was eighteen, a musician by the name of Buddy Holly influenced him. He did not really know him; in fact Holly was killed in an airplane crash when he (Holly) was twenty-two. Hence, already here we find poignancy about the death that much literature takes up. In Dylan’s view, the connection between music and literature is grounded, perhaps not too surprisingly, in the fact that he had a very good grammar school education.

After reflecting on the music and musicians that he grew up with—country, rock ‘n’ roll, and rhythm—Dylan added: “But (besides this music) I had something else as well. I had principles and sensibilities and an informed view of the world. And I had had that for a while. I learned it all in grammar school. Don Quixote, Ivanhoe, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, Tale of Two Cities, and the rest—typical grammar school reading that gave you a way of looking at life, an understanding of human nature, and a standard to measure things by. I took it all with me when I started composing lyrics.” As it stands in the annals of modern education, that passage is remarkable when read today.

One might wonder if any grammar school in the land reads such books these days. Do kids actually own them as books that they can keep and mark up? But what is memorable about this list is that it almost contains the definition of what is (or was) meant by a liberal education. Dylan recognized that these novels that he read in grammar school in Hibbing, Minnesota, left things on his soul. He calls them “principles and sensitivities,” not just good yarns. From these stories, he learned something of human nature. This learning, no doubt, is, as C.S. Lewis told us in An Experiment in Criticism, the source of our knowledge of things other than ourselves and our immediate experience which is always, no matter when and where we live, narrow by comparison to what is.

Dylan sees standards in these books, things he is expected to live up to. When he began to write and sing on his own, his lyrics and rhythms came from a soul that had read things other than what happens in Hibbing in the long winter. Or to put it another way, if one is in Hibbing in the winter, he is not cut off from the rest of the world, past or present. He is given time to discover it. If we ask ourselves whether the on-line availability of almost everything today, including these same novels, does not make us better off than the folks in Hibbing in Dylan’s youth, we can only say that availability is not the issue. Reading these books at an age when they grip and form our very souls is the issue.

II.

In the Nobel lecture, Dylan organizes his thoughts around three novels that he presumably read in his early years. Dylan did begin college at the University of Minnesota, but quit after a year to move to New York and the music world he sought to learn. From the viewpoint of a liberal education, he seems not to have needed anything that the Minnesota Gophers might have added. The three books on which he reflects in the Lecture are Melville’s Moby Dick, All’s Quiet on the Western Front, and the Odyssey. It is around these three books of obvious literary merit that Dylan explained the sources of his music and the meaning he put into them.

One might say that the origins of Dylan’s music are not in music but in that literature that has philosophical overtones. On reading them, he mostly came out with an anti-war, radical view of things. One wonders how his life would have gone if he had instead lectured on, say Death Comes to the Archbishop, Thucydides, and the Education of Henry Adams or Dante, The Lord of the Rings, and The Brothers Karamazov.

Melville tells us, in Dylan’s view, “How different men react to the same experience in different ways.” We are not predetermined beings. Dylan is aware of the Old Testament background of Ahab in the whole story. The Old Testament, his own family heritage, is about a covenant made with Yahweh. Are we loyal to it or are we not? Music, especially Blue Grass and country music are noticeably filled with nostalgia and broken promises—“I was dancin’ with my darling to the Tennessee Waltz….” Life is filled with broken promises, but also with kept ones, with romance. At bottom, as Chesterton said in his essay defending “Rash Vows,” love seems to be a longing that promises be kept.

“Lots of facts in this book,” Dylan says of Moby Dick, “geographical knowledge, whale oil—good for coronation of royalty—noble families in the whaling industry. Whale oil is used to anoint the kings. History of the whale, phrenology, classical philosophy, pseudo-scientific theories, justification for discrimination, all of it thrown in and none of it hardly rational.” Such confusion is often found in music also. Ahab has his mission, a kind of eternal justice that approaches vengeance and madness. This is how Dylan saw the end of the novel: “Ishmael survives. He is in the sea floating on a coffin. And that’s about it. That’s the whole story. That theme and all that it implies would work its way into more than a few of my songs.” So it is not just music that we hear when we hear music. We hear what is already in the soul of the singer and composer.

