08 December 2005


As Ursula Le Guin remarked,

[A] symbol is not a sign of something known, but an indicator of something not known and not expressible otherwise than symbolically.

"Myth and Archetype in Science Fiction," 1 Parabola 4, 7 (1976). Of course, symbology occurs outside of science fiction, too. It even occurs in politics; how can one forget the "iron curtain"?

Harold Pinter, this year's Nobel Laureate in Literature, clearly understands the power of symbol… and of irony. I only wish that more journalists did. Compare these two evaluations of one section of Pinter's videotaped acceptance speech (no fair looking at the footnotes until you've read both):

Although the speech obviously was a physical strain to deliver, it was impressively structured. It began with Pinter talking about his art — something he rarely does in public. In particular, he drew a clear distinction between the necessary ambivalence of art and the duty of the citizen to ask: "What is true? What is false?" Pinter even gave fascinating examples of the way in which his plays start with a line, a word or an image and then proceed on their journey into the unknown….

At one point, for instance, Pinter argued that "the United States supported and in many cases engendered every rightwing military dictatorship in the world after the end of the second world war". He then proceeded to reel off examples. But the clincher came when Pinter, with deadpan irony, said: "It never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening, it wasn't happening. It didn't matter. It was of no interest." In a few sharp sentences, Pinter pinned down the willed indifference of the media to publicly recorded events. He also showed how language is devalued by the constant appeal of US presidents to "the American people". This was argument by devastating example. As Pinter repeated the lulling mantra, he proved his point that "The words "the American people" provide a truly voluptuous cushion of reassurance." Thus Pinter brilliantly used a rhetorical device to demolish political rhetoric.1


The literature prize has in recent years often gone to writers with left-wing ideologies. These include the European writers José Saramago of Portugal, Günter Grass of Germany and Dario Fo of Italy. When he won the award, Mr. Pinter said he did not know if the academy, whose deliberations and reasoning are kept secret, had taken his politics into account. He clearly welcomed the platform the award gave him to bring his views, long expressed in Britain, to a larger audience….

But while drama represents "the search for truth," Mr. Pinter said, politics works against truth, surrounding citizens with "a vast tapestry of lies" spun by politicians eager to cling to power. Mr. Pinter attacked American foreign policy since World War II, saying that while the crimes of the Soviet Union had been well documented, those of the United States had not. "I put to you that the United States is without doubt the greatest show on the road," he said. "Brutal, indifferent, scornful and ruthless it may be, but it is also very clever. As a salesman it is out on its own and its most saleable commodity is self-love." He returned to the theme of language as an obscurer of reality, saying that American leaders use it to anesthetize the public. "It's a scintillating stratagem," Mr. Pinter said. "Language is actually employed to keep thought at bay. The words 'the American people' provide a truly voluptuous cushion of reassurance. You don't need to think. Just lie back on the cushion. The cushion may be suffocating your intelligence and your critical faculties but it's very comfortable."2

Each of these passages has a distinct viewpoint. I find it rather disturbing that only the artistically oriented theater critic seemed to understand that Pinter just might be using metaphor and symbol as a means of making his point. This cannot possibly be surprising to anyone who has seen a Pinter-authored play, or read one of his scripts; the power of rhetoric to reshape reality is a central theme in Pinter's work. <SARCASM> One might consider reading something written by a Nobel Laureate for Literature before trying to interpret his (or her) acceptance speech. </SARCASM>

What I find most interesting, though, is that the Academy threw in his politics as merely the last paragraph of the biographical sketch released upon Pinter's selection—and mentions them in only the blandest possible terms.

Since 1973, Pinter has won recognition as a fighter for human rights, alongside his writing. He has often taken stands seen as controversial.

The corollary of this is simple: the left-wing paper sent a theater critic to evaluate the acceptance speech by a figure of the theater; the centrist paper sent a political affairs reporter to the same event.

  1. Michael Billington, "Passionate Pinter's Devastating Assault on US Foreign Policy," Guardian (08 Dec 2005). Mr Billington is the paper's theater critic.
  2. Sarah Lyall, "Playwright Takes a Prize and a Jab at U.S.," New York Times (08 Dec 2005) (fake paragraphing removed for clarity). Although the paper does not make this explicit, Ms Lyall appears to be a general correspondent on political affairs based in London.