Nobel Prize for Literature Lecture
delivered 7 December 1993
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[AUTHENTICITY CERTIFIED: Text version below transcribed directly from audio]
Thank you. My sincere thanks to the Swedish Academy. And thank you all for this very warm welcome.
Fiction has never been entertainment for me. It has been the work I have done for most of my adult life. I believe that one of the principal ways in which we acquire, hold, and digest information is via narrative. So I hope you will understand when the remarks I make begin with what I believe to be the first sentence of our childhood that we all remember -- the phrase "Once upon a time...."
"Once upon a time there was an old woman, blind but wise." Or was it an old man? A guru, perhaps. Or a griot soothing restless children. I've heard this story, or one exactly like it, in the lore of several cultures. "Once upon a time there was an old woman, blind...wise...."
In the version I know the woman is the daughter of slaves, black, American, and
lives alone in a small house outside of town. Her reputation for wisdom is
without peer and without question. Among her people she is both the law and its
transgression. The honor she is paid and the awe in which she is held reach
beyond her neighborhood to places far away; to the city where the intelligence
of rural prophets is the source of much amusement.
She doesn't answer, and the question is repeated. "Is the bird I am holding
living or dead?" She still doesn't answer. She's blind. She can't see her visitors, let alone
what is in their hands. She doesn't know their color, their gender, or their homeland. She
only knows their motive.
For parading their power and her helplessness, the young visitors are reprimanded, told they are responsible not only for the act of mockery but also for the small bundle of life sacrificed to achieve its aims. The blind woman shifts attention away from assertions of power to the instrument through which that power is exercised.
Speculation on what (other than its own frail body) that bird-in-the-hand might signify has always been attractive to me, but especially so now -- thinking, as I have been -- about the work I do that has brought me to this company. So I choose to read the bird as language and the woman as a practiced writer. She’s worried about how the language she dreams in, given to her at birth, is handled, put into service, even withheld from her for certain nefarious purposes. Being a writer she thinks of language partly as a system, partly as a living thing over which one has control, but mostly as agency -- as an act with consequences.
So the question the children put to her: "Is it living or dead?" is not unreal because she thinks of language as susceptible to death, erasure; certainly imperiled and salvageable only by an effort of the will. She believes that if the bird in the hands of her visitors is dead the custodians are responsible for the corpse. For her a dead language is not only one no longer spoken or written, it is unyielding language content to admire its own paralysis. Like statist language, censored and censoring. Ruthless in its policing duties, it has no desire or purpose other than maintaining the free range of its own narcotic narcissism, its own exclusivity and dominance. However moribund, it is not without effect for it actively thwarts the intellect, stalls conscience, suppresses human potential. Unreceptive to interrogation, it cannot form or tolerate new ideas, shape other thoughts, tell another story, fill baffling silences. Official language smitheryed to sanction ignorance and preserve privilege is a suit of armor polished to shocking glitter, a husk from which the knight departed long ago. Yet there it is: dumb, predatory, sentimental -- exciting reverence in schoolchildren, providing shelter for despots, summoning false memories of stability, harmony among the public.
She is convinced that when language dies, out of carelessness, disuse, and
absence of esteem, indifference, or killed by fiat, not only she herself, but
all users and makers are accountable for its demise. In her country children
have bitten their tongues off and use bullets instead to iterate the voice of
speechlessness, of disabled and disabling language, of language adults have
abandoned altogether as a device for grappling with meaning, providing guidance,
or expressing love. But she knows tongue-suicide is not only the choice of
children. It’s common among the infantile heads of state and power merchants
whose evacuated language leaves them with no access to what is left of their
human instincts for they speak only to those who obey, or in order to force
The old woman is keenly aware that no intellectual mercenary, nor insatiable dictator, no paid-for politician or demagogue; no counterfeit journalist would be persuaded by her thoughts. There is and will be rousing language to keep citizens armed and arming; slaughtered and slaughtering in the malls, courthouses, post offices, playgrounds, bedrooms and boulevards; stirring, memorializing language to mask the pity and waste of needless death. There will be more diplomatic language to countenance rape, torture, assassination. There is and will be more seductive, mutant language designed to throttle women, to pack their throats like pâté-producing geese with their own unsayable, transgressive words; there will be more of the language of surveillance disguised as research; of politics and history calculated to render the suffering of millions mute; language glamorized to thrill the dissatisfied and bereft into assaulting their neighbors; arrogant pseudo-empirical language crafted to lock creative people into cages of inferiority and hopelessness.
Underneath the eloquence, the glamour, the scholarly associations, however
stirring or seductive, the heart of such language is languishing, or perhaps not
beating at all -- if the bird is already dead.
