As honorable as the Nobel prize is sometimes pure bullshit. It is well known that the Peace prize is meaningless (Hi, President Obama!) and has been for some time (Hi, Nobel’s ex-lover who won in 1905!) but the literature prize has also long been plagued by similar accusations. For instance, Sully Prudhomme, the first laureate in 1901, had not put pen to paper since 1888.
Well, here is the deal: From 1901 to 1912, the Swedish Academy of Arts and Letters interpreted Nobel’s will to say that the award should go to a writer from the school of idealism. By idealism, I mean here German idealism, and particularly the work of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Allow Wikipedia to summarize the pertinent nugget of Hegelian wisdom: “Hegel, in the Philosophy of Right, believed the best solution was to surrender one’s individuality to the customs of the State, identifying right and wrong in view of the prevailing bourgeois morality. Individual human will ought, at the State’s highest level of development, to properly coincide with the will of the State.” Apparently, the first head of the Swedish Academy who had to deal with this, Carl David af Wirsén, was a reaction against the radical strand of Swedish writers at the time.
To see how this plays out, let’s take a look at “Regulus,” by Rudyard Kipling, the idealist par excellence. Go ahead and read it. I’ll wait.
That sure was a thing, wasn’t it? The paternal condescension, the casual racism, the sheer, overbearing confidence oozes out of your screen (Wipe that shit up, it’s disgusting). Kipling was the voice of the British Empire, even though it was on the way out in 1917 when “Regulus” was published. Actually, the approach to education that Kipling advocates in “Regulus” may have undermined the empire. Fareed Zakaria summarized it pretty well in The Post-American World, which I am paraphrasing here because I don’t remember the exact quote: The British spent a lot of time and effort mining the works of Ancient Rome to figure out how the Romans managed their empire and neglected scientific research and education to such an extent that their own empire collapsed under its own weight. Circumstantially, I can agree. What the hell business did George Orwell have in India? Rudyard Kipling was the voice of power, so let’s look at something in the same style by a more marginal writer. Bjornstjerne Bjornson was a Norwegian and is now completely unknown except by Jeopardy candidates. Go ahead and read “The Father.” Talk about grim! Fortunately, Bjornson was actually cited for his poetry.
Wirsén lost control of the academy in the early 1910s, and between then and the end of the war, the Academy picked authors from neutral countries. But actually, just sit down and read through what the Academy has on its own site. If you read it carefully, it’s a very subtly constructed paper to disguise the real answer “They picked the name out of a hat.” I particularly like the way the Academy of Wirsen’s era was described: “The Academy which got this exacting commission was simply not fit for the task.” How much has this changed?
Incidentally, of the six laureates who were members of the Swedish Academy at any time, five of them, excluding Selma Lagerlof, were members at the time of their nomination.