By Ingrid Sapona
Like many folks, the past couple weeks I’ve been thinking
about the Nobel Prize in literature. No –
I don’t fantasize about winning it… that’s not the kind of writing I do, after
all. Yes, I was surprised that Dylan won – but honestly – as is the case with
about 99% of the folks that win Nobel Prizes, I don’t have any opinion about
his body of work, or even whether he’d be on my short list if I were on the
Actually, what I’ve really been thinking about is the news
stories about his initial lack of public response. (By the way, I started
writing this the day before the news broke about his telling the Swedish
Academy, “the news about the Nobel Prize left me speechless” and that he
accepts the prize.) Note that I didn’t say that I was surprised by his lack of response – I was surprised
by how much was written about that.
The bulk of the articles the first 10 days focus mainly on either
how his apparent silence was in keeping with his character or on what his
silence meant. Not being a Dylan-ologist (trust me, if that isn’t a major at
some university already, it will be soon), I had no basis to evaluate the
different theories about his silence, nor did I have much interest in them.
What cracked me up about most of them was that in the same
breadth that a writer would say “no one knows how Mr. Dylan feels about the
honour”, as Liam Stack wrote in the music section of the New York Times, they’d
invariably go on to read something into his silence. Mr. Stack, for example, went
on to talk about Mr. Dylan’s “ambivalence to one of the world’s most prestigious honors…”. How do we know Dylan was ambivalent?
We don’t – that’s the point!
Things got really interesting to me, however, when the story
became the reaction of Per Wastberg, a member of the Swedish Academy who, when asked
by a Swedish newspaper about Dylan not responding, said, “One can say that it
is impolite and arrogant”. Shortly after that came the news about the Swedish
Academy trying to distance itself from the member’s comments, with the
permanent secretary saying it was only that member’s private opinion. The secretary
went on to say that every person awarded a Nobel Price can make his or her own
decision about how to respond.
My first thought was that I can understand what Mr. Wastberg
was probably feeling that caused him to say that. After all, I often think it’s
rude when people don’t respond to my emails in what I consider a timely fashion.
And, what’s 10 times more frustrating is that there’s nothing you can do about
someone not responding. In other words, I felt Mr. Wastberg’s exasperation.
But then I started thinking about whether Mr. Wastberg had
any right to even feel that way. True, the stature of the Nobel Committee and
the Prize elevates the matter far above something like someone not replying to
an e-mail from a friend or client. But, what it boils down to is whether being
honoured imposes a burden on the honoree. I don’t think it does – even when the
person or organization bestowing the honour is the august Nobel Committee.
Honouring someone is like loving them – it shouldn’t be a
gesture, nor should it have strings attached. Clearly, it’s wonderful if the
person on the receiving end responds favourably, but loving someone, forgiving
someone, and honouring someone are all acts that are profound on their own.
Their power and grace comes in feeling such things and being brave enough to express
how you feel.
© 2016 Ingrid Sapona