Austrian writer Peter Handke won the 2019 Nobel Prize for Literature. Some people are very upset about that. Handke, after all, had a bit of a — let’s call it an uncomfortable relationship with Serbian nationalists. He even gave the eulogy at the funeral of former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, who died in prison while awaiting trial for crimes connected to the Bosnian genocide. Eulogist for the guy who died awaiting trial for committing genocide is clearly not the best look for a Nobel laureate. Hence the upset.
Part of this — maybe a small part, but a part nonetheless — is a misunderstanding of the aim of the Nobel Prize. And here’s where a little history is helpful. The Nobel Prizes were established in the last will and testament of Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel, who amassed more than 350 patents during the course of his lifetime but was most famous for inventing dynamite. That particular invention immediately made warfare, which is obviously never pleasant or bloodless, a much, much deadlier affair.
Dynamite also made Nobel rich. Unlike most men who get rich off the suffering of others, Nobel actually had the experience of reading his own obituary. When a French newspaper mistook Nobel for his brother, Ludvig, it ran a headline declaring, “The Merchant of Death Is Dead.” The headline, eight years premature, proved a turning point for the not-dead Nobel brother. Thus, in his will, he bequeathed his fortune to establish a prize to be given to those each year who confer the “greatest benefit to humankind” in the areas of physics, chemistry, medicine, literature and peace. The Nobel Prize for Peace has, unsurprisingly, become the most famous of the categories and in some ways has overwhelmed the others. The mission to locate that which has produced the “greatest benefit to humankind” has been translated, in popular parlance, to mean “contributed to world peace.” Which, frankly, can be a problem.
For example, there are, without a doubt, some people for whom the Cold War was a very good thing: arms manufacturers, Fidel Castro, the John Birch Society, Russian language programs. And, it must be said, The Swedish Academy, for the Cold War made picking a Nobel Peace Prize laureate a relatively easy task. This year especially, it’s hard to imagine that committee members weren’t sitting over their fika, longing for the days when a great global conflict made picking the good guys, and giving them a medal and money, so much easier. (The 2019 Nobel Peace Prize ultimately went to Abiy Ahmed Ali, “for his efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation, and in particular for his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea.”)
All prizes are political. My sister once won a cake at a primary school cake walk because she hadn’t won anything else at the carnival. The whole thing was rigged and everyone knew it, even my sister. The Nobel Prize is just particularly political. And in an age in which everything — and let’s be honest, literally everything — is political, prizes become almost a dangerous thing. Indeed, in an age in which everything is hyper-politicized, it is inevitable that prizes might be declared, somehow or other, apolitical. The Nobel Prize is no different. Consequently, the committee handed out the award for literature this year in such a way as to say that it’s “just about literature.” Enter Handke.
And here’s the rub: Handke is a fantastic writer. His work, even when its aim is horrifying, is subtle and nuanced. Whatever you think of him — and, to be clear, at the very least he keeps terrible company — Handke’s words have indeed conferred a “great benefit” upon mankind because his words provide a raw and unfiltered look at the human condition that is, well, beneficial.
Not that any of this answers the question as to whether Handke should be handed such a prestigious award. Rather, this is about the solution to a seemingly unsolvable puzzle, the answer to a seemingly unanswerable question: Can we, and how do we, separate the artist from his art? Should we even try? (Here’s how a headline on The Intercept put it: “How the Nobel Prize Succumbed to the Literary Art of Genocide Denial.”)
Perhaps more to this point, should we confer honors on bad people if they turn out to be talented monsters? I think that a different Nobel laureate — someone who received his award in the Nobel’s Cold War heyday — is perhaps the best way to the square the riddle. In his searing, deeply moral Gulag Archipelago, the great Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote:
If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.
That line, which runs through your heart and mine, also runs through the heart of the great and the good as well as the spectacularly evil. It ran through the heart of Nobel himself, the merchant of death who managed to erase his bad reputation with, well, the money he made by making war more terrible.
Handke is a terrible person who believes some truly monstrous things. He’s also a brilliant writer whose work paradoxically makes the world a better place. He qualifies for the Nobel Prize and might actually be the best possible candidate to remind us why it even exists.