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K. RAZI NAQVI | 19 DECEMBER, 2016

Nobel Prize in Literature: When the Falconer Cannot Hear the Falcon


Bob Dylan, who is never very articulate, was himself among those left speechless by the announcement that he had been chosen by the Swedish Academy as the winner of the 2016 Nobel Prize for literature. The presentation speech for the award, delivered by Professor Engdahl (a member of the Academy and of the Nobel Committee for Literature), finished with the following words (https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/2016/presentation-speech.html): “If people in the literary world groan, one must remind them that the gods don’t write, they dance and they sing. The good wishes of the Swedish Academy follow Mr. Dylan on his way to coming bandstands.”

It stands to reason that the gods of the frozen North, since they could not keep warm without dancing and singing (and drinking), left writing, which requires a stationary posture and a steady hand, to their kin living in the sunnier and warmer climes of Egypt. I am sure that when the deities of all the pantheons are sedulously evaluated, we would find that the data concerning the level of literacy of our gods and goddesses are too unreliable to warrant a definite conclusion. Not so, if we examine how many languages are represented in the list of poets and prosaists selected by the Swedish Academy.

We have had more than 25 Anglophone prizewinners, whereas 16 and 13 awards have gone to authors who wrote in French and German, respectively. Fair enough? The Nordic languages can boast of as many as 15 prizes (7 for Swedish, 3 each for Danish and Norwegian, and 1 each for Finnish and Icelandic); compare this with the 12 prizes for the Iberian languages (with Spanish getting all but one). Not a single author who wrote exclusively in a major Indo-Pak language has succeeded in charming the literary pundits who have had the privilege of choosing the recipients of the prestigious prize. Quel dommage!

I pause to remind the reader of some facts concerning Rabindranath Tagore, who won the literature Nobel for 1913. The announcement for his award provides the following details (https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1913/tagore-facts.html): “Prize motivation: "because of his profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse, by which, with consummate skill, he has made his poetic thought, expressed in his own English words, a part of the literature of the West". Field: poetry. Language: Bengali and English”.

The implications of the foregoing summary are too bleak to be ignored, but a proper discussion of the factors which account for the failure of the Academy members to become acquainted with the “native” literature of the subcontinent in the post Tagore period cannot be undertaken here. Leaving that task to the future (to myself or someone else), I return now to the 2016 prize.

Let us look at the English version of the press release (https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/2016/press.html): 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 clumsiness of the expression “for having created” and the vacuity of what follows this clutter justify my recalling a remark by George Orwell: “the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts”.

I cannot help feel that the phrase “new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition” is claptrap, for its meaning is not readily deducible. Is the “great American song tradition” greater than or distinct from its English counterpart? Sarah Danius, the permanent secretary of the Academy, is able to shed light on the issue (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/oct/13/bob-dylan-wins-2016-nobel-prize-in-literature): “We’re really giving it to Bob Dylan as a great poet—that’s the reason we awarded him the prize. He’s a great poet in the great English tradition, stretching from Milton and Blake onwards.”

Engdahl’s effusion goes a step further: “All of a sudden, much of the bookish poetry in our world [my italics] felt anaemic, and the routine song lyrics his [Dylan’s] colleagues continued to write were like old-fashioned gunpowder following the invention of dynamite. Soon, people stopped comparing him to Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams and turned instead to Blake, Rimbaud, Whitman, Shakespeare.” 


Engdahl might have been more cautious in condemning bookish poetry if one or two of the 18 committee members had widened their gyre a little, and been conscious that it behoves the falconer to hear the falcon; even in my small part of the world (limited to English, Urdu/Hindi and Persian), people are not speaking of the End of Poetry.

In choosing Dylan, the Swedish Academy succumbed to what is known among scientists as the “Matthew effect”, a term inspired by the Gospel according to Matthew, which says (25:29): “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.” The world bestows honour on those who are already famous. In the economic sphere, this phenomenon leads, as diagnosed by the Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal, to greater inequality through cumulative causation, helping wealthy nations to acquire more wealth at the expense of poor countries, which become even poorer.

Dylan, the songwriter and singer, has already been honoured and enriched by his fans. It is regrettable that the Swedish Academy could not find another great poet, not necessarily American, or even Anglophone. It is equally regrettable that Dylan has been an ardent supporter of Zionism for several decades (http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2016/10/bob-dylan-161020110227212.html; https://electronicintifada.net/blogs/michael-f-brown/bob-dylans- embrace-israels-war-crimes), and the added lustre of a Nobel prize will hearten his fellow supporters.

The views expressed by the Swedish Academy can be distilled in plain language as follows: “We think that Dylan is a great poet, and it is our opinion that counts.” I am beginning to fear that the next announcement, to be made in a tweet, will say “Literature Nobel to Trump for showing that Twitter is the best way of breaking news and making history, of Swiftly turning humans into Yahoos”.

I take credit for coining “Swiftly” from Swift, but acknowledge Donald J. Trump for introducing me (through television) to the word “bigly”.


The author is professor emeritus in the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (Trondheim).

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