Mo Yan’s Nobel Speech and the Politicization of Literature

Last week, after reading a  number of newspaper articles critical of Mo Yan’s Nobel Prize Lecture speech, I felt annoyed, but I was not surprised. During the last couple of years, it had become clear to me that the Swedish Academy doesn’t award the Nobel Prize in Literature only on the basis of a candidate’s talent as an artist, but also on the basis of political considerations. 
The most famous example of a writer who, despite being one of the most acclaimed novelists of his time, never won the Nobel Prize, was Count Leo Tolstoj. With a number of classics such as War and Peace and Anna Karenina, Tolstoj’s works have been regarded as masterpieces of World Literature ever since their publication. 
When Tolstoj was still alive, the Permanent Secretary of the Committee of the Swedish Academy, Carl David af Wirsén, however, bitterly opposed the Russian writer’s candidature, not because of the literary merit of his novels, but because of his political and religious views, which became more and more radical as the Count grew older. Though in his report to the Academy Wirsén admitted to be an admirer of Tolstoj’s works, he condemned the writer’s social and political theories. [note
The political nature of the Academy’s decision-making is demonstrated by the fact that the first Russian writer to win the prize was not, for instance, Anton Cechov, Vladimir Majakovskij or Vladimir Nabokov, but an author that is almost forgotten today: Ivan Bunin. Who also happened to be an anti-Communist expatriate in Paris. [note]  
Now, this does not mean that Nobel laureates are not great artists: no one would argue that writers such as Thomas Mann or Boris Pasternak did not deserve the award. However, one cannot shake off the impression that motives outside the literary talent and impact of authors have been a decisive criterion for their selection. The only two Greek citizens to have won the award, for example, were Giannis Seferis and Odysseas Elytis, who were outspoken adversaries of the Dictatorship of the Colonels. 
Interestingly enough, public opinion seems to have accepted the semi-political nature of the Nobel Prize. In the case of Mo Yan’s Nobel Prize award, the attention of the media clearly shifted from literature to politics. 
In many ways, this is understandable. Media look for a wide audience, and commenting on an author’s works might be more difficult and probably more boring than just starting a polemic about politics. Most especially at a time when China has become an obsession with Western media and one can read  countless news and articles where Westerners seem to be trying to “convert” China to democracy. 
As a result, media didn’t pay much attention to what Mo Yan actually said in his speech – which I personally found very moving and profound –  but concentrated on the political view of the Chinese author. 
In an interesting article that appeared in The New Yorker, journalist Evan Osnos masterly avoids any reference to Mo Yan’s actual literary career and merits, preferring to give to the public a historic overview of the “obscure” history of China:

“Over the centuries, Chinese bureaucrats perfected the dark arts of emptiness to such an extent that when they deliver speeches these days, they often recite verbatim speeches that they have previously delivered, with the sparest of adjustments. They are so loyal to precedent, so fearful of making mistakes, that when you want to lampoon a Chinese leader, you say that he read his speech brilliantly, including the line “pause here for applause.” [note]

Such references, of course, are aimed at creating an association between what is perceived as the traditionally authoritarian government of China and at focusing exclusively on political matters. This stance becomes even more obvious later in the article:

On Monday, Mo Yan will receive this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature, and he will be confronted with a problem not of his making but one that he no longer avoid [sic!]: Will he speak up for his fellow Nobel Prize winner, the Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo, who is serving an eleven-year sentence for subversion? Will he cite the sanctity of Article 35 of the Chinese Constitution, which protects freedom of expression?” [note]

“What is wrong with asking from a writer to become a champion of freedom and liberty?” will many people wonder. “Isn’t the very profession of an author based on freedom of speech and independence from state authorities? Shouldn’t Mo Yan defend the very foundations of his own work? Shouldn’t he stand up for his rights and for those of all the people who want to be free?”

These questions are legitimate. But I will answer them with a simple: no. Mo Yan is a writer. His job is to create literature. And we read his books because they take us on imaginary journeys which entertain us, which make us suffer and smile, which captivate us. To ask from a writer to endorse democratic values is as wrong as to ask from him to endorse Communism or any other form of ideology. 

The idea that writers should be champions of certain values comes from the era of nationalism and political ideologies. Fascism and Communism wanted literature to reflect the political ideology of their regimes. 

It is exactly because we ought to value the freedom of the artists that we should not demand anything whatsoever from Mo Yan. We should let him say what he believes to pertain to his life and work, without putting on him any pressure of political nature. Some people will argue that by giving the prize to someone who doesn’t defend freedom of speech and is a member of the Communist Party we are damaging our system, we are accepting “compromises” with a totalitarian regime. But this view assumes that we should politicize every aspect of our intellectual life in order to “win a battle” against a political adversary. This view presupposes that there is a threat against which we must fight if we want to survive. 

Yet that isn’t the case. Democracy is a matter of institutions, of freedom of the individual. We shall fight to maintain our democracy, but we cannot maintain democracy by politicizing literature or the media, by fighting political battles with books and newspapers, by denouncing those who don’t accept this politicization. Because this endangers democracy in a way that is more subtle than the conscious acceptance of a writer’s own choices regarding what he or she should stand for. 

Paradoxically, political battles fought in the fields of art and media are not only dangerous; they have turned into a simple, hollow ritual. First of all, we don’t consider whether by denouncing the misdeeds of the CCP, the lives of those who suffer would improve or actually worsen afterwards. Second, we are all too ready to condemn China, while our own political allies such as Saudi Arabia, or Kirgizistan, are absent from media coverage. Third, China-bashing has become a valve to release the fear and frustration of Western countries, who cannot accept China as it is now, and cannot accept the idea of this huge country modernizing so quickly. Fourth, in the light of what happens in Southern Europe, most especially in Greece, it is outrageous that the media consider the sufferings of millions of people and the consequent endangering of democracy as a perfectly normal process (and sometimes even as a righteous punishment against Greeks or Spanish), while they’re always ready to condemn the abuses that happen in China. The defense of democracy shouldn’t be hidden propaganda, but a self-conscious, honest discourse.  

I think that Mo Yan himself in his speech gives a lesson to all those who asked from him to become a champion of democracy.  

“My greatest challenges,” he says “come with writing novels that deal with social realities, such as The Garlic Ballads, not because I’m afraid of being openly critical of the darker aspects of society, but because heated emotions and anger allow politics to suppress literature and transform a novel into reportage of a social event. As a member of society, a novelist is entitled to his own stance and viewpoint; but when he is writing he must take a humanistic stance, and write accordingly. Only then can literature not just originate in events, but transcend them, not just show concern for politics but be greater than politics.
“Possibly because I’ve lived so much of my life in difficult circumstances, I think I have a more profound understanding of life. I know what real courage is, and I understand true compassion. I know that nebulous terrain exists in the hearts and minds of every person, terrain that cannot be adequately characterized in simple terms of right and wrong or good and bad, and this vast territory is where a writer gives free rein to his talent. So long as the work correctly and vividly describes this nebulous, massively contradictory terrain, it will inevitably transcend politics and be endowed with literary excellence.”

To read the moving and very personal speech by Mo Yan, visit the official website of the Nobel Prize

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