‘A Blaze of Light in Every Word’: requiem for Leonard Cohen (1934-2016)

‘Let your mercy spill / On all these burning hearts in hell’

Leonard Cohen, ‘If It Be Your Will’ (1984)

**

various-positions-cover

As I pen this tribute, I am listening to ‘First We Take Manhattan’, Leonard Cohen’s song from 1988 written in the voice of a demagogue plotting to stage a coup in New York’s heartland borough, at a dark moment when ‘everyone is wounded’. This may sound disturbingly premonitory – and the Zen-master songwriter has chosen to depart this life at the most difficult of historical moments for his native North America. In October of this cataclysmic year of 2016, the world of songwriting has now been convulsed by two epochal events, with Bob Dylan awarded the Literature Nobel, and Leonard Cohen leaving us.

It could appear invidious to press the comparison between the American Bob Dylan and the Canadian  Leonard Cohen too far. They are in many ways similar figures: both are still seen by some as 1960s icons; both are Jewish; both have turned in their time to other religious discourses, Buddhism for Cohen, Christianity for Dylan. Cohen remained with us long enough to witness Dylan’s Nobel and magnanimously congratulate him on it – as well as to release, just before his decease, his 14th and last studio album (Dylan has 37), the spellbinding ‘You Want it Darker’. Their trajectories have not been identical: Cohen entered the popular music arena from the milieux of literature, as an acclaimed poet and novelist before he had ever released a song; Dylan began as a musician and acquired a parallel life in literary circles thanks to the critical attention paid to his lyrics. Some may think Cohen would have deserved the Nobel more than Dylan, but history has decreed otherwise and it now behoves lovers of music and literature to accord their just value to both.

Leonard Cohen’s career witnessed diverse ups and downs before the consolidation of his fame that marked his later years. He entered on his musical avatar in 1966, when the iconic folk singer Judy Collins recorded what until then had been a words-on-the-page poem, ‘Suzanne’.

‘Suzanne’ subsequently became Cohen’s trademark song, his most popular and most covered – until in mid-career he found it replaced in that role by ‘Hallelujah’. To the former song’s ‘She’s touched your perfect body with her mind’ succeeded the latter’s’ ‘There’s a blaze of light in every word’.

However, success did not always drop into Cohen’s lap. His first two albums, ‘Songs of Leonard Cohen’ (1967) and ‘Songs From a Room’ (1969), established him with the late 60s / early 70s generation as a major voice, but by ‘Recent Songs’ (1979) he had sunk into obscurity. ‘Various Positions’ (1984) was not even officially released in the US (it was only available on Canadian import) – yet it now appears as a key album, containing two songs that would be consecrated as Cohen classics, ‘Dance Me to the End of Love’ and, yes, ‘Hallelujah’. The following album, ‘I’m Your Man’ (1988), achieved a deserved success, and since then Cohen’s place in the musical firmament has been secure.

The quality of Leonard Cohen’s songwriting is beyond all doubt. Some songs are more complex or more accessible than others, and his treatment of themes such as authority, integrity, desire and salvation may be more or less oblique. The great majority of his recorded songs are original compositions, though some, like the French Resistance song ‘Le Partisan’ and Irving Berlin’s ‘Always’, are cover versions, and he has also interpreted poems by Lord Byron and Federico García Lorca.

recent-songs-cover

Now that the book of life has closed on Cohen’s work, if we are to evaluate his legacy I would like to lay a perhaps unorthodox claim and encourage his admirers to listen again to that neglected album from 1979, ‘Recent Songs’, which apart from dazzling musical arrangements ranging from Jewish violin to mariachi, contains, in ‘The Gypsy’s Wife’, ‘The Window’, ‘Ballad of the Absent Mare’ and more, some of his finest-ever songs. Indeed I would rate ‘Recent Songs’ even higher than ‘Various Positions’, and would put it forward  as quite simply his best album. Listen intently to that album, and you may feel the healing power of Leonard Cohen’s songwriting, even now from beyond the grave!

NO COMPLETE UNKNOWN – THE ODYSSEY OF BOB DYLAN’S LITERATURE NOBEL

NO COMPLETE UNKNOWN – THE ODYSSEY OF BOB DYLAN’S LITERATURE NOBEL

‘But it’s all been done before / It’s been written in the book’

Bob Dylan, ‘Too Much of Nothing’ (1967)

**

I

I was apprised of Bob Dylan’s 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature at the very first moment, as I had my non-exploding Samsung S7 attuned to Google and the official site of the awarding body, the Swedish Academy: it was Thursday, 13 October 2016, the announcement of the Literature Nobel was due at GMT noon on the dot – my phone was tuned to events in Stockholm, and … there was fortunately no literal explosion, but cataclysmic was my astonishment when the screen flashed up the name: ‘Bob Dylan’!

This award has generated an enormous planetary controversy, and before embarking on any assessment it is worth pausing to recall the basic facts. The Nobel Prize for Literature is awarded every year by the Swedish Academy pursuant to the will of the Swedish millionaire and philanthropist Alfred Nobel (1833-1896 – best-known as the inventor of dynamite), in parallel to the Nobel Prizes in five other fields, namely Medicine, Physics, Chemistry, Economics and Peace. The artist known as Bob Dylan, born in Duluth, Minnesota in 1941 as Robert Allen Zimmerman (he changed his name legally in 1962) and a US citizen of Jewish-Ukrainian origin, thus becomes the 113th winner of the prize since it was established in 1901. Winning the Literature Nobel entails not only worldwide recognition of the laureate’s name and work, but a medal and a sizeable material reward, amounting today to 8 million Swedish crowns (approximately a million dollars). The official citation for Dylan’s award is, as it usually is, brief, and simply reads: ‘The Nobel Prize in Literature for 2016 is awarded to Bob Dylan for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition’. The citation is now accompanied on the official Nobel site by a biographical note, a discography and an extensive primary and secondary bibliography.

dylan-the-cutting-edge

Controversy was compounded by Dylan’s initial non-recognition of the prize. A brief mention appeared on award day on Dylan’s Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/bobdylan/), but his official website, www.bobdylan.com, acknowledged the prize only a week later and in the most fleeting fashion. A mention of the Nobel appeared on Thursday, 20 October in the official description of a new print edition of Dylan’s collected lyrics, only to be removed six hours after it had materialised (albeit a link from the site to Amazon still led to a page carrying the mention). The Swedish Academy, after repeated efforts to locate the new laureate on the phone, had to wait until he called them on 28 October and formally accepted the award (though the site mention had not at the time of writing been restored). For a time, Dylan had seemed to be acting like his own character the Jokerman – a clear case of : ‘Oh Jokerman, you don’t show any response’!

