It was more than fifty years ago – in December of 1964 specifically – that Jean Paul Sartre turned down the Nobel Prize for Literature. His contention, in doing so, was that in accepting such a prize he would cease to be “Jean Peal Sartre, writer” and become “Jean Paul Sartre, Nobel Laureate”; with all the baggage that entailed. Now, while I certainly do not agree with Sartre’s politics and am not a fan of his philosophy either – despite that both are legitimate additions to the grand debate of ideas – I find myself impressed by his courage at declining this most prestigious of all prizes. Not only for the fame it brings – fame he considered of the wrong type, hence the refusal – but also the cash reward. Writers, true writers, most often struggle financially during their lifetimes. John Grisham, Clive Cussler, Tom Clancy we are not – no offense to them. Frosting on a cake; ramen noodles with too much salt. Gross publishing contracts in exchange for appealing to the most basic in people. Real writers challenge, inspire, fight – real writers threaten; Sartre was a real writer.
It must have been difficult for Sartre to turn down so substantial a bribe by the Nobel Committee, exchange for ‘toning it down a little’ – domestication. He said so himself, in his refusal letter: “If I accept it, I offer myself to what I shall call ‘an objective rehabilitation.’ According to the Figaro littéraire (a newspaper) article, ‘a controversial political past would not be held against me.’ I know that this article does not express the opinion of the Academy, but it clearly shows how my acceptance would be interpreted by certain rightist circles. I consider this ‘controversial political past’ as still valid, even if I am quite prepared to acknowledge to my comrades certain past errors.”
Cue Nobel 2016 – this disastrous season of ‘almosts’ and ‘not exactlys’. I had only finished smarting from the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the abortive political experiment of Juan Manuel Santos, eschewing so many great people who are choosing to fight tremendous evil at astonishing personal peril, when they did it again. Yesterday they announced that the Nobel Prize for Literature would go to – wait for it – Bob Dylan. Now, Bob Dylan is a fine musician – if not one I ever listen to, nor does anybody in the generations after mine, if they’ve even heard of him, which I would assume they have not. Simon and Garfunkel I prefer if I find myself nostalgic and in the mood to dredge the 1960s and 70s. Nevertheless, he is not a writer – he’s a musician. Absent the melodies – his ‘poems’ would sit on a shelf gathering dust. They are, well simple at best. Adolescent. Nothing that would inspire great debate or personal reflection; much less philosophical or social upheaval. His words are ordinary, without the music. Not that I am surprised by the award – elites pining for a world they no longer even influence, much less control. They must sorrow for the long-lost days of yore when they sat around with people like Juan Manuel Santos, angry young men listening to Dylan.
They are a dying breed.
The remarkable thing to all this is that great changes are afoot, brought about by people – writers, activists, bloggers, and new economists – who the elites appear to be oblivious to. Good is vying against evil; peace and war are again very real to tens of millions – whole peoples are on the move. And there are legions of activists on the streets fighting, intent on doing something about it – unbeknownst to the old men sitting around pondering a world that slipped away while nobody except they noticed.
Back to Sartre; and the stress of the bribe. I’m not sure if Dylan needed the money – my guess is that he’s doing just fine. Juan Manuel Santos sure doesn’t – coming as he does from one of the 12 families that have ruled Colombia since La Violencia. This being the case, they should have followed Sartre’s example – if for different reasons. They should have recognized that their contributions to ‘peace’ and ‘literature’ respectively were illusory, and that wearing the ‘Laureate’ label with nothing to show for it was in fact hollow, and frankly embarrassing. They could have come closer to earning these prizes by refusing them, or – better yet – they could have taken with them to Oslo and Stockholm somebody who they knew deserved the award but whose name doesn’t fill the google-alert inboxes of elites who have lost touch. That would have represented a great gift to humanity indeed; and maybe earned them a real place in history.