Nobel Prize in Literature
In Alfred Nobel’s earlier will, the one made in Paris in 1893, and then cancelled, there was no specific bequest in regard to literature. Mention was made only in general terms of rewards for the most important and original discoveries or the most striking advances in the wide sphere of knowledge or on the path of human progress. Even though under these terms the presumptive legatee, in this case the Swedish Academy of Sciences, could have awarded prizes for literary achievements too, it is evident that the donor wished to aid, first of all, the exact sciences.
It was not until he drew up his final will, in November 1895, that he made the stipulation that one of the five annual awards should be given to ‘the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work of an idealistic tendency’, and that it should be distributed by ‘the Academy in Stockholm’ by which the Swedish Academy was obviously meant.
The assumption has been made that this significant change should be associated with the testator’s newly reawakened interest in writing. It is a fact that during 1895 the sixty-two year old inventor was seriously occupied with the composition of dramas, partly to offset a justified feeling of bitterness over financial setbacks and partly to find mental relief during a period of inactivity due to illness. These dramatic attempts are, no doubt, amateurish and awkward, but if they developed in the donor a better understanding of the difficulties involved in creative writing, they were not, in any event, fruitless.
Nobel’s commendable desire to help and promote the cause of letters was inspired, first and last, by his own interest in literature, which had been developed in his earliest youth and was later stimulated by his continued language studies. He not only read but mastered five languages, including Russian; his poems in English, written in his late teens and still preserved, show an astonishing mastery of poetic diction and an unmistakably poetic instinct. In the depth of his peculiarly complicated personality, requiring solitude and suffering from melancholy despair in the midst of a whirl of pressing business and industrial activities, there lay hidden a poetic nature. It is revealing that the poet who gave him in his first youth his richest spiritual experience was Shelley, whose philosophy of life he absorbed both as regards its Utopian idealism and its religiously colored spirit of revolt.
As a matter of fact, it was only natural that Nobel should feel attracted by Shelley, whose inspirations so often show a kinship to inventive imagination. Shelley’s dramatic poem about the unbound Prometheus contains images which, like flashes of lightning, seem to foreshadow the scientific and technical progress of the nineteenth century, and appropriately it has been pointed out that only a few years after Shelley’s death in 1822, there came, one after another, a succession of technical developments which were to inaugurate a new epoch in human history: the first English railway was opened in 1825, electrical telegraphy was perfected in 1838, and in 1831 Faraday made his discovery of magnetic induction – all advances which may be said to have been foreshadowed in the poetic imagination of Nobel’s favorite author.
There cannot be any doubt that Shelley’s philosophy exercised a considerable influence on the practical idealism of the great Swedish donor; there are numerous indications of this, even apart from the fact that Nobel, as late as 1895, wrote his play Nemesis on the same theme as Shelley’s Renaissance tragedy, Beatrice Cenci. The tersely expressed feeling of pity in a Shelley passage like the one below accords well with the personal philosophy of a misanthropic philanthropist like Alfred Nobel.
The good want power, but to weep barren tears.
The powerful goodness want: worse need for them.
The wise want love; and those who love want wisdom;
and all best things are so confused to i1l.
Many are strong and rich, and would be just
but live among their suffering fellow-men,
as if none felt: they know not what they do.
Among the above-mentioned poems of his own youth, Nobel seems to have expended his most serious efforts on A Riddle, which has an autobiographical tone, expatiating as it does on disappointment in early love. There are many versions. Even after he had settled in the Avenue Malakoff Paris, he had had prepared a handsomely bound, typewritten copy, which he sent to an English woman friend, accompanied by a few apologetic and belittling comments: ‘Rhyming gives good polish to metrical nonsense, and to rhyme I should have resorted. As it is, I have probably mixed blank meaning with blank verse until I have achieved the utmost in dullness. I do not pretend in the least to call my verses poetry; I only write now and then to ease my despondency, or to improve my English.’
In the same letter he asks whether Mrs. Granny has duly received, and in good condition, the caviar he had sent her from Hamburg. What stirs us, or at least touches us, in A Riddle is the wounded feelings of a dreamer or brooder who has been disappointed in his first opportunity to achieve happiness. Nobel also made an attempt to translate this little versified narrative into Swedish, which, in any event, reveals that he had had some purpose in his choice of motif even if he was not able to make the most of it.
But self-pity in verse was something the busy man soon outgrew. After that he stuck to prose, and even if he always had to struggle with obvious difficulties in his use of Swedish and never became a finished stylist, he was able at times to develop a certain logical effectiveness such as that found in his personal letters. Humor was not his gift, but he did not lack a satirical vein, and his worldwide experiences gave it an outlet. The Sisters is the title of a tendentious novel dealing with social reform which he once began to write. In Lightest Africa is another. As narrative art they are unquestionably rather crude, but in the argumentative passages can be found certain touches which prove that it is a man of ability who presides over the discussion.
The reader may, for instance, be reminded, at least momentarily, of the rebellious Strindberg of the eighties, when he is confronted with a chapter about Paris which begins in this lively fashion:
‘In the capital everything went on as usual. The poor sighed for bread, the rich for appetite, mothers and daughters for new gowns, husbands and fathers for money to pay for them. The clergy sinned against the eleventh commandment [Thou shalt not be a hypocrite]; the common people against the twelfth [Thou shalt not endure tyrants]; the ragamuffins against the thirteenth [Thou shalt not beget children thou canst not feed]. But all these sins were expiated by diligent attendance at Holy Communion. Furthermore, the Lord was unusually well pleased with his people, because they had just built him a church which cost three millions, not counting the wax candles for his favorite saints.’
