What’s Wrong with the World

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Bob Dylan has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Not everyone is happy about it. For some it remains an absurdity to present his art as an example of excellence. For others, while the excellence is undeniable, its categorization as literature remains problematic. These questions are not my chief concern here.

I confess that don’t know a great deal about the details of the Nobel Laureates in Literature. I also confess that this want of knowledge doesn’t much bother me. If one were to build a list of greatness in literature for all time, how many of these particular writers, dating back to 1901, would even merit consideration?

Put another way, when I look over the Nobel Laureate list, I feel somewhat in the kind predicament that Bilbo, delivering his farewell speech in Hobbiton, dealt with by means of this obscurity: “I don't know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.”

Now, I do know this for a solid fact. Nobel Committee has, more than a few times, well and truly beclowned itself with this Award. A clear illustration: It would appear upon even cursory glance, that more tiresome and superstitious propounders of socialism have earned the Award, than brave dissenters seeking to break free and expose socialist tyranny.

In light of that knowledge, I can say emphatically that the Nobel Committee did not, this time at least, beclown itself by bestowing its Award on another tiresome and superstitious socialist. That a large mass of Bob Dylan fans, especially of the academic sort, would like folks to think the Committee has done this . . . well, let’s just say that speaks to the level of tiresome, superstitious socialism still dominant among American elites.

But Bob Dylan is not a socialist. (If he ever was one, he obligingly shook off that superstition well before I was born, and I’m almost 40 years old — just to illustrate how behind the times these aging fellow travelers are.) Scouring for suitable descriptors of the political variety, I’d go with patriot and traditionalist; though I would make haste to add that political descriptions are ill-fitting on this troubadour.

Bob Dylan is surely still a Christian as well. Every time he’s in the news I run into a common phrase along the lines of “but Dylan eventually renounced organized religion.”

No, he didn’t. I have searched for the source of this pernicious platitude more than once; and have concluded that its origin can only lie in the imagination of certain interested journalists. Call it the elegy of discomfited secularists.

So it is only natural that the odious utterance creeps into quite a number of the write-ups of Dylan the Nobel Laureate. Again, take it from me, in the bluntest terms I can muster without breaking our “no profanity” rule: It just ain’t so.

Dylan boldly, publicly and unmistakably announced he had given his life to Christ in the late 70s. Numerous credible people confirmed his conversion prayer, his attendance at church, his participation in an intensive discipleship class, etc. Scripture was always a rich vein to mine for lyrics; now it became the Holy Word of God. He subsequently released two albums of unambiguously Christian material, some of it bad, some of it overbearing, much of it mediocre, some of it brilliant and powerful.

He has never renounced that faith. He’s offered cryptic talk and eccentric comments. He’s befuddled admirers and detractors alike. Mostly, he has composed songs and performed them. But Christian imagery, colloquialisms, doctrine, history, diction, symbolism, quotation, all these and more, have absolutely permeated his music, despite a very wide diversity of genre. I don’t believe any album has failed to include at least one song which only a nincompoop could mistake for non-Christian in content. In a word, you have to be an idiot to believe Bob Dylan is anything other than a man who considers himself an imitator Christ.

That having been said, it is of course true that not everything in his art or life has been dedicated to Christian evangelism. He’s done lots of things. Starting in the early 80s, he set aside the strictly theological themes and explored others of a very wide variety. He did a disastrous tour and album with the Grateful Dead. Many are the songs in these last 35 years he has written that leave off any overt theology, or any at all. Many there are also that merely use the above-mentioned elements as props to tell some other story.

Moreover, it’s pretty clear that before Bob Dylan became a Christian, he had lived a wild and colorful life. It is unlikely that all that accumulation of sinful habit vanished in the blink of an eye after his conversion. No doubt his life was still swarming with those false teachers, warned against so vividly by St. Peter in his Second Letter, who prey on infant Christians and try to draw them back into sin.

