Blog Post

Twenty Nobel Lectures in Literature (3)

Yet once more, O ye laurels, I consider the last twenty Nobel prizewinners in literature, and once more I turn over the question of literary autonomy...

Prefatory warning: My, my. This is rather long. What follows is 3700-odd words, concluding my discussion of Nobel lectures, emphasizing themes of literary politics and the problem of autonomy in literature. Please feel free to comment or discuss even if you don't read the whole thing!

I realized I never said in the previous two installments (part one and part two) that my first surprise, on reading twenty Nobel lectures in literature, was that I enjoyed them! Despite the constraints of the genre, many make for rewarding reading: Heaney's Crediting Poetry is a small masterpiece of essayistic literary criticism and autobiography, Szymborska's terse The Poet and the World is genuinely funny, and both Pamuk's My Father's Suitcase and Müller's Every word knows something of a vicious circle are, I thought, genuinely moving memoiristic pieces. I also enjoyed the righteous outrage of Pinter's scandal-making Art, Truth & Politics--of which more anon. Say what you will about the Nobel prize; its archive is always interesting and often pleasurable. I'll certainly be reading the new laureate's lecture in a few months.

So, autonomy. What do I mean by literary autonomy? Literature as a law unto itself; literary art for art's sake. I use "autonomy" as a cover term for many different kinds of claims to freedom or independence in and for the literary work of art. The idea of the autonomy of aesthetic judgment--that beauty is properly judged without regard for the utility, or even the existence, of the beautiful object--makes, when applied to literature, only one version of autonomy. Equally important are ideas of the author's freedom from various external constraints; of the literary work's self-contained or self-regulating qualities; of the distinction between aesthetic and market value; of literary-historical change being driven by field-internal, rather than external, forces; and so on. These are loosely clustered ideas rather than equivalent concepts, but in my work on this notion I have learned that holding to philosophically precise definitions obscures affinities that exist in the fuzzier realm of writerly practice. I've already noted a few of the characteristic autonomy-gestures in the lectures: the image of the writer as a solitary child receiving the literary vocation; the affiliations to a would-be universal canon of European literature; the mythic idea of the ancient, shamanic oral tradition (because, if literature is primitive magic, it is not worldly, secular, historical). But now let's look at some more explicit versions of autonomy.


Perhaps the simplest is the defense of freedom of expression. As a human right, expressive freedom has a much wider scope than just literary practice, but the twentieth century saw a decisive articulation of the role of the writer--especially the world writer--to the advocacy of freedom of expression. (Consider the activities of PEN, or the ideals enshrined in its Charter.) Within the lectures, nine of the twenty register a protest against censorship in one way or another. Fo speaks in a testimonial voice of the "abuse" he and his wife suffered at the hands of the police for their performances. Gordimer's 1991 lecture decries the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, as Szymborska's speaks of Joseph Brodsky's "internal exile." Morrison, Heaney, Oe, Gao, Kertész, Le Clézio, and Müller all also denigrate censorship and restraints on expression, either their own or other writers'. (On the other hand, Pamuk, well-known for being subject to prosecution in Turkey over his refusal to deny the Armenian genocide, says nothing about censorship.)

Is this protest too straightforward to make anything of? I think it's quite significant that the occasion of consecration for literary merit (and statements by the Swedish academy often emphasize that the prize is for literary achievement and not political commitments) is also regularly an occasion to denounce censorship. It's as though holding the high symbolic capital of the prize creates a pressure to spend it on the symbolically important protest in favor of autonomous expression. Or, to put it another way, a certain construction of what literature is takes place through these apparently innocuous rejections of the censor. Günter Grass makes this explicit:

It is a fact of life that writers have always and with due consideration and great pleasure spit in the soup of the high and mighty. That is what makes the history of literature analogous to the development and refinement of censorship.

Literature is anti-censorship, is resistance. This claim is of course absurd, as ten seconds' contemplation of the history of literature, in all its complicated relations to court cultures, aristocratic patronage, state sponsorship, political and social struggles, and so on, will tell you--unless, that is, the claim is tautological: to qualify as a writer in the Grass sense you must have spit in the soup of the powerful. This is not a descriptive statement about the history of literature but an assertion of the autonomy of the writer properly so called from political power.

