By Edmond Y. Azadian
Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature last week, winning accolades and stirring controversy.
“Now, Mr. Dylan, the poet laureate of the rock era, has been rewarded with the Nobel Prize in literature, an honor that elevates him to the company of T. S. Eliot, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Toni Morrison and Samuel Becket,” wrote the New York Times.
But the questions raised were about the definition of literature. Does songwriting amount to literature? It seems that the Swedish Academy has redefined what constitutes literature and has given a strong yes as an answer. Any means through which a creative mind touches the human soul deserves to be recognized as literature or art.
Billy Collins, the former United States Poet Laureate argued that Mr. Dylan deserved to be recognized not merely as a songwriter, but as a poet. As well, literary scholars believe that Bob Dylan is a literary stylist, especially based on the Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan, a compendium published by Cambridge University Press, with 17 essays by scholars from Yale, Carnegie-Mellon, the University of Virginia, and so on.
Throughout his career as a songwriter, Dylan has outgrown his vagabond troubadour status to elevate his art to a more sophisticated and unique level. His topics touch all aspects of the human condition and his moral strength has led him to stand up for some political causes, no matter how risky they may have proved to be for his career. He is especially celebrated for his campaign against the Vietnam War, calling it an immoral act. His erudition is revealed in deceptively simple songs in which he references French poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine, as well as the American Ezra Pound. In their daily lives, Rimbaud and Verlaine were no different from vagabonds.
The Swedish Academy credits Dylan with “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”
Dwight Garner further adds in a Times article that “This Nobel acknowledges what we have long sensed to be true: that Mr. Dylan is among the most authentic voices America has produced, a maker of images as audacious and resonant as anything in Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson.”
Bob Dylan was born in 1941 as Robert Allen Zimmerman, in Duluth, Minn., to a Midwestern Jewish family, but he climbed to the peak of his career in New York, through his championing human rights and anti-war ballads.
Has politics to do anything for his selection for the prize? The Academy, which awards the prize, has proven time and again that political considerations, sometimes, underlie its decisions. For example, during the Soviet period, political dissidents, more often than not, were selected for nomination: Boris Pasternak, Joseph Brodsky and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
Even the selection of Orhan Pamuk was a rebuke to Turkey’s brutal regime as Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai’s peace prize was a message to the Taliban who had tried to assassinate her.
The closest that any Armenians has come to receiving the Nobel Prize was Dr. Raymond Damadian, the inventor of the Magnetic Resonance Scanning Machine, but he was bypassed, triggering controversy.
Indeed, in 2003, the Nobel Prize for Medicine was awarded to Paul Lauterbur and Sir Peter Mansfield for their discoveries related to the MRI.
“If I had not been born, would the MRI have existed? I don’t think so. If Lauterbur had not been born? I would have gotten there. Eventually,” Damadian said.
The controversy continued in the news media for a long time to no avail, to be concluded by a statement made by philosopher Michael Ruse, who wrote that he believes Damadian must have been denied a Nobel Prize because of his Creationist views: “I cringe at the thought that Raymond Damadian was refused his just honor because of his religious beliefs. Having silly ideas in one field is no good reason to deny merit for great ideas in another field. Apart from the fact that this time Creation scientists will think that they are the objects of unfair treatment at the hands of the scientific community.”
If the chapter is closed on Damadian, the door may still be open for another Armenian celebrity, Charles Aznavour, who can favorably be compared to Dylan, who in turn has named Aznavour “among the greatest live performers.”
In 1988, Aznavour was named Entertainer of the century by CNN and users of Time online from around the globe. He was recognized as the century’s outstanding performer with nearly 18 percent of the total vote, edging out Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan.
During the De Gaulle era, France boasted of two Charles: Le grand Charles and le petit Charles.
Aznavour has inherited his skills in entertainment and singing from his parents. The breakthrough in his career came when he performed at the Moulin Rouge, with the legendary Edith Piaf, who encouraged him to pursue a career in singing. He is called the French Frank Sinatra and a “French pop deity.” He is a singer, songwriter, actor, public activist and diplomat. He has written 800 songs and recorded more than 1,200 in eight languages and sold more than 180 million records.
His popularity is not only based on his performances, but also his creative writing. His lyrics have contributed tremendously to the development of modern French poetry. His songs cover almost all phases of human condition: the vagabond (La Boheme), and many dramatic love scenes (Emmenez Moi), desolation of separation and aging.
As much as Piaf and Jacques Brel, and as a true chanteur in the French tradition, he has elevated the ordinary into art through words and music.
He has highlighted once taboo issues such as homosexuality, long before being gay was considered unremarkable, while it was still hidden away in dark corners. He has also been active politically, rising against the French right-wing political currents in France.
His philanthropic activities extend beyond Armenia to take on a global amplitude. His songs touch the most searing issues of the human soul. Thus, in 2013, he appeared with Ahinoaru Nini (Noa) in a concert, dedicated to peace, at the Nokia Arena in Tel Aviv. He has dedicated doleful songs to the 1988 earthquake in Armenia (Pour Toi, Armenie) and to the Armenian Genocide (Ils Sont Tombés).
It may sound ironic but touching the Genocide topic may prove to be counterproductive, given the Turkish political bullying lurking.
Aznavour, this diminutive man, stands tall at age 92, one foot in two centuries, to be seen and rewarded by the Nobel Committee for a staggering body of work.
That’s why we can ask: Why not Aznavour?