Where Are You When We Need You, Jean-Paul Sartre?


Dear Sartre,

Thank you for refusing the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1964, athough, I must say, Harold Pinter made spectacular use of its pulpit by hurling an uncompromising indictment against the Axis of Good.

While the assault on Iraq was disemembering a people and a country, Pinter noted in 2004 that in the collective culture of empire, “Nothing ever happens even as it’s happening.” Therefore, along the ecocidal and homicidal path of empire, the victims—the legions of unremembered dead—remain namelss and uncounted.

Pinter’s speech was a linguistic airstrike of explosive proportions, so the empire ignored it. “Nothing happened.”

Some of the picks since your refusal in 1964 have been good: the awards to Dario Fo and Gabriel Garcia Marquez spring to mind, but this year’s choice vindicates your reasons for refusing the honor. You said that cultural interchange between East and West must flow between people and cultures—not through institutions. You said that the awards of past prizes were not conferred equally on all ideologies and countries. You said that

A writer who adopts political, social, or literary positions must act only with the means that are his own – that is, the written word . . . all the honours he may receive expose his readers to a pressure I do not consider desirable.

In formulating your refusal, you may have recalled Ralph Waldo Emerson’s belief that ‘Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. ” Indeed, the Nobel committee chose you for “for [your] work, which, rich in ideas and filled with the spirit of freedom and the quest for truth, has exerted a far-reaching influence on our age.”

Our age, dear Sartre, is not an age basking in the warmth of freedom or journeying in the light of truth—even in spirit, as yours did, after the sobering carnage of WW II. This year’s Nobel Prize for Literature honors an age of intellectual dishonesty, dullness, and opportunism. Even a lethally bathetic intellectual age.

The Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015 goes to a “dissident” Belorussian scribbler who, in the post-communist era, has flattered smug imbeciles with tales of the new Evil Empire of Russia and of its bloodthirsty Tsar Vladimir the Terrible. She joins the canon—past and present– of cultural-imperialist, orientalists, sovietologists, russologists, sinologists, and sundry praise-singers of global racialized Western liberalism with historical and political bollocks that satiate the insatiable logophagia of the self-worshipping West, blood-spattered behind its cardboard shield of human rights.

This year’s prize is a cruel, almost witty inversion of all that you stood for and turns Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” into the evil of banality (there’s one who may have vitiated her prize with that phrase!). With this prize, your and Frantz Fanon’s slain “wretched of the earth,” are mocked by an insincerity calculated to elevate the murderers’ self-esteem, though at the Nobel committee “Nothing happened. Nothing ever happens. It’s not happening.”

Yours respectfully and most sincerely,

Luciana Bohne

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Luciana Bohne is co-founder of Film Criticism, a journal of cinema studies, and teaches at Edinboro University in Pennsylvania. She can be reached at: lbohne@edinboro.edu

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