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  • Nobel Rhetoric; or, Petrarch's Pendulum
  • Philippe-Joseph Salazar

Very many authors who have their roots in other countries work in Europe, because it is only here where you can be left alone and write, without being beaten to death. It is dangerous to be an author in big parts of Asia and Africa.1

The ceremony of [Petrarch's] coronation was performed on the Capitol, by his friend and patron the supreme magistrate of the republic . . . and thrice repeating his vows for the prosperity of Rome, he knelt before the throne and received from the senator a laurel crown, with a more precious declaration, "This is the reward of merit."

(Gibbon 1952, 2:573)


I would like to address a simple question: what is a Nobel laureate's speech?2 With a corollary: how does it provide an opportunity to perform as a public intellectual, a "philosopher" of sorts? And a further corollary: what does it say about intellectual compliance or resistance? There is a play on words in the title of this essay, made to draw attention to the rhetorical construction of a commonplace, mass media-induced belief: that Nobel laureates are, in essence, "noble minds."3 For brevity's sake this essay focuses mainly on the literature prizes and, to a lesser extent, the peace prizes. [End Page 373]


At face value, a Nobel Prize is a rhetorical event (from the time the winner is announced to the moment of the Nobel address): over the recent years, rituals attached to the Nordic apotheosis have attracted growing media interest—they belong to "breaking news"—lending laureates a public exposure that, in turn, has led them to perform a public role or to publicly decline this performance, literally to "dispose of " it—"disposure" as the antistrophe of exposure. The public is usually aware of the announcement of the name of the winner, who instantly becomes a global "brand." Publicity and news programs follow suit, and if a recipient's ethical qualities resonate with the ethical preoccupations of the day (gender is one) the better the news value. Arguments are built on the announcement and often recur when, in early December, recipients deliver their Nobel addresses.

This rhetorical event may indeed take the shape of a "rhetorical situation" if national pride or state concerns impose an exigency onto laureates—it is interesting to note that the media are complicit in stressing the national value of an award. The exigency resembles the one applied by them to sport performances. However, while the practices of public reward and public performance no longer allow a sportsperson to decline a medal or to express personal views on a podium to the public strains of a national hymn,4 they do still allow Nobel laureates to absent themselves, as André Gide did in 1947 (this strategy gave him the opportunity, in a terse banquet speech read on his behalf, to express his view that Paul Valéry had been overlooked by the Nobel, thus turning the award into a muted invective; see Gide 1947), to say they don't care, that their country of origin did little for them, and even, although rarely, to decline or to express amusement at the award.5 In short, beside "disposure," they can perform "exposure" through acceptance or dismissiveness, thus drawing a merciful line between reward (in sport) and award (the Nobel).

A rhetorical situation is indeed created when a Nobel winner is seen as betraying state or nation by accepting the prize. In one reverse case, French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre was berated for not accepting it (in 1964), in spite of the fact that, at that time, his philosophy and political engagement made clear to the French state and the French public that he abhorred them both. In 2003, South Africans learned at their expense how reward and award are borderline and therefore not on the same side: they failed to thank J. M. Coetzee for his temperance, when, having resettled in Australia at the time of his award, he waited for a while before taking Australian citizenship.6 The Nobel Foundation's rightful insistence on disregarding [End Page 374] nationality does not mean nationality...


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