“The Wretched Dimension of Politics.” Excerpts from Nobel Banquet Speeches of Literature Prize Winners

The Nobel Prize ceremonies will soon commence in Stockholm (and Oslo, Norway for the Peace Prize). I am reposting, below, and with some supplementary remarks, an article I wrote eight years ago which is still timely.

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.

2010-03-22 Orpheus at Stockholm Concert Hall-2896

Orpheus and the Muses at Stockholm Concert Hall, by Carl Milles

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 its bounds. (Emphasis added).

Albert Camus and Ernest Hemingway were rather modest in their claims for the virtues of writers:

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.


John Steinbeck (1902 – 1968)  —  William Faulkner (1897 – 1962)

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.

ZeusWho or what is “delegating” to the writer? God? Nature? Zeus?

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 a 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.

writer's inkFinally, 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.

Now the supplementary remarks, all regarding John Steinbeck.

I am currently reading “A Fire in the Mind,” by Stephen and Robin Larsen, a biography of  Joseph Campbell, the renown Professor of Literature who worked in comparative mythology and comparative religion, and whose written works, and academic and popular lectures cover many aspects of the human experience. When age twenty-six, still in his formative years with respect to his ultimate profession,  he had an open love affair with Carol Steinbeck, then wife of John, and through the written and verbal records of this brief love story (which was not physically consummated), the authors have gained insight into the personality of Steinbeck which they share with us.

A few days after Joseph and Carol found themselves entranced with each other, Joseph and John talked about this love that had exploded, unsought, within and between Joseph and Carol during a summer of social and professional encounters in Monterey, California, which included many other people.

(From Joseph Campbell’s journal):

“Marriage,” John said, “with Carol isn’t really marriage, you know… It has none of the characteristics of an ordinary marriage. She’d probably make a man of you, Joe. She’d build back your ideals.”

Steinbeck then left the lovers alone in their agony of conflicting passions, loyalties, and principles. After about a week, John returned. He and Joseph talked further (Campbell quoting himself in his journal):

It’s positively ridiculous even to think of my marrying Carol. The only question is, John, how I’m to withdraw from this mess with the least pain for her.

After a day or so of conversation, Joseph and Carol agreed and told everyone the ‘affair’ was over. The energetic social life of their close-knit group of friends continued, mostly as before, but always with the issue of the emotional triangle present in varying degrees. The love-tension wasn’t dissipated by merely talking about what was right to do.

Finally, Campbell left on a sea-going expedition to Alaska. A few months later he received a letter from Carol, in which she appeared “in a condition something like frantic.” Joseph wrote in his journal:

John has disappeared and seems to have fled dramatically to the High Sierra. The laws of high tragedy would demand a flight to the Sierras; and John, being acutely sensitive to these laws has achieved the most dramatic. He has focused the amazed attention of all society upon the hole that has been left behind him. He has no doubt exacted the profound pity of his most immediate family. He has demonstrated to Carol how violently unhappy his sensitive soul’s reactions will be to her most little peccadillo. She will understand in the future what tragedies may result from her departure from the rules set down by John…

Quoting  the authors’ text:

When Campbell learned later of John and Carol Steinbeck’s  divorce, he expressed some resentment that was a further transformation of what he had felt during the Alaskan trip. He said… in a 1984 interview, “I don’t happen to have good feelings for–and I’ve known a couple of men who have done this–(men who) stayed with a wife during the tough years and then when things begin coming in, they move to another wife… I learned with a real pang that Carol had died last February. She was a wonderful woman, and courageous and very loyal to John. But she was already beginning to suspect at that time he was trying to push her off.”

A few years after Campbell’s Monterey visit, Carol had become pregnant, and John evidently insisted that she have an abortion., since a child would disrupt his writer’s regimen. After the abortion, Carol developed a bad infection that led to a hysterectomy…


About Ron Pavellas

Expatriate American living in Sweden with wife. Retired from employment in the USA. Currently focused on blog articles, memoirs, and creative writing.
This entry was posted in Books & Literature and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to “The Wretched Dimension of Politics.” Excerpts from Nobel Banquet Speeches of Literature Prize Winners

  1. Brian Joseph says:

    Fascinating stuff. I think that a lot of people throughout history tried to work on the “perfectibility of man”. I think that it has sometimes led to catastrophe and suffering in the form of dangerous ideologies such as fascism and communism. Other times I think that the term was just hyperbole and referred to self improvement.

    I have read a little Joseph Campbell. I hand no idea as to the details of his personal life. Interesting stuff!


    • Ron Pavellas says:

      Thanks, Brian. While I deride the concept of “the perfectibility of man,” I also have reservations about “original sin.” Both concepts have been used to manipulate the credulous. I’m 30% through the Campbel biography. He was born and reared with many advantages, included a cheerful athleticism and inquiring intellect. He was also, in my view, naive into his adult years, but this was accompanied by an openness to experience which served him and others well, through his scholarship and inner journey. He seemed an enjoyable companion to all.


Leave a Reply to Ron Pavellas Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.