Not Even Nobel Escapes Politics

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), October 13, 2006 | Go to article overview

Not Even Nobel Escapes Politics


Byline: Kelly Jane Torrance, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

So far this year, Americans have won every single Nobel Prize but one - but the loss was of the only Nobel in the field of culture.

Orhan Pamuk was named the 2006 Nobel laureate in literature, announced yesterday in Stockholm. The postmodern Turkish novelist (the author of "Snow") has gained publicity in the last year, but not for his work - he was on trial in his native country for "insulting Turkishness" in his comments about the Armenian massacre.

Mr. Pamuk's win ended what had been an American rout. Americans won the medicine, physics, chemistry and economics prizes (the last being the only Nobel not mentioned in the will of Swedish industrialist and dynamite inventor Alfred Nobel).

No American, in fact, has won the literature prize since 1993, when "Beloved" author Toni Morrison took home the gold medal - and 10 million Swedish kronor, now worth about $1.37 million.

"Reality still accounts for something in those realms of endeavor," Roger Kimball, co-editor and publisher of the New Criterion, says of the sciences. "Either the bridge stands up or the medication works or the new element is discovered, or it's not."

When asked whom he guessed might win, Mr. Kimball demurred. "I haven't been keeping up with pathologies of small Third World countries," he says. "I don't know what freaks are on offer."

The bookmakers seemed to. The night before the announcement, British gambling company Ladbroke's had picked Syrian poet Adonis (born Ali Ahmed Said) to win, 3-1. Mr. Pamuk had 7-1 odds.

Mr. Kimball's joke aside, the First World has had its share of recent winners. In 2005, British playwright Harold Pinter was named the literature laureate. The year before that, Austrian novelist Elfriede Jelinek took home the Nobel.

Both awards, however, caused controversy - in the latter case, even within the prize-bestowing 18-member Swedish Academy itself.

Knut Ahnlund resigned last year from the Academy, to which members are appointed for life, because of the award given to Miss Jelinek, whose oeuvre often deals with sexuality. He said the prize had irreparably damaged the Academy's reputation.

Mr. Pinter's award ignited a war of words around the world. He seems to spend more time these days criticizing America's foreign policy than he does writing plays. And his win, critics argued, proved the literature prize is as political as the Peace Prize.

"All talk of political motives in our rewards is nonsense," Horace Engdahl, the Academy's permanent secretary, said in an e-mail to Associated Press. "Any idiot can say that 'Pinter was rewarded for his criticism of the USA,' but how many can write a competent assessment about his efforts as a dramatist?"

Mr. Kimball certainly could.

But he still believes the award has been "discredited."

"Here's a prize that's been won by T.S. Eliot, Kipling and Yeats," Mr. Kimball remarks. "True, there have been dogs all along. But the dogs earlier along were not so ideologically repellent."

"The last couple of decades, it's been a platform or pulpit more for expression of rectitude than literary talents," he concludes. "Part of the function of the prize is to assure the Academy of their own higher sensitivity. …

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