I should be delighted Bob Dylan has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. But I actually feel very ambivalent.
My Dylan moment came in the autumn of 1963. My then girlfriend Helen invited me to a party, which she said would be full of ‘beatniks and eggheads’. They were, in fact, the teenagers from the upper stream of my high school, otherwise known as the ‘brain class’. I felt ill-at-ease trying to make conversation with my clever peers, and then someone put on Dylan’s Freewheelin’ album. I was blown away. I was 16 and totally agreed with a self-important kid at the party who declared upon hearing Dylan that ‘our lives will never be the same’.
I have never stopped listening to Dylan. For a while, during his Christian phase, when he decided to ‘serve the Lord’, I was turned off: his music became unremarkable and the lyrics were appalling. But everyone is allowed the occasional lapse in talent. To this day, when I’m running low on inspiration I listen to Nashville Skyline. I still get goosepimples when I hear the line ‘It’s all over now, Baby Blue’. And at the risk of sounding predictable, and maybe even trite, I can honestly say that no other musician, singer or songwriter has had as big an impact on me, and most of my close friends, as Dylan.
And yet, the Nobel Prize? For literature? There’s something wrong here. I thought it was weird when a spokeswoman for the prize committee compared Dylan’s ‘The Times They are a-Changin’ to the works of Homer and Sappho. ‘The times’ was indeed a powerful and influential song, but to compare Dylan to Homer is wholly anachronistic. Homeric epics served as stories that Greek communities shared with one another and which they communicated to the younger generations – is this true of Dylan’s songs?
We don’t know very much about Homer. Many experts believe the works attributed to him were in fact written and revised by many different poets. It is likely that The Iliad was a product of Greek culture more broadly, not the work of one individual. Homer was not simply a poet: the works attributed to him were used as standard texts for the education and socialisation of generations of Greeks. A more suitable historical equivalent to Homer’s works would be the role played by the Bible in the education of Christian Europe. Not even Dylan would dare claim he had anything like a comparable status.