Academics Defend Bob Dylan’s Plagiarism as a ‘Post Modern Work of Art’

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By Nahema Marchal | 9:48 am, June 16, 2017
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Unless you’ve been living under a rock, by now you’ve learned that legendary singer and reluctant Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan has been accused of lifting entire sections of his acceptance speech from SparkNotes revision guides.

Dylan, the first musician to be awarded the Nobel for literature, gave his speech in Los Angeles earlier this month — a requirement for claiming the nearly $1 million prize granted with the award. (He famously declined to attend the official ceremony in December.)

In a lecture that has was dubbed both “beautiful” and “rhetorically complete” by the secretary for the Academy, Dylan spoke about and quoted three great works of literature — Homer’s “The Odyssey”, Erich Maria Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front” and Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick”—as inspirations for his own work.

But after reading a blog post by writer Ben Greenman which suggested the quote Dylan attributed to Melville had been made up, a writer at Slate grew suspicious and decided to probe the singer’s speech.

Indeed, Andrea Pitzer found what was later later confirmed by the Associated Press, that 20 other passages were plagerized from the SparkNotes entry on “Moby Dick”. SparkNotes is the online student guide that English majors often use to find summaries about books and novels they haven’t read.

“Across the 78 sentences in the lecture that Dylan spends describing Moby-Dick, even a cursory inspection reveals that more than a dozen of them appear to closely resemble lines from the SparkNotes site” Pitzer wrote.

Books of the 2016 Literature Nobel Price winner US Bob Dylan are pictured at the booth of publisher Hoffman und Campe at the Frankfurt Book Fair (MELIE QUERFURTH/AFP/Getty Images)


This certainly wouldn’t be the first time Dylan has been exposed for his “borrowings” from various sources — from folk songs to Henry Timrod’s poetry, Japanese literature to travel brochures — with allegations going back to the release of his first album, 1963’s “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.” His memoir, Chronicles: Volume One, published in 2004 is equally rife with unattributed quotations.

Although it doesn’t justify his actions, it certainly wouldn’t be the first time a high-profile individual cribbed entire passages from someone else’s work. Remember Melania Trump’s not-so-subtle lifting of Michelle Obama’s 2008 speech at the Democratic National Convention. Even senator Rand Paul admitted to plagiarizing a Wikipedia entry about the sci-fi movie“Gattaca” in a speech he gave to Liberty University in 2013.

More troubling, however, is how some members of the academic community rushed to Dylan’s defense, presumably out of sympathy for the 73 year-old singer.

Disregarding the concept of intellectual honesty, Alex Lubet, a music professor University of Minnesota who has taught classes on Dylan told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that, given the circumstances, his alleged plagiarism wasn’t that big of a deal:

“His lecture is wild and strange,” Lubet said “It’s meant to be a postmodern work of art. Any kind of a collage technique is fair game.”

David Yaffe, a Syracuse University professor of humanities, concurred, saying the borrowing shouldn’t detract from the quality of his speech.

“I was very moved by his speech and I’m not any less moved knowing this. I don’t find myself feeling like a dupe,” Yaffe told the newspaper. “He’s on the road all the time. He just turned 76. You could see him wanting to take a few shortcuts. I don’t think it makes him any less Bob Dylan.”

As Pitzer noted in her Slate piece,  “theft in the name of art” isn’t a novel thing and “Dylan has been a magpie since the 1960s.”

Whether the lifting was intentional or not, there is certainly a degree of irony to this; irony compounded by the fact that many questioned whether Dylan, whose work was lauded for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition,” should have received the award in the first place.

As light as the plagiarism was, I guess we would expect better from a Nobel Laureate for Literature than to copy and paste from another source.