Literary Review

Literature as performance

I often go back to those provocative years in the 60s; to Bob Dylan’s music, to Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Star Spangled Banner’, to Jack Kerouac’s On the Road or Ken Kasey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest; supreme examples of freedom for a whole generation. Janis Joplin, Joe Cocker, Joan Baez, they all appear before my eyes for their immersion in the belief of a revolution that would undo authoritarian systems that smother not only creativity but intellectual freedom and self-belief. It was a test of whether people of our generation really believed in one another and the world we were struggling to create.

Dylan’s music resounds with the pervasive disharmony generated by the Vietnam War along with a commentary on the civil rights movement expressed in a voice that is inimitably his: ‘ As majestic bells of bolts struck shadows in the sounds/ Seeming to be the chimes of freedom flashing/ Flashing for the warriors whose strength is not to fight/ Flashing for the refugees on the unarmed road of flight/ An’ for each an’ ev’ry underdog soldier in the night/ An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.’

Sung with an acoustic guitar that then dismayed the purists, his music is steeped in rhythms that are moody and heavy, a tightly constructed rhetoric that fuses the oral tradition with politics and aims to stir his fellow-countrymen with a sense of history.

Such music with a predilection towards politics is born out of a necessity to intercede in human history, and embrace the deepest needs and aspirations of the dispossessed through a rendition of the seething events of the time. Moving between private loss and public crisis, it enables people to live in political history. Every line becomes a burst of passion expressed in the poetry of war, of hunger, of fierce desire: ‘ I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest/ Where the people are many and their hands are all empty/ where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters/ where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison,/ Where the executioner’s face is always well hidden…

Winning the Literature Nobel has generated a lot of controversy around Dylan, but I can only think of the roaring 60s. I remember the exciting times when we sat around the fire in winter singing Simon and Garfunkel and Bob Dylan. We debated deep into the night the people’s movements that were drawing in not only intellectuals but also youth from all over the world, who opposed authority, demonstrated against the Vietnam War, or stood up for civil rights through non-violent anarchy. The fundamental concerns of Dylan’s music evoked a deeply felt sense of history in us and offered hope: ‘Yes, n, how many times must the cannon balls fly/ Before they are forever banned? The answer, my friend is blowin’ in the wind. The answer is blowin’ in the wind.’

I belong to a generation that lived and breathed the air where discussion, the love of learning, existential philosophy and the arts made life a bracing involvement. For me, Dylan epitomised the spirit and the energy of those times, times that held out enormous possibilities of a new tomorrow and a vision of change; not from the outside or by conquest but from within: There’s a battle outside/ And it is ragin’/ It’ll soon shake your windows/ And rattle your walls/ For the times they are a-changin.’

This is undeniably poetry for the ears. Perhaps no language is robust and honest enough except the one you sing in. The value of hearing poetry sung out loud is an experience that can humanise what so often seems abstracted and too prosaic on the page. Such poetry has consolidated Dylan’s music as a form of cultural production organised around an aesthetic ideology with recurring patterns of stylistic innovation that constantly fights for artistic freedom within the constraints of industry thereby shaking up rock with his raspy ‘snarl and drawl’. He is the supreme example of a pop-rock auteur, composer, lyricist, guitarist, vocalist... an icon of protest music at its best. The images and sounds created by Dylan go beyond the socially approved literature that is conventionally taught, in the words of Kerouac, “by pipe-smoking tweedy men in libraries.”

If in the last few days he has been elevated to the exalted status of Shakespeare, Homer or Sappho, so be it, for he has pushed the boundaries and has been the raconteur of our times. The award is a recognition that literature is about more than highbrow elitism. The value and influence of overlapping genres becomes his novel contribution, a forerunner of a more expansive field from where future Nobel laureates will be drawn.

Shelley Walia is professor and fellow, Department of English and Cultural Studies, Panjab University, Chandigarh.

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Printable version | Nov 30, 2020 2:13:21 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/Literature-as-performance/article16437583.ece

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