The year that philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre refused the Nobel Prize in Literature — 1964 — Bob Dylan released an album on which a song with these lyrics appeared:
Go ‘way from my window
Leave at your own chosen speed
I’m not the one you want, babe
I’m not the one you need
In an op-ed in the New York Times, Adam Kirsch, author of “The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature,” acknowledges he doesn’t know if Dylan was paying any attention to Sartre, but he says Dylan has done the philosopher one better: He’s declined to acknowledge the existence of the honor.
Maybe, he theorizes, that it’s a fair turnaround to ignore a committee that has failed to acknowledge that American literature even exists.
The best way to understand Dylan’s silence is to understand Sartre’s concept of “bad faith.”
Bad faith, Sartre explains in “Being and Nothingness,” is the opposite of authenticity. Bad faith becomes possible because a human being cannot simply be what he or she is, in the way that an inkwell simply is an inkwell. Rather, because we are free, we must “make ourselves what we are.” In a famous passage, Sartre uses as an example a cafe waiter who performs every part of his job a little too correctly, eagerly, unctuously. He is a waiter playing the role of waiter. But this “being what one is not” is an abdication of freedom; it involves turning oneself into an object, a role, meant for other people. To remain free, to act in good faith, is to remain the undefined, free, protean creatures we actually are, even if this is an anxious way to live.
This way of thinking is what used to be called existentialism, and Mr. Dylan is one of its great products. Living like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone, is living in Sartrean good faith, and much of the strangeness of Mr. Dylan’s life can be understood as a desperate attempt to retain this freedom in the face of the terrific pressure of fame. In a profile in The New Yorker in that same year of 1964, Mr. Dylan was quoted as saying that he didn’t “want to write for people anymore” but rather wanted to “write from inside me.”
To be a Nobel laureate is to allow others to define who you are, Kirsch writes. Dylan’s silence is what real artistic and philosophical freedom looks like.
Or maybe he’s just being a jerk, Craig Brown of the Daily Mail, suggests, recalling an anecdote about Dylan.
A fan once came up to him and said: ‘You don’t know who I am, but I know who you are. To which Dylan replied: ‘Let’s keep it that way’.