I will also allow that Dylan no longer cleaves to the particular variety of Christianity to which he initially converted. That late-1970s pop-fundamentalism has deepened into a more mature faith, and definitely a more reserved one. The world of Christian thought is vast and varied, and ‘round every corner a narrowing heresy awaits. I certainly do not insist that Bob Dylan is an orthodox Christian in the traditional sense.

Furthermore, Dylan, far from renouncing his Jewish roots, has quietly retained many diverse connections to that religion, including through the Hasidic organization Chabad. (Secularists may forget that this organization’s small outpost in Mumbai suffered the savage treachery of Islam’s crazed sons back in 2008; we may conjecture with confidence that Bob Dylan has not.)

What this all comes down to is that the Nobel Committee has given this most prestigious Award to one of America’s most prominent, if mysterious, Judeo-Christians.

Thus my somewhat puckish headline is, on the merits, perfectly defensible. For my part I salute the Nobel Committee for its inspired bestowal, and congratulate the man for this deserved recognition of the immense riches of his art.

A few other notes:

¶ As even the dedicated Dylan critic Andrew Ferguson acknowledges, Bob Dylan’s privacy is plainly dear to him, and he has succeeded very well in preserving it, to the benefit not only of himself but his admirers. His public image is mostly that of an enigma; the secretive troubadour composes his songs, performing regularly; he emerges rarely in any other context, and almost entirely on his own terms, usually for a pugnacious or peculiar interview, occasionally with fascinating videos, advertisements, or musical partnerships. And that’s that. The Laureate Troubadour abides.

¶ Something should be said about Dylan’s antic and inventive comic streak. Alas, all but the very best analysis of humor merely weakens the delight of the joke; so I’ll just proffer some sample songs that seem particularly hilarious to me:

On the Road Again” (1965)
Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” (1965)
Can You Please Come Out Your Window” (1965)
Black Diamond Bay” (1976)
We Better Talk This Over” (1978)
Man Gave Names to All the Animals” (1979)

¶ The question of whether the composition of songs, even magnificent songs of depth and range, rises to the level of literature, is not one that can be easily disposed of. Shorn of the musical accompaniment, a great many even of Dylan’s best lyrics feel wain and desiccated, or simply incoherent. Readers unfamiliar with the songs as performed inevitably lose much of what makes them great. Dylan set eccentric but undeniably fearsome polemics to a jaunty, upbeat folk-rock tune in “Positively 4th Street,” and the effect simply cannot be conveyed on bare paper. A parallel contrast is observable in the chiming guitar (courtesy Mark Knopfler) and amiable piano of “Precious Angel,” a song that, lyrically, features blunt and uncompromising theological statements selected from John 4, 2 Corinthians 4, Romans 6, and Revelation 9. One may read, on paper, the lyrics to this song with some profit; but again, the diminution of experience in comparison to the full power of the performed song, will persist no matter what any committee bestowing prestigious literary awards may do. Still, as noted above, I could really give a rip about the Nobel Committee’s exulted dignity, alleged by some to have been debased by this choice of Laureate. If the final result is that more people listen to and enjoy the music of this great American, all the better for mankind.

Comments (27)

'Already confessed, no need to confess again'.

Dylan seems to have moved towards a more pre-Reformation mode of Christianity. In the song 'Ring Them Bells' from 1989 he invoked St. Catherine and in his recent albums 'Modern Times' and 'Tempest' has referred to Our Lady.

"Pre-Reformation" -- I like it. Voegelin used the same description, if I'm not mistaken. Still, my feeling is that Dylan is too American, and America too Protestant, for that label to quite make sense.

Given the dire straights of our country right now, I rather think a dose of pre-Reformation Christianity would do America some good.

Still, Dylan's roots are Jewish, not Protestant, and as a traditionalist has the characteristic of going to the sources.

We all need a large dose of 'pre-Reformation' Christianity, in short a 'Shot of Love'.


Thanks for this. Headline from the left-wing Guardian (I swear I'm not making this up):

"Bob Dylan's Nobel prize isn't radical. He's just another white male writer"

You can't make up this stuff if you tried.