In the end, despite whatever ambivalences, that much-awaited phonecall put paid to any notion that Dylan might follow Russia’s Boris Pasternak in 1958 or France’s Jean-Paul Sartre in 1964 in refusing the prize. In an interview granted to Britain’s ‘The Telegraph’ the following day, Dylan greeted the award as ‘amazing’ and ‘hard to believe’, and said he would show up at the Nobel ceremony on 10 December ‘if it’s at all possible’ (www.telegraph.co.uk/men/the-filter/world-exclusive-bob-dylan—ill-be-at-the-nobel-prize-ceremony-i/). The award is received by the laureate from the hands of Sweden’s monarch, currently King Carl XVI Gustaf; the awardee is also invited to give a commemoration lecture. The Academy has said the lecture could for Dylan be replaced by a concert, but it is not yet known if he will proffer either.

The two weeks between award and recognition seemed a whole odyssey, but Dylan’s Nobel in itself was in reality not a total surprise. It did not come out of the blue: both Dylan fans and Nobel buffs knew that the man from Minnesota had been a Nobel nominee every year for close on two decades. His name was first put forward by two hopeful devotees from Norway, and his candidacy was formally taken up in a letter to the Swedish Academy nominating Dylan for 1997, signed by US academic Gordon Ball, then a professor at the Virginia Military Institute. In the first year of Dylan’s nomination, the prize went to the Italian playwright Dario Fo, and from then on it was a long and patient wait for Dylan acolytes.

It is by no means always the case that the Swedish Academy awards the Nobel to someone internationally famous, and Dylan has most certainly not been given the prize ‘because he is there’. A brief look at some of the names of the Nobel literature laureates since Dylan was first nominated is illuminative. The roster includes: Imre Kertesz (Hungary, 2002); Elfriede Jelinek (Austria, 2004); Herta Müller (Germany, 2009); Tomas Tranströmer (Sweden, 2011); Mo Yan (China, 2012); Patrick Modiano (France, 2014). How many even of those of us who consider ourselves keen readers can place our hands on our hearts and swear that we have read these writers? Last year’s laureate, Svetlana Alexievich, a woman journalist from Belarus, is not exactly a household name; and while we are on the matter, nor is the first-ever Nobel awardee, the French writer Sully Prudhomme (1901), who today is scarcely remembered for anything other than inaugurating the award. Indeed, when in 2010 an internationally known author did win the prize (the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, of whom more later), an Italian newspaper ironically headlined: ‘at last someone we’ve heard of gets the Nobel’.

II

Bob Dylan is certainly – to quote his own ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ – not a ‘complete unknown’. However, his Nobel is being received in some quarters as a perilous innovation, on the grounds that he is a songwriter and the literature Nobel should be a closed garden reserved for ‘real’ writers, where people who write songs are trespassers. Dylan’s prose writings – i.e. his non-songwriting literary production – amount to two books, the stream-of-consciousness novel ‘Tarantula’ from 1966 and ‘Chronicles Volume One’ from 2004, the first (and so far only) instalment of his promised three-volume autobiography. ‘Tarantula’ does not have a good press (though I personally find it better than its reputation), but conversely ‘Chronicles’ does. At all events, it is clear from the citation that Dylan has been awarded the Nobel not for his prose writings (though they may have been taken into account), but for his songs.

The Dylan song canon has been estimated as comprising some 500 to 600 originals. Bob Dylan has to date released 37 studio albums dated between 1962 and 2016, plus live albums, compilations and large amounts of archive material. The original songs which have won him the Nobel constitute the harvest of (most of) the studio albums (some consist entirely or mostly of cover versions), a cull further enriched by the ‘non-album’ originals added to the canon over the years via compilations or archive releases. These sung texts correspond (at times approximately, as textual variants are not lacking) to the words-on-the-page texts to be found in the various print editions of Dylan’s lyrics. The most recent widely available edition is the third, from 2004 (‘The Lyrics 1962-2001’), though that is in process of being superseded by a fourth edition, ‘The Lyrics 1961-2012’, coincidentally slated for release in November 2016 and now available (it was over that book’s online ad that the famed ephemeral acknowledgment flitted). There is also a scholarly variorum volume, ‘The Lyrics: Since 1962’, published in 2014 as a limited edition edited and introduced by Christopher Ricks, professor of English at Boston University and one of Dylan’s most vocal academic champions. From these print volumes – or else from the collection of lyrics on the official website – may be read the words of Bob Dylan’s songs in their manifestation as literary text. It may be added that over the years Dylan’s lyrics have been very widely translated into languages other than English – and as standalone text, a circumstance which should bolster his credibility as poet. Equally, the substantive academic and literary-critical analysis of Dylan’s lyrics is hardly new, dating back to 1972, when the first critical study of his work, Michael Gray’s ‘Song and Dance Man: The Art of Bob Dylan’, appeared.

The Nobel is the result of an assessment of a writer’s entire oeuvre (unlike accolades such as the Man Booker Prize which go to an author for a single work – and often in a single genre, such as the novel). It is awarded for a writer’s literary quality and for the presence in the awardee’s work of an ‘ideal’ tendency, whatever that may be. To quote Alfred Nobel’s will, it rewards, ‘in the field of literature’,‘the most outstanding work in an ideal direction’ (www.nobelprize.org/alfred_nobel/will/). The worldwide debate since the award of the prize has been over whether the best-selling, hyperinfluential, 75-year-old US singer-songwriter called Bob Dylan deserves it.

