FORUM CONTRIBUTION BY Anne-Marie Mai, University of Southern Denmark

Bob Dylan turns 80, still active and still the subject of controversy. The old songwriter, musician, and Nobel Prize winner is one of the world’s biggest celebrities; a riddle who prefers to surprise rather than to live up to the expectations of the audience or the media. His songs have long since become classics in the songbooks of the world. But have we grasped the challenges he has presented not only to his audience but also to the Humanities and to literary studies? Research in Bob Dylan’s oeuvre is a rapidly growing field, his archives are safe at Tulsa University in Oklahoma, and it is time to take a closer look at how Dylan’s work can renew the study of literature.

Bob Dylan does not seem happy when his songs are described as literature. He emphasized this when he received the Nobel Prize in 2016. In his “Nobel Banquet Speech,” he explained that he had never asked himself whether his songs are literature, and in his Nobel lecture, he ended up pointing out that songs are different from literature. They are meant to be sung, not read. Should literary scholars not simply keep their fingers off Dylan’s work and leave his songs to musicology? The question is, of course, rhetorical: the literary scholars and poets of the Swedish Academy should be proud to receive Bob Dylan’s thanks for answering a question he has never asked himself. After all, being able to ask a question that a genius of arts has not even thought of must be considered a sign of an intellectual capacity. 

In his Nobel lecture, Dylan tells the audience how, in addition to country and western, rock ‘n’ roll, and rhythm and blues, literature has been his spiritual baggage. He rounds up his lecture by a reading of three works that have been particularly important to him: Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Eric Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, and Homer’s The Odyssey. Dylan’s reading focuses on the voices of the texts, their many sources of inspiration, their plots, themes, and symbols. But it is also characteristic that he shifts his interest in what the texts mean to what they do. 

Literary studies have tended to treat Dylan’s lyrics as close-reading goodies. We have practiced interpretation and deconstruction on the lyrics, tracing their direct and indirect quotes and loans in long, learned lines, but perhaps we should learn from Dylan and look at what the songs do and what their creative potential for the audience may be. Perhaps we have overlooked that interpreting is fundamentally about creating a connection to the text, which is exactly what the audience has done for ages and what they still do when they review Dylan’s songs in social media and at digital bookstores, describing how they have been emotionally engaged in Dylan’s songs. One Amazon reviewer expresses how he has been moved by Dylan’s 2020 album, Rough and Rowdy Ways: “Dylan erupts with words that evoke feelings of confusion, chaos, anxiety, and our/his never-ending desire for love and meaning and purpose.” Bob Dylan’s songs encourage literary scholars to not only study what a work of art means, but also, as Professor Rita Felski has put it, to study what it does, what feelings it awakes, what relations to other people and other artworks it creates, and how it changes the literary culture. We should not leave out the intertextual studies of the text, the close readings, and the literary critique, but we also need to study what the songs create and how they are used.

Dylan’s lyrics are often a network of modernist and romantic imagery, of everyday speech, ballads, folk songs, classical poetry, slogans, and commercial language, and as such, his lyrics have contributed to changing literary culture, making a rich and experimental poetry known to a wide audience. Modernist poetry is with Dylan no longer reserved for academia, and its medium is not only the book, but also the album, the rock concert, the festival, and the movie. The contrast between high and low culture, which characterized the first half of the twentieth century, has been weakened. Something has changed, and Dylan’s contribution to the changes of literary culture seems important and interesting to study. 

Dylan’s memoir, Chronicles, Volume One, can also be seen as a call for new literary studies. The memoir questions a traditional understanding of artists’ autobiographies as stories of the man or woman behind the artwork. Dylan’s book is something different. It is more about the man with the songs, and it represents a biographical turn to the musical and artistic environments and events that gave Dylan’s art its direction. The main character of the story is Dylan’s own artistic process more than it is a story of his life, and it opens up new ideas in contemporary biographical studies, paying special attention to relationships between people, things, and circumstances and how they hook up, as Dylan has put it. 

It seems that digitalization has made the audience more eager to get backstage and meet the artist. The audience is fascinated with the intersection of the performative personality, interpretations of the personal life in media documentations, and the living person, as we have seen with Whitney Houston. A kind of biographical public media mist settles, and the artist might end up as a virtual zombie, a living dead, whose hologram haunts the world.  

As for Bob Dylan, there has been no shortage of stories about his personal life. New details emerge, old friends, colleagues, and supporters report. Dylan himself is mostly silent. And he has said that people ask him, “Are you who I think you are? Are you really him? No, you are not him?”, and these questions go on and on (Bradley 2003). But in Scorsese’s movie Rolling Thunder Revue (2019), Dylan takes part in the creation of a funny autofiction, where fictional characters and episodes become part of the story of the show. In Chronicles, destiny is often pictured as a feeling and a personal understanding but also as an outer unknown power. Perhaps this is a contradiction — but as Dylan sings in 2020: “I’m a man of contradictions and a man of many moods.” Which can, of course, be considered as another invitation to further studies.