We can recognize here one of the powerful assumptions that also rules literary studies in the US (and, often, elsewhere): the merit of writing is in its resistance to power. How many thousands of articles and books have offered versions of this argument in the last three or four decades? And this, frequently, on the part of deeply "political" literary critics who would never want anything to do with celebrations of literary autonomy. In looking at the Nobel speeches we can see one way in which a certain kind of political protest--the protest against censorship--can flow from (or is it to?) a commitment to literary autonomy.


And what of all the explicit political commitments of the Nobelists? A certain discourse around the prize likes to dismiss it as compromised by its politics, which are either too lefty or too centrist, according to the position of the commentator. Certainly we can single out certain Nobel writers known for explicit political commitments: Paz, Gordimer, Pinter, Saramago, Fo, Jelinek. And there are those who radiate political pathos as survivors of state oppression: Kertész (Hungary), Müller (Romania), Gao (China)--all three of whom speak about the experience in their lectures. None of the twenty, to my knowledge, have declared their allegiance to a cause on the political right; as I'll argue in a moment, we will have to consider Naipaul's notorious attitudes towards the postcolonial world in a rather different light.

But, if we bracket the politics of censorship and the general idea of writing as resistance, the Nobel lecture has not, in the last two decades, been much of a platform for explicit political declarations. I must immediately underline three exceptions. Paz, speaking in 1990, warns that "the triumph of the market economy (a triumph due to the adversary's default) cannot be simply a cause for joy" and calls for social justice. Fo speaks about the Sivas massacre in Turkey--and denounces widespread ignorance about it; he also takes a swipe at state-supported genetic engineering. But it is Pinter's 2005 Nobel lecture that achieved some notoriety as a political statement: he devotes most of his talk to a furious denunciation of the United States for its invasion of Iraq and its crimes during the Cold War, particularly in Latin America. He excoriates what he regards as the continuing conspiracy of silence around American perfidy:

It never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening it wasn't happening. It didn't matter. It was of no interest. The crimes of the United States have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless, but very few people have actually talked about them. You have to hand it to America. It has exercised a quite clinical manipulation of power worldwide while masquerading as a force for universal good. It's a brilliant, even witty, highly successful act of hypnosis.

This rhetorical choice shows Pinter making the world writer into a moral and political authority, someone whose truth-telling is not, and must not be, limited to the experiences of the solitary individual. Among the twenty lectures I'm looking at, this is by far the most forcefully and explicitly political stance. Pinter's statement also makes clear, by its contrast with the other writers' lectures, how much political circumspection has been the norm of the Nobel occasion--despite the widely shared idea that literature should, in some sense, speak truth to power.

The Death of the Author, at the Podium

Let's consider now a different kind of literary autonomy--an autonomy proper not to the author but to the work. The description of literary work as self-determining, independent even of the author's own intent, is a recurrent theme of the Nobel lectures. Pinter--on political theatre, no less:

Political theatre presents an entirely different set of problems. Sermonising has to be avoided at all cost. Objectivity is essential. The characters must be allowed to breathe their own air. The author cannot confine and constrict them to satisfy his own taste or disposition or prejudice. He must be prepared to approach them from a variety of angles, from a full and uninhibited range of perspectives, take them by surprise, perhaps, occasionally, but nevertheless give them the freedom to go which way they will.

The characters have lives of their own, and the work proceeds unconfined by the author's disposition; the "objective" author stands aside, "indifferent, paring his fingernails" (in Joyce's famous formula). This idea of autonomous characters belongs not only to the dramatist but also to the novelist Saramago, whose whole lecture proceeds through the conceit that his characters have taught him lessons and not the other way around; "I don't have," he says, "more voice than the voices they had."

