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Does the literature Nobel to Bob Dylan mean changing times?


The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind

The announcement last week that the American pop singer Bob Dylan had been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature has raised many eyebrows in the literary world. Is this event an acknowledgement that the word “literature”, which till now, has meant “written works”, especially those considered of “superior or lasting artistic merit”, no longer need be “written” but can also be sung? Or is it an acknowledgement that the printed word no longer reigns? Or even that a felicity in writing is no longer the defining point of learnedness?

I remember clearly the day I heard Dylan for the first time. It was 1964, I was in my final year at school in my home town, Cannanore, a small town in the Malabar coast of Kerala, my ears peeled to the music from Radio Ceylon coming out of a Murphy Radio nearly as big as a present-day refrigerator (transistor radios were a few years away). Radio Ceylon, at that time was the only source of international music and news from outside our little nook of India (television was also a few years into the future). Why was I so attentive to the sounds coming out? It was a miraculous time for music and movies with musicians and film makers in a frenzy of creativity and the world seemingly on the precipice of change like it had never been before. In India, for one, “Midnight’s Children”, people like me born right after Independence and in free India, were coming of age and graduating out of high school. In the United States, Martin Luther King had that year electrified the world with his “I have a Dream” speech, triggering the civil rights movement that would in time lead to a fairer world from African-Americans. Cinema was entering its golden age, with films like Lawrence of Arabia, Psycho and closer home, Mughul-e-Azam, Barsaat ki Raat and Bandini. The world would not be the same place again! We were living in revolutionary times!

Dylan’s music was the voice of those times with songs like, The times they are a changing (“There’s a battle outside and it is ragin’, It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls”), A Hard Rain is a-gonna fall ( “I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken, I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children”), music no longer was sung in praise of the gods or by moonstruck lovers- real social issues were brought in and it was electrifying.

Ever since Johannes Gutenberg, in 1450, invented movable type, a method of casting this type on to a mould, and thus made inexpensive printing possible, the printed book has been a powerful instrument in shaping the world. Gutenberg’s first “hit” with his new process invention was, of course, the Bible and it is believed that the Protestant Reformation might not have been possible without the inexpensively printed Bible; religion no longer was just a prerogative of churches and priests; thanks to the possession of the Bible, every household could reach out to god directly.

Is Dylan’s Noble Prize yet another signal that of what David J. Gunkel, the American academic see as signalling that the times we live in as “the late age of the text” and a period of transition from print to electronic culture? Or merely a long overdue acknowledgement that popular music (of the 1960’s particularly) has had greater poetic values than poetry itself: for instance:

How many roads must a man walk down

Before you call him a man?

How many seas must a white dove sail

Before she sleeps in the sand?

Yes, how many times must the cannon balls fly

Before they’re forever banned?

The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind

The answer is blowin’ in the wind.

Dylan, when interviewed about the meaning of the song had this to say: “There ain’t too much I can say about this song except that the answer is blowing in the wind. It ain’t in no book or movie or TV show or discussion group. Man, it’s in the wind – and it’s blowing in the wind. Too many of these hip people are telling me where the answer is but oh I won’t believe that. I still say it’s in the wind and just like a restless piece of paper it’s got to come down some …But the only trouble is that no one picks up the answer when it comes down so not too many people get to see and know . . . and then it flies away. I still say that some of the biggest criminals are those that turn their heads away when they see wrong and know it’s wrong.”

If this isn’t poetry, what is?

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