For the first time since 1993, an American has been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, and, for the first time ever, this award is going to a musician.
This October, Bob Dylan was awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature. Following the announcement, two whole weeks passed without a single word from the artist. No confirmation, no acknowledgement, no “thank you.” Instead, his refusal to say anything publicly about the award might actually be a refusal to accept. Adam Kirsch of the New York Times points out that “instead of declining the prize, he has simply declined to acknowledge its existence. He hasn’t issued a statement or even returned the Swedish Academy’s phone calls.” This remained to be the case for a full two weeks, until finally, there was news.
On October 28th, Dylan formally accepted. So, why did it take him two weeks to accept?
Two questions can be asked here. First, did his refusal to acknowledge have any connection to how we define literature? Second, did his refusal have any historical precedent?
During the first few days following the formal announcement of the award, the national discussion had been centered around whether or not Dylan’s songwriting could accurately be defined as literature. But Dylan’s initial refusal to acknowledge the prize raised a second and perhaps more important question. The new question still involves the definition of literature, but is now less related to whether song lyrics count and more related as to whether prizes corrupt.
To begin with, why would anybody refuse to acknowledge being given one of the most prestigious literary awards in the world? Specifically, why would an artist as universally acclaimed as Bob Dylan refuse? People know it is not because he has an issue with awards in general. He has accepted the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama in 2011, and has accepted a special 2008 Pulitzer Prize for “lyrical poetry of exceptional power.”
Dylan would not be the first to have a strangely negative reaction to the Nobel Prize. In 1964, the French writer and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre refused to accept the Nobel Prize for Literature. In his refusal, Sartre points out that “(once) the Swedish Academy has made a decision it cannot subsequently revoke it.” So even if a recipient, like Bob Dylan, chooses to refuse the prize, this does not revoke the awarding of the prize itself.
The reason that Sartre used to refuse the Nobel Prize, however, may give us a clue as to why Dylan might have continued his silence for two weeks. Sartre’s reason had less to do with the politics of the Nobel Committee or the politics of the Prize itself, and much more to do with the fact that, as a rule, he accepted no official awards and honors for one central reason. “The writer,” Sartre wrote to the Swedish Academy, should “refuse to allow (themselves) to be transformed into an institution, even if this occurs under the most honorable circumstances,” such as a Nobel Prize.
If Dylan’s refusal to acknowledge the award is anything like Sartre’s refusal to accept it, then the irony would be great. For over half a century, Dylan has been writing songs that stand as warnings about the very dangers of becoming institutionalized. Dylan, in other words, could have turned down the prize for the very reason he won it.
A final clue to Dylan’s two-week silence might also be found in his own words. What follows are the lyrics for the first verse and chorus of Dylan’s 1964 song, “It Ain’t Me, Babe.” He could just as easily have written it in 2016, and performed it for the Swedish Nobel Committee.
“Go ‘way from my window
Leave at your own chosen speed
I’m not the one you want, babe
I’m not the one you need
You say you’re lookin’ for someone
Who’s never weak but always strong
To protect you an’ defend you
Whether you are right or wrong
Someone to open each and every door
But it ain’t me, babe
No, no, no, it ain’t me babe
It ain’t me you’re lookin’ for, babe.”
By Tulsi Carroll