Thursday, October 13, 2016

Celebrating the non-belongers

Every year when Nobel Prize season swings around, I wonder whether Salman Rushdie will finally get the credit he deserves or whether the Swedish Academy will stick with a safer choice like Philip Roth or Margaret Atwood. So you can imagine my confusion this morning when I heard the winner's name on the radio:

Bob Dylan?

I keep trying to come up with something interesting to say about that choice but I find myself absolutely speechless. So instead, I'm taking refuge in The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Salman Rushdie's retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, a novel that follows a pair of rock stars to the heights of glory and the depths of despair. "The only ones who see the whole picture are the ones who step outside the frame," writes Rushdie, so let's step outside the frame for a moment and consider what Rushdie says about outsiders:

For a long while I have believed...that in every generation there are a few souls, call them lucky or cursed, who are simply born not belonging, who come into the world semi-detached, if you like, without strong affiliation to family or location or nation or race; that there may even be millions, billions of such souls, as many non-belongers as belongers, perhaps; that, in sum, the phenomenon may be as “natural” a manifestation of human nature as its opposite, but one that has been mostly frustrated, throughout human history, by lack of opportunity.

And not only by that: for those who value stability, who fear transience, uncertainly, change, have erected a powerful system of stigmas and taboos against rootlessness, that disruptive, anti-social force, so that we mostly conform, we pretend to be motivated by loyalties and solidarities we do not really feel, we hide our secret identities beneath the false skins of those identities which bear the belongers’ seal of approval.

But the truth leaks out in our dreams; alone in our beds (because we are all alone at night, even if we do not sleep by ourselves), we soar, we fly, we flee. And in the waking dreams our societies permit, in our myths, our arts, our songs, we celebrate the non-belongers, the different ones, the outlaws, the freaks.

What we forbid ourselves we pay good money to watch, in a playhouse or a movie theater, or to read about between the secret covers of a book. Our libraries, our palaces of entertainment tell the truth. The tramp, the assassin, the rebel, the thief, the mutant, the outcast, the delinquent, the devil, the sinner, the traveler, the gangster, the runner, the mask: if we did not recognize in them our least-fulfilled needs, we would not invent them over and over again, in every place, in every language, in every time.

And maybe that explains the invention of Bob Dylan as a Nobel laureate.


Bardiac said...

You know, when I saw your post, I immediately thought, but Rushdie's already a nobel laureate. Except you're right. He's not. Wow.

I'm pretty surprised about Dylan.

And today Dario Fo died, which makes me sad. I'm thinking of teaching one or more of his stories in my intro to lit course this coming spring.

Bev said...

I can kind of understand why the Academy would shy away from championing Rushdie, considering that people are perfectly willing to set off bombs to protest Rushdie's work. And I can kind of understand rewarding Dylan for his work as a poet. But I'm always disappointed when Rushdie doesn't win because his work as a whole stands up tall next to that of authors like Toni Morrison, Derek Walcott, and Chinua Achebe. (And I'm not dismissing writers who work in languages other than English; I just don't know enough of them well enough to know who is worthy, if that makes any sense.)

Bardiac said...

It totally makes sense. As an English speaker/reader, I know English language writers way, way more than folks who writing in other languages.