The Nobel Prize and Bob Dylan

I distinctively remember my school teacher telling a class full of students, including me, that Alfred Nobel created the Nobel Prize because he was so dismayed at people’s use of the dynamite – which he invented, for military purposes.

What he wanted to do, we were told, was create a safer way to handle the kind of explosives that are used in blasting and quarrying, not create a more efficient and convenient device for blowing up simple folk.

We do not even have to look into Nobel’s biography to know if this was true. A little bit of reasoning is enough. Nobel was a very smart person, it is unlikely it never occurred to him that people living in an age of fervent nationalism and religious extremism would not, of course, but resist using a dynamite to annihilate their enemies. After all, it only took so little time for the biblical Cain to find a deadly use for a harmless stone.

In fact, Nobel was in his time considered a war profiteer. Further inquiries into his life tell us that he owned a whapping 90 factories, whose only purpose was to produce various instruments of death and destruction. Now, if we keep in mind that Nobel meant the Prizes for those who, in his own words, “shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind,” then the fact that he was the one who had founded and financed this internationally recognized and prized award becomes exceptionally ironic.

The reason to why he did so – the circumstance under which the Nobel Prizes were created by Nobel – is even more amusing and worthy of slapstick.

In 1888, Nobel’s older, less smart, less famous brother, Ludvig, would die somewhere in France. This was still the 19th century, reporters of that time did not have the type of resources those of today enjoy (although this should not have been an excuse), and believing that the Nobel that died was the notorious creator of the dynamite, would publish a damning obituary with the heading ‘The Merchant of Death Is Dead’.

Reading this, the actual and not dead Nobel, would get a glimpse in to how future generations might remember him. He asked himself – is this my legacy? Not liking the answer, he set out to change that contemporary image of himself. Upon his will, he stipulated that the vast majority of his fortune be set up to form the Nobel Prizes. In other words, the revered award ceremony was established, not because its founder wanted us to celebrate human decency or achievement, but because he did not want us to think so badly of him. And this is why J. Robert Oppenheimer, scientific director of the Manhattan Project, never became a Nobel laureate.

But time moved on, most forgot the above strange and factual anecdote, and the Nobel Prize, like all great inventions (the social media, automobile), and took on a life of its own. The winners became hugely influential and the awards actually became a matter of national (and even continental) pride.

One man is probably not even phased by having won the award, though. He undoubtedly considers the whole phenomena overhyped and nonsensical. And especially so, if he ever found out why the award was created.

Bob Dylan won 2016’s Nobel Prize for literature, which is strange because Dylan is not even an author. But why he would win the award is obvious – the Nobel Prize is trying to be more inclusive. And, given the fact that the winners of the award for achievements in chemistry went to a trio of scientists that came up with ‘nanomachines’, and that Dylan is a musician, it could be said that the prizes are trying to become more stylish, which is again a bit strange because Dylan is 75 years old and unknown to most of the younger generation.

But that is beside the point, especially for someone like Dylan, who lived in his own world, much like Charlie Chaplin’s tramp character. He is more interested with his own version of the world than the one he actually inhibited. His songs are long and sprawling, some might even say epic. His voice is odd – rugged, unfocused and sharp. His guitar playing is not showy, and would not hold up if contrasted with that of acclaimed rock guitarists like Jimmy Page or Hendrix. But the Nobel Prize could not care less, what won the judges over was Dylan’s avant-garde lyrics.

Dylan may not be a published author (except for some memoirs), and lyrics may not actually be literature, but those of Dylan are considered by many to be poetry. His songs are surreal, sometimes funny, other times sad, mostly allegorical and always ambiguous. His lyrics were actually modeled after ballads, and his melding of this type of folk songs with the influences of rock was revolutionary. More than everything else, his lyrics have not become clichéd, most probably because no one can understand him enough to imitate him.

What do I, an Ethiopian, know about the great Dylan? Furthermore, what could local musicians learn from this very inimitable singer? Ethiopian songs rarely contemplate alienation, sadness, politics, transience or even breakups. They are more concerned with crushes (not even love), parties and patriotism. They feel repetitive and cheap. And I sincerely believe that a musician could learn so much from listening to some of Dylan’s songs.

But then again, however fantastic the man’s songs might be, are they actually Nobel worthy? As Alfred Nobel was especially emphatic about creating an award ceremony for those that benefited humanity most, can it be said that a musician fulfills this criterion? I am not sure, but listening to one of Dylan’s more popular songs – It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) – he probably could not care less whether or not an award created by someone like Nobel considers him noteworthy.

By Christian Tesfaye
Christian Tesfaye is a Film Critic whose interests run amok in both directions of print and celluloid/digital storytelling. He could be reached at

Published on Oct 25,2016 [ Vol 17 ,No 860]



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