The award was hailed by leading politicians (Barack Obama and Al Gore) and, among Dylan’s musical peers, by Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen. More nuanced was the reaction from the literary community. If writers such as Salman Rushdie, Joyce Carol Oates and Stephen King (the first two themselves long-standing Nobel nominees) lauded the accolade, the likes of Hari Kunzru, Margaret Atwood and – above all – fellow Nobel Mario Vargas Llosa were not amused, while to judge from the reactions on its website the US branch of the writers’ organisation PEN was split down the middle (https://pen.org/dylan-nobel; for many of the other responses, see: www.vulture.com/2016/10/celebrities-authors-react-to-bob-dylans-nobel.html and https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/oct/13/dylan-towers-over-everyone-salman-rushdie-kate-tempest-and-more-pay-tribute-to-bob-dylan).

In the academic and journalistic sphere, the decision was duly praised by all of Dylan’s major long-term critics – Christopher Ricks, Michael Gray (www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/morningreport/audio/201819928/bob-dylan-wins-nobel-prize-in-literature), Greil Marcus (https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/bob-dylans-nobel-prize/), Stephen Scobie (www.nationalpost.com/m/wp/news/canada/blog.html?b=news.nationalpost.com/news/canada/its-a-wonder-that-you-still-know-how-to-breathe-canadian-academics-share-their-favourite-bob-dylan-verses), as well as by original proposer Gordon Ball (https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/10/14/i-nominated-bob-dylan-for-the-nobel-prize-youre-welcome/?utm_term=.532117ac470b).

bob_dylan_-_love_and_theft

Obama responded: ‘Congratulations to one of my favourite poets, Bob Dylan, on a well-deserved Nobel’ (www.vulture.com above). Rushdie, a long-time fan of what might be called the Dylanic verses, affirmed that ‘Dylan towers over everyone’ and that with this award ‘the frontiers of literature keep widening’ (https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/oct/13/dylan-towers-over-everyone-salman-rushdie-kate-tempest-and-more-pay-tribute-to-bob-dylan). Cohen, who was soon to depart this life, declared magnanimously of his rival that the award was like ‘pinning a medal on Mount Everest’ (www.theguardian.com/music/2016/oct/14/leonard-cohen-giving-nobel-to-bob-dylan-like-pinning-medal-on-everest). Praise rained down thick and fast. However, from the other side objections also poured in, and if we are properly to understand the significance of Dylan’s award it is important to consider those demurrals and where they are coming from.

III

The objections may be broadly classified into five types, namely: generic/categorial (‘I have nothing against Dylan’s songwriting, but songwriting just isn’t literature’); generic/qualitative (‘rock lyrics can’t be poetry and this award dumbs down the Nobel’); individual-centred (‘Dylan doesn’t need the Nobel or the money’); politically correct/lefter-than-thou (‘Dylan wrote against war, so should refuse the prize’); and feminist/identitarian (‘Dylan is just another white male, and all this award does is legitimate the privilege and power of that appropriative group’).

1) Regarding the first objection, the citation refers to both ‘poetic expressions’ and the ‘song tradition’, thus implying that the Swedish Academy believes that song can be poetry and poetry can be song. It is stated, then, that Bob Dylan is part of the American popular song tradition, yes, but – also – of the American poetic tradition, there in the pantheon alongside Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Hart Crane and Robert Frost. It is here that voices are raised affirming that ‘songwriting is a perfectly valid activity but it isn’t literature’. Thus, US author Peter Godwin argued on the PEN site (URL above) that ‘read baldly on the page, alone, not much of Dylan’s verse is great literature’, declaring: ‘I’m a huge fan of Dylan. But Nobel literature laureate? I’m not so sure’. Another writer reacting on that site, Natalie Diaz, went further, claiming that ‘the element of reading was taken out of the prize category this year’, asking rhetorically: ‘When was the last time you read song lyrics’?

Over this argument, I beg leave to differ. The Nobel has been awarded often enough to dramatists, from Ireland’s George Bernard Shaw (1925) through the American Eugene O’Neill (1936) to the UK’s Harold Pinter (2005) and, indeed, the recently deceased Dario Fo (1997). Writing for the theatre is perfectly comparable to songwriting since it combines verbal text with expression through a different medium, namely the stage. As I see it, the analogy is perfectly legitimate and I therefore do not consider the categorial objection to be valid. If theatre is words-plus-another-medium, so too is songwriting.

A precedent for Dylan’s award has been claimed insofar as India’s Rabindranath Tagore, the 1913 laureate and first non-Western author to win the Nobel, was among many other things a prolific songwriter. Indeed, Tagore composed no less than 2230 songs – far more than Dylan has authored! – in his native Bengali, which remain part of the local repertoire to this day (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rabindra_Sangeet). Several commentators, notably in India, have invoked Tagore as a predecessor (see, e.g., http://www.thebetterindia.com/72438/bob-dylan-rabindranath-tagore-nobel-prize-literature). However, the analogy is not complete, as Tagore, poet, novelist, short-story writer, essayist and songwriter, was awarded the prize primarily for the work of his best known outside India, in other words his poetry. The precedent does, though, partially stand.

