Monday, October 06, 2008
A Nobel Prize for Kurt Cobain
By Bernie Quigley
- for The Hill on 10/06/08
I was a little disappointed to read the other day that an American would likely not get the Nobel Prize for Literature this year.
"Europe is still the center of the literary world," not the United States, said Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, which awards the prize. He suggested that American writers were "too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture."
He added: "The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature. That ignorance is restraining."
Too bad. I thought Neil Young was sure to get it this time. Dang. Not even on the list.
“Thinking your mind was my own in a dream/What would you wonder and how would it seem?” I like that part – like the Taoist tale of the man who dreamed of a guru and in a moment of Awakening saw that the guru was dreaming of him.
And the next line: “Living in castles a bit at a time/The King started laughing and talking in rhyme.” Could be a scene right out of the Upanishads in which a cosmic vision of the Self emerges as the Sword of Discrimination cuts away day-to-day illusion. Nice.
About 100 years ago someone asked Bob Dylan who he thought was the greatest poet of the age. He said Smokey Robinson of the Motown group, Smokey and the Miracles. I did a little research and looked through the past few winners of the Nobel laureates for literature. Smokey wasn’t on the list either.
I don’t know. The people who decide these things are Old Swedish Men (Old Swedish Men of every race, creed, color, sex and sexual orientation, of course) and live in tiny little rooms in a cold and gnarly land like I do and they never go anyplace fun. I know they have never paddled the Boundary Waters in Minnesota and Wisconsin and heard the night cry of the loon or been to the Dixie Classic or drove all night to Nashville and got tattoos - (I’m quite certain that not one of these venerables has a tattoo of the Zig-Zag man on his forearm like my friend Burt has).
Indeed, it is a well-known fact that these people only leave their rooms once a year to grant these awards. Maybe they should just try moving the awards to someplace more interesting like Afghanistan or Africa or India or Tobaccoville, North Carolina, and see what happens. And take away that thing that says you have to be an Old Swedish Man (but of any race, creed, color, sex and sexual orientation, of course) to be one of these judges.
I bet if you just took six random tribal elders (and you don’t have to be old to be an elder) – three men and three women – from Nigeria or Bali or Uzbekistan and asked them to make an objective study and draw up a list of the most dynamic and influential poets and writers in the American century since Victory in Japan they would come up with something entirely different. Smokey might even make the list. Maybe Neil too. And Eminem and Hank Williams and Laura Nyro and Johnny Cash and Kurt Cobain.
It is possible that the Nobel Committee for Literature, like the British crown under the pending doom of Camilla and Charles, is a little out of touch. For any writer or artist, winning an award is always a sign that you are getting out of touch; that you have been institutionalized. It is much more flattering to be censored or, as I once was, forbidden to talk to anyone in an entire university without permission from the Vice President.
A Nobel Prize and your time is up. And so is giving an award. Queen Elizabeth not long ago gave an award to Tommy Franks, making him a knight and putting him in the same crowd as that English life insurance salesman, Paul McCartney. And Mick Jagger, Friend of Bill. He got one too. You remember him. He does football games and Bar Mitzvahs now. That’s why the gods take the great ones young, before they can start getting awards and selling life insurance.
I mean there really hasn’t been anything around that you could actually call literature – Henrik Ibsen, Thomas Mann, William Butler Yeats, Emerson, Willa Cather, Tolstoy – at least since the Second World War. And except for the occasional Japanese courtesan, the art form of writing novels, for which Nobel Prizes in Literature are most frequently awarded, is an almost purely European form in case they haven’t noticed. The ones who win always appeal to the European or New York sensibility. Tolstoy said it was for the entertainment of a bored parlor culture of people with nothing better to do. He abandoned the craft in mid life. Novel writing is the opposite of zen, which tries to reduce the reliance on words until the words disappear altogether like a canoe passing into the night on a river.
What is inherent in the giving of these awards is the idea of a superior sensibility which should advise power. In the age of Johnny Bravo and the Powder Puff Girls – America’s Siegfried and the River Sirens – the Swedes look for a higher voice which would advise the throne. But mostly the throne doesn’t listen. Indeed, the work of the chosen poets and writers of the Nobel committee is generally known only to the pot-bound, jargon-speaking and jargon-thinking, autonomous world of the English Department because nobody else pays attention.
And that is not only my consideration. Here is Langdon Hammer, chairman of the English department at Yale, who writes on a variety of contemporary poets, speaking here on that dark twin who lingers under the stairs of the Academy, Lit-Crit: “When did you last read a book of literary criticism?” he asks. (Not since Moe’s Bar went Po-Mo.) “Not recently, most people who do not write criticism themselves will answer. Criticism today is impenetrable and irrelevant, since it is jargon-ridden and no longer interested in literature.”
