Recent Nobel Prize Winners Share Loathing of Church
Prestigious literary award is being 'denigrated,' says a prominent critic
BY Gabriel Meyer
November 01, 1998 Issue | Posted 11/1/98 at 1:00 PM
LOS ANGELES—Snille och smak, “talent and taste.”
That's the motto for the Swedish Academy, founded in 1786 by King Gustav III, and, since 1901, the jury that decides annual winners of the coveted Nobel Prize in literature.
For the past two years, the annual Oct. 8 announcement of the winner of the prize has left many questioning whether much “talent” or “taste” has been in evidence in recent choices made by the 18-member panel. The 200-year-old institution is charged by the Nobel committee with selecting a distinguished person of letters on whom to bestow the world's most prestigious annual literary prize, with its nearly $1 million monetary award. But among the qualities that have distinguished the two most recent prize winners, Italian playwright Dario Fo, last year's winner, and Portuguese novelist Jose Sara-mago, 1998's laureate, are political radicalism and virulent hatred for the Catholic Church.
“It's outrageous,” said First Things editor in chief Father Richard Neuhaus. “These figures are hardly representative of what people recognize as world-class literary achievement. They're ideologically and politically driven awards. It's unfortunate that the pertinent committee degrades the Nobel prize in this way.”
The press release that followed the announcement of this year's award praised Saramago, the 75-year-old Portuguese fabulist, author of more than 30 works of prose, poetry, essays, and dramas, for his “parables sustained by imagination, compassion, and irony [that] continually enable us once again to apprehend an elusory reality.”
The Vatican daily newspaper L‘Osservatore Romano was less sanguine about Saramago's virtues. It criticized the academy's “ideological recognition” of Saramago, a longtime member of the central committee of Portugal's fiercely Stalinist Communist Party, and characterized his controversial 1991 novel The Gospel According to Jesus Christ as the “testimony of a substantial anti-religious sentiment.”
Saramago's treatment of the Gospel story is nothing if not provocative. The Portuguese writer's novel, published in the United States in 1993, portrays the Holy Family as wildly dysfunctional, its members torn apart by guilt and a climate of religious delusion. Saramago disputes the Virgin Birth, portrays Joseph as a nightmare-haunted neurotic and Mary as a hysterical mother, has Jesus abandon her and cohabit with Mary Magdalene, and depicts God as the cynical deity of a religion founded on pain, death, and intolerance. Some Gospel.
The bishops of Portugal mounted an attack on the book and the Portuguese minister of culture vetoed the novel as the country's entry for the 1991 European Literary Prize. Saramago retaliated by leaving Portugal and settling in the Canary Islands, where he still lives.
(When Saramago charged the Portuguese government with censorship, the novelist's critics where quick to point to his own public record of support for the repression of artistic freedom in the former Soviet Union and Eastern bloc nations under Communist rule.)
Much of Saramago's other output, particularly his 1982 breakthrough novel Balthasar and Blimunda which features characters fleeing the Inquisition in a flying machine, also has a strongly anti-clerical cast. In his left-wing politics, enmity toward the Church and use of the techniques of “magic realism,” Saramago echoes a generation of Iberian and Hispano-American writers, such as Gabriel García-Márquez, Jor ge Luis Borges, and the Brazilian Osman Lins.
“What strikes you about the recent laureates,” Father Neuhaus told the Register, “is that they're last century's news. They're still fighting the battles of the past — the old arguments about clericalism, faith vs. reason — while the Church has moved on, especially in this pontificate.”
Now it's the Church that speaks hopefully about the future, he added.
These aging writers “don't have a vision of the future,” said Father Neuhaus. “They're historical artifacts, these guys, discredited rationalists, old-line communists, captives to a history that the Church has boldly transcended.”
But if Saramago has unsavory political associations and has made rejection of Christianity a central theme of his work, he, at least, is an imaginative, though bitter writer, with an impressive body of work to his credit. (The anti-clerical novelist, however, couldn't resist taking a swipe at the Church in remarks after winning the Nobel. “If the Pope had been on the jury,” he told reporters, “I wouldn't have won anything.”) As many commentators on the Nobel Prize decision have noted, he's also a representative of a Portuguese language spoken by more than 140 million people in countries around the world and a literary culture which has received insufficient international recognition.
Not so Dario Fo, last year's surprise Nobel Prize winner, a 71-year-old improvisational performance artist whose literary output is meager, and whose “reputation,” if not notoriety, has, until very recently, been largely confined to left-wing circles in Italy.
(When last year's decision was announced, 1980's Nobel Prize winner Polish-American poet Czeslaw Milosz expressed astonishment and wondered in print how you could select someone for the world's most significant literary honor that nobody had ever heard of. Fo himself confessed to being “baffled” when he heard the news.)
Fo's principal claim to fame rests on slight 1960s-style theatrical “sketches” of Italian politicians and other establishment figures, which include anti-Catholic satires and raunchy, often vicious parodies of the Christian faith, along with generous doses of anti-American rhetoric.
