“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…


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Why a Poem?

As for the motivations of others, any answer to this question will be arguable; nonetheless, I offer this list.

Capital Scribe Writing

  • To “Howl” at the world about its injustices and tragedies
  • To make convincing political statements or arguments
  • A love letter or its opposite
  • A spontaneous outpouring of feelings which the writer hurries to record
  • A relaxed and careful observation about anything in the world which occupies the writer’s sensibilities
  • Responding to a challenge from other writers who are deliberately motivating each other, or writing a group poem (this is a regular form in Japanese-style poetry)

Enough of listing.

My first poems were tentative, experimental, fueled by non-romantic yearnings, deep feelings, and observations on my surroundings. I wrote this one after viewing the movie “Legends of the Fall,” the last spoken line of which is, “It was a good death:”

Will It Be a Good Death?

When all the patterns close around me,
As my spirals play out all their energies,
When the sun no longer burns inside me,
And the waters cease coursing through me,
Will we cry good tears and say goodbye without regret?
Will it be a good death?

I pray my life will warrant a good death.

Will those with whom I am love-connected say,
“It was a good death, there was honor and completeness”?
Will they peacefully help my spirit reunite
With the Great Everything?

To die a good death, I must live a good life:
Be brave, be true, my soul;
Help me toward that good death.

Homer, Alaska
11 June 1995

Shortly after writing this I returned to California and began writing poems in earnest. I connected, on the Internet and locally, with other writers of poems with whom I felt an affinity. We shared and challenged and, in some cases, read our stuff publicly in coffee houses and libraries.

This was a time when I was newly enraptured with “Nature,” now living by a regional wilderness preserve, and with the coastal Santa Cruz Mountains within easy driving distance:

Sturdy legs, strong feet
Carry spirit up, down, up.
Lush meadows beckon

Mountain valley spreads
Its myriad lives across
The nourishing Earth.

Great stands of Madrone
Reach naked limbs through forest
Toward silent sky.

Immense cathedral
Of towering conifers
Brings peace to spirit..


Liang Kai, The Sixth Patriarch Cutting the Bamboo

These verses are in haiku form (three stanzas, 5-7-5 syllables), but not true haiku, which, if they were, would be expressions rooted in Zen. The book I am currently reading addresses this subject:  The Genius of Haiku: Readings from R.H. Blyth on Poetry, Life, and Zen.

After another twenty years of playing with the haiku-form and other forms, I am now attempting to (or letting myself) get into the spirit, or mode, or ‘way’ of Zen, to continue with haiku and its variants as my preferred form of written expression.

But what is Zen? So glad you asked. D. T. Suzuki answers:

According to Huineng (the Sixth Patriarch of Chan), Zen was the ‘seeing into one’s own nature.’

That’s it!

Alan Watts, wrote many books on Eastern ways, including a book entitled “This is It, and Other Essays on Zen and Spiritual Experience” and “Become What You Are.” Here is an excerpt from the latter:

Life exists only at this very moment, and in this moment it is infinite and eternal. For the present moment is infinitely small; before we can measure it, it has gone, and yet it exists forever…

Without further ado, because so many words have already been issued here, I offer a few haiku which may reflect the way of Zen:

not meeting the eyes
of itinerant beggars
Stockholm subway train

eating stinky cheese
the smell and taste return me
to primeval ooze

gothic punk rock band
delights not this listener
original din

planting potatoes
fighting the grasses and weeds
our summer garden


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