THE road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom, goes one of William Blake’s Proverbs of Hell. Bob Dylan has been on that road for more than 35 years. When the endless highway leads him to Melbourne Park tomorrow and Saturday, he comes as the Old Man, wizened if not wiser for all the road wear, and still searching for the elusive palace. How many more roads can this man walk down?
But the end draws near. Even his most ardent followers who, like latter-day Prufrocks, have measured out their lives with Dylan tunes, no longer take his endurance for granted. And since being admitted to hospital last year for a heart ailment, the entertainment establishment, consisting of his 1960s counterculture contemporaries, has been scrambling to give him a Viking send-off.
First, there was the lifetime achievement award bestowed on him last December by the Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts. Earlier this year he won three Grammy awards for his latest album, Time Out of Mind, then Time magazine named him one of the 20 most influential artists and entertainers of the century. And now Garth Brooks’ cover of Make You Feel My Love from the new album has become the first Dylan song to make it to No.1 on the American country charts.
But Dylan’s greatest achievement may be yet to come. Shortly before he died last year, his longtime friend and fellow poet, Allen Ginsberg, helped nominate him for the Nobel prize in literature. Had Ginsberg, one of the best minds of his generation, gone mad? His Russian Jewish heritage aside, what could Dylan possibly have in common with the likes of such esteemed Nobel laureates as Saul Bellow and Joseph Brodsky? Maybe more than you realise, say the growing number who support his candidacy.
For starters, his nominators argue, the body of Dylan’s work is substantial. His international renown and influence are perhaps unparalleled by any other word artist in the second half of this century. Even Pope John PaulII (a poet himself) seems to have acknowledged Dylan’s universality last year when he made the singer-poet the first pop star to perform before a Holy See, a kind of papal command performance.
What is it exactly that allows Dylan to be reborn again and again, each rebirth adding yet another layer to his mystique and appeal?
Professor Aidan Day of Edinburgh University, another Dylan Nobel backer, says that “above all, Dylan’s work has, over 35 years, fearlessly and uniquely engaged and defined a culture in a state of permanent anxiety and crisis”. But are we ready to concede that a pop star can paint literary masterpieces in the traditional sense of the word? Gordan Ball, an American English professor and another Dylan Nobel nominator, thinks we can. “Dylan has restored the oral tradition with his minstrelsy, and the extraordinary inventive symbolism of his work deserves comparison with such world-celebrated poets as Arthur Rimbaud and William Butler Yeats.”
To date, no Nobel prize in literature has been awarded in support of a primarily performative catalogue, although, Ball adds, when Sir Winston Churchill won the prize in 1953 the Nobel Academy cited his textual mastery “as well as his brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values”.
Dylan’s oratory embodies all the humanism we cherish, as well as the fear we have that it is slipping away.
Dylan winning the award is a long shot. More than 300 literary nominees go before the Nobel committee each year, and it has taken an average of seven years for successful candidates to reach the penultimate short-list. Yet there have been surprise winners before.
When Boris Pasternak won the award in 1958 for his one known work, Doctor Zhivago, literary academics everywhere scratched their heads. And more recently, the academy surprised quite a few literati with their selection of Toni Morrison in 1993. Certainly, if anyone is capable of springing such a surprise it is Dylan.
Still, there are many who would be opposed to Dylan being the recipient of a Nobel prize. There are those who have never forgiven him for “going electric” at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. But, by far, his most virulent critics are those who once loved him but felt betrayed when he refused to wear the mantle of their rectitude. When he refused to be the spokesman for the counterculture, they summarily dismissed his life and works in one word: Judas.
However, Dylan’s symbiosis with many of his fans runs deeper. Take Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door, for instance. This is the most-covered Dylan song of the past 25 years and it’s easy to understand why it holds up so well. With its meditative lyricism, which conjures up a guilty Claudius in prayer, it captures our yearning for redemption in a technologised world in which so many feel trapped like maze-bound mice.
In this sense, Dylan is all of us. What he expresses, writhing in his painful aesthetics, is 20th-century humanity crucified to the crossbeams of our endless doubts and desires.
Perhaps Dylan can finally be forgiven, and given a Nobel, while he lingers as the circle of light closes in on him, and like his namesake Dylan Thomas, he continues to the last breath of his being to “rage against the dying of the light”. Dylan may have gone further down the road to that elusive palace than any of us ever will.
John Hawkins is a Melbourne poet.