Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Prizes, poetry and skittish thoughts...

Sartre image
To accept, or not to accept...

I have been reading Pascale Casanova's work for the past year now for my thesis. Her book The World Republic of Letters ostensibly offers an alternative system for world literature and comparative literature, based upon (among many other things) Goethe's idea of the Weltliteratur (his term for world literature).

In 1827 Goethe told his student Johann Peter Eckermann, "I am more and more convinced that poetry is the universal possession of mankind, revealing itself everywhere and at all times in hundreds of men... I therefore like to look about me in foreign nations, and advise everyone to do the same. National literature is now a rather unmeaning term; the epoch of world literature is at hand, and everyone must strive to hasten its approach."

Poetry as a serious commitment, a "universal possession of mankind" is something many poets would agree with, I am thinking specifically about Shelley's A Defense of Poetry, where he calls poets the "unacknowledged legislators of the world", Whitman's call to Poets to Come, "Arose! for you must justify me", Ginsberg's "taking up the laurel tree cudgel", from Whitman in an early draft of A Supermarket in California and even Lawerence Ferlinghetti's Populist Manifesto No. 1, where he bids "Whitman's wild children" to "awake".

Casanova doesn't deal much with poetry however, she spends a great deal of time considering novels and this is all well and good, but one of her main arguments about "world literary space" depends upon recognition. The Nobel Prize is one such institution that she sites regularly as being an arbitrator of literary worth. I have just been looking at the Nobel Prize website at this years winner Mario Vargas Llosa and I was reminded about Jean Paul Sartre refusing the prize in 1964. The Nobel website reads:

The Nobel Prize in Literature 1964 was awarded to Jean-Paul Sartre "for his work which, rich in ideas and filled with the spirit of freedom and the quest for truth, has exerted a far-reaching influence on our age".

Jean-Paul Sartre declined the Nobel Prize.

Sartre was the first person to decline the award and even wrote a letter asking to be taken off the nominations list. In the aftermath he said that he didn't want to be "institutionalized" or "transformed" by such an award. Arguably the Nobel Prize for literature is the highest commendation a writer can receive from the "establishment" and (aside from Paris) for Casanova it is the gates-head or clearing house of world literature. So what was Sartre actually rejecting? Western late stage capitalism? The mains stream misunderstanding about his work that already frustrated him? Or could he be above the Nobel Prize in a sense as he didn't need it to catapult him to international fame?

Interesting also to note that Sartre's ex-friend Albert Camus recieved the award seven years before Sartre and was the second youngest Nobel winner (after Kipling). Camus was awarded it in 1957 for:

"his important literary production, which with clear-sighted earnestness illuminates the problems of the human conscience in our times".

Maybe another reason not to accept?

So do we accept the institution? How much weight do we put on the outcome of awards?

Do texts still have the ability to change the world?

Is poetry still considered a serious commitment?


  1. well, if only I had all the answers to your questions. I personally think awards are important as a form of validation and they're one of the ways through which the world and the author communicate. But I'm also suspicious of things that place value on creative work, since it's such a subjective thing. Hence why I'm also suspicious of terms like "world" literature, as such a thing does not exist. We are not generalisations, we're rather complex and contradictory beings. And I firmly believe, regardless of the idealism of this statement, that words and texts can change the world, and I have not come to this belief lightly. Those are my humble opinions.

    Really, really interesting post ...

  2. Great post and excellent questions! The American poet Adrienne Rich refused the National Book Award in 1973 I think it was because it privileges one kind of work over another refusing to recognize work that may be challenging to the establishment or written by the "wrong" kind of person. I can understand why Sartre didn't want his work to become institutionalized. It would then by taken into the ivory tower and locked away from the general public. Oh how he would be sad to know that that is what has happened to his work anyway.

    As for awards, I myself see them as two-pronged. I think they validate, for better or worse, an author's work and worldview. However, they also bring to general attention the work of writers who might not be very well known outside their country. I don't look to awards to tell me what good literature means but awards do provide a reliable source of good books to read should one be looking for a way to weed through all the dreck.

    I like to think that texts still have the ability to change the world but I'm not so sure that it isn't just a fantasy of mine these days. I do, however, firmly believe that good poetry is a serious commitment.


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