Putting Bob Dylan and Donald Trump in the same sentence? Why do that? Really?
Tim Stanley did this a few days ago in The Telegraph entitled “A World that gives Bob Dylan a Nobel Prize for Literature is a World that nominates Trump for President”. Here’s the piece.
Now in a narrow technical sense, he is of course quite right. These two events have in fact taken place on the same planet – a place called Earth. It’s true in the same sense that Paul McCartney and Adolf Hitler are two examples of vegetarians. It’s true in the same sense that a butterfly flaps its wings in Indonesia while share prices crash on Wall Street. Yes, the nomination of Donald Trump as US President and the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Bob Dylan are two events involving Earthlings.
Stanley is suggesting, of course, that a degree of synchronicity (though only a degree – Trump’s nomination was last year, not this horrible year) implies something symptomatic, something illustrative of a Popean cultural malaise. His is a Dunciadic pronouncement (only without Pope’s sense of fun).
Now who actually nominated Bob Dylan for the prize? I am pleased to say I know at least one of the people who did it, and I can tell you that nothing on earth could have compelled this individual to nominate Donald Trump for US president (even if he was a US citizen rather than a Scandinavian academic). I feel very certain that if the GOP were comprised exclusively of the sort of people who nominated Bob Dylan for the Nobel Prize for Literature, there is no way Donald Trump would be the nominee.
Of course, this is not Stanley’s point. He’s making a far more pervasive, subtler and absolutely impossible to prove either way point about “dumbing down” and populism. As someone who has actually tried to teach Bob Dylan to predominantly young people, I can tell you, Stanley is severely over-stating Dylan’s “low brow” popularity. When Tim Stanley has actually tried playing “Highlands”, in its entirety to around 500 bewildered nineteen year olds (as I have), he may reconsider his assumption that celebrating Bob Dylan is a fail-safe short cut to easy popularity. I would have made life a lot simpler for myself and been far more “down with the kids”, had I confined my lecture time to just reading out a few more of the earlier and more familiar short poems of Seamus Heaney (who won the Nobel Prize round about the same time).
“Dumbing Down” suggests a surrender to something that is “easy”. Stanley reels of a list of great writers who have won the Nobel Prize (Yeats, Gide, O’Neill, Solzhenitsyn) as a way of validating the supposed degradation of the Prize now it’s in the grubby paws of this Minnesota minstrel. But each of these writers could be praised (at least on occasion) for their clarity and the spareness of their lyricism. Each of them was capable of startling “directness” of expression . There is far greater descriptive variety (or wilful obscurantism) in “Desolation Row” or “Gates of Eden” that there is in The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway, a book whose determined and haunting simplicity secured its author the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Putting Dylan and Trump in the same sentence means putting a man who actually likes adjectives, who likes description for its own sake, in the company of a man who is so deliberately and wilfully imaginatively deprived and who hates adjectives so much that he only has one adjective – the non-descriptive “great”.
The definitional case for not giving Dylan the prize is of course the best one. And this argument has been productive of some very interesting conversations, which are still ongoing. There’s nothing “low brow” (whatever that means) about consequent debates about the meaning of poetry, its phonocentric origins, about the relative cultural capital attached to poems versus songs, and the meaning of authorship, composition and performance in a world of mass cultural reproduction. These arguments are not “dumb”. Even if the award was misplaced, the controversy over whether or not it was not misplaced is not an argument that Donald Trump is intellectually equipped to contribute to.
Certain key people who are intellectually equipped to join in this conversation – Benjamin, Brecht and Adorno – are no longer with us. Adorno did of course condemn Joan Baez thus
Adorno’s condemnation of popular music, however, might have made him more sympathetic to Dylan’s re-allocation to the sphere of literature. This is teachable moment. I will use it next week. To teach. Unlike Stanley, of course, Adorno yoked high-minded formalist critiques of popular (or at least prevalent) music forms with a structural analysis of the workings of capitalism. And anything that forces people to read more Adorno is not going to make the world a dumber place. Whether or not this award is “right” or “wrong”, its implications are intellectually productive.
Of course, far more disturbing than Tim Stanley’s assertions about Dylan is his attempt to blame Trump on some nebulous slipping of “standards”. Apparently Trump is where he is today, in part because lazy liberal academics have been sneaking Bob Dylan into literary curricula. Yes, it’s my fault. (Frankly, I think the Indonesian butterfly is more culpable.) Stanley prefers a patrician account of the rise of Trump in terms of the falling of certain aesthetic “standards” to an account that looks at racism, sexism, poverty and violence not as pervasive cultural phenomena but as real things that are hurting real people.
So right now, I’m going to continue chairing arguments about the meaning of literature and song and what gives “culture” its capital “C”. You’ll also find me listening to Dylan, reading W.B. Yeats and Thomas Pynchon while planning my trip to Indonesia to tear the wings off a butterfly.