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Wednesday, 19 September 2018

The Nobel conundrum

Youssri Abdalla , Tuesday 15 May 2018
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Views: 4284

Throughout its history, the Nobel Prize in Literature was the most prestigious literary prize in the world. However, the last few years have witnessed a huge controversy following the awarding of the prize to the American singer and lyricist Bob Dylan in 2016.

This is not the prize's only recent controversy, and now its credibility is at stake. This is due to news reports and investigations into accusations of sexual harassment by Jean-Claude Arnault, a well-known French photographer married to a member of the Swedish Academy, which awards the Nobel Prize in Literature. A number of women, including other Academy members, have accused him of sexually harassing them. He and his wife also own a cultural venue that used to receive subsidies from the Swedish Academy.

The situation worsened after it emerged that the names of a number of the prize winners were leaked by Arnault over recent years. These incidents have resulted in the cancelling of this year's prize with the intent to award two winners in 2019. The prize also is subject to meticulous critical review from cultural and literary circles around the world.

This review should specifically be focused on giving priority to the aesthetic and artistic value of literature, not to consumerist market requirements which prevailed lately, such as pop art, canned literature and other commoditising for the benefit of Savage Capitalism and neo-liberalism.

Moreover, halos of sanctity surround the Swedish Academy members. Making them lifelong members that cannot be removed except by death contributes to cheapening of aesthetic taste that in recent years has been connected to market mechanisms. Thus, the most active names in writing in recent years have been absent. The concentration on the Euro-American center in producing culture and creativity has become much more evident. Undoubtedly, political hegemony has resulted in cultural hegemony over the prestigious prize’s selections. Hence, we find that more than ninety authors from America and Europe have been awarded the prize since its commencement in 1901. This, in its turn, consolidates the Euro-centrism on one hand and excludes other creative centers on the other.

Every year, Arab cultural circles are concerned with getting the prize, all according to wishful thinking without reflecting on how to contribute effectively to the world’s body of literature. Arab intellectual circles are absent from this body due to the deterioration of Arab cultural institutions, the inability of being present within the world’s creative scene, the absence of organised institutional translation movements as well as the decline of the Arab public sphere.

However, this kind of self-accountability will not be complete except until the tunnel of the past is exited, on one hand, and intellectual bondage towards the Euro-American center is broken on the other. In this postmodernist world, knowledge is not monopolised by anyone, but is the fruit of creative diversity. Creative narratives, whether novels or poetry, are no longer closed texts. They are not characterised by the absolute purity of belonging to one literary genre. Rather, arts have become overlapping, arguing with and borrowing some methods and techniques from each other. They have even opened up to new visual and technological media.

When the prize was awarded to such important names from the Euro-American center as William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, Saint-John Perse, Luigi Pirandello, Herman Hesse, Albert Camus, Ernest Hemingway and José  Saramago and more, it created a defensive framework protecting it. When it was also awarded to the Colombian novelist Garcia Marquez, the Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka and the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz, it was exploring new territories of aesthetic and topical adventure created by these three genius writers. Thus, reinstituting the aesthetic meaning and value must be the main preoccupation of the prize, the loss of which would be real for the global world of writing.

Arab culture, with all its different variations, should abandon its habitual laziness and its overwhelming sense of intellectual bondage towards other cultures. This should not be done in a chauvinistic manner through which we see ourselves as always the best, but through creative debate with "the other" and abandoning the long-lasting emotions of fear, distrust and suspicion.

Arab culture, which has lost much but not all of its elite, is still a real and good wager for the future. Human knowledge is free and transnational, and critical theory has no homeland.

Prizes derive their real worth from their ability to open up new paths in art and literature, and to launch unique and different creative narratives. All of this relies on the integrity of the prize, which itself depends on the well-established reputation of the deciding jury’s integrity, perseverance, objectivity and profound knowledge of the creative texts’ structures and transformations. Hence, the Nobel Prize must reexamine itself, in the same way as any other prize must do so, in order to be concerned with real art which opens closed doors, instead of entering through already open ones.

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