2) Like the categorial objection, the qualitative objection relates to genre, but evaluatively rather than descriptively. The argument here is that popular song is an inherently substandard or inferior genre which cannot be put on the same footing as literature. That argument today may look old-fashioned, but still has its advocates. A journalist by the name of Tim Stanley, writing in ‘The Telegraph’, went so far as to call the award a ‘dumbing down of culture’, and was approvingly quoted in India (www.hindustantimes.com/music/why-bob-dylan-didn-t-deserve-nobel-prize-for-literature/story-3dHU8ESqoaYRSefZQoVw5M.html). The French writer Pierre Assouline, a member of the prestigious Académie Goncourt, declared: ‘Je trouve que l’Académie suédoise se ridiculise. C’est méprisant pour les écrivains’ (‘I think the Swedish Academy has brought discredit on itself. This is an act of contempt towards writers’ – http://tempsreel.nouvelobs.com/en-direct/a-chaud/28809-dylan-nobel-affligeant-ecrivains-protestent-contre-nobel.html#). Even harsher was the critique emitted by no less a figure than Mario Vargas Llosa, who dismissed Dylan’s Nobel as a concession to ‘la civilización del espectáculo’ (‘showbiz culture’) and asked indignantly: ‘si el próximo año no le van a dar el premio a un futbolista’ (‘if next year they won’t give it to a footballer’) (www.abc.es/espana/castilla-leon/abci-vargas-llosa-critico-nobel-dylan-proximo-daran-futbolista-201610201414_noticia.html).

Nonetheless, the most superficial glance at Dylan’s work makes it clear that while his songs refer back to other popular songs from various genres, they are also replete with literary references. Quotations from the King James Bible are all over his work. His epic song from 1965, ‘Desolation Row’, alludes to the Old and New Testaments, Shakespeare, Victor Hugo, Franz Kafka, Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. Songs on Dylan’s more recent albums have taken inspiration from classical Roman writers (Ovid and Virgil), from Edgar Allan Poe, and from writers as obscure as Japan’s Junichi Saga or forgotten American Civil War poet Henry Timrod. However, the best refutation of the ‘dumbing-down/lowbrow/playing to the gallery’ argument is the simple fact that it is precisely the work of Bob Dylan and its critical reception that has made the study of popular music lyrics an acceptable academic pursuit. Dylan’s writing has shifted the cultural goalposts, and if the Nobel was to go to a songwriter, it makes entire sense that it should be to Dylan.

3) The argument that Dylan ‘doesn’t need the Nobel’ was voiced at the annual Miguel de Cervantes festival in Guanajuato, Mexico, by the Spanish writer and academician Antonio Muñoz Molina (www.proceso.com.mx/459404/nobel-le-falta-a-dylan-critican-en-fic). The speaker argued that the Nobel should go not to the already rich and famous but to the deserving poor – that being indigent and little-known (plus, admittedly, also being a good writer) should qualify someone for the Nobel: ‘Cuando el Nobel se le da a alguien que ya tiene todo, a quien no le hace ninguna falta, me parece superfluo’ (‘When the Nobel is given to someone who already has everything, who doesn’t need anything, I find it redundant’). The objections here are, first, that the Nobel does in fact often go to obscure writers (as in the list I cited above), and second, that – to refer only to Latin American laureates – such a criterion would count out the likes of Colombia’s best-selling Gabriel García Márquez (the 1982 winner) or, indeed, Bob Dylan’s nemesis Mario Vargas Llosa. It is surely not a crime to sell large amounts of one’s work and be able to live from one’s creative activity: in Dylan’s case no-one can deny that the man is rich, but that does not invalidate his songwriting – and in any case any laureate has the option of refusing the prize money or donating it to a good cause!

4) The lefter-than-thou argument was spearheaded by British writer Will Self, who argued in ‘The Guardian’ (URL above) that Dylan should ‘follow Sartre and refuse the award’. Self claimed that ‘it cheapens Dylan to be associated at all with a prize founded on an explosives and armaments fortune’. He is presumably implying that because back in 1963 Dylan wrote the song ‘Masters of War’ against arms manufacturers he should refuse Nobel’s money today. ‘Masters of War’, though, however influential, is one song out of hundreds, and Self’s argument if taken to its logical conclusion would mean that every living laureate (and especially all Peace Prize winners) should hand back their Nobel, all executors of dead laureates should return theirs too, and the six Nobel prizes should all be abolished forthwith. Such an ‘everything-must-fall’ opinion might gratify today’s ever more extreme campus iconoclasts, but it has very little to do with Bob Dylan as individual laureate and may therefore be dismissed.

5) The feminist/identitarian objection is that Bob Dylan is a white male, is therefore privileged by definition, and accordingly neither needs nor deserves an award like the Nobel. It may be represented by Australian writer and academic Natalie Kon-yu, who claimed, again writing in ‘The Guardian’, that ‘honouring Dylan is simply a return to the status quo’ and said she found it ‘galling’ that ‘people are calling this radical, a breath of fresh air from an otherwise stuffy institution’. In her view, ‘Bob Dylan’s Nobel prize isn’t radical. He’s just another white male writer’ (https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/oct/14/bob-dylans-nobel-prize-isnt-radical-hes-just-another-white-male-writer). For Kon-yu, the prize should have gone to a woman, preferably a woman of colour. Taking that line of thought further, on the PEN America site (URL above), the poet Amy King called on Dylan to reject the prize and to ‘publicly admit that we don’t need another white guy status quo affirmation in a world full of writers of colour penning their lives and ideals’.

It remains the case, however, that the purveyors of this line cannot quite reduce Bob Dylan to the negative stereotype of ‘white Caucasian male’, as he happens to be Jewish. They also conveniently forget the solidarity with beleaguered or victimised black individuals expressed by Dylan in songs like ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’, ‘George Jackson’ or ‘Hurricane’ (or would they dismiss those songs as appropriative tokenism)? The basic argument of Dylan’s feminist critics is that there have to date only been 14 women Nobel literature winners as opposed to – presumably – 99 men (was any laureate transgender?), from which it may be deduced that were they in control, in future they would only award the prize to women. In fact, the Nobels for 2015 and 2013 both went to women – Svetlana Alexievich, as seen above, and Canada’s Alice Munro, which suggests the Swedish Academy is in fact redressing the balance. Meanwhile, women writers are not lacking who have praised Dylan’s award – among them Joyce Carol Oates, as we saw, and Mexico’s feminist veteran Elena Poniatowska, who welcomed the award as ‘una ampliación de los criterios’ (‘an enlargement of horizons’ – http://elcomercio.pe/luces/libros/elena-poniatowska-dijo-esto-sobre-premio-nobel-bob-dylan-noticia-1941335).

