The Other Side Of The Nobel Prize

Earlier this month the Nobel Prizes were announced.  Every year they cause controversy of some kind.  Occasionally the science awards cause a minor stir, but usually it is the Literature and especially the Peace Prizes that make the biggest waves.  (The Economics Prize is not a real Nobel–i.e. established by Alfred Nobel’s will–which is why the winner is announced after the other prizes are awarded.)

I have no expertise in medicine, physics, or chemistry, so I cannot speak to how deserving this year’s recipients are, or really any year’s recipients.  Occasionally a deserving person is ignored (Robert Gallo), but usually the public just accepts the results with a smile and a shrug.  This year’s Medicine Prize caused a tiny bit of a controversy.  One of the winners, Ralph Steinman, had died three days before the prize was awarded, and posthumous winners are forbidden.  The fact that the Nobel Committee chose not to rescind the award however, met with universal approval, so that hardly counts as a controversy.  Neither of this year’s Physics or Chemistry Prizes (for the discoveries of dark energy and quasicrystals respectively) have been questioned.

But the science awards are different because the winners’ contributions to the world are . . . not exactly tangible, but measurable.  Although there is a certain degree of subjectivity in deciding recipients, it is hard to argue that those recipients have not benefited humanity in some way.  One can point to actual results and progress.  Objectively.

The Literature and Peace Prizes on the other hand are entirely subjective.  Both awards are infamous for who did not win even more than who did.  Giants of 20th century literature (Joyce, Kafka, Borges, Proust, Nabokov) and arguably the greatest novelist of all time (Tolstoy) were snubbed by Nobel.  And then there is the case of Gandhi.  Even Nobel admits that it grievously erred by never awarding Gandhi a Peace Prize.  (The year Gandhi died, the Peace Prize was not awarded; a tacit admission that Nobel screwed up majorly.  Nobel’s website is apologetic and somewhat defensive about its greatest oversight.)

Both the Peace Prize and the Literature Prize are inherently political.  Obviously the Peace Prize is overtly so, but what makes the Literature Prize both aggravating and disingenuous is the pretension that the prize is solely a reward for quality.  Glance at the list of winners and ask yourself if you’ve even heard of most of them.  For every literary giant–a William Faulker, for example–there are at least two Dario Fo’s.  This year’s winner is Tomas Tranströmer.  I have not read his work, nor am I, by any stretch of the imagination, a poetry expert, so I cannot judge his literary merit.  It excited his native Sweden.

No American has won since 1992 (Toni Morrison), and that has caused a tempest in a teapot. Giving out literary prizes is ridiculous (time rather than a committee determines greatness), but I do understand the anger a few years ago that ensued following the comments of one Horace Engdahl, a member of the Nobel Committee, who said that American writers are too insular and ignorant to win.  Engdahl went on to say that Europe is the center of the literary world.  These sentiments were echoed again this month by Alexander Nazaryan in Salon, although his observations are deeply flawed and easy to pick apart–i.e. par for the Salon course.  Arguments about the death of American literature never die.  Perhaps the problem is that American literature has become so removed from the general public that only a select few care enough to take part in the debate.  On one hand this would prove Engdahl’s point.  On the other, it underscores the fundamental flaw in his argument–the Committee does not look deep enough.  No one ever bothers to look past “serious” fiction to the unfairly derided “genre” fiction, yet in such works one can find far superior outlets for exploring the overarching universal themes which Nobel claims to love.

It is true that academia and the Masters of Fine Arts have gentrified the oh-so-serious American novel to a certain degree, but it is nothing short of galling to hear cries of insularity coming from the Nobel Committee.  Claiming Europe is the center of the literary world is merely a justification for the fact that Nobel largely ignores everywhere that is not Europe.  More accurately, Nobel ignores literature published in non-Western European languages.  Take a look at the list of winners.  Most wrote or write in English, French, German, Spanish, or the Scandinavian languages, and even those that don’t often have very strong ties to Western Europe.  Yet world literature is more than just Germanic and Romantic, and that is why the criticism is especially grating.  Nazaryan can claim that Nobel has “given it to Caribbean poets and Chinese absurdists,” but this is a disingenuous statement.  Rather Nobel has awarded the prize to a Caribbean poet (Derek Walcott in 1992) and a Chinese absurdist (Gao Xingjian in 2000, who has lived in France since 1987 and been a French citizen since 1997), but these are the exceptions that prove the rule.

