Knock, Knock, Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door (Why Bob Dylan Should Have Been Refused Admittance to the Nobel Prize for Literature)

This is a blog that tilts at windmills.

No, Bob Dylan does not deserve the Nobel Prize for Literature.

The dust has settled, the hoax articles about Dylan refusing the Prize have all been written and debunked, and still I haven’t changed my mind—I don’t think Dylan deserves this most widely acclaimed (the Nobel!) of literary awards.

It’s not about Dylan, who’s a great songwriter and maybe even a poet. Not just Dylan, but no writer who writes in a European language deserved the Prize this year. Or last year. Or will deserve it next year.

Let’s keep it short and not sweet. Let’s just say no one writing in a European language deserves the prize more than once every five years. Let us say that for four years authors writing in Tamil, Gikuyu, Arabic, Hawaiian and other such languages should receive the Nobel. And in the fifth year, maybe, someone writing in a European language—but preferably from somewhere outside Europe and North America—should be considered.

Follow this practice for thirty years, or even just twenty, and you might begin to redress the grave poetic injustice perpetrated by the Nobel—I mean the grave injustice of giving the prize year after year to writers who not only write in European languages, but are from Europe or North America, as if only these writers and these places count. Follow this practice rigorously and you might begin to change the notion that only literature written in European languages and carrying aesthetic values produced and nourished in the soil of these languages is worth recognition.

Let me be clear—this is not identity politics. It is not about every nation or race getting its due. Forget nations, forget races. Knock, knock, knock on the door that leads you to the materiality of languages, literatures and histories. This is a door that Mr. Nobel Prize knows nothing about.

My point is ultimately about languages dying across the globe, and along with them literatures—in the plural—too. My point is about literary traditions and cultures being lost, replaced by the monoculture of English and of the world literature idea (as if all cultures have or should have only one idea of literature, the world literature idea). My point is about the literary monoculture for which Mr. Nobel Prize, blissful in his ignorance, stands.

Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing inherently wrong with English (or any other European language). Indeed, English is the language in which I work primarily, whether I am writing fiction or criticism. I have read my Shakespeare and loved him. I have read and loved my Toni Morrison and my R. K. Narayan and my Nadine Gordimer too.

I am not arguing for the inferiority and inadequacy of English. Rather, my concern is (for example and only as example) that the language of Tamil will become extinct; and even more so, for the language is currently thriving, that associated Tamil aesthetic sensibilities and literary cultures will go the way of the much-mourned dodo. Even if the language survives, what guarantee that the literary culture nurtured by it for millennia too will? No doubt some of this literary culture—the patriarchal, casteist part—should die; but does that mean that the literary culture as a whole should be replaced by a sad imitation of the metropolitan literary culture of English and Mr. Nobel Prize?

No, Mr. Dylan does not deserve his Nobel. And in point of fact Mr. Nobel Prize does not deserve his outsized influence either. After all, Mr. Nobel Prize does not care a whit about Eurocentrism. He is both (it is complicated) the master and the servant of power, and will not change until the global currents of cultural power do.

So, forget petitions and pleadings and fulminations. This is a blog that tilts. Begin with the daily work of writing, thinking, teaching, arguing, alternative institution building and, yes, tilting, albeit at windmills. The tilting at windmills, you see, is just practice. As the so-called European Aristotle noted, “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.”


My Playlist, with Annotations and YouTube Links (The Music of the World is on My IPod, But There Is No World Music)

Here are five representative tracks from my iPod (with YouTube links):

1. Harris Jayaraj, Vaseegara

Everybody knows A. R. Rehman (of Slumdog Millionaire infamy) but Harris Jayaraj is another master of contemporary Tamil film music—soulful and super melodious. Another track of his I could have listed as a favorite is June Ponaal from Unnaale. (If you follow the link, try to ignore the video.)

2. V. Doreswamy Iyengar, Dasara Pada: Pogaadirelo Ranga (Raagam: Shankarabharanam)

The music of my childhood. Classical South Indian music. Idli, sambhar, and coconut trees. Except that the purity of sound produced by Doreswamy Iyengar’s veena defies all cliché.

3. Cheikh Lo, Né la Thiass

Senegalese music with cross-Atlantic touches of jazz and blues. The Black Atlantic sounded out in musical notes. Years ago, I heard Cheikh Lo in Dakar in a club owned by Youssou N’dour. The performance started at 11 PM and ended long past midnight. Wondrous.

4. Bob Marley, No Woman No Cry

Enough said.

5. The Byrds, Mr. Tambournine Man

If ever a cover could rival an original, this one does. A sunny and deceptively naïve rendition by the Byrds of a Bob Dylan classic. Marriage of American moods with the imported sounds of Swinging London that becomes a complete reimagination.

So there they are; but, should I want to, how should I classify them? Perhaps the only truly discernible pattern of my playlist is a highly personal one—one that reflects my personal biography and tastes—but what if I (or you) wanted to look for meaning beyond the idiosyncrasies of the personal?

We like to make comparisons, to look for patterns, to discern design. There is no avoiding this impulse, for it might very well be that all knowing is pattern recognition (though I will leave the final word regarding this to cognitive psychologists). It might, then, be tempting to call (some of) the tracks on the list World Music—as in the section of a music store all the way at the back in which you might find the first three artistes, for example.

Let’s not. World Music, perhaps even more than the similar sounding World Literature, is a sales gimmick—a classification through which music corporations set out to create a market for music that does not in their opinion easily fit into popular existing categories. The challenge for us—as opposed to the corporations—has always been to find ways to talk about the world without reducing it to formula. The world is not formula. Certainly, I have the music of the world on my iPod, but there is no World Music, a designation as absurd as World Literature (about the indubitable absurdity of which I have written at length elsewhere).