The Nobel Prize in Literature 1996
Your Majesties, Your Royal Highness, Ladies
How are we to live after the adulteration, demise, and disintegration of the great utopias? - we ask ourselves now, looking toward the year 2000. How are we to live after the great disillusionment? With what means shall we arrive at values, by what path reach an authentic conception of life that is no longer distorted?
"Aesthetics is the mother of ethics", Brodsky says. Or: "If mankind's negative potential expresses itself in murder, its positive potential manifests itself best in art."
During the long period of the ideological recasting of human consciousness, which we have just left behind us, some of Polish postwar poetry emerged as a sign of hope, a sewage treatment plant for mutilated and contaminated language - thus for the life of the mind and the perception of life as well. In the mere existence of poetic language, in the patient word-work of distinguishing genuine from sham, false tone from true, an entire society's purification process functioned and continues to function slowly, invisibly, underground.
In Wislawa Szymborska the Swedish Academy wants to honour a representative - and a representative of unusual and unyielding purity and strength - of a poetic outlook. Of poetry as a response to life, a way of life, of the word-work as thought and responsibility.
Wislawa Szymborska's making of poems is the perfection of the word-object, of the exquisitely chiseled thought-image - allegro ma non troppo, as one of her poems is called. But a darkness that is never directly touched is perceptible, just as the movement of blood under the skin. For Szymborska, as for many other contemporary Polish poets, the starting point is the experience of a catastrophe, the ground caving in beneath her, the complete collapse of a faith. In its place human conditions break in with their inaccessibly shimmering agitation, their dailiness and pettiness, their tears and their jests, their tenderness. These conditions demand their particular language, a language that makes things relative, a language that methodically starts from scratch. The path of language is through negation - the prerequisite for being able to build anew is to build from nothing. From that point a game of role-playing begins, the wonderful dramaturgy of the world:
Life (I say) I've no idea
what I could compare you to.
A devotion to the mystery of surface begins here - perhaps paradoxically, perhaps the necessary life-sustaining paradox - and becomes one of the many languages of changing roles, one of the many capricious harlequin languages of transformation and identification.
In Szymborska surface is depth, the path of negation has the effect of a quiet but tremendous explosion of being. "My identifying features / are rapture and despair". The farther in one travels among the clear mirrors of her language pictures - crystalline clarity that in some way exists to lead one to a final enigma - the more one feels the world's obtrusive unambiguousness being transformed. A shimmer of wonder and of particulars hovers over the world's motionless base of rock, to whom she gives voice:
"I don't have a door", says the stone.
I would sum up Wislawa Szymborska's undertaking as a deeply transformative word-work with the state of the world. One that is best summarized in her own words in the poem Discovery:
I believe in the refusal to take part.
I believe in the ruined career.
I believe in the wasted years of work.
I believe in the secret taken to the grave.
These words soar for me beyond all rules
without seeking support from actual examples.
My faith is strong, blind, and without foundation.
Dear Wislawa Szymborska,
I am happy to convey to you, on behalf of The Swedish Academy, our warmest congratulations on the Nobel Prize in Literature for 1996 and to invite you to receive the prize from the hands of His Majesty the King.
*Translated from Swedish by Rika Lesser. Translations of poems from Wislawa Szymborska: View with a Grain of Sand. Selected poems. Translated from Polish by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh (Harcourt Brace, 1995).
From Les Prix Nobel. The Nobel Prizes 1996, Editor Tore Frängsmyr, [Nobel Foundation], Stockholm, 1997
Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1996