There is also the argument that if the prize went to a songwriter, it should have been a woman songwriter, and here Kon-yu asks rhetorically whether ‘a female songwriter would ever be elevated to Dylan’s height’. Those taking this line might name, perhaps, Joni Mitchell (feminist), or Tracy Chapman (black), or Joan Armatrading (black and lesbian). However, it would be hard to find a living woman songwriter who has had anything like Dylan’s influence, and the feminist objection to the award, like the lefter-than-thou objection, may be considered to have little to do with Dylan as individual writer or with the actual merits of his songs. Indeed and curiously, neither Kon-yu nor King, though they might have been expected to, actually scours the lyrics for lines that they as feminists might disapprove of.

Objections on grounds of cultural hegemony do, however, touch on a valid point if one takes account of the linguistic geopolitics of both literature and popular music. Dylan is the 27th English-speaking Nobel literature laureate and the eleventh American to be awarded the Nobel (the US has now scored more laureates than any country but France), though he is the first US awardee since the (be it noted) black and female novelist Toni Morrison in 1993. Beyond that, it was predictable that if the Nobel was ever to go to a songwriter, it would be to a songwriter in English. Dylan’s international prestige as singer-songwriter reflects not only his (remarkable) merits, but also the dominant position of Anglophone popular music worldwide. The extent of that phenomenon is sometimes exaggerated, but however large the domestic audience of, say, Indian or Chinese popular music, they are not genres with a global projection. The only living singer-songwriter from anywhere in the world other than Dylan who might conceivably have received the Nobel was the late Leonard Cohen (though history has now decreed otherwise), who was Canadian. Cohen died on 7 November 2016. Going into the past, there could have been a case for Belgium’s Jacques Brel, Portugal’s José Afonso or Chile’s Violeta Parra, all singer-songwriters influential beyond their own language communities. However, today it would be difficult to think of a living non-Anglophone songwriter having anything like the global projection accruing to Bob Dylan. In that respect it may be legitimate to see this Nobel as transmitting unequal power-relations, but Bob Dylan did not create that and the circumstance should not detract from the deservedness of his award.

IV

There is a vital aspect of Dylan’s career that transcends ideology. It may reasonably be claimed that if there is a key value that Bob Dylan represents, it is artistic freedom – and it may be here, rather than in any individual song, that he has best fulfilled Alfred Nobel’s requirement of an ‘ideal direction’. Time and again across his career he has confounded his followers – abandoning protest song and going electric in the mid-60s, turning to country music in the late 60s and to religion in the late 70s, returning to acoustic folk in the mid-80s and, most recently, covering standards made famous by Frank Sinatra. The range of his songs’ subject-matter and of their language registers is remarkable, and Dylan may be seen as an artist who has explored American popular music from multiple directions, as well as enriching it by dialogue with the literary tradition. Artistic freedom as manifested by Dylan may be seen as emblematic of human freedom as such.

dylan-desire

One thing should be clear: there is no Nobel prize for music (maybe there should be), and Bob Dylan has been awarded the Nobel prize for Literature. Any judgment as to the deserving or otherwise nature of the award must, then, be based on the examination of Dylan’s written output (essentially, therefore, the song-texts). It cannot be forgotten that Dylan’s innumerable concerts form a huge part of his total artistic creation. However, from the point of view of the Nobel the concerts should probably be seen as back-up material, and qualitative analysis will best be concentrated on, first, reading the lyrics and, second, listening to the songs in their original studio versions.

For anyone who feels they have to justify the Swedish Academy’s choice to sceptical friends, I can only suggest that the best strategy is what Dylan himself has called ‘bringing it all back home’: to take it all down to the words on the page (or screen). A list of Bob Dylan’s best or most important song texts – to read first, and then listen to on record – might include, at least to start with from the world-famous to the obscure but meritorious, the following 40: ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ (1963), ‘Masters of War’ (1963), ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ (1963), ‘Bob Dylan’s Dream’ (1963), ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’’ (1964), ‘Ballad of Hollis Brown’ (1964), ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’ (1964), ‘With God on Our Side’ (1964), ‘Lay Down your Weary Tune’ (1964), ‘Chimes of Freedom’ (1964), ‘Gates of Eden’ (1965), ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ (1965), ‘Farewell, Angelina’ (1965), ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ (1965), ‘Desolation Row’ (1965), ‘Visions of Johanna’ (1966), ‘Too Much of Nothing’ (1967), ‘This Wheel’s On Fire’ (1967), ‘All Along the Watchtower’ (1968), ‘George Jackson’ (1971), ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ (1975), ‘Simple Twist of Fate’ (1975), ‘Hurricane’ (1976), ‘Isis’ (1976), ‘Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)’ (1978), ‘Every Grain of Sand’ (1981), ‘Caribbean Wind’ (1981), ‘Jokerman’ (1983), ‘I and I’ (1983), ‘Blind Willie McTell’ (1983), ‘Brownsville Girl’ (1986), ‘Man in the Long Black Coat’ (1989), ‘Shooting Star’ (1989), Dignity’ (1989), ‘Not Dark Yet’ (1997), ‘Things Have Changed’ (2000), ‘High Water (For Charley Patton)’ (2001), ‘Workingman’s Blues No 2’ (2006), ‘Forgetful Heart’ (2009), ‘Tempest’ (2012) – and there are many, many more.

V

The exceptionally high quality of Bob Dylan’s songwriting is beyond all doubt. He has coined phrases that have enriched the language and has redefined the boundaries between high and low culture. It is striking that the anti-Dylan camp are not, as might have been expected, resorting to doing the actual lyrics over to find fault with them: Dylan’s merits as songwriter seem to be a given even for opponents of his award. By looking in this article at the objections to his Nobel I hope to have helped better to establish the case in favour. However, in the end that case can only rest on Bob Dylan’s song texts, and in the wake of the Nobel, I invite those who do not know his songs to discover them, and those who know them to return to them – to read the words first, and then listen to the texts as sung. For as Dylan wrote in 1964, ‘I can’t think for you – you’ll have to decide’!