Were it were not for the large purse attached, and the association with the Peace Prize, no one would take the Literature Prize seriously.  Even the judges themselves cannot agree what constitutes worth (see here and here).  Moreover, the Literature Committee is not above emulating their counterparts in Oslo by trying to send a political message.  When V.S. Naipaul won in 2001, it was just after the September 11 attacks.  It was no coincidence that the prize went to a prominent critic of Islam and fundamentalism.  When Harold Pinter won, it was less for his plays and more for his strident criticism of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the American government.  It was the same with Doris Lessing a couple of years later.  These examples are just the tip of the iceberg.  Even if the political undertones do not detract from the winner’s worth, they nevertheless undermine the Literature Prize’s selection.   Furthermore, those undertones are monolithic in their outlook; they always mirror the ideals and beliefs of the European political left.  Who exactly is insular again?

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Far more than the Literature Prize though, the Peace Prize is the Nobel Committee at its most didactic and political.  For all the money, fame, and prestige attached, the Peace Prize is really a giant farce.  One must remember that a handful of Norwegians choose the Peace Prize recipient (and those Norwegians are chosen by the government of Norway.)  Hence Yasser Arafat, Henry Kissinger, and Kofi Annan won the award while Gandhi did not.  If the Literature Prize subtly mirrors the European left, than the Peace Prize boldly announces that to the world.  Never was this more apparent than in the 2000’s where the majority of the awards were ultimately criticisms of the administration of George W. Bush.  Six times between 2000 and 2010 the Peace Prize was awarded to critics of the Bush administration, either because of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq or because of his horrific anti-environment policies.  Barack Obama’s win can only be seen as the final rebuke to the Bush administration.

This year, clearly sensitive to the charge that Nobel does not consider enough women, the Committee split the Peace Prize between three women, Tawakel Karman of Yemen and Leymah Gbowee and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia.  (The lack of female recipients is a very real concern.  Only 15 women have won the Peace Prize, and that is more than any other Nobel Prize.)  Karman was chosen because Nobel wanted to publicly approve the Arab Spring, and Karman is the only prominent woman in the movement.  Whether or not she is worthy (or whether her efforts are successful) is a different story.

Honestly, any award for the Arab Spring is very premature at this date.  The Arab Spring is a rousing story–the people toppling powerful dictators–but it remains to be seen  whether those revolutions will be successful, including in Karman’s Yemen.  Even in Egypt and Libya, where the dictator was toppled, it is yet unclear that whatever comes next will be better.  After Louis XVI came Robespierre and Napoleon; after the Tsar came Lenin and Stalin; after the Shah came the Ayatollahs.  Waiting to judge whether the Arab Spring actually succeeded would have been more prudent, but then the Peace Prize Committee couldn’t have given its imprimatur so quickly.  Should these revolutions go the way that most revolutions do, it will be very hard to justify that the Peace Prize was given to those who (as Alfred Nobel required in his will) “have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”

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I can neither defend nor attack the Committee’s decision to award the Peace Prize to Leymah Gbowee.  I had never heard of before, and I am unfamiliar with her work.  I suspect though that her selection has less to do with her own accomplishments and more to do with her co-winnner, countrywoman, and President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

I have written about Johnson Sirleaf before.  Like many in the Western world, I am fascinated by her.  Nevertheless, I have the luxury of not being Liberian, and her government does affect my life.  Undoubtedly, she has done much for Liberia; most notably she managed to get billions of dollars of her nation’s debt forgiven.  Furthermore, in a country with such a troubled history as Liberia, under her rule, free, fair, and peaceful elections were just held, and her position is at stake.  (At the time of this writing, the opposition claims election fraud by Johnson Sirleaf’s party, although official African Union observers have reported the elections to be fair.  What happens next remains to be seen, and I fear it will be ugly.)  Nevertheless, life for the average Liberian is incredibly difficult and charges of corruption have plagued Johnson Sirleaf’s government but not her personally.  What has plagued her is her former association with her predecessor, the genocidal dictator Charles Taylor.  A commission in her own country recommended that for that association she should be barred from holding public office for 30 years (she is 72.)  Obviously this recommendation was ignored.

The Peace Prize was given out just a few days before Liberians went to the polls to determine whether Johnson Sirleaf should have a second term.  For this reason, the timing of the award was awful from all angles.  Just as there is no other way to justify Obama’s award than as a rebuke to Bush, one cannot see Johnson Sirleaf’s award as anything other than a way for the Nobel Committee (i.e. white, rich Europeans) to suggest to Liberians (i.e. poor, black Africans) how they should vote in their own elections.  Yet, this belies a fundamental lack of understanding.  Johnson Sirleaf’s approval in Liberia is far more complex (and far less universal) than in the West.  As with Karman, it would seem far more appropriate for the Nobel Committee to have waited to assess what Johnson Sirleaf has actually done.  Did she leave Liberia a better place than she found it?  If the answer is yes, then she would deserve a Nobel Peace Prize, but that is a question only time could tell.

But patience and careful consideration?  These are not Nobel virtues.

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One response to “The Other Side Of The Nobel Prize

  1. Pingback: Diplomacy | tracingthetree

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