Thursday, June 15, 2017

Dylan, Homer, and Cliff

Andrea Pitzer wonders: does Bob Dylan’s Nobel lecture borrow from the SparkNotes for Moby-Dick? The phrasings themselves — for instance, “encounters other whaling vessels” — are not always especially distinctive. It’s their number and their sequence (in twenty of the seventy-eight sentences that Dylan devotes to Melville’s novel) that are reason for suspicion. To my eye, it’s plagiarism, of an especially pathetic sort. Dylan is plagiarizing a plot summary.

I began to wonder about Dylan’s Nobel commentary on the Odyssey. His summary of the poem’s action is loose and inaccurate, and I see nothing there to suggest a source. But look at this passage from the CliffsNotes for Book 11:

More controversial is Achilles’ appearance because it contradicts the heroic ideal of death with honor, resulting in some form of glorious immortality. Here, Achilles' attitude is that death is death; he would rather be a living slave to a tenant farmer than king of the dead. His only solace is to hear that his son fares well in life.
And look again at Dylan’s one extended comment on the poem, which cheered me when I read it earlier this month:
When Odysseus in The Odyssey visits the famed warrior Achilles in the underworld — Achilles, who traded a long life full of peace and contentment for a short one full of honor and glory — tells Odysseus it was all a mistake. “I just died, that’s all.” There was no honor. No immortality. And that if he could, he would choose to go back and be a lowly slave to a tenant farmer on Earth rather than be what he is — a king in the land of the dead — that whatever his struggles of life were, they were preferable to being here in this dead place.
Cliff: “he would rather be a living slave to a tenant farmer than king of the dead.”

Dylan: “he would choose to go back and be a lowly slave to a tenant farmer on Earth rather than be what he is — a king in the land of the dead.”

I thought that “tenant farmer” must have come from Robert Fagles’s translation. But no, CliffsNotes are the unmistakable source for that phrase, “king,” and “of the dead.” Dammit, it’s plagiarism.

You read it here first.

comments: 6

Anonymous said...

Great picks. This Prize is so embarrassing for the Academy and Dylan. The Laureate must have panicked when he read the speeches by former winners, realized that he couldn't deliver a text of that level, and did what lazy students do. So shameful all this.

Diane Schirf said...

Nothing wrong with speaking from the heart.

How much we are driven by fruitless competitiveness.

Jodi Birdwell said...

strange huh. Dylan can be good with words....why this ? why not be good at words for this. odious.

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for the comments, Anon., Diane, and Jodi.

cfpicks said...

it is rather hard to say exactly where a quote from Homer's Odysseus came from given that there are literally dozens of translations.

Two of the most popular translations would be Samuel Butler and Rieu (Penguin Publishing):

Samuel Butler: I would rather be a paid servant in a poor man's house and be above ground than king
of kings among the dead.

Rieu: I would rather work the soil as a serf on hire to some landless impoverished peasant than be King of all these lifeless dead.

Note that both of them use "king" and "dead".

Having said that, I would say it is much more likely that Dylan referred to Cliff Notes rather than, say the Hendecasyllable verse of Henry Alford (London, 1861).


Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for pointing to Butler and Rieu. But “tenant farmer” is the really distinctive phrasing, and once you see that, the other pieces fit. “King” and “dead” by themselves are trivial, but they both appear in the Cliffs Notes passage with “tenant farmer.” As with any case of plagiarism, small bits that would raise no question in themselves look different as details of a pattern.

Incidentally, in Homer’s Greek, Achilles wants θητευέμεν, thēteuemen — to be a day-laborer. In the Homeric world, a thēs has a lower status than does a slave, because the slave belongs someplace, as a member of an oikos. The thēs is more like, say, a rolling stone.