Communist official wins Nobel Prize for Literature

Two years ago, Chinese author Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Prize for Literature, but he was not allowed to leave the country to receive it and is currently in jail for opposing the Communist government.  This year another Chinese author won the prize, Mo Yan, who is no dissident.  From Indian journalist Preetam Kauschik:

In 2010 the Chinese Dragon virtually breathed fire when the Nobel Prize for Literature was given to dissident Liu Xiaobo, who is serving an 11-year sentence for his pro-democracy views. Officials in China went into a fit of rage. They summoned the Swedish ambassador in Beijing for a dressing down. China issued a statement that the award could jeopardize relations between the two countries.

However, 2012 saw a more cheerful face of the Dragon when the Swedish Academy gave the Nobel Prize for Literature to Mo Yan, who is an important member of the ruling Communist Party of China. Official networks went viral with the news to celebrate Mo’s triumph. This time the liberal world stomped its feet in anger and anguish. . . .

Liao Yiwu, a close friend of Liu and a celebrated Chinese writer living in exile in Germany, was stunned by the Swedish Academy’s decision to honour Mo. He was upset with having to see Liu and Mo on the same page. He told Der Spiegel, “Mo Yan… is a state poet. I am utterly bewildered. Do these universal values not exist after all? Are they so arbitrary that a Nobel Prize can be awarded to someone behind bars and stripped of their rights one year and another year to someone in the service of the very people who put people behind bars and strip them of their rights?”

Liao is not alone in attacking the Swedish Academy for picking Mo for the literary honor. Almost the entire liberal establishment was as stunned as Liao. But the Academy stuck to its guns.

A Swedish Academy member defended Nobel Prize in Literature-winner Mo Yan, saying the Chinese novelist’s win “has nothing to do with politics, friendship or luck.” Goran Malmqvist, a sinologist and one of the 18 members of the Swedish Academy, told Xinhua that he felt irritated at media accusations against Mo.

The critics, however, insisted that the decision was flawed. They said that as a member of the Communist Party of China and vice president of the China Writers Association Mo did not qualify for the award. . . .

But the most astounding fact is that since 2000 the prestigious award has gone to three Chinese writers. Gao Xingjian, a Chinese dissident living in exile in France, was the first to receive the Nobel for Literature in 2000. A decade later Liu became the second Chinese to receive this award. And now Mo.

via Preetam Kaushik: The Dragon Goes Gangnam: China Celebrates the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Another winner of the prize, Herta Mueller, who survived communism in Romania, is protesting this year’s award, saying that Mo Ya is a defender of censorship.

I haven’t read any of this writer’s works, but I have no problem with the possibility that one of the greatest writers in the world is a Communist, an enemy of the freedom of the press, or otherwise someone who possesses a twisted ideology oris a bad person.   Mo Ya would hardly be the first good author–or Nobel Prize winner–with noxious ideas.  In fact, having noxious ideas may be an occupational hazard of the profession.   It is Romanticism that assumed that good writing is not just a craft but an expression of a noble soul.  Thus we have the cult of the artist.  In the world of the fine arts, art is sometimes defined as whatever an artist does.  (One exhibition consisted of displays of the artist’s bowel movements.)  Such idolatry of the artist trivializes art.

And yet, some ideologies are intrinsically harmful to good art and good literature.  Marxism is one of them.  The insistence that individual uniqueness is a bourgeois trait and that people exist only as members of a social class inevitably results in characters that are stereotypes.  Not only that, authors who create highly-individualized characters–a mark of good fiction–are generally condemned and even persecuted for their anti-revolutionary bourgeois tendencies, something enforced by the “writers’ unions,” of the sort that Mo Ya leads.  This is why, in the former Soviet Union, artists who were original, who tried to achieve aesthetic rather than political effects, who wanted to try something different than the one officially required style of “socialist realism,”  or showed other signs of being good artists nearly all found themselves in opposition to the Communist regime.

What most bothers me about this award is that the world’s literary establishment has evidently lost its distaste for totalitarianism.  As the world is more and more attracted to the “China Model”–economic dynamism + authoritarian government–the allure of democracy and freedom may be waning.  The assumption has been that free markets will beget free societies and democratic governments, but we now know that is not the case.  Money is the opiate of the people.  And that bodes ill, and not just for literature.

CS Lewis to be added to Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey

Yesterday was the anniversary of the death of C. S. Lewis.  Next year on the 50th anniversary of that occasion, Lewis will be honored with a plaque in the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey.

English writers have been either buried here or memorialized since the time of Geoffrey Chaucer.  Lewis will join literary luminaries like Spenser, Samuel Johnson, Blake, Keats, Dickens, and T. S. Eliot.

I didn’t realize Lewis had that stature outside of Christian circles, though, of course, Westminster Abbey is, above all, an Anglican church.