The reader may, for instance, be reminded, at least momentarily, of the rebellious Strindberg of the eighties, when he is confronted with a chapter about Paris which begins in this lively fashion: ‘In the capital everything went on as usual. The poor sighed for bread, the rich for appetite, mothers and daughters for new gowns, husbands and fathers for money to pay for them. The clergy sinned against the eleventh commandment [Thou shalt not be a hypocrite]; the common people against the twelfth [Thou shalt not endure tyrants]; the ragamuffins against the thirteenth [Thou shalt not beget children thou canst not feed]. But all these sins were expiated by diligent attendance at Holy Communion. Furthermore, the Lord was unusually well pleased with his people, because they had just built him a church which cost three millions, not counting the wax candles for his favourite saints.’ Even as late as 1895, when he had lost the complicated patent suit in England over smokeless powder, he gave vent to his just indignation by writing a comedy about the British legal system. The play is called The Patent Bacillus and may seem to echo faintly the arrogantly mocking tone in the contemporary dramatic satires of George Bernard Shaw. It is, however, improbable that Nobel was acquainted with them. At one time he called himself ‘an untalented Rydberg’ and in reference to the comedy about patents, he might have described himself as a kind of ‘untalented Shaw’. In the piece, Miss Lux is the both beautiful and crushingly witty counsel for the plaintiff, while the eminent judge bears the slightly foggy name of Haze. Throughout, the humor is rather forced. When, for example, one of the witnesses is about to kiss the Bible, he says, ‘I don’t kiss every book, but I book every kiss’, which, of course, causes loud laughter in the courtroom.
Only a single one of his works did Nobel have printed himself, the tragedy Nemesis, which had originally been called The Death of Cenci. He busied himself with this shortly before his death, in 1896, that is, at the same time as he drew up his famous will. After his death the privately printed edition was, however, burned at the request of his relatives; it was feared that the book might reflect on the late departed new fame as a prize giver. Only three copies have been preserved. In this play he borrowed the same gloomy motif from the criminal annals of the Renaissance as Shelley had already used in Beatrice Cenci. It is hard to imagine what could have attracted Nobel to this tale of horror, which had already been registered, so to speak, in the patent office of the world’s great literature. One of the effective scenes is Beatrice’s vision of the Madonna and the Devil, which is supposed to represent the heroine’s inner struggle over the revenge she has to take. The language is otherwise more rhetorical than dramatic. Like a strange anachronism, Nobel’s deep seated anticlericalism suddenly flares up, as when Guerra, who himself wears the robes of the church, declares in the middle of the play: ‘It is true that royal power is also horribly abused, so that the whole so cal1ed Christian world still resembles a shambles, but compared to the horrors of a clerical dictatorship, this is but a trifle’, and so forth. After the gruesome torture scene in the last act, during which Beatrice’s stepfather is put to death under the supervision of the avenging woman herself, the same Guerra declares solemnly: ‘ Silence, Beatrice! You stand before the altar of death. Life on earth and life after death are both eternal mysteries. But the dying spark moves us to solemn awe and stills every voice except that of religion. Only eternity speaks.’
At the memorial service in San Remo that day in December, 1896, when Nobel’s remains were to be carried to his native land, the youthful Nathan Soderblom, who was later to become Archbishop of Uppsala and who had known Nobel personally in Paris, borrowed for his farewell address at the bier these words from the Cenci tragedy. Inevitably, one makes the reflection that the phrase must be completely divorced from its context in the play to be appropriate at a funeral service as a dignified interpretation of the dead man’s inmost thoughts about life and death.
As a sentimental exaggeration must likewise be regarded the words of the Austrian author, Bertha von Suttner, when in an obituary appraisal of Nobel she wrote: ‘Had not this gifted man become a great inventor, he surely would have become, instead, a writer of high rank, and in that case would most likely have himself produced such literary works of an idealistic tendency as the bequest in his will has now stimulated future authors to create.’
Throughout his life, Alfred Nobel gave serious attention to literature and, as far as his absorbing and hectic existence permitted it, kept in touch with the literary developments of his time. In regard to his tastes, it is also known that he preferred works of an idealistic tendency and consequently strongly disapproved of the contemporary naturalism represented, for example, by Zola. Among Scandinavian writers he admired Bjornson, Ibsen, Rydberg, and Lagerlof. As a reader of literature, he looked for the living core; the ideas expressed interested him more than the forms.
Consequently, it was not by chance that he expressly stipulated that ‘an idealistic tendency’ was an essential qualification of literary works to be judged for the prize, even though the expression was vague and has caused endless arguments. What he really meant by this term was probably works of a humanitarian and constructive character, which, like scientific discoveries, could be regarded as of benefit to mankind.
Nobel called himself a super idealist, and in spite of all his heavy disappointments, in spite of the great sum total of his personal experiences, in spite of a rich man’s misanthropy – inevitable in his situation – he seems to have clung to the faith, as a final quand-meme, that men and nations would permit themselves to be taught a slight degree of unselfishness, fraternal amity, and tolerance by the influence of a great, idealistic, and ennobling literature. Under such circumstances, an idealistic tendency became for him a self evident requirement, and he could not very well foresee that during the next half-century this term would receive a wider interpretation.
In literature the fundamental human values can be presented in so many different ways and in such varied forms – by indirection or argument, ironically or satirically – that the bare term idealistic becomes an altogether too rigid definition. In actual practice, it has also been shown that only the loosest possible interpretation of the word can be applied with profit.