Friday, October 22, 2010

Sartre and his Kafkaesque Nobel Prize moment, 1964

Over the years some have suggested that Nobel Prize awards (especially those for Peace) have been given for political or other ends, to cast light on civil inequities or the plight of political prisoners. Some have their own reasons for declining the awards of the Nobel Committee and find themselves in the awkward position of refusing the Committee's unwanted attentions.

The 59-year-old author Jean-Paul Sartre declined the Nobel Prize in Literature, which he was awarded on October 22, 1964, but not before writing to the group in Stockholm that he always refused official distinctions and declared that he did not want to be "institutionalized" by receiving literary awards.

After the award was announced, Sartre was interviewed by journalists outside the Paris flat of Simone de Beauvoir and told the press he rejected the Nobel Prize for fear that it would limit the impact of his writing. He also expressed regrets that circumstances had given his decision "the appearance of a scandal".

The circumstances turned out to be a bit more like Kafka than of his own invention, a bureaucratic slip-up on the part of the Nobel committee. A week before the award was to be announced, he sent a polite letter expressing his wish to be removed from the list of nominees. He also declared he would not accept the award if it were presented to him.

The letter was not read in time and Sartre was named the Nobel laureate in literature to the embarrassment of everyone involved. Sartre was compelled to further explain his position in a second letter which made his wishes clear. He wrote:

"This attitude is based on my conception of the writer's enterprise. A writer who adopts political, social, or literary positions must act only with the means that are his own—that is, the written word. All the honors he may receive expose his readers to a pressure I do not consider desirable. If I sign myself Jean-Paul Sartre it is not the same thing as if I sign myself Jean-Paul Sartre, Nobel Prizewinner.

The writer who accepts an honor of this kind involves as well as himself the association or institution which has honored him. My sympathies for the Venezuelan revolutionists commit only myself, while if Jean-Paul Sartre the Nobel laureate champions the Venezuelan resistance, he also commits the entire Nobel Prize as an institution.

The writer must therefore refuse to let himself be transformed into an institution, even if this occurs under the most honorable circumstances, as in the present case."

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