Note (11 November 2016): This article has been amended to take account of Leonard Cohen’s sad decease on 7 November 2016, so soon after he had hailed Dylan’s Nobel. 

THE WALTER BENJAMIN RESEARCH SYNDICATE: CYBER-REQUIEM FOR A SITE

Cyber-requiems can be poignant occasions, and I am indeed sad to have to draw the curtains on the Walter Benjamin Research Syndicate site, defunct as from August 2016, to which I had been a contributor since 2002 (indeed at one point I even functioned as its co-editor).

WBRS was founded by Scott Thompson from California. It had the distinction of hosting intellectually advanced and challenging writing on or related to the philosophy of Walter Benjamin, yet having no direct links to the academic world.

Despite (or because of?) this independence, WBRS proved a highly successful site, at its peak even frequently (in those pre-Wikipedia days) heading search results in Google for the philosopher’s work.  The texts it hosted were much quoted and cited by Benjamin scholars.

I add that my own article on Benjamin’s ‘Arcades Project’, which featured on WBRS for years as my most important contribution, is now rehoused:

  • Christopher Rollason, ‘The Passageways of Paris: Walter Benjamin’s “Arcades Project” and Contemporary Cultural Debate in the West’, in Modern Criticism, ed. Christopher Rollason and Rajeshwar Mittapalli, New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers and Distributors, 2002, pp. 262-296; rev. version, 2002, at: http://yatrarollason.info/files/BenjaminPassagesYatraversion.pdf

However, the fact that this my own text remains on-line does not affect the enormous loss represented by the disappearance of WBRS, a place in cyberspace which encapsulated the best of the fearless and independent tradition of intellectual inquiry of which Walter Benjamin is and will always be an icon.

WBRS has gone and can hardly be replaced – but the internet by its nature is in constant evolution, and my deep wish today is that other sites illumined with the same spirit will rise phoenix-like, to keep the flame of true critical inquiry burning in these our difficult times!

SALMAN RUSHDIE IN THE FRENCH PRESS: ‘A SECOND STATUE OF LIBERTY?

After one of his periodic silences, Salman Rushdie has returned to the fray of public debate, with the publication of the French translation of his latest novel, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights (Deux ans, huit mois et vingt-huit nuits, tr. Gérard Meudel, Arles: Actes Sud, 2016).

To coincide with the book’s launch, Rushdie has given two major interviews, to the weeklies Le Nouvel Observateur and Le Point:

‘Salman Rushdie : L’État islamique va disparaître’, interview with Didier Jacob, Le Nouvel Observateur, 25-31 August 2016, pp. 78-82 – http://bibliobs.nouvelobs.com/rentree-litteraire/20160824.OBS6805/europe-daech-trump-les-predictions-de-salman-rushdie.html

(subscribers only)

‘Rushdie: « Le sexe n’est pas le mal »’, interview with Michel Schneider, Le Point, 25 August 2016, pp. 50-54 – http://www.lepoint.fr/livres/rushdie-un-peu-partout-la-religion-s-infiltre-dans-la-politique-25-08-2016-2063631_37.php (subscribers only)

The Anglo-Indian author is treated with maximum respect by both publications and their interviewers: indeed, Le Nouvel Observateur dedicates its front-page photo to Rushdie, and goes so far as to call the now New York-resident writer an icon of freedom on a par with the Statue of Liberty : ‘Salman Rushdie a plus que jamais l’étoffe d’un héros, en ces temps où la liberté d’expression est partout menacée. Depuis qu’il s’est installé il y a 17 ans à New York, la ville compte une deuxième statue de la liberté’  (‘Salman Rushdie now has more than ever the stuff of a hero, in these times when freedom of expression is under threat everywhere. Since he moved to New York 17 years ago, the city has had a second Statue of Liberty’ – Didier Jacob, p. 79).

Rushdie Nouvel Obs cover

 

In the interviews, Rushdie, as the titles suggest, opines on subjects ranging from politics to sex, and expresses his satisfaction with his new opus, indeed describing it to Le Nouvel Observateur as his great American novel (p. 81). Inevitably, he also returns to the ‘Satanic Verses’ issue, making the rueful but by now familiar point to ‘Le Point’ that (the reader may deduce, thanks to bien-pensant cultural relativism and Western intellectuals’ abandonment of their own culture’s values), he would not receive the same support that he benefited from at the time: ‘I would be taxed with attacking a cultural minority’ (‘Le Point’ p. 52; here and elsewhere I retro-translate Rushdie’s remarks from the French text, though of course I am aware his original English may have read differently).

Rushdie repeats another of his well-worn positions, namely that race and religion are not the same thing and it is not racist to criticise any particular religion: ‘religion is a belief, skin colour is a fact’ (Le Point, p. 52). Rushdie’s admirers may here welcome his intellectual consistency and refusal to change his mind, but it could be argued that he is today in a minority among intellectuals in the west, though possibly more in line with non-intellectual public opinion.

It is noteworthy that on the question of race and religion Rushdie evokes the memory of ‘my much-missed friend Christopher Hitchens’ (‘Le Point’, p. 52). The respective lines of the late Hitchens and the very much alive Rushdie are indeed very similar, and it is curious that Rushdie should recall his friend on the eve of the canonisation of Mother Teresa – a figure on whose image of sanctity Hitchens carried out a remarkable demolition job in his book of 1995, The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice.

