The Head of the Nobel Prize Committee on Literature was at Harvard yesterday, and I went to hear him talk at an informal lunchtime session yesterday. We got to submit questions/topics of interest beforehand, and mine was:
“I wouldn’t mind hearing Dr. Per Wästberg speak about what he thinks the larger cultural and social influence the Nobel Prize Committees in general, but particularly the Literature Committee, can have in making its choices, and if that figures into the Literature Committee’s process or not.”
At the talk, he very kindly addressed the potentially political nature of the prize and the very political nature of some of the authors considered/awarded it. He noted that while the Committee understands that their choice may have a political effect, but they do not allow political concerns/interests to influence their decision. I personally think that that’s either said than done sometimes, particularly with the very politicised authors that they must see every year. (An example of where politics did effect the Committee might be Ezra Pound, who was refused the prize on the basis of his rather eccentric political views, but that does indeed seem to be an extraordinary case.)
He said something interesting as a throw-away remark, however: “Literature always survives politics”. Immediately, I started nodding, thinking of the many Argentinian authors, for example, who sailed close to the wind in terms of the political content of their writing (think of Neruda’s exile, for example).
But then someone else, a little later on, called him out on it. It was clear that he held the same view as I did: great writing, no matter how much it is denigrated by the contemporaneous social or political mores, will eventually gain appreciation. I adore Zola, for example, but when L’Assomoir was first published, it was considered shockingly filthy in Britain because of the very in-depth, gritty focus on the dirt and poverty of the working class life. But that someone else called it into question prodded me out of that sort of complacency. For although literature may outlive a political regime or a specific political figure, politics does affect the literary community. It not only prompts writers to greatness in the way they portray or critique a system. Politics can also silence writers (literally and metaphorically). Great writings might be buried, burnt, or simply never written, simply because political power decrees it.
If there is one thing massive political upheaval in China, Russia, France, Argentina (and many other places besides) has taught us, it is that the academic, the literary, is always one of the first spheres to be attacked by a political structure looking to cement and enforce its power. We nowadays enjoy looking back wistfully and thinking how wonderful it is that so much literature survived, critiquing and portraying those systems. But how much more literature has been lost?