November 19th 2016

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY QUT discrimination case exposes Human Rights Commission failings

CANBERRA OBSERVED Triggs in the gun: loaded section 18C to get overhaul

EDITORIAL First Brexit, now Trump - it's the economy, stupid!

ANALYSIS What is possible to a Trump Whitehouse

MANUFACTURING Foreign ownership no sole reason for breakdown

ENVIRONMENT Billionaires bankroll U.S. anti-coal campaign

LIFE ISSUES Abortion trauma link to male suicides

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Commission's "Get Pell" campaign fails on facts

GENDER AND POLITICS Pronouns, ordinary folk, and the war over reality

NAVAL MILITARY HISTORY A WWII encounter that deserves remembrance

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS China builds Great Wall in the South China Sea

MUSIC Dylan's Nobel prize causes song and dance

CINEMA Humanity within inhumanity: Hacksaw Ridge

BOOK REVIEW Bill is $500 billion and counting

BOOK REVIEW Arguments and facts: the man who remade Russia

POETRY Sunset at the Perth War Cemetery

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Dylan's Nobel prize causes song and dance

by David James

News Weekly, November 19, 2016

When Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature it led to a flurry of debate about what actually constitutes literature. Hopefully it will also lead to further discrediting of the Nobel prize itself, which is grubby at best and downright ridiculous at worst.

The Nobel Peace Prize is plainly ludicrous when we consider that Alfred Nobel is credited with inventing, or at least developing, dynamite, surely the greatest contribution to violent death in the last two centuries. It reached an exquisite level of absurdity when U.S. President Barack Obama was awarded one before he had even started his tenure (which turned out to be almost as bloody as his predecessor’s).

The Nobel Economics Prize starts from the completely indefensible position that economics is an intellectual discipline with any trace of credibility. Modern economics is an exercise in circular argument, banalities and sloppy semantics that is made to seem complex and authoritative by numerical sleight of hand.

Then we have the Nobel Prize for Literature. As marketing, this is certainly welcome, although I personally regard the failure to give it to Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges – surely, along with the likes of Samuel Beckett and James Joyce, one of the true greats of the 20th century – as having invalidated it entirely. But at least the award gives some welcome attention to writers and writing.

So, what is to be made of Dylan receiving it? It should first be noted that the normally taciturn singer songwriter, after a period of not responding, seemed genuinely shocked and delighted to get the gong. This is not a person who needs any more accolades or fans, yet he seemed sincerely taken aback.

He had every reason to be surprised. There is no doubt that Dylan is a fine, memorable songwriter. Anyone who can have a successful recording career with such a horribly nasal, whining voice has to have a remarkable command of lyrics and melody. And he does. His lyrics especially possess a high degree of musicality and many of his melodies are strong and readily recalled.

But it is very hard to mount a case that it is literature. The function of lyrics is primarily musical; the emphasis is on how they sound, not on what they mean. For example, in the Duke Ellington tune, It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got That Swing, one of the most effective lyrics is: “doo wop doo wop doo wop doo wop”. It is meaningless, but that is not the point.

Dylan’s lyrics are more profound than that, but they do not have the kinds of depths one associates with poetry. For the most part, they just sound good, and that is how it should be. Take them away from their musical role and they have little to offer.

For example, it is virtually axiomatic in high-level literature that there is a strong self-referential element; multiple layers of meaning are created by the literature looping back on itself, setting off a cluster of possibilities. Hamlet’s: “words, words, words”, Beckett’s: “I can’t go on, I must go on”; or Borges’ stories about stories about stories are instances.

Great writers obsessively examine themselves and their words and stories; and then their stories and their words and themselves.

Unsurprisingly, Dylan’s lyrics have little or nothing of that. His metaphors are not especially remarkable. If his lyrics are seen as poetry, which presumably they are in the literary context, it is not possible to get the subtle shifts of meaning derived from changing meter and emphasis: the kind of profound movement that makes Emily Dickinson’s poetry so remarkable, for instance. Instead, the rhythm and stress are set by the melody and the drumming.

Those defending the Dylan award commented that Homer’s lyrics were recited to a lyre, with the implication that literature has long been bound up with music. But this example demonstrates the problem. The lyre was played as background to the Homeric words, phonic support only.

In Dylan’s songs the words tend to support the melodies. Indeed, he would never have been as successful as he has been if the melodies had not worked so well. If there were a Nobel Prize for song writing, or for being a “song and dance man”, as Dylan liked to describe himself, he would be at the front of the queue. But literature? No.

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