Dylan’s description of All’s Quiet on the Western Front is a relentless condemnation of war. It is seen in the context of one of the most devastating and senseless wars in history—World War I. This war was the concrete evidence upon which he based his universal-ab uno disce omnes. “Warfare has no limits. You’re being annihilated and that leg of yours is bleeding too much.” Nothing makes sense.

“You’ve come to despise the older generation who sent you out into this madness.” The men who brought on the war were well-educated, civilized. “All that culture from a thousand years ago, that philosophy, that wisdom—Plato, Aristotle, Socrates—what happened to it? It should have prevented this.” All wars can be prevented. Nature, meanwhile, goes right along as if nothing is changed. Poppies still grow in Flanders Fields.

Finally, Dylan tells us, “I put this book down and closed it up. I never wanted to read another war book again. And I never did.” Decisions like this, I suspect, are at the origin of both the utopianism and the lethargy of his generation’s music. War is not caused by war. The most likely result of abolishing war is either the submission to Islam or to totalitarian movements that allow no alternative but their own way after they have eliminated all external and internal enemies. Socrates fought in the Peloponnesian War, only to return home and be tried in the best existing city of his time.

It is always useful to read more than one book on war. Dylan cites a ballad from Charlie Poole from North Carolina. When he sees an army recruiting sign, he sings: “Killin’ with a gun don’t sound so fun / You ain’t talking to me.” We find here no sense of military courage that it takes to prevent what ls worse than war, that is, being alive with someone else in total control of your soul and body, with no guns, no nothin’ but submission.

III.

The final book was the Odyssey, not the Iliad, in which things greater than war itself are fought over. Odysseus is trying to get home “after the fighting.” He is a “travelling man” with many stops on the way. He has all sorts of strange adventures. Dylan adds: “In a lot of ways some of these same things have happened to you.” So we can expect in his songs a touch of Homer. “Gods and goddesses protect him; but others want to kill him.” He finally makes it back home to find things in a mess. The place is full of suitors for his wife. He fights them off.

“So what does it all mean?” Dylan tells us that he has been “influenced” by these stories. But they can mean a lot of things. He isn’t going to “worry” about it. All sorts of strange things are in Moby Dick. Neither Dylan nor Melville seemed to worry about the question. Dylan likes things that sound good, whatever their meaning. When Odysseus meets Achilles in the underworld after the defiant act that cost him his life, he tells Odysseus that he (Achilles) would just as soon be back on earth. His deeds did not mean much. Songs participate in this preference for life on earth, whatever its agonies.

We are, in the end, supposed to sing songs, their lyrics, to read Shakespeare aloud. We can only know the song if we sing it. It draws us into its being. Dylan’s final words in his lecture are from Homer: “Sing in me, Oh Muse, and through me tell the story.” A song enables us to re-live that experience of life, which we may have never known without it. We sing the same song again and again.

Yet, in conclusion, on finishing Dylan’s lecture, we come back to Charlie Poole’s affirmation: “You ain’t talkin’ to me.” After all his songs, after reading at Hibbing grammar school Don Quixote, Ivanhoe, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, and The Tale of Two Cities, we finish not with Plato, Aristotle, or Socrates, but with Moby Dick, the Western Front, and Odysseus in Hades longing to return to this passing world that he so flamboyantly left.

In this lecture, as interesting as it is, we see no day in the House of the Lord that is worth a thousand in time. We end up with no transcendence. We just sing among ourselves our stories. Yet, they are really no stories at all for they have only beginnings and middles, but no endings, no judgments. That is, we end with a composer, a literate man, who evidently never put to song the ending of the Republic of Plato or the Prologue of the Gospel of John.

We end up, in other words, right where we began—wondering about the meaning of our stories that recount the travels, the evils, and the feelings of our lives, endlessly repeated. In many ways, Dylan’s music records, to return to Plato, the change from a society that understood its relation to the divine to one that does not, to one that has decided to live without anything but itself. Our songs are designed to make such a choice comfortable, to avoid wondering whether it was a good choice.

(Photo credit: ZUMA Press / MGM)

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.

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Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., taught political science at Georgetown University for many years. He is the author of The Mind That Is Catholic from Catholic University of America Press; Remembering Belloc from St. Augustine Press; and Reasonable Pleasures from Ignatius Press. His newest books include A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning and Being Forgiven (2016) and On the Principles of Taxing Beer and Other Brief Philosophical Essays (2017). His most recent book is Catholicism and Intelligence (Emmaus Road, 2017).

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