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Alfred Nobel’s Prize

Photograph Source: Gösta Florman (1831–1900) / The Royal Library – Public Domain

When Swedish munitions and dynamite inventor Alfred Nobel died, in 1896, in San Remo, Italy, he bequeathed what amounted to an immense fortune. His stated goal was to endow, in perpetuity, those individuals “who during the preceding year have conferred the greatest benefit to Mankind.”

In 1901, the “Nobel Prizes” began awarding these gifts, which were referred to as Nobel “laureates.” Initially, there were five awards: Chemistry, Physics, Physiology/Medicine, Literature, and Peace. Then, in 1968, the Academy added Economics to the list. Curiously, even though these were some heavy-duty subjects, there has never been a Nobel Prize in Mathematics.

Prizes are always held in Stockholm, Sweden, and the ceremonies are conducted in Swedish and English. The sole exception to that rule—per Alfred Nobel’s wishes—is that the Nobel Peace Prizes are held in Oslo, Norway, and are conducted in Norwegian and English.

Occasionally, you’ll hear people grouse about “popularity contests” or about how “politics” have ruined the awards process, but without doubt, the Nobel Prize is and always has been the most esteemed honor in the world. It’s been referred to as a combination of the glitter of the Academy Award, coupled with the somber pageantry of a Viking funeral. In a word, it doesn’t get any bigger.

Each Nobel laureate receives three awards: a gold medallion, a diploma, and a cash prize. The last time I personally paid attention to the money was way back in 1976, when Saul Bellow was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. If memory serves, the cash pay-out in those days was roughly $80,000. In 2021, the Nobel Prize was valued at 10,000,000 SEK (Swedish Kronor), the equivalent of $1.4 million.

Novelist and playwright Gore Vidal has playfully chided the Nobel Committee for the amount of naked lobbying attached to the selections. We’re speaking here about “pure” academics—esoteric disciplines like chemistry and physics—and not the “subjective” awards of Literature and Peace. Vidal argued that even something as “utterly boring” as a chemistry prize is nonetheless going to be leaked to the media, and overwhelmed with solicitous lobbyists.

As for the Nobel Prize in Literature, which also began in 1901 with the French poet Sully Prudhomme’s selection (I wonder how many people have heard of him?), there has always been controversy involved with (1) accusations of reactionary politics and (2) the issue of “Eurocentrism.”

Although it’s a valid point, Eurocentrism can be a tricky argument. Whether European or non-European, there are simply too many qualified winners. Clearly, artists like Abdulrazak Gurnah, Olga Tokarczuk, Kazuo Ishiguro, Mo Yan, Gao Xingjian, Dario Fo, Octavio Paz, Naguib Mahfouz, Jaroslav Seifert, Odysseus Elytis, Ivo Andric, and Jacinto Benavente (just to name a few) won’t always get their proper due. As for fascism and totalitarianism, that topic is too gruesome to contemplate. Literature vs. Politics? Art vs. Freedom? Most of us would agree that—with few exceptions—this falls well outside the pedestrian scope of the Nobel Prize.

But let us consider Eurocentrism a moment. Who were some of those artists who DID NOT receive the Nobel? The list is staggering. Leo Tolstoy, Mark Twain, Emile Zola, Anton Chekhov, J.R.R. Tolkien, Marcel Proust, Vladimir Nabokov, James Joyce, August Strindberg, Jorge Luis Borges, Ezra Pound, John Updike, Arthur Miller, Graham Greene, Henrik Ibsen, Henry James, W.H. Auden, Philip Roth and Thomas Pynchon.

All of which brings us to Bob Dylan, who won the Prize in 2016. At the outset I should confess that Bob Dylan is, hands down, my all-time favorite musician. His first seven albums (from Bob Dylan, in 1962, to Blonde on Blonde, 1966) were brilliant.

Not to digress, but the former rock music critic of the Los Angeles Times, Robert Hilburn, once listed the “best songwriters,” decade by decade, beginning with the Fifties.

1950s: Chuck Berry.

1960s: Bob Dylan.

1970s: John Prine.

1980s: Bruce Springsteen.

1990s: Kurt Cobain.

It was a worthy list. That said, it still doesn’t make sense to choose Bob Dylan for the Nobel Prize in Literature—not with so many excellent novels and poets to pick from. Why do it? Why invent something you obviously didn’t “need”?

It’s perplexing. So the Swedish Academy suddenly takes it upon itself to declare that there are some song lyrics so meaningful, so profound, so undeniably “poetic,” that it’s now okay to start using recorded music? Even Bob Dylan himself seemed abashed and uncomfortable (if not freaked out) at receiving the Prize.

The Nobel Peace Prize is unique. Indeed, one could argue that the very concept of “Peace” is unique. Besides being the only winner from Oslo, the Peace Prize has, over time, attracted a tremendous number of “nominations.” Literally, hundreds of these show up every year. Apparently, people have figured out a way to aggrandize themselves by putting the words “Nobel Peace Prize nomination” on their resume with no hope of winning.

Over the years, there have been vacancies due to politics and war, along with numerous “scandals.” One of the biggest goofs was that Mahatma Gandhi, of all people, never received the Noble Peace Prize. Alas, by the time they got around to awarding it, in 1948, Gandhi had been assassinated.

There are different ways to approach the Peace award. In 1972 Henry Kissinger gave a whole new meaning to the word “hypocrisy.” As for John Lennon, who was already moving in a new direction, who’s to say what could’ve happened had Lennon not been murdered in 1980? And then there is President Barack Obama, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009…after being in office for 10 minutes. The list goes on.

One of those ambitious “resume-builders” was Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s brother-in-law. In 2021, Kushner was not only nominated for the Peace Prize, but the man who secured that nomination was Alan Dershowitz, the promiscuous self-promoter.

Granted, it’s a well-worn quotation, but we’re still reminded of Oscar Wilde’s definition of a fox-hunt: “The unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible.”