What is Literature? Bob Dylan and the Nobel Prize

What is Literature? Bob Dylan and the Nobel Prize

In 2016,  Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, sparking controversy as to whether song lyrics constitute literature. What is literature, and does Bob Dylan’s work qualify him for the Nobel Prize?

The Nobel Prize in Literature

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “literature” as “written works, especially those considered of superior or lasting artistic merit.” When Alfred Nobel signed his last will and testament in 1895, he bequeathed the largest share of his fortune to a series of prizes now referred to as the Nobel Prizes. As stipulated in his will, one of the prizes would be dedicated to “the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” Instituted in 1901, the Nobel Prize in Literature has been awarded 109 times to 113 Nobel Laureates, a group which includes the Freemasons Rudyard Kipling, Winston Churchill, and John Steinbeck.

nobelprize2016-litIn 2016, the Swedish Academy stated that they chose Bob Dylan “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” Following the announcement, the Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, Professor Sara Danius, provided further explanation as to why Dylan was selected stating, “He is a great poet in the English speaking tradition.” When asked if the Academy had widened the horizon of the Nobel Prize in Literature, she replied, “It may look that way, but really we haven’t.” Professor Danius further compared Dylan’s work to that of Homer and Sappho, which were “meant to be performed,permanent-secretary-of-the-swedish-academy-sara-danius2016 often together with instruments.”

Bob Dylan: Lyrical Poet

Born in 1941, Bob Dylan has been influencing popular music and culture for more than five decades as a songwriter, singer, and artist. In the 1960s, Dylan’s work channeled America’s social unrest, and his songs, “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are a-Changin,” became anthems for the American Anti-War and Civil Rights movements. Dylan’s songwriting incorporated controversial subjects such as politics, race relations, philosophy, and religion. His music changed established pop music conventions and expanded the influence of music on the American public. As one of the best-selling artists of all time, Dylan has sold more than 100 million records. In addition to the Nobel Prize, Bob Dylan’s songwriting has also been recognized by the Pulitzer Prize Jury, who awarded him a special citation in 2008 on account of “his profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power.”

With thirty-seven released studio albums, the list of songs credited to Bob Dylan is extensive and diverse. Below are lyrics from a few of his most celebrated works.

Every Grain of Sand

Don’t have the inclination to look back on any mistake. Like Cain, I now behold this chain of events that I must break. 

In the fury of the moment I can see the Master’s hand. In every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand.

All Along the Watchtowerevery-grain-of-sand

“There must be some way out of here,” said the Joker to the Thief. “There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief. Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth. None of them along the line know what any of it is worth.” 

“No reason to get excited,” the Thief, he kindly spoke. “There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke. But you and I, we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate. So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late.”

Blowin’ in the Wind

How many years can some people exist, before they’re allowed to be free? How many times can a man turn his head, and pretend that he just doesn’t see? 

The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind. The answer is blowin’ in the wind.”

Shelter From the Storm

Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood. When blackness was a virtue and the road was full of mud. I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form. “Come in,'” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm.”

Well, I’m livin’ in a foreign country but I’m bound to cross the line. Beauty walks a razor’s edge, someday I’ll make it mine. If I could only turn back the clock to when God and her were born. “Come in,'” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm.'”

Literature and the Masonic Philosophical Society

The Masonic Philosophical Society was created to destroy ignorance through enabling greater understanding of the sciences, arts, and humanities. Each Masonic Philosophical Society Study Center is designed to ignite discussion centered on nine topics of study, one of which is Literature which is described on the MPS website as “one of the most enduring of man’s creations, giving us glimpses masonicphilosophicalsocietyof our past, present and future.” When Professor Sara Danius compared Dylan’s lyrics to the works of the ancient poets Homer and Sappho, she demonstrated how poetic works can transcend time and connect the ancient past to our current world. Is it too far a stretch to compare Bob Dylan’s lyrics to Homer’s “Be still my heart; thou hast known worse than this” from The Odyssey? Could the lyrics from Sappho’s “Hymn to Aphrodite” be considered similar to Dylan’s ballads when she wrote, “come to me once more, and abate my torment; Take the bitter care from my mind, and give me all I long for?”

The question remains for many as to whether Bob Dylan’s work qualified him for the Nobel Prize in Literature. The album lyrics published do, indeed, meet the criteria of “written works” mentioned in the Oxford English Dictionary albeit most people are more familiar with hearing Dylan’s songs rather than reading his lyrics. In my opinion, the question as to whether Bob Dylan’s musical lyrics constitute “superior or lasting artistic merit” is a somewhat subjective determination,  which the Swedish Academy is at liberty to decide as they see fit. What do you think? 

