How (Alfred) Noble is the Nobel Prize?

Amatoritsero Ede

          In a café at the heart of the Latin Quarter in Paris one afternoon in October of 1964, Jean Paul Sartre, that doyen of twentieth century French intellectual life, sat down to his usual aperitif when he saw his own face staring back at him from the pages of Le Figaro. The disappointment was so numbing that the drink slipped from grip halfway to his lips. The shattering of glass on polished wooden floor blended with the clash of the jazz drums that was playing in the background. The baguette-munching, tea-sipping clientele moved as one body with the slightest and the most polite turn in sympathy with the usually serene head now shaking from side to side in mock shock at the newspaper. Such was the weight he felt that the café itself seemed to turn slightly on its waist with the drag of his body as he read the newspaper. Sartre had just won the Nobel Prize for literature.

             That little narration is, of course, inaccurate; events did not proceed in that fashion. But it is a fact that Sartre wrote the Swedish Academy a letter of 'apology' on October 14, 1964, asking himself to be struck out of the list of nominees on which he was rumoured to be numbered. His letter was never read. This was the reason for his fictionalised shock as he sat sipping his bitters or bitterness on the 23rd of the same month. The Nobel committee announced his win on the 24th. Why should this prize have greyed the hair on Sartre’s head? The occasion of a Nobel is a moment of joy for many a writer usually. But for the leftist political critic, public intellectual, existentialist philosopher, scourge of western imperialism, fighter-for-the-oppressed and a humanist to the bone marrow, this was not the case. 
             First it is important to note that Sartre was very anti-establishment in all his writings – novels, plays, scholarly exegesis, or in his political activism. He went beyond the confines of the Ivory Tower to the trenches of twentieth century anti-colonial agitation in support of Algeria’s FLN, the Negritude Movement, and was arrested during the tumultuous Parisian summer of 1968 for ‘civil disobedience’ in his support of the student revolution strikes. The anti-establishment trajectory of his political engagement and intellectual work was in danger of being ‘colonised’ by a Western cultural establishment, which he considered as a thorough bourgeoisie platform opposed to his socialist beliefs. The reasons ascribed to his being given the award – that his work, in the words of the Nobel judges – is “rich in ideas and filled with the spirit of freedom and the quest for truth [and] has exerted a far-reaching influence on our age” was the same reason, ironically, that Sartre had to reject the prize. He felt that the ‘spirit of freedom and the quest for truth’ was not served by an institution pitched against those very ideals in the struggle of Western culture against the eastern - by ‘eastern’ he clearly meant the ‘global south.’
             The Sartrean example of moral and political fortitude comes to mind every time the usual general controversies dog a Nobel moment. Concern here is with the politics of the literature prize specifically. Such politics is nevertheless across the board for the science or literature prizes. It has several inflections – the question of whether the award consecrates the right individual in terms of excellence; the problematic of the unduly excluded, and the quarrel about the objectivity or subjectivity of the Swedish Academy’s aesthetic valuation in the literature section. More important here as far as literature is concerned, however, is the matter of the ethics, politics and moral vision of the laureate and, consequently, of the Academy itself as an institutional validator of such politics.
             In no other category as in the literature prize is the criticism of the award politics, as reflected in the politics of the consecrated, more resonant. Science is after all a matter of the empiric, even if modes of inhumane research can also raise dust with an observant public. But the ethical and moral questions is more urgent in literature since it is an ideological form, which modes of representation directly or indirectly impinges upon how people perceive the objective world. The suspect politics of some laureates who have come after Sartre over the years has confirmed his believe that the Swedish Academy is conservative. Two good bad examples are J.M. Coetzee and V.S. Naipaul.

