Conference Interview: “New Approaches to Bob Dylan” - The TU Institute for Bob Dylan Studies
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Conference Interview: “New Approaches to Bob Dylan”

The “New Approaches to Bob Dylan” Conference is being held October 4-5 in Odense, Denmark. The Dylan Institute at TU recently had an opportunity to discuss the exciting conference with Professor Ann-Marie Mai, (University of Southern Denmark) who organized the event.


Bob Dylan Research Institute: This conference is being put on by the “Uses of Literature. The Social Dimensions of Literature” research project. Can you tell us more about this initiative and how it connects to Dylan?

Ann-Marie Mai: “Uses of Literature” is research project based at the University of Southern Denmark. Its mission is to develop new approaches and methods for exploring the social uses of literature. Drawing on both the humanities and social sciences, it seeks to offer richer accounts of what literature does and why it matters.  How do we capture the distinctiveness and dynamism of literary works as they move through the world?  How can we do justice to the diverse and often surprising ways in which people engage with texts and the many facets of aesthetic experience? In what ways do literary works speak to matters of concern, inspire attachments, weave affiliations, or forge collectives? Bob Dylan’s oeuvre is an inspiring and important part of our study. He is a songwriter, film maker, artist, performer and a poet whose work challenges the concept of literature and the theory of literature.

BDRI:  Leonard Cohen memorably quipped that giving Dylan the Nobel Prize was like “pinning a medal on Mount Everest for being the highest mountain” (The Guardian, link below). Many though, in various literary circles were stunned, perturbed, or otherwise taken aback at this commemoration, signifying a sort of discomfort with the blurring of disciplinary lines. Why do you think this event sent such a shockwave through the worlds of art, literature, and music?

AM: In my opinion, some literary scholars haven’t realized that literary culture and world literature have changed. The media of literature and poetry is no longer just books on a shelf. Today literary culture is characterized by its multi-mediality. To the artists and poets that is no problem; it seems to be a wonderful challenge. But some scholars prefer a specialization and division of art forms and genres. They seem disappointed or confused with contemporary art, literature and music. They don’t understand the change that started in Dylan’s youth and then shaped his music and songwriting.

BDRI: The conference mentions that you were one of the strongest advocates of Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize, and also that interest in the study of Dylan in the humanities has “increased dramatically” since he received this recognition. What do you think about the phenomenon of this sort of official literary “recognition” of Dylan’s work, and why does it take a medal such as this to give way to a deeper engagement with the literary value of a musician’s work?

AM: I think that Dylan’s Nobel Prize marked the emergence of a new understanding of literary culture and poetry in the academic world and that is why it is so important. In his presentation speech Horace Engdahl discussed what brings about the great shifts in the world of literature and mentioned how Dylan used popular culture to change songwriting. To me Dylan’s oeuvre shows how unexpected and surprising sources of inspiration matter to processes of innovation and creativity in art and literature.

BDRI: The conference is entitled “New Approaches to Bob Dylan,” indicating that a broader critical re-assessment has started. What were the “old” approaches to studying Dylan’s work, and how will this conference represent a better, new, and more exciting direction?

AM: Research on Dylan has been very interested in the relations between his life and his work, and source hunting has been going on for a long time. Many studies focus on how Dylan quotes other artists and poets and try to identify quotations. That is of course important – but we are also interested in the various uses of Dylan’s songs by fans and academics. How and why are fans attuned to Dylan’s lyrics? We are interested how his songs have helped listeners to recognize aspects of their experiences, and we ask if Dylan’s songs and artistic practices helped to change conceptions of what it means to be a poet. We need to move beyond close reading and traditional literary and cultural history to get a better grasp of Dylan’s significance as a poet, and we ask if new approaches such as actor-network-theory, affect studies, or related fields are useful.

BDRI: One of the discussions listed on the conference page is between yourself and Professor Rita Felski, and is concerned with what it means to be “attuned” to a work of art. What do you mean by “attunement” and why are Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan particularly good representations of this attunement?

AM: In her forthcoming book Hooked: Art and Attunement, Rita Felski proposes a concept of how one can feel attuned with a work of art. She emphasises that “attunement” is created when various things interact. The work of art needs allies, supporters and helpers if we are really to be seized. We do not go off into a special sphere to appreciate the art object in isolation from the rest of the world. Attunement is not a break with a social context or a withdrawal into oneself.  Instead, our experience of a work of art is shaped by the aid of many actors. At the conference, Felski will discuss the author Zadie Smith’s essay on how she came to feel attuned to Joni Mitchell’s songs. The essay describes the experience of attunement in a very subtle manner. I will discuss, for example, how Dylan describes his attunement to Brecht’s and Weill’s “Jenny the Pirate’s song” in Chronicles.

BDRI: What other contemporary artists (of any field, but especially music) might be better understood using this distinctive model?

AM: It would be interesting to study how people get attuned with musicians and songwriters like the experimental Lady Gaga – but also examine why and how attunement changes and grows for instance with one of Dylan’s favorites: William Shakespeare or with the Danish storyteller, Hans Christian Andersen, who is mentioned by the Swedish Academy as one of Dylan’s predecessors.

BDRI: Among the many impressive people listed on the program is Stephen Greenblatt, the prominent literary critic and Shakespeare scholar. Though other musicians draw material from aspects of the Western canon, it seems as if Dylan is much more often associated with highly canonized figures. In fact, Harvard Classics Professor Richard F. Thomas, author of Why Dylan Matters, teaches a class on Dylan in the same fashion as he would Virgil, Ovid, or Dante.

How do you explain Dylan’s relationship to the Western canon, and how does he exemplify or extend the project of monolithic figures such as Homer, Shakespeare, Dante, or Rimbaud?

AM: It is interesting to see how some of the most distinguished researchers of the classics are also interested in studying Dylan: there are several references to Homer and Ovid in Dylan’s text and he mentions Homer and The Odyssey in his Nobel lecture.  The interest of the researchers, however, is also an indication of the quality of Dylan’s work. The classics use songs and verses like Dylan, and dances might also have been part of the performance of their verses. Perhaps they were the song-and-dance-men of antiquity? As you study Dylan’s oeuvre you realize that is connected to the western canon and folk tradition in so many surprising ways. We are very lucky: There is no end to the study of Bob Dylan’s art!

BDRI: What is it about Dylan that causes us to continually draw these comparisons? Surely other singers in the folk tradition bear allusive resonance with various literary figures?

AM: He is simply the most interesting and influential artist of our time.

For more information, please follow this link to the conference website, to see a list of contributors and a full program.