Touching the Void: Freemasonry and the Responsibility of Protecting One’s Fellow Man

Touching the Void: Freemasonry and the Responsibility of Protecting One’s Fellow Man

What responsibility do we have towards our fellow man? Masonry teaches that each of us is “our brother’s keeper” and that mankind consists of a Universal Brotherhood. When safe and secure, we may be quick to argue that we would go out of our way to save our friend, brother, or neighbor. What would happen, however, if you were forced to choose between saving your own life versus protecting the life of another? Touching the Void, a book written by Mountaineer Joe Simpson, tells the harrowing true story of two men trapped on a mountain faced with such a life and death situation.

The Journey: Climbing The Siula Grande

In 1985, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates had a bold, yet dangerous dream: to be the first climbers to summit the Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes. Touching the Void begins with the following quote by T.E. Lawrence from The Seven Pillars of Wisdom:

“All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.”

Siula GrandeDespite perilous conditions, Yates and Simpson became such “dreamers of the day,” making their dream a reality by ascending the Siula Grande’s 4,500-foot west face in three days. Their celebration was short lived, however, as disaster struck during the treacherous descent of the peak. Whiteout conditions enveloped the climbers eventually leading to Simpson slipping down an ice cliff and breaking his leg, crushing his tibia into his knee joint. The team’s ambitious ascent had depleted their supplies, and they no longer had fuel for heating, cooking, or melting snow for drinking water. With daylight fading and Simpson in critical condition due to this injury, the pair had no option but to attempt a fast and tricky descent of 3,000 feet back to base camp.

With his right leg shattered, Simpson relied on his climbing partner to methodically lower him down the mountain 300 feet at a time via two knotted ropes. Simon Yates reflected on his burdensome new responsibility, “I knew I couldn’t leave him while he was still fighting for it.” Hour after hour, Simpson and Yates made painstakingly slow progress down the mountain. Eventually, a blizzard surrounded the climbers bringing chaos and destroying communicationThefall between the pair. In the confusion, Yates mistakenly lowered Simpson over the edge of a cliff. Dangling eighty feet above a crevasse, the injured and exhausted Simpson was unable to climb back to safety with his frost-bitten fingers.

Yates’ Ultimate Moral Dilemma

Swallowed by the blizzard, Yates was essentially blind to his partner’s situation. Because of the weight on rope, he knew Simpson was suspended over some kind of cliff, but he was unable to see or communicate with his partner. He also was unable to pull Simpson back up to safety. Through sheer willpower, Yates kept his footing on the icy slope for over an hour protecting both from plummeting into the void. His strength failing, Yates faced the moral dilemma of his life: should he save himself by cutting the rope and send Simpson to almost certain death?

As his snow anchor began to collapse,  Yates cut the rope and Simpson’s body plummeted down the cliff and into a crevasse: a deep fissure in a mountain glacier. When Simon Yates descended to the ice cavern,  he called out to Simpson but received no response. Assuming his partner was killed in the fall, Yates made his way back to base camp.

Simpson’s Survival

Miraculously, Simpson survived the 150 foot fall, landing on an ice shelf inside the crevasse. When Simpson regained consciousness, he discovered the cut rope end and realized what his partner had done. If he wanted to live, Simpson knew he had to save himself. Repelling further into the dark ice cave, Simpson discovered a small opening in the ice and climbed out of the glacier, emerging like Lazarus from his tomb.

Forced to crawl due to his injuries, Simpson tenaciously began a three day crawl back to base camp. Exhausted and fighting delirium, he reached base camp only a few hours before Yates was set to leave. Arriving at camp, Yates and another climber treated Simpson’s injuries, and the three men then traveled back to civilization.

Somewhat surprisingly, Simpson expressed understanding and sympathy for Yates in his fateful decision to sever the rope. He reflected, “ Simon (Yates) did more than anybody could possibly have been asked to do to save someone’s life. Everybody misses that crucial point. He took a very pragmatic decision. He wasn’t to know I went down a crevasse. He wasn’t cutting a rope to kill me; he was cutting a rope to save himself.”

Many climbing experts argue that, paradoxically, it was Simon Yates selfish decision to cut the rope and save his own life that also saved his climbing partner, Joe Simpson. Even if Yates could have held him aloft for many more hours, many argue that Simpson would have died from exposure to the elements. Simpson, while understanding his partner’s decision, writes in Touching the Void about his initial hope that he was still connect to Yates: “Did he fall with me? Find out… pull the rope! I tugged on the loose rope. It moved easily…. I pulled again and soft snow flurried on to me. I pulled steadily, and as I did so I became excited. This was a chance to escape.” Based on Simpson’s position after the fall, there was more than a chancsimpsone that Yates would have also lived, either landing on the ledge or being held aloft by the rope tethered to Simpson. Realizing that his partner had left him to perish, Simpson was filled with despair and faced with the improbable odds of returning to base camp alone.