The conventional wisdom of the Tower of Babel story is that the collapse was a misfortune. That it was the distraction, or the weight of many languages that precipitated the tower's failed architecture. That one monolithic language would have expedited the building and heaven would’ve been reached. Whose heaven, she wonders? And what kind? Perhaps the achievement of Paradise was premature, a little hasty if no one could take the time to understand other languages, other views, other narratives. Had they, the heaven they imagined might have been found at their feet. Complicated, demanding, yes, but a view of heaven as life; not heaven as post-life.
She wouldn't want to leave her young visitors with the impression that language
should be forced to stay alive merely to be. The vitality of language lies in
its ability to limn the actual, imagined and possible lives of its speakers,
readers, and writers. Although its poise is sometimes in displacing experience,
it’s not a substitute for it. It arcs toward the place where meaning may lie.
When a President of the United States thought about the graveyard his country
had become, and said, "The world will little note nor long remember what we say
here; but it will never forget what they did here," his simple words are
exhilarating in their life-sustaining properties, because they refused to
encapsulate the reality of 600, 000 dead men in a cataclysmic race war. Refusing
to monumentalize, disdaining the "final word," the precise "summing up,"
acknowledging their "poor power to add or detract", his words signal deference
to the uncapturability of the life it mourns. It is the deference that moves
her, the recognition that -- that recognition that language can never live up to
life once and for all -- nor should it. Language can never "pin down" slavery,
genocide, war. Nor should it yearn for the arrogance to be able to do so. Its
force, its felicity is in its reach toward the ineffable.
"Once upon a time, ..." visitors ask an old
woman a question. Who are they, these children? And what did they make of that
encounter? What did they hear in those final words: "The bird is in your hands"?
A sentence that gestures toward possibility or one that drops a latch? Perhaps
what the children heard was "It's not my problem. I'm old, female, black,
blind. What wisdom I have now is in knowing I cannot help you. The future of
language is yours."
But she doesn’t. She keeps her secret, her good opinion of herself, her gnomic pronouncements, her art without commitment. She keeps her distance, reenforces it and retreats into the singularity of isolation, in sophisticated, privileged space. Nothing, no word follows her declarations of transfer. That silence is deep, deeper than the meaning available in the words she has spoken. It shivers, this silence, and the children, annoyed, fill it with language invented on the spot.
"Is there no speech," they ask her, "no words you can give us that helps us
break through your dossier of failures? Through the education you have just
given us that is no education at all, because we are paying close attention to
what you have done as well as to what you have said, to the barrier you have
erected between generosity and wisdom.
"You trivialize us and you trivialize the bird that is not in our hands. Is there no context for our lives, no song, no literature, no poem full of vitamins, no history connected to experience that you can pass along to help us start strong? You are an adult; the old one, the wise one. Stop thinking about saving your face. Think of our lives and tell us your particularized world. Make up a story. Narrative is radical, creating us at the very moment it is being created. We will not blame you if your reach exceeds your grasp; if love so ignites your words they go down in flames and nothing is left but their scald. Or if, with the reticence of a surgeon's hands, your words suture only the places where blood might flow. We know you can never do it properly -- once and for all. Passion is never enough; neither is skill. But try. For our sake and yours forget your name in the street; tell us what the world has been to you in the dark places and the light. Don't tell us what to believe, what to fear. Show us belief’s wide skirt and the stitch that unravels fear's caul. You, old woman, blessed with blindness, can speak the language that tells us what only language can: how to see without pictures. Language alone protects us from the scariness of things with no names. Language alone is meditation.
"Tell us what it is to be a woman, so that we may know what it is to be a man; what moves at the margin; what it is to have no home in this place; to be set adrift from the one you knew; what it is to live at the edge of towns that cannot bear your company."
"Tell us about ships turned away from shorelines at Easter, placenta in a field. Tell us about a wagonload of slaves, how they sang so softly their breath was indistinguishable from the falling snow; how they knew from the hunch of the nearest shoulder that the next stop would be their last; how, with hands prayered in their sex, they thought of heat, then suns; lifting their faces as though it was there for the taking, turning as though there for the taking. They stop at an inn. The driver and his mate go in with the lamp, leaving them humming in the dark. The horse's void steams into the snow beneath its hooves, and its hiss and melt is the envy of the freezing slaves."
"The inn door opens.
A girl and a boy step away from its light. They climb into
the wagon bed. The boy will have a gun in three years, but now he carries a lamp
and a jug of warm cider. They pass it from mouth to mouth. The girl offers
bread, pieces of meat and something more: a glance into the eyes of the one she
serves. One helping for each man, two for each woman. And a look. They look
back. The next stop will be their last. But not this one. This one is warmed."
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