BBC News – CS Lewis to be honoured in Poets’ Corner.

Kurt Vonnegut on writing and living

Kurt Vonnegut, author of Slaughterhouse-Five among many others, seems like a much better author when you’re young.  There is a close link between idealism and cynicism, both of which are characteristic of the young and both of which are necessary to appreciate Vonnegut’s dark humor.  I remember reading him as a college student with great excitement and appreciation.  But now. . . it’s just not the same.  Still, you have to appreciate his wit, and an affection lingers.

Dan Wakefield has just published a collection of his correspondence entitled Kurt Vonnegut: Letters.  In a review, Michael Dirda gives us some bon mots from those letters:

“Unsettling business for an artist, where everything that happens in New York has universality, and everything that happens outside is ethnography.”

The term paper, he tells his writing students, should be “both cynical and religious.”

“The secret of good writing is caring.”

“No picture can attract serious attention without a human being attached to it in the viewer’s mind. . . . Pictures are famous for their human-ness and not their picture-ness.”

“I saw The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which I took very hard. To an unmoored, middle-aged man like myself, it was heartbreaking. That’s all right. I like to have my heart broken.”

To his son, Mark: “I ask a favor for your mother’s sake: please look awfully nice at your graduation. She is a dear, romantic girl, and I want her to be as happy as she can possibly be at the graduation of her only son. . . .I am talking about hair, of course.”

“Story-telling is a game for two, and a mature storyteller . . . is sociable, a good date on a blind date with a total stranger, so to speak.”

Here is the Hobbit soundtrack

The soundtrack for the upcoming Hobbit movie has been posted online, for free. Listen to it here:  Hobbit.

Bilbo Baggins is being played by Martin Freeman, who plays Dr. Watson in BBC’s excellent modern-day update of the Sherlock Holmes saga, Sherlock.  And the actor who plays said Sherlock, who has the splendid name of Benedict Cumberbatch, has a part in the Hobbit, playing the Necromancer.  (I believe that’s the mysteriously sinister figure who turns out to be Sauron in the Lord of the Rings.)  By the way, Sherlock is many times better than the American attempt at the same scenario Elementary.  Wouldn’t you say?

Good quotations

George Will is among the most learned of today’s pundits, and he has the habit of lacing his columns with big words, arcane references, and scholarly quotations.  I urge you to read his latest column, a trenchant criticism of President Barack Obama, linked below.  But what I’d like to draw your attention to are some really good, widely-applicable quotations that the column contains.  I will cherry pick them for your edification:

“It is a great advantage to a president, and a major source of safety to the country, for him to know he is not a great man.”— Calvin Coolidge

“To remain silent is the most useful service that a mediocre speaker can render to the public good.”–Alexis de Tocqueville:

’Tis said two things not worth running after are a bus or an economic panacea, because another will come along soon.

“For a salesman, there is no rock bottom to the life. He don’t put a bolt to a nut, he don’t tell you the law or give you medicine. He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back — that’s an earthquake.”–Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman  [Actually, this was a character commenting about Willy Loman, not Willy Loman himself, but we’ll give Mr. Will a pass out of gratitude for the Calvin Coolidge quote.]

via George Will: Obama’s empty, strident campaign – The Washington Post.

 

The death of a true intellectual

Jacques Barzun died at age 104.  A scholar of breath-taking range, Barzun, a French immigrant, was a cultural historian wrote about literature, history, music, philosophy, religion, education, how to write well, and baseball.  (He is the source of the quotation, “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.”  A champion of the liberal arts, he was a key developer of the “great books” approach to higher education.  He was a critic of Darwinism, existentialism, and other modern and postmodern philosophies.  Though his positions seemed largely in accord with a Christian perspective, he did not profess any personal Christian convictions.  And yet, he was baptized and sometimes attended both Catholic and Protestant churches.  (See this for the question of his religious beliefs.)

From his obituary in the Washington Post:

Jacques Barzun, a Columbia University historian and administrator whose sheer breadth of scholarship — culminating in a survey of 500 years of Western civilization — brought him renown as one of the foremost intellectuals of the 20th century, died Oct. 25 in San Antonio, where he had lived in recent years. He was 104. . . .

Dr. Barzun was 92 when he published what is widely regarded as his masterwork, “From Dawn to Decadence, 500 Years of Western Cultural Life: 1500 to the Present.” Journalist David Gates spoke for a majority of critics when he wrote in Newsweek magazine that the book, which appeared in 2000, “will go down in history as one of the great one-man shows of Western letters.”

Dr. Barzun sustained one of the longest and brightest careers in academia, having first risen to prominence as a professor who helped shape Columbia University’s approach to general education. He later was dean of the graduate school, dean of faculties and provost. . . . [Read more…]


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