The Joker and the Thief

As Bob Dylan wins the Nobel, SHOBANA MATHEWS who studied his work for her M.Phil. thesis, writes about why his lyrics make for inspiring literature

Updated - December 01, 2016 05:52 pm IST

Published - October 14, 2016 02:51 pm IST - Chennai



In 1993, Shobana Mathews started work on an unusual MPhil thesis at the Madras Christian College: Bob Dylan. She submitted her research titled, Folksong as Poem: A critical study of the lyrics of Protest folk singer Bob Dylan and got her degree in 1996.

An Associate Professor at the Department of English at Christ University, she is currently finishing a Ph.D. on Mark Knopfler. “It’s got a fairly complex title,” she chuckles: Towards reading song in performance as aural narratives: A study of spatiality in the works of Mark Knopfler.

Explaining why she chose these topics, she says, “Literature began as an aural/oral tradition. Poets spoke: people listened and responded. Over the years, academia has separated musicology from the written word. This is my humble effort to put these two back together.”

She says she chose Dylan specifically because of his lyrics. “Though he claims he isn’t often aware of literature and artistic trends, his writing is heavily influenced by the literary greats. That’s what literature should be: unassuming writing that conveys great ideas.”

Reportedly one of “Bangalore’s most popular teachers” according to social media (where she even has her own memes created by admiring students), Shobana’s Facebook has been abuzz with congratulatory messages ever since Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Her most popular post so far? A picture of the cover of her dissertation on Bob Dylan, with the comment “I told you so.” And she did it 20 years ago.

She writes a piece for MetroPlus on her fascination with Bob Dylan:

When I chose to do a term paper on Bob Dylan for my BA, my research supervisor instructed me as sternly as she could that this was not to be a ‘fan outpouring’. That counsel haunted me over the following decades. Armed with cassettes, Walkmans and headphones, I set out rather defensively to listen, read and write.

I am no musician, yet I longed for a strategy to ‘read’ these songs in performance. That thirst spurred me on to further research.

I believe literature must ‘tease us into thought’. I also believe that this happens only when the mode of telling is crafted carefully to do just that. Devices and techniques are as plenty as the thoughts and emotions we have. We look to the artiste to tell the truth, yet to ‘tell it slant’. And in the process, he must entertain. Dylan did this in almost every song that I’ve heard . He followed balladic conventions with ease and patient commitment. His voice is the perfect blend of subtle irony, world weariness and mocking humour. In Dylan, I heard what I perceive as vital traits of an artiste: to respect form, yet be unrestrained by it.

Dylan, to me, has been a personal philosopher. His commitment to writing does not appear as topical as it could immediately seem to casual listeners. His commitment seems to be the central notion of freedom. He often denies being even aware of issues and movements that claim him as champion of their cause. While that may seem uncaring, one also sees that he embodies the artistic detachment so necessary in the pursuit of truth. He refuses to be tied down. Which sets me thinking of artistic responsibility. Should an artiste be preoccupied with events and issues or absolved of that role of documentation? Or is the sheer ability to respond in a rather irresponsible world the artistic burden?

It is fascinating that he has refused to allow himself to be fixed ‘in a formulated phrase’ by critics and fans alike, and carefully avoided categorisation (‘he’s nobody’s child, the Law can’t touch him at all’). He resists labelling, thus keeping the possibilities alive. However, he has also given his audience the greatest gift of all… freedom to read his songs in their own contexts, evident from the number of movements across the world where his songs have inspired those in search of freedom.

Christopher Hitchens, writer and rationalist, cites Dylan as one of his favourite musicians. Like Hitchens, Dylan’s is a preoccupation with what is really wrong with the world today, that so few of us are really free. Often his titles are almost aphoristic. They capture an entire process of anger and frustration in their irony. Or they simply point out truths we often choose not to see. So if his lyrics are often apocalyptic, he is the seer.

Joan Baez wistfully reminisces

‘You burst on the scene

Already a legend

The unwashed phenomenon.

The original vagabond’.

To me, this captures this Nobel. Always a legend, he now bursts onto the uncomfortable academic world, which is not quite sure whether to allow him to ‘stray into their arms’ or politely ignore him. To study him academically might be to run the risk of sanitising him and stabilising him within pedantic structures. A dilemma I do not wish on many!

He embodies for me, the joker and the thief who is the true artiste, ‘stealing’ or reclaiming thoughts and living on the fringe, seemingly oblivious to society. A modern-day Diogenes of Sinope, if ever. He has the immunity of the joker and the fleetness of foot of the thief.

Hermes of the road, his ability to move intellectually and artistically makes him the agent of disruption we need today.

Social media has given hordes of us a platform to speak out on, and also unfortunately absolved us of the need to be critical. Perhaps, now more than ever, we need this voice of reason, providing an aesthetic of dissent, and fulfilling Dostoevsky’s hope-filled claim that ‘beauty will save the world’.

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