Thursday, October 27, 2016

Bob Dylan Revisited

The back and forth debate on Bob Dylan and the Nobel Prize in Literature keeps going on. I usually only refer to the New York Times to say how addle-pated they are, but Adam Kirsch has a pretty good take on the issue:
The Nobel Prize is in fact the ultimate example of bad faith: A small group of Swedish critics pretend to be the voice of God, and the public pretends that the Nobel winner is Literature incarnate. All this pretending is the opposite of the true spirit of literature, which lives only in personal encounters between reader and writer. Mr. Dylan may yet accept the prize, but so far, his refusal to accept the authority of the Swedish Academy has been a wonderful demonstration of what real artistic and philosophical freedom looks like.
According to Mr. Kirsch, Dylan's ignoring of the Nobel Prize is simply an instance of existential authenticity. Well, that's as good an explanation as any! We live in a world where, more and more, the institutions and mechanisms of bureaucracy define and delimit us. Big Data has our number and there is a regulation governing every possible action. As J. R. R. Tolkien said in a different context, this is impertinent and irrelevant. It is so heartening and refreshing when someone simply ignores the false authority of one of these institutions. It is particularly powerful when the institution is one that supposedly is entirely beneficial. What's wrong with the Nobel Prize in Literature? As someone said once, only race horses get prizes--or something like that! In other words, the very notion of awarding a "prize" for some sort of aesthetic or intellectual achievement is hopelessly corrupted by all the associated politics and fashion. If you go back and look at the composers and writers that were most honored with prizes in their lifetimes you encounter a list of desperately mediocre artists--so mediocre that they could be fully appreciated by their contemporaries. The list of those who refused prizes probably includes the more significant figures.

My favorite example is the great Russian mathematician Grigori Perelman who in 2006 was awarded the Fields Medal (a kind of Nobel Prize in Mathematics) which he declined saying: "I'm not interested in money or fame; I don't want to be on display like an animal in a zoo." In 2010 he was going to be awarded the Clay Millenium Prize for solving one of the thorniest problems in mathematics, the PoincarĂ© conjecture. Like the Nobel Prize, it comes with a cash award of one million dollars. He turned this down as well as other honors. I suspect that, no matter what he accomplishes in future, the powers that be will refrain from trying to give him further awards.

So let's listen to some music by that refuser of prizes (this one anyway), Bob Dylan, in a live performance of "Like a Rolling Stone":


Anonymous said...

Excellent post.

Perelman is one of my heroes. Not only is he a genius (a term often abused though not in this case) but a model of integrity for all others. He believes mathematics is, like music (he claims his true passion is opera, not math), a source of beauty to be revealed to the world by the experts -- not a source of enrichment and self-glorification. He's very much like Bach in that sense. And because of that attitude, he revealed his proof in dribs and drabs, with half-finished arguments, in the hope other mathematicians would fill in the holes so the whole thing would appear to be a collective effort with no one in particular taking credit for it. He had no particular interest in attaching his name to the proof. But then a group of Chinese mathematicians abused his trust by rushing to fill in the holes and then claiming credit for the proof while barely acknowledging his contribution. To its credit the mathematical community was incensed and quickly made sure that the credit was restored to Perelman. But the incident only confirmed his view that society was corrupt. He quit math and now spends all his time indulging his passion for opera (which in Russia can be done at low cost).

That said, I feel sorry for his mom, with whom he lives in a small, dinky apartment in Saint Petersburg. She could have used that one million dollars!

Some say he is a nut case. There's probably a bit of truth to that, but it also speaks poorly of our culture that turning down millions of dollars in the name of purity and integrity should be considered a sign of mental illness.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks for this fine comment filling in some context for us. I didn't know much of the story regarding the Poincaré conjecture. Perelman reminds me a bit of Grigory Sokolov, who also lives for the beauties of music, though makes a very good living at it!

I've been re-reading Proust lately and the kind of moral integrity that so many characters in the novel exhibit is very, very far above the very low levels of moral integrity shown by so many prominent public figures today.