Freemasonry and the Responsibility of Protecting Our Fellow Man

When an individual acts against their own self-interest,  should we let that person fall, metaphorically speaking, in order that they can develop the strength and wisdom to rescue themselves? The institution of Freemasonry exists as an exception to modern society’s tendency to severe ties and abdicate responsibility towards those who are struggling in a state of darkness. As a brotherhood comprised of men and women, senior Masons with experience and knowledge lend a helping hand to those who may lack the guidance and support necessary to change themselves.  As freemasons, we are obligated to help our fellows, regardless of their background or station in life. Interestingly, the word “obligation” is derived from the same Latin root as “ligament.” A cord by which one thing is tied to another, a ligament is not dissimilar to the very rope which held Simpson above the precipice. Bound by oath, Masons stand firm as protectors of humanity refusing to sever the tie that binds regardless of the consequence.

 

Freakonomics and Freemasonry

Freakonomics and Freemasonry

In 2005, a University of Chicago economist and a New York Times journalist revolutionized economic thinking in popular culture with their non-fiction book, “Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything.”  The authors put forward a fresh perspective as to how the world works through an exploratory lens they refer to as “the hidden side.”  The authors argue that this exploration can be accomplished by “stripping away a layer or two from modern life and seeing what is happening underneath.” The book is formatted by postulating a series of thought-provoking questions. What do school teachers and sumo wrestlers have in common? Which is more dangerous, a gun or a swimming pool? What kind of impact did Roe v. Wade have on violent crime? Since the original work was pubFreakonomics Authorslished in 2005, the Freakonomics authors have capitalized on their success by creating a Freakonomics brand through additional books, lectures, blogs, and a weekly podcast.

According to Steven Levitt, economics was a science with excellent tools for gaining answers but a serious shortage of interesting questions to direct the application of those tools.  He provided an original set of  thought-provoking questions and then applied the tools of his economic training. The result was statistically significant, rational explanations to explain perplexing phenomenon in the modern world. Often eschewing conventional wisdom, Levitt and Dubner created controversy by demonstrating empirical evidence for events, including their theory that the legalization of abortion in the 1970s reduced violent crime in the United States two decades later. Unconcerned with shocking the mainstream population, the authors argue that morality is how individuals would like the world to work, and economics is the way the world actually operates. The book outlines a number of basic principles related to economics: 1) Incentives are the cornerstone of life; 2) conventional wisdom is often wrong; 3) Dramatic events or effects often have distant, subtle causes; 4) Experts use their informational advantage to serve their own agenda; and 5) knowing what to measure and how to measure makes the world less complicated. 

Incentives

Freakonomics postulates that economics is the study of human behavior, explained through the investigation of incentives. Thus, to understand human behavior, one must understand the incentives which motivate him into action.  Levitt and Dubner write, “Economists love incentives. The typical economist believes the world has not yet invented a problem that he cannot fix if given a free hand to design the proper incentive scheme.” According to the authors, incentives come in three varieties: moral, social, and economic. Moral incentives motivate an individual to act out of conscienceincentiveseconomic or conviction. Social incentives inspire individuals to act in order to avoid shame or achieve glory. Finally, economic incentives direct people to act in their financial interest.  

To explain how these incentives work in the real world, Levitt and Dubner utilized an example of a day care center in Haifa, Israel.  In this example, the center’s management faced a recurring problem: parents were late to pick up their children and staff had to be paid extra wages to watch the children past the agreed upon schedule. Management decided to enact a fee for the late pickup of a child, which they believed would discourage parental tardiness. Instead, they was shocked to discover that parents showed up late more often after the fee was instituted. According to the authors, the fee had the reverse impact on parental arrival times because the parents traded a moral incentive, a sense of guilt for being late, for an economic incentive, a small fee for a late pickup. These parents changed their behavior by assessing the benefits of the extra time in their schedule and decided that the price was worth the added cost. 

