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Two Nobel Prizes

Bill Benson

December 11, 2020

An interesting anecdote appears in Barack Obama’s recently-published memoir, “A Promised Hope.”

He recalls the day, a Friday, Oct. 9, 2009, when he was stunned to learn that the Nobel Peace Prize Committee’s members, meeting in Oslo, Norway, announced that they had selected him.

When told of the honor, Obama was incredulous. “For what?” he asked.

The committee’s members explained that they had selected him, “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between people, and for his promotion of nuclear nonproliferation.”

They were most impressed that he kept a campaign promise “to give a major address to Muslims from a Muslim capital during his first few months as president.” On June 4, 2009, he had stood in the Major Reception Room at Cairo University, in Cairo, Egypt, and gave his “New Beginning Speech.”

In it, he talked about “nuclear weapons, the Israeli / Palestinian dispute, democracy, religious freedom, economic development, and rights of women.”

Critics of the Nobel Committee’s choice, pointed out that Obama had occupied the White House for just eight and a half months, and had produced “no significant foreign policy achievement.” Certain critics went so far as to demand that the committee retract the selection.

The American linguist, Noam Chomsky, said, “In defense of the committee, we might say that the achievement of doing nothing to advance peace places Obama on a considerably higher moral plane than some of the earlier recipients.”

Obama was the fourth U. S. President to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Others included Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Jimmy Carter.

Barack Obama and his wife Michelle flew to Oslo, and there, on Dec. 10, 2009, he accepted the diploma, the medal, and the prize money, about $1,000,000, and he delivered his Nobel lecture. He later made good on his promise to give all the prize money to various charities.

Perhaps, the strangest Nobel Prize ever announced though occurred on Oct. 13, 2016, when the Nobel Prize Committee for Literature gave the award to Bob Dylan, “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

This was the first time that a musician and a songwriter had won this distinguished prize.

Critics pointed out the obvious, that although Dylan had written memorable songs—Blowin’ in the Wind, and Like a Rolling Stone—he could not approach the level of talented fiction and non-fiction writers, who have won the prize in past years.

That list includes Pearl Buck, William Faulkner, Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway, Albert Camus, John Steinbeck, Saul Bellow, and Toni Morrison.

A critic said the committee would have made a better choice in the Beatles, and another quipped that “Bob Dylan winning a Nobel in Literature is like Mrs. Fields being awarded 3 Michelin stars.”

For two weeks Dylan said nothing, even refused to take the Swedish Academy’s phone calls, but then he told a journalist that winning the Nobel Prize for Literature was “amazing, incredible.”

In November, Dylan informed the Academy that he would not travel to Stockholm on Dec. 10, to receive the prize, because of “pre-existing commitments,” but that he would do so later.

On April 2, 2017, Bob Dylan did appear in Stockholm, met with the Swedish Academy in a private ceremony, and received his diploma and gold medal, stamped with a quote from Virgil’s Aeneid, “And they who bettered life on Earth by their newly found mastery.”

The Nobel Prize Committee though gave him six months after the Dec. 10 date to give his Nobel Lecture, a prerequisite for claiming the prize money, again about $1,000,000.

He recorded his speech in Los Angeles, California, on June 4, 2017, and sent it to the Committee, and in it, he mentioned three books: “Moby Dick,” “All Quiet on the Western Front,” and “The Odyssey.”

Toward the end of his speech, he asks, “So what does it all mean? If a song moves you, that’s all that’s important. I don’t have to know what a song means. I’ve written all kinds of things into my songs, and I’m not going to worry about it—what it all means.”

“Our songs are alive in the land of the living. But songs are unlike literature. They’re meant to be sung, not read. The words in Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be acted on the stage. Just as lyrics in songs are meant to be sung, not read on a page. I hope some of you can listen to these lyrics.”

Barack Obama and Bob Dylan. Neither could quite believe that they had won a Nobel Prize.