             Lucy Valerie Graham says in “Reading the Unspeakable: Rape in J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace” that, Coatzee, in his critical work and general fictional oeuvre has always been conscious of, and has engaged, the question of how rape is (mis)represented and romanticised in classical literature, on the one hand, and how it  was a tool of racial oppression in colonial, apartheid social (non)interactions, on the other. Nevertheless such knowledge does not amount to much in the one novel, Disgrace, where Coetzee engages rape as a political tool in post-apartheid South Africa more directly. The author’s narrative fence-sitting has resulted in an international controversy in the popular media, and in South Africa’s black political circles over his own moral stand where racial injustice is concerned.
             Disgrace is a realistic depiction of the post-apartheid trauma, of which rape is one aspect only besides crime, poverty, HIV, xenophobia – especially against other black Africans and, white fears of political, economic and social reprisals. But Coetzee’s realism, specifically in the context of rape, is steeped in such elisions, ambivalences and subtle stereotyping of black South Africa that it made Thabo Mbeki remark: “South Africa is not only a place of rape.” That remark refers to the central plot of Disgrace, which describes the gang-rape of a white woman, Lucy, by three black men on a farm, and the self-confrontation this event produces in her father, who himself is in denial of having raped a black woman, Melanie - one of his students. The protagonist father, David Lurie, university professor, rationalises his having forced himself on a powerless black female student as a consensual act when asked to speak in his own defence in a disciplinary hearing: “not rape at all, not quite that” he intones, refusing to coorperate.
             While the social problem of rape in post-apartheid South Africa is real, it is nevertheless narrated in such a fashion as to make it the essence of the black South African male, and indeed of black humanity. This, against the grain of historical representation of the black male as a ‘phallus symbol’ in Frantz Fanon’s words, raises questions of moral obligations in any writer in approaching such historically charged topics. Historically, representations of blackness, male or female, in Western travel narratives, colonial documents or novels have being couched in that and other demonising terms. In a related sense the history of miscegenation is intimately invested in colonial activity if we consider Ronald Hyam’s Empire and Sexuality. Disgrace occludes this history of the (mis)representation of blackness with a narrative technique, which places the burden of ethical positions and moral filiations with the reader. This is the way Graham justifies the author’s ambivalences. But Lynn Higgins and Brenda Silver draw our attention to the novel’s masculinist elisions – and one may add, racial subjectivity – in Rape and Representation; elisions such as the silencing of Lucy from talking about her rape directly except in innuendos, or of Melanie’s strange quietude about her own abuse in the face of white privilege. 
             Moreover, Coetzee does not historicise the sexual implications of the Dutch Empire in South Africa specifically, preferring to concentrate on effects rather than causes in his narration. Apart from the sexual subordination of black bodies, and lands, in the Western Hemisphere and in different colonial situations, Ronald Hyam, in the particular case of South Africa, asserts that the Dutch East India Company had a slave lodge at Cape Town. It was a prominent brothel, where slavery, prostitution and poverty formed a dehumanising blend. The novel would have been more objective had it taken a historical narrative approach.
             The incidence of three random black men raping a white woman incorporates all black men as being complicit in that rape, simplifies the history of race relations in South African and re-enacts 19th century discourses of the ‘black peril,’ which formed the basis of white fears, draconian apartheid policies and black repression. This can only inspire more antagonism between white and black in contemporary South Africa. In the immediacy of white post-apartheid anxieties, and black hurt how does this help to achieve the peace, progress – not in enlightenment terms – and harmony that Alfred Nobel envisaged and hoped the Nobel Prizes would foster? It is instructive that Coetzee, in an interview, did not see the immediate healing values in Mandela’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which tried to address a ‘history’ that he elides in his prose. Ironically, he leaves it to ‘history’ to judge the commission’s effectiveness, even while he discountenances history in his own albeit fictional narration. Besides, as the stellar Africanist critic, Pius Adesanmi surmised in a private conversation, Disgrace, by its very silence on the topic, carries a subtext which confines the political system of apartheid and its dehumanisations to the realm of the ‘humanly possible’, and is therefore silent about it.  The historical atrocities is simply ‘human nature’ at work.
             Coetzee’s political conservatism can be corroborated by the writer’s own submissions on his activism or lack thereof in Doubling the Point, his collection of essays and interviews. He refers to himself in the third person:

Politically, the raznochinets can go either way. But during his student years he, this person, this subject, my subject, steers clear of the right. As a child in Worcester he has seen enough of the Afrikaner right, enough of its rant, to last him a lifetime. In fact, even before Worcester he has perhaps seen more of cruelty and violence than should have been allowed to a child. So as a student he moves on the fringes of the left without being part of the left. Sympathetic to the human concerns of the left, he is alienated, when the crunch comes, by its language – by all political language, in fact.