Conventional Wisdom

Freakonomics is a persuasive read, in part, because of the authors’ innovative way of employing powerful quantitative tools of economic inquiry to refute conventional wisdom. The problem with conventional wisdom is not that is it always incorrect, rather that such explanations are simply accepted by the general population without questioning or examination.  To many, human social behavior is complex and requires too much effort to understand. In an effort to avoid mental analysis, we accept conventional wisdom delivered  in short phrases which comfort us with their simplicity and familiarity. Taught as children, we hear the same phrase repeatedly until we start parroting it back as an explanation. Such aphorisms include “an apple a day keeps the doctor away,” “the early bird gets the worm,” and “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Conventional wisdom is often first created by experts in a field, i.e. physicians advised patients to avoid eating eggs to maintain a healthy level of cholesterol. These conclusions get repeated in the media and by other experts who further establish credibility. Repeated often enough, a false attribution of causality becomes accepted by society as conventional wisdom to explain a problem. 

Levitt and Dubner cite several examples of conventional wisdom, which is demonstrably in error including the positive societal connotations of allowing your child to attend a play date where the family owns a swimming pool versus the negative associations of allowing your child to visit a home where guns are kept. According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC), there is one drowning of a child for every 11,000 residential pools in the United States.  There are approximately 6 million pools in the United States, which equates to  550 children under the age of ten who drown each year. Comparatively, there is 1 child killed by a gun for every 1 million guns. There are an estimated 200 million guns in the United States, which means that roughly 175 children under ten die each year from guns. Thus, the likelihood of death by pool equates to 1 in 11,000 versus death by gun to 1 in 1 million. The authors write, “If you both own a gun and a swimming pool in your backyard, the swimming pool is about 100 times more likely to kill a child than the gun is.”

Dramatic Events 

Freakonomics postulates that economic inquiry, the gathering and interpreting of data, is time intensive and complex. When considering the causes that precipitated a dramatic event, the answer is often outside the realm of attributed factors. The book carefully analyses the dramatic rise in crime reported in the early 1990s and the predictions that the violence would increase dramatically in the decade. President Clinton spoke to the fears abounding from the increase in deaths by gunfire, carjackings, robbery, and rape. He stated, “We know we’ve got about six years to turn this juvenile crime thing around or our country is going to be living with chaos.” In a drastic turn of events, crime began to fall in 1995 and continued in thjacket_freakonomics_lge subsequent years. The teenage murder rate did not rise to the levels predicted, rather it fell more than fifty percent within five years. By 2000, the U.S. murder rate had dropped to the lowest levels in thirty-five years. Experts then theorized a number of logical reasons for the drop in crime: the booming economy. the proliferation of gun control laws, and innovative policing techniques. Levitt and Dubner’s analysis concluded that the real underlying cause was attributable to the legalization of abortion in 1973 and the related decrease of children born into poverty. 

Experts and Informational Advantage 

Freakonomics explores how specific individuals can capitalize on their informational advantage to serve their own goals. The authors examine the informational advantage held by a real estate agent, including the current condition of local housing markets. They can combine this superior knowledge to expedite a home sale which may be at a price less than what the seller could have obtained by a longer listing period. The real estate agent’s commission is structured in such a way that what may be a significant increase in profit for the sellers equates to negligible increase in the fees they receive for the sale of the home. Moreover, the real estate agent’s credibility is often linked to how fast a home is sold, i.e. days on the market. The authors cite evidence of real estate agents using their informational advantage to scare sellers into accepting a lower offer to achieve a deal which is in the agent’s best interest. 

Measuring the World

Freakonomics provides new insights by applying the scientific process to address economic and social issues. The authors formulated testable hypotheses and then gathered the relevant data, often from what was previously considered unconventional sources to test those hypotheses. Freakonomics provides concrete illustrations of how unconventional methods of data gathering and innovate means of interpreWorkingtoolsting said data provides new insights into how our world works. The book argues that knowing what to measure and how to measure it makes a complicated world easier to understand.

The Freakonomics of Freemasonry

Popular culture often relays a mistaken point of view of Freemasonry as being an elite organization, where individual members possess and yield undue power in our society. This is an example of the principle that conventional wisdom is often wrong and should be examined by the individual. Stereotypes about Freemasonry have been exacerbated and enforced by the media, i.e. attention to sensationalized books such as “The Lost Symbol” by Dan Brown.  In reality, Freemasonry is an educational and self-improvement system that requires hard work and dedication. Not unlike a school, members are taught how to behave as upright members of society and instructed on how to improve their lives through greater control of their bodies and minds. Many freemasons are very successful individuals who reap the benefits of education in the seven liberal arts and sciences, including grammar, logic, rhetoric, music, arithmetic, geometry and astronomy.  Repetition is a recipe for success as the more time an individual takes to perfect his skills, related to writing, public speaking, debate, and logical reasoning, the greater the probability he will have in being successful in the business world and in society in general.