Commentary. With Bob Dylan’s Nobel award, and Dario Fo’s before him, the institutions are acknowledging the political significance of popular literature.

The margin takes center stage

There is a deep poetic justice in the fact that the same day we lose Nobel Prize winner Dario Fo, Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. They are two atypical laureates, very different from the sometimes pompous tradition of the Nobel institution.

These two artists have changed our relationship with the word, by intertwining it with sound, voice, body, improvisation and performance. Because of this, they seem foreign in the literary establishment.

Furthermore, both Bob Dylan and Dario Fo sink the roots of their creativity in the world of popular culture: from Mistero Buffo to A Hard Rain’s-a Gonna Fall, they are the voices of the vagrants and the acrobats of the Italian countryside and the voices of black laborers in the Mississippi Delta and Depression vagabonds, from Blind Willie Johnson to Woody Guthrie. Through them, they occupy the center stage and become the new languages of modernity.

Alessandro Carrera, who today is the leading Dylan scholar and critic, said that Dylan’s work since 1996 is the largest modernist poem of contemporary American literature. He’s probably right. I’m closer, also for generational reasons, to the Dylan of the beginning, who was the voice of the times, our own voice in the ‘60s. And he has continued to be so, in other ways, even though he has shaken off the identities, responsibilities and roles that we have burdened him with.

The Dylan who changed the lives and feelings of that generation invented the language of the present and the future, and to make them resonate together with centuries of popular culture from which he had learned. He reread Robert Johnson through Rimbaud, and vice versa.

Antiwar songs were written and sung by the dozen every day. But none had the biblical resonances of the poet’s imagery: In “Masters of War,” he promises that “in the pale afternoon” — an adjective taken directly from the Apocalypse, but also dear to the gospel movement and Hank Williams — he’ll follow the coffin of the warlords and sit on their graves until he is certain they are dead. He does it by taking an old children’s song, recognizing the sense of the absurd, and transforming it simply with the use of a blues voice heavy with anger and sorrow.

In Dario Fo, the Nobel institution had recognized the profound seriousness of humor, farce and satire. With Bob Dylan, finally a whole world of popular arts, considered subordinate and inferior for too long, is being taken seriously. The margins are taking over the center. In its own way, it is also a political victory.

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