Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize presents us with a nice puzzle

Instead of arguing on who is right, we should examine the opportunities the decision gives us.

This year’s Nobel Prize for Literature winner, singer and poet Bob Dylan. PHOTO | AFP 

BY JOSEPH KANYI THIONG'O

IN SUMMARY

  • Time for literary critics to come up with theories to analyse the lyrics of songs. The argument on whether a musician deserves the Nobel prize is taking on a fallacious direction as evidenced in what has appeared in the local dailies. Basing arguments on ignorance in querying the decision of the Swedish Academy will only plunge us into situations of false dilemma.
  • Those claiming that Dylan is worth the Nobel prize have defended their case by giving examples of the literary richness in some of his songs. Those opposed to the decision have defended their argument by citing what makes great works of printed literature.
  • While many literature scholars can explain the literary meaning in a written text, only a handful can competently explain the literary meaning conveyed in audio texts.

Some literature scholars imagine that there is ‘more’ literature in printed texts than in songs and oral poetry. This is only an assumption, and not a fact. The award of this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature to singer Bob Dylan has contested this old assumption.

Songs and poetry are not lesser genres of literature as many may have imagined. Some literary critics have applauded the Swedish Academy’s decision to honour a musician with the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Those opposed to this have, however, based their arguments on the choice of genre as a defining criterion for what defines a great work of literature. They appear to have held the view that long printed texts are greater literature because of their length. This is a wrong assumption.

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This fallacy is referred to as plurium interrogationum (loaded question). Such an argument combines two questions, treats them as one, and presupposes an answer to one side of the argument. For instance, person A asks person B if he has stopped telling lies. In case B says yes, he confirms that he has been lying. If he says no, he is acknowledging he is still lying. Loaded questions are based on unfounded assumptions. They consist of multiple questions in one. In this case the question does not allow B an option to say he doesn’t lie. It doesn’t explain who B has been laying to or the lies he has been telling.

The argument on whether a musician deserves the Nobel prize is taking on a fallacious direction as evidenced in what has appeared in the local dailies. Basing arguments on ignorance in querying the decision of the Swedish Academy will only plunge us into situations of false dilemma. Some believe Bob Dylan is worthy of the prize because they can interpret the literature in the songs. Others are saying no because the literature in a song, according to their observations, cannot be equated to the literature found in canonical texts.

There are great possibilities of discovering literary meanings in sound if we focus our interrogation on what exists in Dylan’s songs that informed the decision instead of arguing about whether the decision was right or wrong.

DEEP LYRICS

Those claiming that Dylan is worth the Nobel prize have defended their case by giving examples of the literary richness in some of his songs. Those opposed to the decision have defended their argument by citing what makes great works of printed literature. Those arguing against this decision are, however, silent on what makes a great song or a poem. This is a fallacious position based on a yes/no argument. The defence of their position is thus founded on an argument based on ignorance.

If length was the measure of literary greatness, lengthy works of prose such as War and Peace or Anna Karenina could have won Leo Tolstoy the Nobel. There is more to a literary text than length when defining its literary greatness. The measure of literary prominence has to do with brilliance and quality of literary knowledge that a text breathes. This has to do with the quality of new light the text sheds when rated in the scale of the existing knowledge at the time of its publication.

Long and short works that only restate what is common knowledge exist. Such works, regardless of their genre, do not attract a Nobel prize. Works that bring forth new philosophical thinking in the literary world attract the Nobel Prize regardless of the genre.

Literary works worth a Nobel create new ways of thinking. The decision to award the prize is not based on the length or the genre of the text, but the quality of thoughts and ideas that the artiste has contributed to the literary world.

While many literature scholars can explain the literary meaning in a written text, only a handful can competently explain the literary meaning conveyed in audio texts. Their argument could be the result of their inability to analyse literature in audio texts. Those opposed to the decision of the Swedish Academy may not be able to critique the poetic meaning in the sound of the saxophone, the guitar or the vocal cadence in the voice of a poet. This inability could result from applying the wrong analytical methods in their assessment of Bob Dylan’s songs.

The literary knowledge that exists in audio literary texts may, thus, call for new methods of analysing literary meaning in a song’s lyrics and melody. By applying the wrong theories, one may not find as much literature as they find in canonical texts. This will lead to a wrong conclusion on the depth of literary meaning that can be interpreted in a song. One used to critiquing printed texts may easily differentiate a metaphor from a simile but this doesn’t mean one can differentiate a delay from a reverb, an anamnesis from a turtini, a phonotonie from a rallentando, a dactyl from a trochee, or a cretic from a bacchius. These audio poetic devices define Bob Dylan’s songs.

AUDIO POETICS

These devices are, however, not unique to Bob Dylan’s music. They are common in songs of other musicians as well. The artistic genius in their application in Bob Dylan songs is what is uniquely a practice of poetics. These audio poetic devices function to create literary beauty, literary meaning and philosophical propositions discernible in a song.

Awarding the Nobel Prize to a musician has caught literary critics flatfooted in terms of a literary theory that can be applied to critique the literary richness in Bob Dylan’s songs. The Swedish Academy is not fooling the world in their choice for a musician for the award.

An award of the Nobel to a musician begs the question of how the literary academy has been critiquing literature in music. Wishing away this reality will not change this wake-up call. Studies on audio poetics can provide new perspectives that scholars can employ to see new meanings in a song’s lyrics and melody.

The Swedish Academy merits the award to persons who deserve because their works open new horizons in the existing knowledge. It would be a better argument to start probing the literary essence encompassed in Bob Dylan’s poetic songs that warranted a Nobel Prize.

Emergence of possibilities of greater literary meaning in music calls for the creation of new critical theories which can be applied to analyse literary meaning in the lyrics and melody of a song. A theory on audio poetics can aid how the literary critic meets sound as a literary text. The Swedish Academy has presented literary scholarship with a literary criticism puzzle. Literary critics should rise to the challenge.

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