Kundera, Horace Engdahl, and the Nobel Prize

Swedish Academy Permanent Secretary Horace Engdahl ought to read Milan Kundera, who is as European cosmopolitan as anyone, anywhere. This recommendation comes in response to Engdahl’s recent and much discussed statement:

Speaking generally about American literature, however, he said U.S. writers are “too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture,” dragging down the quality of their work.

“The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature,” Engdahl said. “That ignorance is restraining.”

The line of reasoning has been adequately debunked elsewhere—see Slate for a representative sample—I’m still fascinated by the ignorance of or, much more probably, hostility toward what is, for good or ill, still the world’s largest unified cultural force. What’s most amusing, however, is its relationship to what Milan Kundera called “The Provincialism of Small Nations” and “The Provincialism of Large Nations” in The Curtain. He diagnoses:

How to define “provincialism?” As the inability (or the refusal) to see one’s own culture in the large context. The large nations resist the Goethean idea of “world literature” because their own literature seems to them sufficiently rich that they need take no interest in what people write elsewhere […]

Small nations are reticent toward the large context for the exact opposite reasons: they hold world culture in high esteem but feel it to be something alien, a sky above their heads, distant, inaccessible, an ideal reality with little connection to their national literature.

What’s so bizarre is that Engdahl essentially accomplishes both at once: he resists the idea of the United States’ literature because he thinks European literature is enough, while at the same time he feels the United States literature is somehow alien, despite its self-evident place that would seem obvious to anyone with even passing familiarity with it. Engdahl is essentially implying that a) American literature is somehow guilty by association with worldwide pop culture, b) isn’t real literature in the first place, c) he’s unhappy about American hegemony culturally or otherwise, or, d) he’s unhappy at Europe relative decline in cultural and economic importance, which is likely to accelerate as India, in particular, rises (see Farheed Zakaria’s The Post-American World for more).

If the Nobel committee really wanted to regain some of its aesthetic and literary credentials, it would award the prize to Umberto Eco—a European—and Philip Roth, probably in that order. But, alas, the prizes over the last ten years have tended to go more for anti-Americanism or for writers being esoteric for the sake of being esoteric than for any other virtue. It would seem the Swedish Academy is isolated and mistakes its isolation for connection, like a remote abbey whose residents imagine themselves intimately familiar with the wider culture they ignore.

Engdahl also gives assertions as implausible as Sarah Palin’s claims to foreign policy expertise in quotes like this one:

But Horace Engdahl, the academy’s permanent secretary, rejected the notion that politics has anything to do with Nobel decisions.

“One doesn’t read literature with the same part of the brain as one votes for a political party,” he told The Associated Press.

The second doesn’t have anything to do with the first and might not be true anyway. But politics cannot be wholly separated from literature, though it can be minimized, and the pattern of recent winners indicates that, although correlation is not causation, there is a suspiciously strong correlation between winners and anti-Americanism that bears further investigation. That Engdahl would deny that too only furthers the impression of not occupying the same literary, intellectual, or social sphere the rest of us do. If he doesn’t want to, that’s fine; what’s galling is the pretense.

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