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.
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