Thursday, December 08, 2005

SORRY, OLD CHAP. I really hate to say this, but Harold Pinter's Nobel Prize speech was not well played.

In a way I admire it. He had a world stage, and gave from it (or from a TV set perched on it) the explicitly political lecture he wished to give. There is a touch in this of Brando sending out Sacheen Littlefeather, which I also admire. Fuck 'em if they can't take a rant. What makes their party more sacrosanct than the Oscars? It's his party this year, after all.

My quarrel is that he did not explicitly tie his gift to literature -- the occasion for the speech -- to his political argument. This judgement may be based on ignorance of his more recent work, which I have seen mostly on right-wing websites, by which torn pieces covered in wolves' spittle no sensible person could judge it.

That notwithstanding, I do see a break in Pinter's speech that cut his authority as a great writer away from his reasoning as a world citizen. And without that authority his argument, again given the occasion, loses the force it might have had.

All the early stuff about his working method is, or should be, nectar to writers:
In the play that became The Homecoming I saw a man enter a stark room and ask his question of a younger man sitting on an ugly sofa reading a racing paper. I somehow suspected that A was a father and that B was his son, but I had no proof. This was however confirmed a short time later when B (later to become Lenny) says to A (later to become Max), 'Dad, do you mind if I change the subject? I want to ask you something. The dinner we had before, what was the name of it? What do you call it? Why don't you buy a dog? You're a dog cook. Honest. You think you're cooking for a lot of dogs.' So since B calls A 'Dad' it seemed to me reasonable to assume that they were father and son. A was also clearly the cook and his cooking did not seem to be held in high regard. Did this mean that there was no mother? I didn't know. But, as I told myself at the time, our beginnings never know our ends.
This is excellent, largely because it approaches the universal by way of the particular. Not everyone starts as Pinter does, but the conclusion at which he arrives is both philosophically astute and common knowledge – it’s also funny, which demonstrates that the mystery Pinter pursued is one we all can acknowledge, and gives evidence of his lasting gift.

Pinter remains on the right track with his first relating of language to politics:
But as I have said, the search for the truth can never stop. It cannot be adjourned, it cannot be postponed. It has to be faced, right there, on the spot.

Political theatre presents an entirely different set of problems. Sermonising has to be avoided at all cost. Objectivity is essential. The characters must be allowed to breathe their own air. The author cannot confine and constrict them to satisfy his own taste or disposition or prejudice. He must be prepared to approach them from a variety of angles, from a full and uninhibited range of perspectives, take them by surprise, perhaps, occasionally, but nevertheless give them the freedom to go which way they will. This does not always work. And political satire, of course, adheres to none of these precepts, in fact does precisely the opposite, which is its proper function.
This is inarguable. Shortly thereafter:
Political language, as used by politicians, does not venture into any of this territory since the majority of politicians, on the evidence available to us, are interested not in truth but in power and in the maintenance of that power. To maintain that power it is essential that people remain in ignorance, that they live in ignorance of the truth, even the truth of their own lives. What surrounds us therefore is a vast tapestry of lies, upon which we feed.
Well... okay... but...
As every single person here knows, the justification for the invasion of Iraq was that Saddam Hussein possessed a highly dangerous body of weapons of mass destruction, some of which could be fired in 45 minutes, bringing about appalling devastation. We were assured that was true. It was not true. We were told that Iraq had a relationship with Al Quaeda and shared responsibility for the atrocity in New York of September 11th 2001. We were assured that this was true. It was not true. We were told that Iraq threatened the security of the world. We were assured it was true. It was not true.

The truth is something entirely different. The truth is to do with how the United States understands its role in the world and how it chooses to embody it.
Here you get the feeling that only the thinnest reed connects Pinter’s argument with its target: he has begun to compare the quest of earnest travellers toward truth, such as himself, with that of professional liars. It isn’t that the argument is too big for the target – though I think it is – but that one has nothing really to do with the other.

By the time we get to the painful descriptions of Reagan’s Nicaragua policy, Pinter’s argument is as far off the mark as a bird’s argument with a cat. It is beyond the province of literature, and, I fear, there is nothing in it that can wrest the argument back toward terms more favorable to literature. That may be Pinter’s assessment, too, and while I appreciate his dire conclusion –
I believe that despite the enormous odds which exist, unflinching, unswerving, fierce intellectual determination, as citizens, to define the real truth of our lives and our societies is a crucial obligation which devolves upon us all. It is in fact mandatory.

If such a determination is not embodied in our political vision we have no hope of restoring what is so nearly lost to us – the dignity of man.
-- the speech, meant to accent the "crucial obligation," because it plays on the enemy's field is forced to leave its weight on the "enormous odds."

It may be that Toni Morrison’s Nobel Speech has as little relevance to the real, bleeding, scheming world as Pinter’s, and Lord knows I prefer his work to hers. But her Speech hinged on a metaphor – a blind woman trying to discern the fate of a bird in hand – and tightly connected her gift, such as it is, to the enemy it faced in the State:
The systematic looting of language can be recognized by the tendency of its users to forgo its nuanced, complex, mid-wifery properties for menace and subjugation. Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge. Whether it is obscuring state language or the faux-language of mindless media; whether it is the proud but calcified language of the academy or the commodity driven language of science; whether it is the malign language of law-without-ethics, or language designed for the estrangement of minorities, hiding its racist plunder in its literary cheek - it must be rejected, altered and exposed.
I would be remiss not to mention the Speech by the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky:
"How can one write music after Auschwitz?" inquired Adorno; and one familiar with Russian history can repeat the same question by merely changing the name of the camp - and repeat it perhaps with even greater justification, since the number of people who perished in Stalin's camps far surpasses the number of German prisoncamp victims. "And how can you eat lunch?" the American poet Mark Strand once retorted. In any case, the generation to which I belong has proven capable of writing that music.
This is not to play Dueling Oppressions, but to recognize that oppression remains what it has always been, as art has, and though the former tries like hell it has not in all these centuries been able to eradicate the latter. Pinter might have spoken of the particularly seductive language oppression, Western-style, has learned to deceive its subjects; what a speech that might have been!

But we already ask too much of our artists when we ask them to tell us how they do what they do. And I note with displeasure that the Nobel Speeches get longer each decade – look at Knut Hamsen’s! If Pinter’s speech disappoints you, read the plays. They contain everything you need to know.

No comments:

Post a Comment