[Marxism] Pinter's Nobel Prize speech

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Dec 26 07:02:40 MST 2008

December 26, 2008
The Nobel Prize speech: 'The truth is elusive, but the search is compulsive'
Pinter wrote this speech about his life, his work and his politics on 
winning the Nobel Prize three years ago

In 1958 I wrote the following: "There are no hard distinctions 
between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and 
what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it 
can be both true and false."

I believe that these assertions still make sense and do still apply 
to the exploration of reality through art. So as a writer I stand by 
them but as a citizen I cannot. As a citizen I must ask: What is 
true? What is false?

Truth in drama is forever elusive. You never quite find it but the 
search for it is compulsive. The search is clearly what drives the 
endeavour. The search is your task. More often than not you stumble 
upon the truth in the dark, colliding with it or just glimpsing an 
image or a shape which seems to correspond to the truth, often 
without realising that you have done so. But the real truth is that 
there never is any such thing as one truth to be found in dramatic 
art. There are many. These truths challenge each other, recoil from 
each other, reflect each other, ignore each other, tease each other, 
are blind to each other. Sometimes you feel you have the truth of a 
moment in your hand, then it slips through your fingers and is lost.

The author's position is an odd one. In a sense he is not welcomed by 
the characters. The characters resist him, they are not easy to live 
with, they are impossible to define. You certainly can't dictate to 
them. To a certain extent you play a never-ending game with them, cat 
and mouse, blind man's buff, hide and seek. But finally you find that 
you have people of flesh and blood on your hands, people with will 
and an individual sensibility of their own, made out of component 
parts you are unable to change, manipulate or distort.

So language in art remains a highly ambiguous transaction, a 
quicksand, a trampoline, a frozen pool which might give way under 
you, the author, at any time. But as I have said, the search for the 
truth can never stop. It cannot be adjourned, it cannot be postponed. 
It has to be faced, right there, on the spot.

Political theatre presents an entirely different set of problems. 
Sermonising has to be avoided at all cost. Objectivity is essential. 
The characters must be allowed to breathe their own air. The author 
cannot confine and constrict them to satisfy his own taste or 
disposition or prejudice. He must be prepared to approach them from a 
variety of angles, from a full and uninhibited range of perspectives, 
take them by surprise, perhaps, occasionally, but nevertheless give 
them the freedom to go which way they will. This does not always 
work. And political satire, of course, adheres to none of these 
precepts, in fact does precisely the opposite, which is its proper function.

In my play The Birthday Party I think I allow a whole range of 
options to operate in a dense forest of possibility before finally 
focusing on an act of subjugation.

Mountain Language pretends to no such range of operation. It remains 
brutal, short and ugly. But the soldiers in the play do get some fun 
out of it. One sometimes forgets that torturers become easily bored. 
They need a bit of a laugh to keep their spirits up. This has been 
confirmed of course by the events at Abu Ghraib in Baghdad. Mountain 
Language lasts only 20 minutes, but it could go on for hour after 
hour, on and on and on, the same pattern repeated over and over 
again, on and on, hour after hour.

Ashes to Ashes, on the other hand, seems to me to be taking place 
under water. A drowning woman, her hand reaching up through the 
waves, dropping down out of sight, reaching for others, but finding 
nobody there, either above or under the water, finding only shadows, 
reflections, floating; the woman a lost figure in a drowning 
landscape, a woman unable to escape the doom that seemed to belong 
only to others.

But as they died, she must die too.

Political language, as used by politicians, does not venture into any 
of this territory since the majority of politicians, on the evidence 
available to us, are interested not in truth but in power and in the 
maintenance of that power. To maintain that power it is essential 
that people remain in ignorance, that they live in ignorance of the 
truth, even the truth of their own lives. What surrounds us therefore 
is a vast tapestry of lies, upon which we feed.

As every single person here knows, the justification for the invasion 
of Iraq was that Saddam Hussein possessed a highly dangerous body of 
weapons of mass destruction, some of which could be fired in 45 
minutes, bringing about appalling devastation. We were assured that 
was true. It was not true. We were told that Iraq had a relationship 
with al-Qa'ida and shared responsibility for the atrocity in New York 
of 11 September 2001. We were assured that this was true. It was not 
true. We were told that Iraq threatened the security of the world. We 
were assured it was true. It was not true.

The truth is something entirely different. The truth is to do with 
how the United States understands its role in the world and how it 
chooses to embody it.

But my contention here is that the US crimes have only been 
superficially recorded, let alone documented, let alone acknowledged, 
let alone recognised as crimes at all.

The crimes of the United States have been systematic, constant, 
vicious, remorseless, but very few people have actually talked about 
them. You have to hand it to America. It has exercised a quite 
clinical manipulation of power worldwide while masquerading as a 
force for universal good. It's a brilliant, even witty, highly 
successful act of hypnosis.

I put to you that the United States is without doubt the greatest 
show on the road. Brutal, indifferent, scornful and ruthless it may 
be but it is also very clever. As a salesman it is out on its own and 
its most saleable commodity is self love. It's a winner. Listen to 
all American presidents on television say the words, "the American 
people", as in the sentence, "I say to the American people it is time 
to pray and to defend the rights of the American people and I ask the 
American people to trust their president in the action he is about to 
take on behalf of the American people".

It's a scintillating stratagem. Language is actually employed to keep 
thought at bay. The words "the American people" provide a truly 
voluptuous cushion of reassurance. You don't need to think. Just lie 
back on the cushion. The cushion may be suffocating your intelligence 
and your critical faculties but it's very comfortable. This does not 
apply of course to the 40 million people living below the poverty 
line and the 2 million men and women imprisoned in the vast gulag of 
prisons, which extends across the US.

The United States no longer bothers about low intensity conflict. It 
no longer sees any point in being reticent or even devious. It puts 
its cards on the table without fear or favour. It quite simply 
doesn't give a damn about the United Nations, international law or 
critical dissent, which it regards as impotent and irrelevant. It 
also has its own bleating little lamb tagging behind it on a lead, 
the pathetic and supine Great Britain.

What has happened to our moral sensibility? Did we ever have any? 
What do these words mean? Do they refer to a term very rarely 
employed these days – conscience? A conscience to do not only with 
our own acts but to do with our shared responsibility in the acts of 
others? Is all this dead? Look at Guantanamo Bay. Hundreds of people 
detained without charge for over three years, with no legal 
representation or due process, technically detained forever. This 
totally illegitimate structure is maintained in defiance of the 
Geneva Convention. It is not only tolerated but hardly thought about 
by what's called the "international community". This criminal outrage 
is being committed by a country, which declares itself to be "the 
leader of the free world".

A writer's life is a highly vulnerable, almost naked activity. We 
don't have to weep about that. The writer makes his choice and is 
stuck with it. But it is true to say that you are open to all the 
winds, some of them icy indeed. You are out on your own, out on a 
limb. You find no shelter, no protection – unless you lie – in which 
case of course you have constructed your own protection and, it could 
be argued, become a politician.

When we look into a mirror we think the image that confronts us is 
accurate. But move a millimetre and the image changes. We are 
actually looking at a never-ending range of reflections. But 
sometimes a writer has to smash the mirror – for it is on the other 
side of that mirror that the truth stares at us.

I believe that despite the enormous odds which exist, unflinching, 
unswerving, fierce intellectual determination, as citizens, to define 
the real truth of our lives and our societies is a crucial obligation 
which devolves upon us all. It is in fact mandatory.

If such a determination is not embodied in our political vision we 
have no hope of restoring what is so nearly lost to us – the dignity of man.

This is an edited extract of Harold Pinter's acceptance speech 

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