Thursday, October 7, 2010


However strong the case I tried to make last month may have been, David Simon did not win the Nobel Prize in Literature.  On the other hand I have read enough of the writings of Mario Vargas Llosa that I cannot really complain about this year’s selection.  Furthermore, I take the following paragraph from the report by Julie Bosman and Simon Romero for The New York Times as a good sign for future consideration of Simon:

In selecting Mr. Vargas Llosa, the Swedish Academy has once again made a choice that is infused with politics. Recent winners included Herta Muller, the Romanian-born German novelist, in 2009, Orhan Pamuk of Turkey in 2007 and Harold Pinter of Britain in 2005.

What I find more amusing is that the day on which I decided to make my case for Simon as a Nobel Laureate, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation selected him as a recipient of one of their $500,000 “genius awards.”  Truth be told (to invoke a bit of Wire-speak), I have never been more than tepid about those awards.  There have been recipients I have admired and others who have never struck me as anything other than a colossal waste of my personal attention.

Then there is that “genius” appellation, which threatens to bring any tepid sentiments to a roaring boil.  I feel as if the award amounts to putting a price on a concept that is far too context-sensitive to be fully appreciated, with the result that yet another piece of our terminology has fallen victim to that disease that Max Weber called “loss of meaning.”  Thus, while I do not begrudge Simon the $500,000 (and I am pretty sure that he will put it to good use), I find it more than a bit ironic that it takes only a little text analysis to find that same symptom of loss of meaning poking around the twists and turns of the plot line of The Wire.

Could Simon have ever been a contender?  Unfortunately, the Nobel Committee does not leak any information about short-lists, which may be just as well.  The fact is that undue attention to even the most prestigious of prizes amounts to an assault on time that could be better spent.  I once heard John Cage give a lecture at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and for that occasion he chose to repeat a lecture he had recently given after accepting some other prestigious award.  I forgot the specifics long ago, but the message of the talk was unforgettable.  While the delivery was true to Cage’s Zen sense of equanimity, his words turned out to be a smooth veneer coating one of the most aggressive statements I ever heard him make, framed as the question:

Where were you when I needed you?

Too many prizes seem to do little more than recognize those who have already been recognized.  Perhaps this broadens the scope of recognition to a wider audience;  but it also strikes me as institutional neglect of “the ones who are already scratching on the window-panes,” as Henry Miller put it.  Given our cultural aversion to history, we can certainly do with increased awareness of past achievement;  but that awareness derives its value from its impact on present action and future achievement.  I suppose my concern is that too much attention to prizes for the past will blunt that impact even more than it has already been blunted by our Internet-based culture of self-promotion.

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