The bestowal of the Nobel Prize upon British playwright Harold Pinter several weeks ago was met with praise in the American press. Pinter - of Jewish extraction but nominally Jewish in every other regard - is considered one of the masters of modern drama. Like Samuel Beckett, he's credited with creating a new language that revolutionized the way we look at the world - and so is justly deserving of such an accolade.
That's why it was downright heartening to come across "The Sinister Mediocrity of Harold Pinter" by Christopher Hitchens in Oct. 17 Wall Street Journal. Those who know Hitchens' work might not expect to find him on the opinion pages of the Journal, a bastion of political conservatism. Hitchens, himself British, has always been of the left, though never a standard-issue leftist. But his continued left-wing allegiances make his Pinter piece even more potent.
As the title imparts, Hitchens has less than an exalted opinion of the Pinter oeuvre. In fact, Hitchens' point is that the award was given for every reason other than the fellow's writing. " … any thinking person knows precisely why he was this year's Laureate … . Just as with the selection of Jimmy Carter for the 'Peace' Prize, where the judges chose to emphasize the embarrassment they hoped thereby to visit on the Bush administration, the ludicrous elevation of a third-rate and effectively former dramatist is driven by pseudo-intellectual European hostility to the change of regime in Iraq."
The Nobel judges spoke of Pinter's language, even though their characterization was at best "clumsily-phrased," as Hitchens put it kindly: Pinter's work, they note, "uncovers the precipice under everyday prattle and forces entry into oppression's closed rooms." Hitchens agreed that some of the playwright's early works did indeed show "an uneasy relationship between the banal and the evil." But the columnist also entered into evidence a poem Pinter wrote in January 2003 called "God Bless America": "Here they go again/The Yanks in their armored parade/ Chanting their ballads of joy/As they gallop across the big world/Praising America's God."
This poem and others like it were given the Wilfred Owen prize by a group of English judges. Hitchens writes: "When re-reading Owen on 'the pity of war,' I invariably find that it is difficult to do so without tears. When scanning Mr. Pinter on the same subject, I cannot get to the end without the temptation either to laugh out loud or to throw up. The sheer puerility of the stuff is precisely a combination of banality with evil: a preference for dictatorship larded with obscenity and fatuity. (And scrawled, I might add, by a man who helped found the International Committee for the Defense of Slobodan Milosevic.)"
All those who have argued over the years that the Nobel is given for politics rather then literary quality shouldn't miss this brilliant analysis. More to the point, those who never argue that the Nobel is based on politics shouldn't miss it either.