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Mystery, Manners, and the Rediscovery of Great Literature

May 20, 2019


Several years ago, Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. While many, including Dylan himself, found it a bit odd to honor a folk singer with the premier prize for literature, there it was. After a curious gap between the committee’s breathless announcement and Dylan’s reluctant acceptance, the seventy-five-year-old artist reflected on just how much his writing was born out of his studied immersion in folk music and the budding progenitors of rock and roll including Buddy Holly, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, and the New Lost City Ramblers. Dylan would elaborate,

I had all the vernacular down. I knew the rhetoric. None of it went over my head—the devices, the techniques, the secrets, the mysteries—and I knew all the deserted roads that it traveled on, too. I could make it all connect and move with the current of the day. When I started writing my own songs, the folk lingo was the only vocabulary that I knew, and I used it.

In a few words, folk music became a part of his marrow. But then he went on,

But I had something else as well. I had principles and sensibilities and an informed view of the world. And I had had that for a while. Learned it all in grammar school. Don Quixote, Ivanhoe, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, Tale of Two Cities, all the rest—typical grammar school reading that gave you a way of looking at life, an understanding of human nature, and a standard to measure things by. I took all that with me when I started composing lyrics. And the themes from those books worked their way into many of my songs, either knowingly or unintentionally. I wanted to write songs unlike anything anybody ever heard, and these themes were fundamental.

Dylan’s speech would continue with a whirling exegesis on three of the most influential books—all classics—in his life: Moby Dick, All Quiet On the Western Front, The Odyssey. Now, I don’t know anyone who is reading these novels in grammar school (which is generally considered Kindergarten through eighth grade) anymore. And, sadly, there is hardly anyone anywhere who is reading them at any age, unless so compelled by some witchy, fun-hating college professor.  I also have a running joke with the college and medical students whom I teach: 

Me: “Did you read Hamlet in ninth grade like I did?”

Student (beaming): “Yes!”

Me (frowning): “That means you never really read it.” 

This is not to discourage or insult. However, it is intended to point out that the enduring wisdom of classic literature is often lost on students reading unapproachable language without life experience under time constraints only to write an essay for a “guess-what-I’m-thinking” professor. Flannery O’Connor once observed, 

I once went to a high school where all the subjects were called “activities” and were so well integrated that there were no definite ones to teach. I have found that if you are astute and energetic, you can integrate English literature with geography, biology, home economics, basketball, or fire prevention—with anything at all that will put off a little longer the evil day when the story or novel must be examined simply as a story or novel.

In many high school or college venues, the process of teaching literature has been reduced to performing cold and soulless vivisection on the most vibrant, engaging and instructive of stories. And what is the result? A corpse—a cold and soulless story—is left on the table, likely never to be approached again by the disillusioned student. John Jay Chapman captures the essence of this tragedy when describing what has become of William Shakespeare’s brilliance when many a teacher is through with him: “Many a lad has known less about Shakespeare than he did when the only phrase he knew was ‘Anoint thee, witch’—and he didn’t know where that came from. Now he can write the etymology of the words on an examination paper; but the witch herself has vanished. Information is the enemy of poetry.”

But this wasn’t the case for Bob Dylan. The sweep and verve, the agony and ecstasy of an obsessed sea captain, an anguished young soldier, and a homesick hero sprang off the pages at him. They were companions that challenged him to thoughtfully consider them, to be changed by them, to tell their story but in a different way. They possessed him and his music because obsession and anguish and homesickness are all parts of who Bob Dylan is. And we listen to Dylan spin the story anew because they are part of who we are too. 

In our age of scientism, with our distasteful and delusionary sense that technique, efficiency, and hard work will demystify everything, the experience of literature is essential. After reading a critic’s analysis of Shakespeare, G.K. Chesterton puckishly noted, “I hasten to say that the [scholar] is very learned and I am very ignorant. I do not profess to know much about Shakespeare, outside such superfluous trifling, as the reading of his literary works.”

Science can explain, but never in total. How will we ever plumb the depths of love? With a paper on neurotransmitters? How will we ever fully comprehend the comforts of loyalty and the heartbreak of betrayal? With colorful PET scans of our brains? During the Enlightenment, certain thinkers assured us that morality would soon be fully defined and predicted using mathematical equations. To borrow from an ill-sourced but brilliant quote, “Some ideas are so absurd than only an intellectual would believe them.” 

We must read and experience. We must open ourselves to mystery that will not be fully explained this side of the grave. We must welcome the contributions of science without being limited by them. After all, we are not simply material beings; we are souls of ineffable depth greater than our constituent parts. Flannery O’Connor, in her brilliant essay The Teaching of Literature, recognized,

It is the business of fiction to embody mystery through manners, and mystery is a great embarrassment to the modern mind. About the turn of the century, Henry James wrote that the young woman of the future, though she would be taken out for airing in a flying-machine, would know nothing of mystery or manners. James had no business to limit the prediction to one sex; otherwise, no one can very well disagree with him. The mystery he was talking about is the mystery of our position on earth, and the manners are those conventions which, in the hands of the artist, reveal that central mystery. 

Let us revisit the creations of the great artists and meet them anew: Hamlet and Anna Karenina, Sebastian Flyte and Elizabeth Bennet, Aloysha Karamazov and Dorian Gray, David Copperfield and Kristin Lavransdatter. Let us think but even more let us feel. Let us, with fear and wonder, embrace their nature even as we begin to embrace ours. 

Once upon a time, thanks to a grammar school teacher, Bob Dylan allowed the mystery and manners of literature to penetrate deep into his soul. 

Shall we?