             It is clear from the above that Coetzee lacks the littérature engagée, political activism, and leftist intellection, which preoccupied Sartre particularly, and a large percentage of twentieth century French leftist intelligentsia such as Andre Breton, Marcel Proust, Andre Gide, Hélène de Beauvoir, Loius Althusser, Merleau-Ponty, Jean-Toussaint Desanti, Dominique Desanti, Jean Kanapa and many more. It is in representing the humanist ideals of this French leftist intellectuals, artists, writers and scholars that Sartre had to reject the Nobel Prize. It is not for nothing that Walter Benjamin has described Paris as the cultural capital of the nineteenth century. Even in its heyday of imperialism, Paris had the saving grace of its humanising left. So stabilising was the force of that left that it ushered in a global democratising transformation by playing metropolitan host to a concentration of liberationist cultural and political movements of the global south and helped changed the course of modern history in the 1960s.
             Did the conservative politics of a Coetzee need to be institutionalised by the Nobel committee? It is possible to argue that the writer is an individual and has freedom of speech and expression. Even though the Academy has awarded the Nobel to writers who are examples of moral forthrightness in their work such as Wole Soyinka, Doris Lessin, Mario Vargas Llosa, Orhan Pamuk and others, when the occasional examples of politically conservative winners begin to mount eyebrows should be raised. Another notable conservative is V.S. Naipaul.
             Naipual’s brand of racial discourse in his novels, his demonization of people of colour is well known and has been much commented upon to be worth elaboration here. No less a critic such as Edward Said, whose 1978 seminal work on misrepresentation, Orientalism, launched postcolonial criticism in the Western academy, says of Naipaul in Said on Naipaul that the latter has “allowed himself quite consciously to be turned into a witness for the Western prosecution” [thereby] encouraging “colonial mythologies about wogs and darkies.” That should be enough said about Naipaul’s conservatism and his perennial demonization of the Third World, which others have ascribed to a twisted psychology of self-hate. But there is need to recall Derek Walcott as witness, if only because, like Naipaul, he is from the Caribbean. A little anecdote will suffice.
             The New Statesman reports Walcott famously opening a Calabash Literary Festival reading in Jamaica in 2008 with the warning: “I’m going to be nasty.” He proceeded to satirise Naipaul in verse with the poem, “The Mongoose,” which opens with the lines: “I have been bitten. I must avoid infection. Or else I’ll be as dead as Naipaul’s fiction.” Rather simple and straightforward from the poet who gave us the Nobel-winning epic, Omeros. Perhaps, Walcott simply needed to deliver a direct metaphoric punch on Naipaul’s conservative proboscis.  The darkness, and racism of most of Naipaul’s oeuvre is captured more evocatively in another Walcott poem, where he refers to the former as “V.S. Nightfall.”
             Why is it that every so often, the Nobel committee chooses for their laureate, a writer whose work is indirectly likely to lead to or has led to divisionary politics on the border of hate speech?  Predictably such writers are usually those for whom literature, according Sartre, is a bourgeoisie preoccupation as opposed to real life political activism or even critical and progressive textual engagement. It is instructive that the Nobel committee, in awarding Naipaul the 2001 Literature prize, remarked in their citation that: “Naipaul is Conrad’s heir as the annalist of the destinies of empires in the moral sense: what they do to human beings. His authority as a narrator is grounded in the memory of what others have forgotten, the history of the vanquished.”
             Such a citation is nothing more than an unwitting indictment of Naipaul, the writer, for his dark and demonising visions and denigration of subject peoples, in the same vein as Joseph Conrad, particularly in The Heart of Darkness; Africa, on the one hand, and the global South, on the other, being those ‘areas of darkness' – to echo the title of another of Naipaul’s sad works.  Conrad’s Heart of Darkness has been severally deconstructed by postcolonial critics as being covertly prejudicial, or downright racist in Chinua Achebe’s summation, which led to a re-reading of Conrad and his revaluation in the British canon.
             As far as Naipaul is concerned, besides the literary, several biographers (official and unofficial) – amongst them Henry Theroux and Patrick French – have recounted the sexual sadism and demonic personality of Naipaul. While it can be argued that the Nobel committee may not look at a writer’s life but at the life of his work, in how far does this psychotic personality transfer into his demonization of cultures? How does this warp his vision as a writer? Naipaul is a man so insensitive that no sooner was his wife of 41 years in a fresh-dug grave than he remarried – in two months flat; moreover the same wife had been sent to an early grave due to his philandering with concubines, mistresses and prostitutes, all of whom he subjected to sexual violence. How noble then is the Nobel if the writer’s right-wing politics, his psychotic personality is irrelevant in the administration of the award?
             Escapist arguments will have it that we should separate the life of writer from the lives of his work as suggested earlier. Most importantly the grey area of poetic licence and an undifferentiated freedom of expression, will be marshalled as talking points – particularly since the novel is simply ‘art.’ Nevertheless ‘art for art’s sake’ is precisely the kind of bourgeoisie irritation which twentieth century French intellection eschewed.  Left to the Nobel committee we will still be trapped in the twentieth century still in political terms. The writer is still the conscience of society, “the unacknowledged legislators of the world” in Percy Shelley’s formulation in the 1821 essay, “In Defence of Poesie.” It seems to be clear that the Swedish Academy automatically lionises those writers, like Naipaul, Coetzee or Rudyard Kipling, whose Eurocentrism are either apparent or very obvious and whose politics support the status quo in the world in contradiction of the progressive political goals for which Alfred Nobel endowed and willed money to prizes in science and literature.

