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Swedish Academy Nobel Prize

Can Literature (And Life) Be Understood Through the Nobel Prize?


Some of mankind’s most inspiring speeches have been given in response to the awarding of the Nobel Prize.

Since 1901, the Swedish Academy has annually awarded the Nobel Prize to people who’ve contributed the greatest benefits to mankind or to society during the preceding year. The awards were originally instituted in honor of Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, whose last will and testament specified that his fortune be distributed in prizes for the fields of physics, chemistry, medicine, peace and literature. This latter category, which has inevitably omitted many great writers (among them Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf, Joyce, Joseph Conrad, WH Auden and Borges), has still recognized some of the biggest names in letters, and the prize has shed light into their work, and made it known to far vaster parts of the world.

An important part of the awards ceremony is the acceptance speech which provides an opportunity for laureates to express their positions on literature and life or on both, as often as not, they’re the same thing. Following are some of the most memorable passages:

Alfred Nobel

In 1950, the philosopher Bertrand Russell received the Nobel for his “”Varied and significant writings in which he champions humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought.” With an enviable temper and gentle voice, this is what he said. In 1954, it was Hemingway’s turn. Hemingway was awarded the prize “for his mastery of the art of narrative, most recently demonstrated in The Old Man and the Sea, and for the influence that he has exerted on contemporary style.” The elderly Hemingway was unable to attend the awards ceremony due to his health, but his recorded speech on writing emphasized the imminent loneliness that a good writer will endure. The 2010 Nobel Prize went to Peruvian-Spanish writer, Mario Vargas Llosa. As a master storyteller, he related his own story as a writer learning to read at the age of five until he learned he’d won the Nobel Prize for his “for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt, and defeat.”

Bertrand Russell

Years before, in 1949, when William Faulkner received the award, the world witnessed a speech that still resonates as a great proverb, not only for literature but for life itself. The author’s words seem to address the very way we’ve borne existence, without much to lose, but with everything to gain.

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. […] He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. [The writer] must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.

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