December 2006 - January 2007

Arts & Letters

‘Nobel Lecture: From the Literature Laureates, 1986 to 2005’

By Chris Middendorp

The uncredited introduction to this anthology somewhat meekly proposes that we shouldn't take high honours in literature too seriously. Reminding us of the sublime authors who were not awarded the Nobel - Tolstoy, James, Conrad, Woolf, Nabokov, Greene, among others - the anonymous writer blithely concedes that, since its establishment in 1901, "the Literature Prize has been subject to its fair share of contradictions."

All contradictions aside, this heady volume of 20 recent laureates' lectures holds a succession of worthy lessons about the pathways through which language can either condemn or redeem. With perfervid lyricism, Toni Morrison (1993) examines how language is manipulated by powerful groups to dominate and cajole. "Oppressive language does more than represent violence," she proclaims, "it is violence." Chinese writer Gao Xingjian (2000) speaks compellingly of how words can free us: "literature allows a person to preserve a human consciousness."

Does language serve ideology or does ideology serve language? Too often, says Harold Pinter (2005), "language is actually employed to keep thought at bay." He goes on to excoriate all US foreign policy since World War II. Is this Pinter or Pilger? More serenely, Wole Soyinka (1986) talks of "the black race's capacity to forgive" white subjugation. His gentle ruminations on the process of Africa's recovery from colonialism are deeply affecting.

The most whimsical lecture of the set is by the Italian satirist Dario Fo (1997). Relating how injustice is the by-product of ignorance, he includes a series of drawings intended to supplement his argument when words are inadequate. Fo's crude doodlings provide a telling reflection on the limits of writing, no matter how accomplished. Assembled as narratives, words may serve to inspire or subdue people, but they are always symbols of something deeper. Writing can register human behaviour, yet the soul remains ineffable.

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