Fo was twice refused visas to visit the United States in the 1970s and ‘80s under the McClaren Act which bars entry to known communists. Like Sara-mago, Fo, a member of the Italian Communist Party (PCI), is a key figure in the more radical wing of Europe's fading New Left, which supported Mao's Cultural Revolution in China, opposed Soviet détente with the West, and, in Fo's case, had links with the urban terrorism of the Red Brigades in the 1970s. He was imprisoned by Italian authorities briefly in 1973 in connection with his political activities. Fo did not make his first American appearance until 1986 at the invitation of Robert Brucestein of New York's American Repertory Theater.
Fo, who has been called Italy's “Lenny Bruce,” once described his own work as “anti-traditional, anti-conformist, preoccupied with ridicule, laughter, sarcasm, irony, and the grotesque.”
In awarding the prize, the Swedish Academy gushed that Fo “emulates the jesters of the Middle Ages in scourging authority and upholding the dignity of the downtrodden.”
The allusion to jesters notwithstanding, the Vatican was not amused. If Vatican officials expressed disappointment with this year's award to Saramago, they were stunned when the prize was given to Fo.
“Apart from any moral considerations,” L‘Osservatore Romano declared last year, “the award of the prize to an actor who is also the author of [these] controversial texts has gone beyond anything that can be imagined.”
In Fo's 1969 revue Mistero Buffo, for example, papal indulgences are satirized as “discounts on pain,” and in a parody of the scene of the wedding at Cana, Jesus, having turned water into wine, exhorts his followers to “get stinking drunk — especially you, Mother.”
In a more sinister, and vicious vein, Mistero Buffo contains a routine in which Fo impersonates a terrorist stalking a pope during an outdoor audience at the Vatican. Fo barks into a walkie-talkie to a fictitious gunman hidden in the crowd: “Shoot the one in white.” And then, after a pause, “No, no, that's a nun!”
After the play's premier, Pope Paul VI called Mistero Buffo “a desecration of Italian religious feelings,” and when the play was aired on Italian television in 1977, the Vatican condemned it as “the most blasphemous show in the history of broadcasting.”
But the Vatican was hardly the only voice protesting the Nobel committee's Fo award.
An editorial in the New York Daily News called Fo a “highly debatable” choice and said that his selection raised concerns about the lack of accountability in the Swedish Academy's decision-making process.
In an October 1997 interview with Agence-France Presse, Polish author Gustav Hebring-Grudzinski expressed even stronger views, charging that giving the award to Fo “definitely compromised” the Nobel Committee and “ridiculed not only the institution but, indirectly, previous winners of the prize.”
This would hardly be the first time the Nobel jury's judgments lend themselves to censure. The Swedish Academy has had something of a checkered history in its attempts to locate the supreme literary talents of the age.
In 1901, for example, the academy chose to award the very first Nobel Prize in literature to French poet Sally Prod-homme — not a name that rings many bells today. And then, there are the more troubling miscalculations. Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun, who went on to support Hitler, won the prize in 1920.
“If you ran through the list of award winners, how many would be recognized as world-class literary figures today? Not many,” said Father Neuhaus. “If excellence is vindicated by history, then the Nobel literature committee should be deeply worried.”
Nevertheless, many of the century's greatest literary figures — W.B. Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, T.S. Eliot, Boris Pasternak — do figure on the Nobel list, and recent laureates have included such widely recognized literary heavyweights as poets Czeslaw Milosz (1980), Josef Brodsky (1987) and Octavio Paz (1990), Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz (1988), and the celebrated Japanese writer Kenzaburo Oe (1994).
Why, then, the spate of old-fashioned Euro-radicals like Fo and Saramago at century's end?
The secrecy in which the Nobel selection process is shrouded makes it difficult to say for sure.
The Swedish Academy's 18 members — writers, linguists, literary scholars, historians — are elected for life. According to Nobel committee sources, up to 1,000 “qualified persons” may be involved in proposing candidates for the annual award, but none of the deliberations by awarding bodies for any of the Nobel prizes are public. The final choice is made by a jury of 12 and decided by majority vote.
Outside the members of the academy, no one knows precisely what calculations went into the selection process that produced Fo and Saramago.
(The hem of the veil may have been lifted when Sture Allen, the academy's presiding secretary, had to fend off controversy last year when Fo's wife, actress Franca Rame, told reporters that the Italian comic had known weeks in advance that he would win the prize, a clear violation of the academy's tradition of strict secrecy until prizes are announced in October.)
Nevertheless, the academy's pedigree provides some clues.
Modeled on the Academie Francaise, and founded by a progressive 18th century monarch, the Swedish Academy is a creature of the European secular Enlightenment, complete with the age's trademark anti-clericalism and deep, instinctual opposition to the Catholic Church.
“From the Enlightenment onward, the Catholic Church was viewed — and in some circles still is viewed — as the chief obstacle to human progress,” Father Neuhaus explained. The specific context changes — secular control of education in the last century, contraception and population control in this one — but the attitude remains.
“And from that militantly secularist and leftist perspective, indeed, what other great enemy is available? What other target of consequence is there?”
For intellectuals of a certain disposition, he said, defying the Church “makes them feel courageous and important. And, regardless of what the Church does and says, that will likely continue.”
It's a permanent feature of being Catholic in the modern world, said Father Neuhaus. Without acquiescing to it, “we need to get used to being in conflict with aspects of the culture.”
Senior writer Gabriel Meyer is based in Los Angeles.
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