The secularist positions defended by Rushdie are likely to resonate more in France than in, say, the UK, given the continued strength – as demonstrated over the Charlie Hebdo issue – of secularism in French intellectual milieux (albeit France has its pro-censorship relativists too). Rushdie pulls no punches in his comments on ‘Charlie Hebdo’, dissociating himself from those fellow writers like Peter Carey who refused to support the French magazine (‘Frankly, I don’t understand their position’ – ‘Le Nouvel Observateur’, p. 82), and stating out loud that ‘the aim of the terrorists is to stop us thinking’ and that ‘the Charlie Hebdo journalists were killed in the name of Allah and to avenge the Prophet’ (‘Le Point’, pp. 50, 52).

The entire free speech issue – as I have earlier mentioned on this blog (entry for 3 August 2016) – has recently been raised with massive urgency by Oxford academic Timothy Garton Ash in his web-linked opus Free Speech. Meanwhile, with the iconic Salman Rushdie clearly in form and out to defend and promote his latest book, the evidence from these interviews is that anti-theocracy remains alive – at least in Paris, and New York.

CLAUDE DEBUSSY MEETS EDGAR ALLAN POE: THE OPERA OF ‘THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER’

Of all the composers who have been inspired by the works of Edgar Allan Poe in the canon of classical music and opera, by far the most important is Claude Debussy (1862-1918), immortalised as the composer of works such as ‘La Mer’, ‘Clair de lune’ and ‘Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune’ and of the opera ‘Pelléas et Mélisande’. However, the French composer’s (unfinished) operatic adaptations of Poe remain a relatively little-known part of his opus.

Matters have now been improved by the recent release of the double CD ‘Debussy: The Edgar Allan Poe operas’ (Göttinger Symphony Orchestra/Christoph-Matias Mueller, Pan Classics PC10342, 2016) – see Andrew Clements, ‘Debussy: The Edgar Allan Poe operas – an unfinished double bill heard at last’, The Guardian, 8 June 2016 – https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/jun/08/debussy-the-edgar-allan-poe-operas-review-an-unfinished-double-bill-heard-at-last; and: http://www.mdt.co.uk/debussy-the-edgar-allan-poe-operas-mueller-pan-classics-2cds.html.

Debussy Usher CD cover

Both operas were left unfinished by Debussy on his death. He worked on ‘Le diable dans le beffroi’ (based on Poe’s comic story ‘The Devil in the Belfry’) from 1902 to 1912, and on ‘La chute de la maison Usher’ (based on the far better-known ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’) from 1908 to 1917. For both, Debussy prepared his own libretto, taking as starting-point the celebrated translations into French of Charles Baudelaire (the booklet of the new release includes both librettos, in the original French and also in English and German translation). In the case of ‘Usher’, Debussy’s sketches amount to about half of the projected score. He intended to finish both projects, and his unrealised hope was that they would be premiered together as a double bill at the New York Metropolitan Opera.

The two recordings that make up this release have necessarily been completed by hands other than Debussy’s. The first completion of ‘La chute de la maison Usher’, by Carolyn Abbate, was performed at Yale University in 1977. A second completion, by Juan Allende-Blin, received its premiere two years later in Berlin; a recording of that version was released by EMI in 1984, with the Monte Carlo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Georges Prêtre. For the new release, the task has fallen, for both works, to the British ‘creative musicologist’ Robert Orledge, whose work thus marks the third completion of ‘La chute de la maison Usher’ and the first-ever of ‘Le Diable dans le beffroi’.

Of these two Poe/Debussy works, while ‘Le Diable dans le beffroi’ is clearly of interest for students of the minor Poe tale it springs from, ‘La chute de la maison Usher’ is by far the more important, and the rest of this post will focus on that recording.

The opera as completed lasts 55 minutes. It is divided into a brief orchestral prelude and two acts. Act 1 begins with Madeline singing the first stanza of ‘The Haunted Palace’ offstage, and continues as Roderick’s friend enters and converses with the doctor (who plays a greater role than in the original). The rest is compressed into the second act.

There are various significant departures from the original. Roderick evokes his mother’s death and confesses he has tried in vain to escape the house. He imagines himself pursued by sinister black-winged birds that suggest Poe’s raven. None of this of course is in the original, and conversely there is no mention of Roderick’s painting activities, or of his music other than ‘The Haunted Palace’. Of his favourite books, only one (Pomponius Mela) is mentioned, though ‘The Mad Trist’ plays the same role as in the original, albeit with the protagonist renamed Sir Ulrich. In Act 2, the narrative shifts rapidly from Roderick’s first appearance and account of his malady, to Madeline’s interment, announced to the visitor by the doctor. The closing scene follows the original quite closely, from the storm through to the return of Madeline and the dénouement, with Roderick’s despairing words, ‘Insensé! Je vous dis qu’elle est maintenant derrière la porte!’ (‘Madman! I tell you that she now stands without the door!’) taken unaltered from Baudelaire.

Despite the departures, the opera as conceived by Debussy and completed by Orledge may be considered a musical and interpretive success. The music sounds like Debussy (indeed like ‘Pelléas et Mélisande’), and both vocals and orchestration manage to communicate the strangeness, suspense and drama of Poe’s famous tale. ‘La chute de la maison Usher’ may be enjoyed as a valuable reading of and commentary on ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’. On the operatic stage as on the pages of the book, Roderick Usher perishes – but once again, translated to another medium, Poe the protean genius lives!

TIMOTHY GARTON ASH: THE DEFENCE OF FREE SPEECH IN THE INTERNET AGE

Timothy Garton Ash, ‘Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World’, London: Atlantic Books, 2016, ISBN (e-book) 978-1-78239-031-2; also available as hardback and paperback –

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Free-Speech-Principles-Connected-World/dp/1848870922/?ie=UTF8&tag=tgabooks-21

Garton Ash cover

Timothy Garton Ash is a reputed academic (holding the position of Professor of European Studies at Oxford University) and writer and journalist, as well as being a distinguished commentator on George Orwell. The last-named role is particularly befitting for his new book, ‘Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World’, which proves to be a publication of vital importance thanks to its epic coverage of an issue now rendered white-hot by globalisation.

