“ … said the joker to the thief
There is too much confusion here
I can’t get not relief
Businessmen they drink my wine
Ploughmen dig my earth
None of them along the line
Know what any of it is worth”
Dylan’s silence so far about the award of a Nobel Prize for Literature resounds, like a perfectly placed rest in a musical piece, to great political effect. But what is he trying to say in this moment of silence reminiscent of the refusal of Sartre to accept the same prize in 1964?
The media coverage has focused on suggestions by representatives of the Nobel Foundation that Dylan is notoriously difficult, and “doesn’t like to take the stage alone”, or that he is “rude and arrogant”; which taken altogether might be read as an attempt to dismiss Dylan’s behavior as a sign of mental health issues (their usual pivot when confronted with non-conformist behavior). But perhaps there is more to Dylan’s silence than the “powers-that-be” are willing to admit? As Sartre himself observed, ‘Every word has consequences. Every silence, too”.
First, we should note that Dylan has read Sartre. In their book entitled, Another side of Dylan, Victor and Jacob Maymudes remember the following incident:
“Amidst the chaos, this guy asked Dylan if he had read Jean-Paul Sartre. Dylan replied that he had and then asked the guy, ‘Have you ever read Jean Genet’? The young man answered ‘yes’. Dylan shot back at him, ‘Yes. Yes, but have you really read him’?
Jean Genet’s book The Thief’s Journal, was dedicated to Jean-Paul Sartre’s quest for the “impossible nothingness”, which for Sartre represents our freedom. According to Sartre, in every act of critical thinking or revolution; humanity “secretes a nothingness”, and in this way we bring freedom into the world.
Is it then Genet’s thief that Dylan refers to in the song as the rider who storms the “watchtower” to free the women and “barefooted servants too”? Is Dylan’s silence pregnant with a similar sentiment of revolt? By saying nothing he plays the part of the Sartrean worm that niggles its way into our consciousness and forces us to act, for “Nothingness lies coiled in the heart of being – like a worm”.
At another level, perhaps Dylan’s silence signifies his concurrence with Sartre’s argument that the true artist prefers to let his work speak for itself. In his letter to the New York Review of Books explaining his refusal to accept the Nobel Prize Sartre says that: “A writer who adopts political, social, or literary positions must act only with the means that are his own—that is, the written word.”
This might be taken to mean that for Sartre and Dylan, the poet should remain above the fray, not taking sides; not taking his place along the ramparts of the watchtower with the other members of the ruling class as a poet laureate like Alfred Lord Tennyson, famous for proclaiming:
“Thiers not to reason why
Theirs but to do or die … “
And yet, all the while, the poet knows that he speaks most forcefully by indirection. As Adorno argues in his essay On Lyric Poetry and Society, “… the lyric reveals itself to be most deeply grounded in society when it does not chime in with society” So when the poet, like Dylan, gives us evocative imagery of peace in nature, as in the famous line, “how many seas must the white dove sail, before she sleeps in the sand”, he is in effect drawing our attention all the more pointedly to the realities of endless war, and the destruction of nature.
Whatever the case, let us hope that Dylan holds his rather thought-provoking silence; for, to take the money and honors bestowed by an arms manufacturer like Alfred Nobel or, as in the case of Bill Clinton, by an imperialist thief like Cecil Rhodes, is the worst form of compromise on one’s political integrity.