Writerly decorum ("the work speaks for itself") taken to extremes! Yet this is a powerful literary doctrine, articulated in other versions by many laureates. Jelinek's lecture is nothing but an allegory of the wayward independence of her language from herself; if her title, "Sidelined," at first seems to refer to the writer's personal solitude, eventually we see that she is equally sidelined by language itself. In Coetzee's enigmatic performance, the character Robinson Crusoe and "his man" Defoe live separate lives in the same England, and Robin even fantasizes about meeting Defoe. But, in a final guarantee of their autonomy--or is it of authorial mastery?--they never can, remaining instead, in Coetzee's all-too-lyrical formulation, "deckhands toiling in the rigging, the one on a ship sailing west, the other on a ship sailing east...too busy even to wave." Gao discusses his narrative device of splitting a protagonist into multiple pronouns to create "a sense of distance" between the his own self and the narrated self. (I can testify to the beautifully eery and estranging effect of this choice in Gao's amazing Soul Mountain.) Müller (to make 6/20=30%) traces the wayward significance, the vicious circle or Teufelskreis of the word "handkerchief" in her life, showing how such words have a life of their own, for good and ill: "Words don't know the mouth that speaks them." (Müller also reads two "word collages"--scroll to the bottom of the lecture page to see a picture of one--in which each word or phrase is literally standalone, clipped from a different source.)

A related death of the author attends Gao's sense that the effect of the writer's work is quite out his hands:

Literature is born primarily of the writer’s need for self-fulfilment. Whether it has any impact on society comes after the completion of a work and that impact certainly is not determined by the wishes of the writer.

Gao goes on to cite the anonymity of the authors of China's classic novels and the posthumous publications of Kafka and Pessoa. This view carries Gao into what is in fact a fairly unusual position among the twenty Nobelists, the explicit affirmation of the non-political quality of literature: "to subvert," he says, "is not the aim of literature." And, though he decries the effects of "ideology" on twentieth-century history, he makes clear at the start of his lecture that he won't "waste" a talk on literature by "saying too much about politics and history."

Another Nobelist occupying the position of the fully non-political writer is V.S. Naipaul. Naipaul too, I should say, alludes to an impersonality-theory of literature: citing Contre Sainte-Beuve, he distinguishes "the writer as writer" and "the writer as social being." But his lecture is so densely autobiographical that I decided not to count him among those who speak of the work as autonomous. His autonomy is instead political: "I have no system, literary or political." Coming as it does after his discussion of his books about "colonial shame and fantasy," we should see this proclamation as a dig at critics who see Naipaul as a pro-imperialist, astonishingly "assimilated" Eurocentrist. Those critics would reply, of course, that Naipaul misrecognizes his own Eurocentric biases as neutrality; but we ought to recognize that the specifically literary position-taking in favor of autonomy aligns Naipaul with an anti-colonial writer like Le Clézio or a survivor of oppressive regimes like Kertész despite the political contrasts among them.

But my final example of a nonpolitical Nobel lecture is perhaps more of a surprise, and it can stand as an icon for the contradictions and paradoxes that multiply around this question:

The life, the opinions, are not the work, for it is in the tension between standing apart and being involved that the imagination transforms both...

And Márquez redefined tender fiction thus: The best way a writer can serve a revolution is to write as well as he can...

The writer is of service to humankind only insofar as the writer uses the word even against his or her own loyalties.

This is Nadine Gordimer, famously committed agitator, speaking in 1991 no less, only a year after the unbanning of the ANC. Yet she mixes an impersonality theory (distinguishing the work from life and opinions) with a devotion to style ("to write as well as he can"); she believes in "imagination" and serving a revolution (which one?); in short, she affirms the power of an autonomous literary art to do good.

Autonomy and the Contemporary Literary Field

I think, having gone on for more paragraphs than you probably care to remember, that I will stop there in my survey of the lectures. By way of wrapping up this exposition, and hopefully provoking more discussion (loyal readers, if you are there, please comment! disloyal readers too!), I want now to reflect a bit more on this question of autonomy in present-day literature.

As a debate in literary studies, the question of autonomy has tended to lead to reflections on political themes in literature and to the methodological problems of contextualization and historicization. It has also usually involved disputes about the nature and significance of literary form. And it reflects underlying, unresolved questions about the nature of the disciplinary object of study and the purpose of work in the literary disciplines. In a sense the Nobelists share these academic concerns. Their literary position-taking involves certain political gestures, especially the anti-repressive gesture. In affirming the truth-telling power of literature they treat it as a kind of knowledge, which, framed by their own biographies, is also historical knowledge. In underlining the freestanding quality of the literary work, as many of them do, they delimit it off from other parts of culture and society, making it available for specialized discussion.

