I could well have entitled this “A Disagreement with John Steinbeck on remarks in his Nobel Banquet Speech.” You will see my critique of his speech at the end of this presentation which includes Banquet remarks by some of the other Nobel Literature Prize winners.
The prize award ceremony in Stockholm takes place at the Stockholm Concert Hall, on 10 December, the anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s death. (The annual Peace Prize is awarded in Oslo, Norway). In the Stockholm ceremony, presentation speeches extol the Laureates and their discovery or work, after which His Majesty the King of Sweden hands each Laureate a diploma and a medal. The Ceremony is followed by a banquet at the Stockholm City Hall for about 1,300 people, where the Laureates give a short acceptance speech. In addition, the Nobel Laureates are required to “give a public lecture on a subject connected with the work for which the prize has been awarded”.
The briefer acceptance speeches by the Literature Prize winners are the subject of this article
1970 – Alexandr Solzhenitsyn was critical of those writers who use current political struggles solely as the basis for their work:
We all know that an artist’s work cannot be contained within the wretched dimension of politics. For this dimension cannot hold the whole of our life and we must not restrain our social consciousness within in its bounds. (Emphasis added).
1957 – Albert Camus
Who after all this can expect from him (the writer) complete solutions and high morals? Truth is mysterious, elusive, always to be conquered. Liberty is dangerous, as hard to live with as it is elating. We must march toward these two goals, painfully but resolutely, certain in advance of our failings on so long a road. What writer would from now on in good conscience dare set himself up as a preacher of virtue?
1954 – Ernest Hemingway
A writer should write what he has to say and not speak it.
1946 – Hermann Hesse gave a gentle sermon:
(M)ay diversity in all shapes and colours live long on this dear earth of ours. What a wonderful thing is the existence of many races, many peoples, many languages, and many varieties of attitude and outlook! If I feel hatred and irreconcilable enmity toward wars, conquests, and annexations, I do so for many reasons, but also because so many organically grown, highly individual, and richly differentiated achievements of human civilization have fallen victim to these dark powers.
William Faulkner put Man on a pedestal, and John Steinbeck put the writer there. It is with Steinbeck I take particular issue with.
1949 – William Faulkner
I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.
1962 –John Steinbeck
The writer is delegated to declare and to celebrate man’s proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit— for gallantry in defeat— for courage, compassion and love. In the endless war against weakness and despair, these are the bright rally-flags of hope and of emulation. I hold that a writer who does not passionately believe in the perfectibility of man, has no dedication nor any membership in literature.
So here is this writer (my humble self) presuming to disagree with the opinion of an icon and Nobel laureate on the writer’s “delegated” duty to his fellow man.
And who, please, is “the writer”? Is “the writer” he, or she, whom other people call “writer”? Or can this label also be applied to the person who calls himself writer, or simply writes without naming himself or this activity—even if no one else calls or considers him a “writer”? By Steinbeck’s words, this cannot be so because the writer has a “delegated” duty to others. Who is it that can observe upon whom this “delegation” and nomination as “writer” has occurred?
The quintessential moment in art is that of the creation. All subsequent perceptions and utterances, even by the artist himself, are of a lesser order.
The artist is responding to the “delegator,” and no person has any standing to verify or deny the validity of the artist’s rendering of this duty as he perceives it. One may not like it, or want even to look at it (or listen to it, or touch it, or the artist might immediately destroy it)—this is not important. The delegator has delegated and the artist has moved in consonance to the best of his or her ability.
Steinbeck says the writer must “celebrate man’s proven capacity for greatness and spirit”, etc. Bosh, I quaintly say. Perhaps Steinbeck had a direct line to the Delegator to know of this? A writer must do what a writer must do, even if no-one reads his work.
Gallantry, courage, compassion, love, weakness, despair, hope: all these are wonderfully human abstractions attempting, as all words imperfectly attempt, to describe the totality of man and his experience. Let us give credit to Steinbeck for this poetic display.
But, is it the writer’s or the artist’s duty to do his art in the “right” way, according to these abstractions which beg precise definition—to use them as templates? Of course not.
As for “membership in literature,” I find this pompous. Steinbeck had the exalted podium for the moment, as the authority on what is and is not “literature.” Literature is variously defined by writers and scholars and critics according to their abilities and tastes. Regular people read books and stories.
Finally, I comment upon “the perfectibility of man.” This is the ultimate pomposity. I wish John had defined the perfect human for us so we could consciously strive to become this person. This is hubris, clear and simple. If man can be perfected can he not then become as God, or as a god? Hubris, in Ancient Greek drama, was applied to those who esteemed themselves as equal to or greater than the gods, and was often the “tragic flaw” of characters (ref: Wikipedia).
Maybe Steinbeck felt God-like or god-like as he stood, in 1962, before his august audience in the great hall containing other, perhaps humbler, Nobel laureates.
But, we can forgive him his all-too-human exultation in what was, for him, a singular moment.