This past week, the Nobel Committees unveiled their picks for the 2013 prizes. This time of year is always one of great pride for UCSB, as it gives us the chance to reflect on the impressive fact that we have five prize winners on our faculty, a number that significantly contributes to the University of California’s global dominance. The Nobel Prize is truly a gold standard; in the subjects that it honors (physics, chemistry, medicine/physiology, literature, peace and economic sciences), one cannot imagine an award that holds more gravitas.
However, my school pride in regard to our Nobelists is less than conventional. I take pride not just in the numerical sum of winners, but in the fact that only one of our winners’ specialties resides outside of the natural sciences.
Before I continue, let me air a disclaimer: I am by no means biased against the humanities. I myself am a double major in English and philosophy, and in general, I prefer the social sciences.
But that doesn’t mean that I respect the Nobel prizes in literature, economics and peace any more than I respect the prizes for physics, chemistry and medicine. In fact, I feel quite the opposite. The more one learns about subjects of this kind — arts and social sciences — the more one learns that they are domains of ambiguity. The humanities rely tremendously on interpretation and individual impressions, and oftentimes these studies create warring theoretical schools.
Subjects like these, so open to discussion and debate, face a serious problem when they enter a realm of the definitive … a realm like that of the Nobel.
The Nobel seeks to establish the highest class of achievement in the subjects of its scope. The pursuit of superlative greatness is what voters imagine when voting. They seek to decide who is the very best in the world in a specific field of human knowledge.
But the subjects of peace, literature and, to a lesser extent, economic science, are harder to judge with conviction, and have therefore become notorious for the strange choices made on the part of the Nobel Committes. It is true that some winners have become standards of culture — Ernest Hemingway, Martin Luther King, Jr., Hermann Hesse and Jane Addams — but many others have not. Have you read any Erik Axel Karlfeldt lately? He posthumously won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1931. How about Pär Lagerkvist? His prize came in 1951. I have not read a word of either of these men, but I and many others have been touched by the work of James Joyce, who was continually passed over by the committee.
Karlfeldt and Lagerkvist are symptomatic of the Nobel Prize in Literature’s greatest subjectivity: a pro-Scandinavian bias. Of the 106 winners in the history of the award, more than 13 percent of them have been Scandinavian. This means that either the Swedish Academy has been partial to its own backyard, or that Scandinavia has made a disproportionate impact on world literature (which seems highly unlikely given the general unfamiliarity of names like Verner von Heidenstam or Frans Eemil Sillanpää, both Laureates).
The Peace Prize has suffered from a partiality to peaceful events rather than peaceful people, giving world leaders an unfair advantage over the truly saintly for their roles in events that are perceived as great progress. For instance, a man named David Trimble won the prize in 1998, but whether or not he was truly the most peaceful in the world is certainly up for debate — in his youth, Trimble was involved in a Northern Irish paramilitary organization.
I think that the clear-cut nature of the Nobel is really tailored for the world of physical sciences. Other subjects — literature and politics, for instance — live in the murky depths of the world and thrive on ambiguity. As such, bestowing honor in these areas has become a problematic affair.
Ben Moss has never read any of Verner von Heidenstam’s work, but he still has to admit that his name is pretty badass.