Did Bob Dylan make up a Moby-Dick quote for his Nobel Lecture?
By Ben Greenman
Last fall, Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. There were immediate complications. Dylan did not contact the Nobel committee to acknowledge the honor, nor did he travel to Stockholm to pick it up. Patti Smith filled in for him at the December ceremony, performing “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.”
For the award to be officially conferred, Dylan also had to deliver a Nobel lecture. And that's exactly what he did. Yesterday, an audio version of the lecture appeared, produced a little bit like his Theme Time Radio Hour (same sly cadence, piano backing for some of it), along with a transcript at the official Nobel site.
Early in the lecture, Dylan remembers discovering music, specifically Buddy Holly, who activated his sense of songwriting and performance. Later, he tweaks the Nobel committee for equating songs and literature (“Songs are not literature,” he says, “They’re meant to be sung, not read”). In between, he considers three books that were especially influential to his sense of language: Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, and Homer’s Odyssey. Through this tripartite structure (which he also used in Chronicles, Vol. 1, his memoir, and Triplicate, his most recent record), Dylan probes the works with passion and sensitivity, with an eye to both the great sweep of history and the intricate clockwork of individual decisions. His remarks on Moby-Dick are perhaps the best of the three. He frames it as a novel that illustrates “how different men react in different ways to the same experience.” He talks about Captain Boomer, who also lost an arm to the great white whale but does not share Ahab’s need for revenge. He cannily considers the way the novel plays with surface and depth.
One paragraph stands out. Dylan mentions the typhoon that hits the ship, which is interpreted variously by different men: Ahab sees it as a good sign, Starbuck as a bad one. “As soon as the storm ends,” he says, “a crewmember falls from the ship’s mast and drowns, foreshadowing what is to come.” (As Melville describes it, “he had not been long at his perch, when a cry was heard—a cry and a rushing—and looking up, they saw a falling phantom in the air; and looking down, a little tossed heap of white bubbles in the blue of the sea.”)
Dylan then includes a quote from the novel, an aphoristic utterance from a Quaker priest to the third mate, Flask: “Some men who receive injuries are led to God, others are led to bitterness."
When I read this paragraph, I was intrigued, both because the insight is a compelling one and because I did not remember it from the novel. In fairness, it’s been a little while since I read the whole thing straight through. It’s a long book at that, more than 200,000 words. I went and looked, mostly around Chapter 126, “The Life-Buoy,” which contains the falling phantom in the air. I couldn’t find the quote that Dylan mentioned. I looked at another edition, and couldn’t find it there either. I went online, found an e-text, and searched on the relevant keywords, “injuries” (which doesn’t appear, at least not in plural form) and “bitterness” (which appears only once, in relation to the resentment experienced by men who are placed in charge of men who are superior to them “in general pride of manhood”). I searched in the Kindle edition, found nothing (though there were six occurrences of “subterranean”).
It appears, from all available evidence, that Dylan invented the quote and inserted it into his reading of Moby-Dick. Was this on purpose? Was it the result of a faulty memory? Was it an egg, left in the lawn to be discovered in case it’s Eastertime too? Answering these questions would be drilling into the American Sphinx, and beside the point anyway. As it stands, it’s very much in the spirit of his entire enterprise: to take various American masterworks and absorb and transform them. The mystery of it makes a wonderful lecture even more wonderful. And it’s worth ending with a quote from Stubb, the second mate, about the transformative power of singing and its centrality to life itself:
“But I am not a brave man; never said I was a brave man; I am a coward; and I sing to keep up my spirits. And I tell you what it is, Mr. Starbuck, there's no way to stop my singing in this world but to cut my throat. And when that's done, ten to one I sing ye the doxology for a wind-up.”