In case there was any doubt that Bob is a poet:


A Dylan article that has Tolkien and Lebowski references?

That's right in my proverbial wheelhouse. Home Run.

The notes on Dylan's humor take me back to some fond Denver Cellar Dylan tributes. Here's to the enogmatic Christian Troubadour!

Great write up. To separate the poet and the musician in Dylan is an impossible task. You can't consider one without the context of the other. Cheers Bob!

Has Dylan even issued a statement regarding his award? Talk about private! C'mon, Bob, you have to be feeling something.

Jeffrey, you read the Guardian? You must be their readership.

Alright guys. Let's get a list going of really funny Dylan tunes. "I Shall Be Free" is just loaded with great lines:

I’s out there paintin’ on the old woodshed
When a can a black paint it fell on my head
I went down to scrub and rub
But I had to sit in back of the tub
(Cost a quarter -- half price!)

Well, my telephone rang it would not stop
It’s President Kennedy callin’ me up
He said, “My friend, Bob, what do we need to make the country grow?”
I said, “My friend, John, Brigitte Bardot
Anita Ekberg, Sophia Loren”
Country'll grow

Great stuff.

Mark Steyn's take on Dylan is as brilliant as you'd expect:


I'll defend the Nobel committee, at least a few times over the years (truth be told, this list isn't nearly as robust as I thought it might be when I set out to write it; defending the Nobel committee is harder than I thought---they don't have a great batting average). I don't really have anything to say about the award to Dylan, per se.

But consider some previous, manifestly deserving, winners:

Henryk Sienkiewicz - have you read The Trilogy? If not, the worse for you.

Rudyard Kipling - not a socialist.

Sigrid Undset - also not a socialist; like Sienkiewicz, in fact, quite the Catholic

William Faulkner - not everyone's cup of tea, but a worthwhile choice

Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill - speaks for itself; or it does if you've read his books

Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn - not a socialist

Steve -- that's two paragraphs plus something Steyn wrote when I was 23. "Brilliant as you'd expect" may be overstating things, since his entire theme is that Dylan is uber-aged and near death, in 2001.

Titus -- "like less than half of you half as well as your deserve."

Sorry you didn't like Steyn's piece. Oh well - as Noël Coward famously observed, it's "Extraordinary how potent cheap music is."

People have a way of latching on to simple tunes heard in their youth and never letting go.

A few months past, after the artist formerly known as "Prince" died, I posted (elsewhere) what I thought was a reasonably respectful r.i.p., saluting his talent, but regretting that he never advanced beyond the pop balladeer stage - and promptly got ripped to shreds in comments by fans who seemed to believe that the guy was as great a poet as Yeats & as great a composer as Stravinsky.

Not much point in arguing about such things, I guess.

Just some ramblin' thoughts:

As much as I like some of Dylan's stuff, I can't say I appreciate the totality of his work fantastically. Indeed, I like more than half of it less than half as much as twice as much as it deserves. I am pretty sure the lack is in me: The music of Dylan is actually better than it sounds.

Nevertheless, I am, relatively speaking, pleased that he got the Nobel. For one thing, this means that someone distinctively unsuited to being celebrated and awarded DIDN'T get it. Thank goodness for that! For another, there is something to be said for celebrating a musical genius who is humble enough to pass around his half-ideas to other musicians on the mere chance that they can do something with it that he was unprepared to do, and Dylan is that. And for a third, there is much good in stuffing it in the ear of those who would insist that because the art of song isn't an art with words alone, that it should not be celebrated under the category "literature": I suppose that Augustine's paean to the Psalms should be thrown out too, because after all they are songs, not "literature".

