Thursday, October 13, 2005

The Politics of Unacknowledged Legislators

Percy Bysshe Shelly said that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. If that’s true (and even if it's not), then we need to consider why Harold Pinter has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Think of this as being another way to assess the mood of our European allies and perhaps world opinion more generally.

As Peggy and Roger have pointed out, the Peace Prize is often used to send a signal. This year’s choice of Mohammed El Baradei and the IAEA can be viewed as sending two signals (a) it is part of the periodic reminders at Hiroshima/Nagasaki decennials of the importance of decreasing the threat of nuclear war and (b) it may be viewed as a rebuff to the current U.S. administration.

But what about the Prize for Literature? The interesting thing is that, according to the BBC World Service, Pinter was not a favorite to win. While one of the living greats, no one was focusing on him this year. A lot of the buzz was about Orhan Pamuk, a Turkish writer whose novels explore Turkey’s history and culture in a manner that some have found reminiscent of James Joyce’s novels about Dublin, or Gabrial Garcia-Marquez’s about Colombia (and Latin America), or Jorge-Luis Borges’ stories, more generally.

So why Pinter? Some argue that he won—and Pamuk did not—because of politics. Pamuk has had a political firestorm around him for his calling on his government and his country to take responsibility for the 1916 massacres (dare I say genocide?) in Armenia.

Pamuk’s public indictment of Turkey’s past actions is uncomfortable for Turkey and the EU as Turkey enters into accession talks; particularly because such human rights abuses are one of the issues that have derailed earlier attempts at Turkey’s EU accession. Pinter has been outspoken politically and, as of late, his main point has been critiques of U.S. policy which some have considered going beyond mere policy disagreements and into the realm of full-scale anti-Americanism. (See here, for example.) This is not to say that Pamuk is a big fan of U.S. policy. But I would note that his criticisms have been more balanced and morally nuanced. (See, for example, his essay from the New York Review of Books.)

By almost all accounts, Pinter deserves a Nobel for his body of work. This isn’t like when Jethro Tull won the Best Metal Album Grammy over Metallica. But what I am interested in is why Pinter got it now, when commentators thought it was Pamuk’s year, based on Pamuk’s recent work. If the answer is indeed politics, then this is an example as to how deep the Atlantic rift may be.

And now for my obligatory moment of dewy-eyed idealism. Literature, at its best, bridges gaps of experience and culture. It helps you stand in another’s shoes. If one of the things we, as international lawyers, care about is a just world then fostering an understanding of each other’s views is an important step in that direction, regardless as to whether we actually agree with those views. You cannot let rhetoric bury nuance, anger bury analysis. Anger can spur great literature and righteous anger can be the seed of political reform, but great literature and just policies are more than angry reactions. Writers (and international lawyers) are fortunately not the world’s legislators. But both can have a profound influence in how we understand and shape our world. And, based on this year’s Nobel (and other current events), I think some of us need to start doing our jobs a bit better.


For an interesting take on the politics of awarding this year's Literature Prize, see this article.


Blogger Chris Borgen said...

Dean Rowan e-mailed to me the following and he agreed to my request to post it for our other readers to see. I will post a reply in the next comment.


Dear Prof. Borgen,

You’ve introduced a provocative but confusing post. The Prize for Literature...political?! Scandalous! Even through the mists of your “dewy-eyed idealism,” you acknowledge that good literature mingles with experience (and so it’s not purely an idealistic undertaking), that it can prompt empathy...of the sort that one hopes (wishes, rather) legislators would nurture when they would stand in our shoes.

I’ve read and seen a bit of Pinter, nothing of Pamuk. I have no particular axe to grind as to the outcome of the award. I am of course disturbed by the notion of “sending signals” in selecting recipients, and I gather that this is the kind of politics, specifically, with which you are at odds. But then you also seem to wish only that the academy had sent a different signal.

Perhaps a more serious problem is the banality of competition promoted by these annual international horse races. Pinter, “not a favorite to win.” Hmmm, my bookie told me otherwise...damn! Some would argue that nuance is all rhetoric (although I doubt he would have, I am reminded here to note the recent passing of Wayne Booth), but surely the Nobel Prize cremates nuance when it makes a celebrity spectacle of writers and their works. Your remark that Pinter is “one of the living greats” reads (unintentionally, I realize) as flip, particulary when the gist of the sentence is that nobody was really paying attention to him anyway. I guess it isn’t clear to me whether you think Pinter doesn’t deserve the award, or whether you think he deserves it, but is being used. By your analysis, though, Pamuk also would have been used.

Metallica? Well, I saw ‘em in the very early ‘80s, Whisky-a-Go-Go on Sunset Strip, opening for some band I can’t recall. I think Mustaine was still in the band. No spectacle, no flashpots, no accessories...just four barely post-adolescent guys thrashing it out onstage. Very hard workers. They’ve declined a bit since then.


Dean C. Rowan

10/13/2005 5:42 PM  
Blogger Chris Borgen said...


Great comments, all. My real intention in the post was to show another example of the Atlantic rift in a place I did not really expect to find it. The Peace Prize, OK, but the Literature Prize?

In any case, though, you’re absolutely right in saying my post brings up a bunch of other unresolved points. Am I ambivalent? Yes. While I accept that Pinter does likely deserve a Nobel in Literature based on his body of work, I would prefer that he get it clearly for that body of work and not as some signal based on his politics. In an ideal world, I would prefer that the Nobel committee not award the Literature prize as a signal based on the politics of the writer at all. But, if they do, I think this was a pretty lousy signal because some of his critiques do not even have the nuance that I would expect of a writer of Nobel stature.

While I also think Pamuk is worthy of a Nobel, I do NOT think he should get it BECAUSE of the tone of his political criticism. I think he should get it based on the corpus of his writing as a whole. If, however, the Committee was going to send a political signal, I prefer the signal that would have been implied by his winning. (The importance of facing one’s history and the importance of looking at arguments from both sides—or from as many sides that are relevant.)

I find worrisome the angry politicization of interaction between the U.S. and other countries across so many issues. In the grand scheme of things awarding the Nobel to Pinter in part to tweak the nose of the U.S. is not a big deal. (Like I said, he probably deserved it, regardless.) It’s just that, based on the virulence of his criticism, I hope this is not indicative of a more general breakdown in Atlanticist political discourse and mutual understanding.


10/13/2005 5:43 PM  
Blogger Charles Gittings said...

I find this a bit curious:

"Writers (and international lawyers) are fortunately not world’s legislators. But both can have a profound influence in how we understand and shape our world."

What's fortunate about that?

And doesn't the expression "We the people" include writers and int'l lawyers?

10/13/2005 11:01 PM  
Blogger Chris Borgen said...


I meant that comment only in the sense that writers and international lawyers do not constitute a world legislature.

Of course they can be elected (among others) to legislatures around the world. And,of course, they make up (along with the rest of us in democratic societies) the constituencies of legislators.


10/13/2005 11:30 PM  
Blogger Charles Gittings said...

Hi Chris,

Well it just seemed to me that no group could be less fortunate as world legislators than the politicians who mostly are the world's legislators. We started out with a bunch of gifted amateurs in this country, and it's been downhill ever since.

And I'd also say that writers and int'l lawyers tend to be more forward thinking than most... each in their own way. Both groups cover the spectrum of sensibilities of course, but it seems like whatever their leanings, the status quo isn't usually high on their agenda.

Which maybe isn't such a bad thing, though I get a bit stressed by the efforts of some to turn back the clock to the bad old days of Rome...


10/14/2005 8:37 AM  

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