This book is long (the print edition runs to 512 pages), and eminently of our time not only in its subject-matter but in its status as part of what the author calls our ‘connected world’. It does not come standalone: the lengthy notes section is replete with links, and the book is also explicitly tied to a website by the name of ‘Free Speech Debate’ (www.freespeechdebate.com), a multinational and multilingual online platform of which Garton Ash himself is the director.

We live in paradoxical times. Internet technology offers individuals and groups, subject only to access to communications facilities and to general and IT literacy, a totally unprecedented freedom to express opinions and disseminate creative works. At the same time, there is massive pressure worldwide, both political and ideological, for limits to be imposed on that same freedom, both online and offline. This pressure may take the form of, for example, systematic state censorship (Russia and China), religiously motivated restrictions (the Islamic world), or, in British and American universities, demands by militant students for ‘safe spaces’, ‘no-platforming’ and general protection from the expression of opinions other than their own.

The whole issue is a minefield, and Garton Ash does his best to navigate it, between affirming necessary general principles and examining particular cases in the requisite detail. He does so from a point of view which is avowedly liberal but does not seek to unilaterally impose a purely ‘Western’ concept of free speech (many of the cases he cites are not from the West at all). As he puts it, ‘This book lays out an argument for, and invites a conversation about, free speech in our new cosmopolis’. He is convinced that the answer to the problems he raises is ‘more and better free speech’, and advocates an attitude of ‘robust civility’ as the way forward. The ‘ten principles’ of the subtitle relate to: lifeblood (free speech as constitutive of humanity), [the rejection of] violence, knowledge, [the responsible practice of] journalism, diversity, [freedom of] religion [but also from religious censorship], privacy, [opposition to] [state] secrecy, ‘icebergs’ [a metaphor for issues of internet governance], and courage. This may seem a rather complex list, but it is still in evolution and subject to change on the website, and, as Garton Ash shows in riveting detail, the issues themselves are nothing if not complex.

On the level of detail, the book is notable both for what it does and does not home in on. Some may be surprised that Garton Ash refrains from detailed commentary on ins and outs of either the ‘Rushdie affair’ or the Charlie Hebdo killings – one could argue, justifiably since many others have already gone over those issues, central as they are, with the finest of combs. Meanwhile, though, the author sheds particularly useful light on other subjects as varied as the controversy over the ‘Innocence of Muslims’ videoclip, the nuts and bolts of China’s day-to-day controls over internet use and its army of censors, and the distinctively American but globally influential First Amendment tradition. On the latter point, the 45 words of the actual amendment text are at no point quoted as such, and here, one might argue, an opportunity has been missed to push home the oft-ignored point that the First Amendment covers not only freedom of speech but other liberties including freedom of religion, and that the chances of it ever being repealed are therefore slim in the extreme. As the book unfolds, the reader encounters a mass of data, both challenging and fascinating: we learn, for instance, that in 2011 a 75-year-old woman scavenging for firewood in a village in Georgia accidentally damaged a cable and brought down the entire internet in most of neighbouring Armenia for twelve hours, yet the woman herself had never heard of the internet – an episode emblematic of that very coexistence in today’s world of the ancient and the hypermodern that underlies many of the problems that Garton Ash raises.

I would be pleased if I felt I could predict that this book will become a modern classic, the latter-day equivalent of a founding text such as John Milton’s ‘Areopagitica’. However, that is unlikely to happen, since large swathes of its subject-matter are – by definition, and in the internet age inevitably – ephemeral and time-bound. A second edition would have to be substantially rewritten and would have to take account of technologies that do not yet exist. However, the larger project is by its nature ongoing, and when this book has exhausted its useful life the impassioned debate on its issues will still be in course.

Not all will sympathise with the author’s stance, and pro-censorship responses are to be expected as well as expressions of support – although, will hostile reviewers in the West actually go so far as to walk their talk and have their review censored by a suitable theocrat or relativist before they upload it? I would meanwhile suggest that Garton Ash’s opus should be considered required reading for anyone interested in free speech, but would also advise reading it sooner rather than later, before we are engulfed in new controversies whose contours we have yet to discern.

 

PORTUGAL AND THE ‘NEW HARRY POTTER’

The heat is on in the Potter world, with the play in two parts ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’ due to open in London today, 30 July 2016, and the ‘book of the play’ (a co-production of J.K. Rowling and scriptwriter Jack Thorne) going on sale the day after.

Joanne Rowling thus continues Harry’s story into his later life as an adult and parent, without breaking the letter of her promise that the seventh Potter book would be the last, as this is a stage play and thus belongs to a different genre.

For those who read Portuguese, on 23 July 2016 the Lisbon weekly ‘Expresso’ published an interesting article linking the launch with J.K. Rowling’s seminal (pre-Harry) time in Portugal, when she lived in Porto as an English teacher.

I am pleased and grateful to note that this article refers to a publication of mine on the same subject from 2003. Indeed, this is the second time ‘Expresso’ mentions that article, the first time having been in 2009. I believe I may mention this second citation, as times change and neither the Potter world nor the Muggle world are as they were in 2009! What is cited from my piece is the connection I suggested between the name Salazar Slytherin and the Portuguese dictator António Salazar: and as we know from the Potter books and from the world around us, dictatorship and totalitarianism in general are, alas, not going to disappear tomorrow …

**

Details and url for the ‘Expresso’ article:

Rui Duarte Silva, ‘Porto vai ter mimos para a geração Potter [‘Porto to flatter the Potter generation’], ‘Expresso’, 23 July 2016

http://expresso.sapo.pt/sociedade/2016-07-23-O-Porto-vai-ter-mimos-para-a-geracao-Potter

and for my own text:

‘An English Teacher in Porto: In Search of Joanne Rowling’, ‘Lingua Franca’ (Brussels), Vol. 6, No. 1, 2003, pp. 4-8; on-line with photos at:

http://yatrarollason.info/files/ROWLINGPORTOEN.pdf