Much as I enjoyed Steyn's drive-by piece (boy, does he have a potent pen!), it is finally unfair to Dylan. After all, HE isn't the one who claims he is a great artist, he isn't packed to the gills with claims of his art being "high" or "noble" or (heaven help us) "important". Sure, Dylan has even from his "youth" (using the term advisedly) cultivated a style that makes the most of being something other than pretty and glamorous - but it's a style that suits him: so what? Steyn got his jollies out of ripping Dylan just because he could, not because there was any need to do so. It's good writing, and even so, even if every individual word Steyn wrote is true, there's not a lick of truth behind the article.

Titus, I have read from 5 out of the 6, and you're right about them. Honestly, somehow I have never even heard of Sienkiewicz. How does this happen? And, are these the only non-socialists in the group? That would be a pretty low batting average.

If Barack Obama can receive the Nobel Peace Prize for "extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples” before (and after) accomplishing absolutely nothing toward those ends, why shouldn't Bob Dylan receive the Nobel Peace Prize in Literature as “a Homer for our times” with such lyrics as, “everybody must get stoned?”

After her death, Mother Teresa’s Nobel was found neatly packed under a pile of awards she received during her lifetime. Hers seems to have been the healthiest appreciation of that honor.

Lauran, Dylan is on record that, in order to understand the song you refer to, it is necessary to read the Acts of The Apostles. Being 'stoned' has more than one meaning.

He has also written such lines as 'Surrender your crown on this blood-stained ground, take off your mask'.

You could do worse to get a little more acquainted with his lyrics. You might be surprised.

"The music of Dylan is actually better than it sounds..."

Well, maybe.

I take it you're riffing off Mark Twain's famous remark that "Wagner's music is better than it sounds."

Personally, I always thought that Twain got things precisely backwards. I'd find it a lot easier to argue the case that Wagner's music sounds better than it is than the other way 'round.

I take it you're riffing off Mark Twain's famous remark that "Wagner's music is better than it sounds."

Right on.

Personally, I always thought that Twain got things precisely backwards. I'd find it a lot easier to argue the case that Wagner's music sounds better than it is than the other way 'round.

I am OK either way. Twain's quote denigrates Wagner's music without making a real (as opposed to the phony) assertion about whether it actually has any inherent value; it only clearly implies that it sounds bad. I am willing to withhold judgment about any actual objective value (if there is such) in many of Dylan's songs, I am really twisting the tails of those who applaud music for its "importance" without regard to whether it actually sounds good or not - like junk modernist painting being showcased because it is "relevant" without regard to how it looks.

Trouble is, Tony (if I may) - Wagner's music is remarkable for how *good* it sounds.

I mean, c'mon - have you ever listened to the Tristan Prelude & Liebestod?

What does "better than it sounds" even mean? Seems like a Twain quip that has his typical pungency, but without context perishes under the weight of its ambivalence.

Most folks have the basic reserve not to pontificate on matters they know little about, (thought the Internet is rapidly draining away that admirable quality.) To me it is abundantly clear that sizable portion of the resistance to this Nobel Prize for Dylan consists of folks who know his songs from the 1960s and 70s -- and that's it. Some subset of these people have never forgiven Dylan for his Christianity (though respect for Slow Train Coming and, say, "Every Grain of Sand" is grudgingly allowed), while another subset, for various reasons, just have no interest in exploring his work. It is a daunting compendium of albums with a lot of uneven contributions to it. So fair enough.

But it seems to me there is some obligation to familiarize oneself with the material before rendering judgment. Now, in that light, and with regard to Bob Dylan, I do harbor a sneaking suspicion that some of the resistance lies in this: a felt horror that at the other end of "familiarize oneself" our imaginary critic will be forced to concede: "this guy is pretty damn good." I've seen it happen more than once. In fact, I've seen it happen with a friend of mine who is now a well-known pundit, who turned completely around from absolutely despising Dylan to finally conceding his quality. I'm working on a couple others with expectations of similar success.

