Tuesday, December 06, 2005

A Nightmarish Stress-Dream

Johann Hari vigorously attacks Harold Pinter being awarded the Nobel Prize for literature:

The Nobel Peace Prize died in 1973, when Henry Kissinger – one of the great mass murderers of our time – became a beaming recipient. This Saturday, the Nobel Prize for Literature will join its sister-prize in absurdity when Harold Pinter collects his award by video-link.

Harold Pinter has one literary accomplishment: he imported the surrealism of Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco and Luis Bunel into the staid English theatre ... At their best, his plays are like a nightmarish stress-dream: unbearably primal, raw expressions of menace and fear, whose meaning is always just beyond our grasp.

But with Samuel Beckett, you always know there is an elaborate existentialist philosophy underneath the darkness and chaos. With Pinter, if you turn on the light and switch off the atmospherics, you find… nothing, except a few commonplace insights: Torture is Bad and Resistance is Good ... Pinter’s staccato sinisterness does not illustrate a point; it distracts the audience from the fact his point is so banal.

But the more important case against Pinter’s Nobel is political ... Pinter himself says, “I suspect the [Nobel committee] must have taken my political activities into consideration since they are very much part of my work,” and he’s right: his Nobel Prize citation explicitly states that he is being rewarded because his work “uncovers the precipice under everyday prattle and force entry into oppression’s closed rooms.”

The tragedy of Pinter’s politics is that he takes a desirable political value – hatred of war, or distrust for his own government – and absolutizes it. It is good to hate war, but to take this so far that you will not resist Hitler and Stalin is absurd. It is good to oppose the crimes of your own government – but to take this so far that you end up serving on the Committee to Defend Slobodan Milosevic is bizarre.

So when there was ethnic cleansing two days’ drive from Auschwitz, Pinter’s response was to defend the aggressor and attack the victims. While much of the left – decent people like Peter Tatchell, Michael Foot and Susan Sontag – were calling for democratic countries to arm the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) to defend the ethnic Albanians from racist murder, Pinter described the KLA as “a bandit organisation” that was “actually” responsible for the ethnic cleansing in the region. Watching the trial, Pinter said admiringly, “Milosevic is giving them a run for their money.” He now says his position is that Slobodan should be released until “the real criminals”, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, join him in the dock.

Human Rights Watch – and others who know something about the Balkans – have responded to Pinter’s position with horror. Its director, Richard Dicker, says, “This is not victors’ justice – this is justice for the victims of horrific crimes. Slobodan Milosvic was at the top of the chain of command of military and security forces that wrought mayhem in Kosovo in early 1999.”

Unless there is a new Nobel Prize for rage-induced incoherence, Harold Pinter’s shouting should not be beamed into Stockholm this weekend.

(Hat tip Andrew Sullivan)

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