As a group, the Nobelists speak far more comfortably about autonomy than do the participants in the academic conversations I know. They also speak far less about form (Seamus Heaney, the exception, also has a longstanding relationship with Harvard, a center of English-language poetic formalism). As a discourse about literature, the Nobel lecture of the past twenty years looks very different indeed from the academic article of the past twenty years--so it seems to me. Indeed, though I called it a "debate," in the academy the question of autonomy is more like a ritual flogging of a dead horse: it would reveal the most dyed-in-the-wool scholarly conservatism for a member of a US or UK English department to declare without qualification that literature is autonomous. And, I hasten to add, I would not do so myself. Now, once again, I must note the generational fact that the laureates of the past twenty years are not my contemporaries but my parents' and parents' parents. Yet they speak--with all the authority of the most prestigious world literary prize--in the present, and as such they indicate the continuing power of some versions of autonomy in the literary field. Yet, in linking autonomy to political and ethical concerns, they also show that it remains attractive, for writers as for academics, to defend literature in more than aesthetic terms, or to claim that aesthetic terms are in themselves always also political or ethical. On the other hand, as I remarked above, such defenses often seem to have more to do with affirming literary autonomy than with advancing a political position. It's what we might think of as a version of social-trustee professionalism in the literary field ("it's in everyone's interests for literary work to be autonomous").

Despite all the talk of autonomy, there is almost no mention of the market or the business of books in the Nobel lectures. This contrasts quite strongly with the strain of academic discourse, much influenced by Western Marxism, that understands autonomy theory, especially the modernist varieties, as primarily directed against the commodification of the literary product and the rise of mass culture. (The rivalising with new media that I mentioned in the last installment is only a faint echo of this critique; ditto the occasional melancholic remarks about the dwindling of the reading public.) This is not so much because the last twenty years of laureates have been pop-culture-happy "postmodernists" as because they choose not to discuss the question at all. I suppose, though, that this doesn't make them so different from the academics after all; the most highly consecrated scholarly work in the fields I know remains the interpretation of political themes within literary texts rather than the study of readership or publishing or book markets.

In a comment on the previous installment of these posts, Lee asked:

Why are we so attached to the idea of autonomy? Is the dominance of our basically modernist idea of aesthetic autonomy a reflection, paradoxically, of the fashion system? In the case of the Nobel, the necessary product of a commitment to the idea of world literature as "universal"? A reflection of the path-specificity of the history of literature?

I doubt we could discover a unitary cause for the attachments to so many versions of autonomy on the part of very different authors emerging from very distinct backgrounds (nor, a fortiori, on the part of the quite distinct population of US literary academics). The laureates' informal education at the hands of literary modernism must certainly play a role; the Swedish academicians' allegiance (generational in their case as well) to European modernist aesthetics certainly does too. I think autonomy's relation to the universalism and humanism sometimes articulated by the Swedish Academy (and the laureates) is oblique as well; those might just as well accord with a concept of literature as, say, an expression of national character--in fact, in the early decades of the twentieth century, this is precisely how Nobel literature was conceptualized, and it's far from absent in literary culture today.

The more I turn these questions over in my head, the less certain I become that I have adequate explanations. Perhaps the main discovery of looking at these Nobel lectures is, for me, simply that certain ideas I had been thinking of as superannuated are in fact alive and well in the statements of a diverse, innovative, and significant group of writers. Does this mean that we continue to live in the period of literary modernism? That the values and practices established in Paris, Berlin, London, New York in the first decades of the twentieth century have indeed successfully institutionalized themselves and continue to occupy elevated places in our symbolic hierarchy, even if other practices continue to proliferate and contend for readership and recognition?

What do you think, hypothetical readers of mine? And, to return to the broader question with which I began, what kind of perspective do the last twenty Nobel lectures in literature give us on that much larger and more amorphous entity, "world literature"? What else does all this suggest to you? And, most importantly, conscious as I am of the excessive presentism (or c20-21ism) and Americano-Anglo-Franco-centrism of my perspective--what's missing from the picture?

Andrew Goldstone's picture
Andrew Goldstone is an Assistant Professor of English at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. His book, Fictions of Autonomy: Modernism from Wilde to de Man, is published by Oxford University Press. He specializes in twentieth-century literature in English, with interests in modernist and non-modernist writing, literary theory, the sociology of literature, and the digital humanities.