BOOKS AND ARTS DECEMBER 12, 2005
When Harold Pinter, one of Great Britain's most distinguished playwrights, accepted his 2005 Nobel Prize for Literature last week, he unleashed a biting critique of the United States and its foreign policy. It was hardly the first time a Nobel Laureate had delivered a politically charged speech. The Nobel Lecture, the annual address given by the winner of the literary prize, has over the years touched on political traumas ranging from the Korean War to the membership rules of the United Nations. Among the laureates have been some of the most eloquent activists and politicians of the twentieth century. Winston Churchill, Albert Camus, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn have all been honored, and each spoke--or sent a representative to speak for them--before the Swedish Academy about the state of world affairs.
Titling his lecture "Art, Truth %amp% Politics," Pinter spent nearly all of his 45-minute speech enumerating "U.S. crimes" of the past 50 years that "have only been superficially recorded." Employing exacting detail and anecdote, he discussed America's support for the Contras in Nicaragua, its approval of "every right wing military dictatorship in the world after the end of the Second World War," and its occupation of Iraq. "The crimes of the United States," he declared, "have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless." That Pinter larded his address with such extreme accusations surprised very few; he is a vociferous and long-time critic of America. But it wasn't only Pinter's politics that were repellent. Pinter may be more ideologically extreme than his predecessors, but his speech also differed from previous Nobel Lectures in another key respect: The best Nobel laureates have offered hopeful, articulate commentaries on world affairs; Pinter's speech was cynical and ineloquent.
It was an American writer who set the standard for the politically incisive Nobel Lecture. In 1950, William Faulkner stood in Stockholm's City Hall and read out four brief paragraphs. There was no mention of the arms race, of communism's slow creep, of mutually assured destruction; and yet there was the cold war, lingering behind Faulkner's words like a palimpsest. He said:
Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up?
Faulkner proceeded to exhort young writers to remember "the human heart in conflict" and to take that as the subject of their work. Working towards his conclusion, he broadened his pleas. "I believe," he intoned, "that man will not merely endure: He will prevail." It was hardly a harangue against the Soviet Union, but the message was clear: Liberal humanism would one day triumph.
Pinter's lecture offered little of this kind of hopeful rhetoric. His fixation on American horrors only circumscribed the impact of his speech; he had much to say about past atrocities and almost nothing about future reforms. The United States, according to Pinter, "has exercised a quite clinical manipulation of power worldwide while masquerading as a force for universal good." But Pinter neglected all the while to articulate what an actual force for universal good would be--or, for that matter, whether he believes such a thing exists. He spoke of the Untied States not giving "a damn about the United Nations, international law, or critical dissent." And yet he expressed no faith that these institutions could curb American hegemony. It was a polemic assembled entirely from cynical negations.
Pinter's strident tone was not only despairing but also clumsy. Faulkner's speech inspired precisely because it dispensed with the reciting of country names and the listing of specific offenses. It was political only in the broadest sense; and yet its political point was unmistakable. Rather than summoning language that, like Faulkner's, would touch on deeper themes than current events, Pinter contented himself with naive, one-note claims. "The Sandinistas," he ventured at one point, "weren't perfect ... but they were intelligent, rational, and civilized." This is not the pithy eloquence of Churchill, Camus, and Faulkner--an eloquence that echoes upwards through history. It's an observation of such political oversimplification that it long ago expired--an artifact of the old left, and an embarrassing one at that. Pinter went on to declare that "it is just that Bush and Blair be arraigned before the International Criminal Court of Justice" for their actions in Iraq. This is perhaps a deeply held belief for him. But it belongs in a newspaper column not a Nobel acceptance speech. For this reason Pinter's screed will have little resonance just one generation from now. His paranoid riffs on today's headlines have debased a very fine rhetorical tradition.
The best of the Nobel Lectures have given voice to liberal principles, not ticked off complaints. Those speeches were not, however, overrun with blithe optimism. Churchill, in his stirring 1953 speech, worried that we have "been witnesses of famine, misery, cruelty, and destruction before which pale the deeds of Attila and Genghis Khan." The Polish poet and exile Czeslaw Milosz sternly reminded his audience in 1980 that "[c]rimes against humanity ... are a poison which destroys the possibility of a friendship between nations." But few laureates have, as Pinter did, observed the world's imperfect condition and concluded that little hope remains. Most have sounded more like Camus, who challenged his listeners "to fight openly against the instinct of death at work in our history." Pinter, stuck in the darkness of his illiberal worldview, wants no such fight: He has already conceded defeat.
Keelin McDonell is a writer for The New Republic.