In the days of Victoria, the toni crowd at the Marlborough House might have had a perverse interest in Wilde, Gide, Yeats and co. and the formidable group of artists and writers who stopped by William Morris’s kitchen. Even up until 1914 when a remarkable individual like T.E. Lawrence could enjoy celebrity both as a warrior and a literary lion.
But not today. Not since victory on the Western Front in 1917. Our world is a direct democracy – there is no enlightened eloi class of the Academy which speaks on our behalf. Nor does it speak to the more influential on our behalf. We speak for ourselves and if we want to name our kids Thursday or Track and start our own religion we in this very public age will do so, and we will probably also form an internet group for that purpose and for other families with Thursday children.
The Nobels might think of retooling. Maybe they should take a cue from the gaudy and unabashedly proletariat Academy Awards and give a variety of awards for specific tasks. Something like this: The Nobel Prize for Perfect Spelling and Grammar to Joan Didion; The Victoria, Empress of India, Award for Telling Foreign Devils How to Act to Salmon Rushdie; The Most Pissed off Young ‘Un Award to Suketu Mehta (his recent book Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found is actually well work reading, so he might not qualify). That way you could generate the gushy and dynamic tension like on Academy Awards night, instead of just that one short newspaper paragraph every year to someone you usually never heard of before and will almost certainly never hear of again.
Then again, it might even be time for these Nobel committee guys to think of going back to the old alma mater for some of that mid-life (or later) counseling on changing careers. They do that now.
British poet Harold Pinter won the award in 2005. Pinter says he was influenced by Jimmy Joyce and his shadow-kin Beckett. (Does not every lace-curtain South Boston Irish family like my own have their own Samuel Beckett, his angular bird’s face into the soup and grimly muttering something oblique and incomprehensible to himself throughout Thanksgiving Dinner? Is it that all the literary types who are not Irish secretly want to have an uncle or an auntie like that?).
But Pinter didn’t win the award because he was Joycian or Beckettesque. And it is not to say that Pinter is a bad playwright and I have nothing against him except that he wears a Greek fisherman’s hat. But clearly he got the award in 2005 for yelling about the American invasion of Iraq, which seems a little like getting too sensitive to the trends of the mass culture that these Nobel guys really hate.
The Nobel committee often attempts to affect the flow of human events in the world by giving awards that way. A poke in the eye to the Establishment, it is supposed to be.
Myself I would like to see an award go to Leonard Cohen, the primordial “ . . . little Jew who wrote the Bible . . .” he calls himself, who lives today in a Buddhist monastery in San Francisco. Was ever a journey so sublime? He wrote a touching Jesus poem (“Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water . . .”) when I was little and he is about the only talented writer from my generation who passed into the land of the dead for 20 years and came back into my life again a generation later via my kids. Back in the Sixties everybody like him, which in itself qualifies him for disqualification for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Anyway, I can’t see the Nobel committee liking his work. He also wrote the catchy theme song at the beginning of The Sopranos (“Woke up this morning . . . got myself a gun . . .”) but I doubt they watch that. David Chase, who wrote The Sopranos also deserves the Literature Prize, possibly more than anyone today, but his chances are about as likely as Neil’s.
I’d also like to see Nora Ephron get a life award as she is the fish that swims not at the front but near the front of the school and where she goes the generation goes and here at the very latter end of the American century to some extent the world still goes. And follows with uncanny precision. In the first and perhaps only century of and for the ordinary and common people of the world she writes of love between Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. But I’d also like to see Ingmar Bergman and Bernardo Bertolucci get one too. Of course, they write movies and the Nobel Committee has that thing about only giving to plays staged in stark basement theaters and to poetry written with quills. And of course, one of them is dead but in literature, death shouldn’t matter that much.
Anyway, I don’t think any of those people would be interested in these awards. It would be like being put in a crate. They would perhaps prefer the distinguished company of those left out like Leo Tolstoy who The Nobel Prize in Literature passed over in its first year, 1901, for the poet and philosopher Sully Prudhomme. Ever since, it has been a time-honored tradition.
How about this: a Nobel Prize for the Dead, to go back and retrieve Bergman and those others – Tolstoy, Proust, Hardy, Chekhov, Ibsen, Joyce, Conrad, Kafka, Breckt to name a few - who the committee overlooked. That way Neil and Smokey and Laura Nyro and Kurt might even get one eventually. And change the standards as well. Give the awards not just to writers but to writers/singers/musicians/dancers - to anyone who’s spirit soared and who lived for love and died for love and took his craft to be a sacred task in that river and followed that muse relentlessly to his destiny.
Where is that Deathless Child now? Where is his song?