Now, as I've said many times, the barrier of Dylan's subpar vocal talent should not be underestimated. Save for the very early folk stuff, plus a couple post-electric crooner albums (basically, John Wesley Harding, Nashville Skyline and New Morning), you're talking about a guy whose voice is an acquired taste. I get that. But there are effective apéritifs for this meal. One easy one is to listen to Dylan songs made famous by other, better singers. Johnny Cash, Joan Baez, Jerry Garcia Band, Van Morrison, U2, Old Crow Medicine Show. The options proliferate.

When (from Steve's link) the great Mark Steyn went after Dylan for being an old codger, the latter was 60 years old. Mark Steyn today is 56. Both men are still active and vigorous in their vocation, doing great patriotic things, and sometimes dropping a dud. Admirers of both will be inclined to cheer the great things and overlook the duds.

I'd like to hear what Steyn has to say after familiarizing himself with Dylan's more recent work -- say, deep listens of Love and Theft, Modern Times, plus a few other songs like the immortal "'Cross the Green Mountain." I rather doubt that he'll be able to hold to so churlish an opinion.

You could do worse to get a little more acquainted with his lyrics. You might be surprised.

I doubt it, DeGaulle. Growing up with Dylan's music, the majority of his work is, in fact, familiar to me. Just as many pop-artists wrote just as many moving pop-songs, and some with just as many religious undertones. Dylan may have been a prolific songwriter. His music may span the decades. His lyrics may even have "more than one meaning." But Dylan is no "Homer," not by any stretch of the imagination. The Nobel Peace Prize for Literature shouldn't be awarded for pithy, pop-lyrics.

I appreciate your admiration for Mr. Dylan, but regarding matters of faith and Christianity, I'd rather defer to the Acts themselves and to the Apostles who wrote them, rather than to pop-culture lyrics by pop-culture songwriters.

The Nobel Prize in Literature should be awarded for good writing and Dylan songs certainly qualify as that. And the same pious deference to Scripture could be applied to pretty much any winner of the Prize. Even someone as great as Solzhenitsyn or Kipling -- better, ultimately, to read Acts of the Apostles, right?

Seems too facile to me. Things that are lovely, commendable, excellent are recommended to us by one Apostle. I have given many reasons, over the years on this blog, why I consider Dylan to have earned these descriptors with his musical and lyrical work.

Plus, there's no reason you can't put on Nashville Skyline, procure an adult beverage, sit with the setting autumn sun across your face, and go ahead an read the Bible.

I appreciate the arguments defending Dylan’s lyrics, but I just can’t buy any of them to justify awarding him the Nobel Peace Prize in Literature. His writing, plentiful as it was, was not anymore awe-inspiring than his Christianity. So few were even aware he was Christian, though his fanbase was well aware of his love for weed and women.

With the 70s and Dylan a faded memory, I’ll stick to the Acts and to the Apostles, thank you very much.

Lauran, how highly do you, as it were, prize the Nobel Prize? "Best writer since the turn of the 20th century" really aint all that much to boast about. I certainly do not put Dylan in a category of all-time great or something. But when we confine our evaluation exclusively to writers active since 1901, Dylan defensively belongs there.

I mean, even if one were to include the 19th century -- now I'm very skeptical that Dylan belongs. But purely the last 115 years? Yeah, deserved.

"Theodore Dalrymple" is way less kind about it than Mark Steyn:


But, then, he lacks Steyn's extensive & sympathetic familiarity with popular music.

The "last 115 years?” A short and a long list of alternatives wouldn’t take but a few minuti--far more deserving and inspiring alternatives, too. But, alas, the deed has already been done.

No sale, Paul Cella, but I understand your points. I simply have far more reverence for the Nobel Peace Prize than I do for the talent of Bob Dylan. Clearly, you and the Nobel Committee disagree.

"It is true that I have not followed Dylan very closely." "Not having studied Bob Dylan’s poetry very closely, it was helpful to me that, on the day after the announcement of the award, the Guardian newspaper published what it selected as his ten greatest lyrics."

Well, that definitely settles it. Read the Guardian's selections for Dylan's best few lyrical fragments on the printed page and you've sorted it all out.

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