             The Eurocentrism and status quo mentality of Western literary and prize awards institutions is exemplified in a strange but perfectly market-logical 1950 request by Alfred Kopf Publishers that Doris Lessing, 2007 Nobel laureate, edit the manuscript of The Grass is Singing. According to Lucy Valerie Graham and in the South African terms of the discourse of the black peril:

Doris Lessing’s New York publisher, Alfred Knopf, told Lessing they would consider The Grass is Singing for publication if she would change it to accommodate an explicit rape of the white female protagonist by Moses, a black man: “in accordance,” as the publishers put it, “with the mores of the country” [South Africa]. Lessing refused the attempted revision, claiming: “the whole point of The Grass is Singing was the unspoken devious codes of behavior of the whites.” When the novel came out in paperback, the writer was shocked to find on its front cover “a lurid picture of a blond cowering terrified while a big buck nigger ... stood over her, threatening her with a panga.”  In the minds of publishers at least, such 'porno-tropics' evidently made for lucrative publications.

             The Nobel committee now and again seems to partake of the kind of stereotypical aesthetic valuation described by Graham – but for a different reason. The publisher is thinking of monetising fictionalised lived experience, while the Swedish academy, it will seem, is invested in keeping the power relations in the world as it is – hardly ever is there a situation where there is not something to be gained ideologically by the West as represented by this Academy.
             An example is the recent Nobel Peace Prize award to the Chinese dissident who seats in a Chinese jail and could not physically travel to Europe or be represented even by his wife who is under surveillance. Under the pretence of patronage, Stockholm morally aligns itself with the USA and EU, in a struggle for economic and political supremacy between the West and the waking red giant. The Academy’s action is cleverly subsumed under the discourse of freedom of speech and democracy; those two most abused and exploited panacea for assumed human rights infringements in the global South – even when those same human rights abuses are rampant in a racist Europe which still haunts, maims and kills the innocent on its streets due to colour or other imagined ‘infirmities.’  It is this kind of dissimulation and duplicity that Alfred Nobel wanted to assuage with the progressive agenda of the Nobel Prizes; but the Academy has learnt nothing from the lessons of history since it promotes conservative and politically dangerous art. Graham’s tongue in cheek support of Disgrace, also derives from this kind of conservative politics because, after recalling the example of efforts to corrupt Lessing and her refusal to be an establishment person, she writes:

While the commercial success of Coetzee’s latest novel may be attributed to similar international appetites, it is possible to argue that in Disgrace Coetzee self-consciously performs a subversion of ‘black peril’ narrative - by simultaneously scripting what Sol T. Plaatje referred to as ‘the white peril’, the hidden sexual exploitation of black women by white men that has existed for centuries.

             A deconstruction of Graham's analyses will show clearly that Coetzee invokes ‘white peril’ only in a tokenist manner; the better to enlarge his demonization of the black characters in his novel, on the one hand, and promote a conservative politics of the status quo on the other. History is the fault of the black South African in multi-racial South Africa he seems to say. The Nobel committee rather agrees with him and hands him a laureateship. But conscience is a very disturbing genie; it is little wonder Coetzee had to flee South Africa to live in Australia as one of its newest citizens. 
              The Nobel committee ought to realize that literature is not a tea party; it can liberate or imprison the spirit. Even Charles de Gaulle, intemperate imperialist, had to bow before the liberating power of writing. He had no choice but to order the immediate and unconditional release of Jean Paul Sartre, who was arrested and detained during the student strikes in the summer of 1968.  In decreeing Sartre's release, de Gaulle became philosophical: “You don’t arrest Voltaire.” About time the Nobel committee realize: ‘you don’t arrest the human spirit.’

About the Managing Editor


Amatoritsero Ede is a peripatetic, internationally award-winning poet and ex-Hindu monk born in Nigeria. He has been a Book Editor, was Editor-in-Chief of Sentinel Online Poetry Journal from 2005-2007, and Writer-in-Residence at Carleton University’s English Department from 2005-2006, where he is now a Doctoral Candidate.

Photo courtesy Charles Earl © 2010


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