Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson’s speech at the Nobel Banquet at Grand Hôtel, Stockholm, December 10, 1903
I believe that the Prize I have received today will be regarded by the public as a gift from one nation to another. After the long struggle in which I have taken part to gain for Norway an equal place within the Union, a struggle which was often bitterly resented in Sweden, may I say that the decision is a credit to her name.
I am glad of this opportunity to express very briefly my views on the role of literature.
Let me, in the interest of brevity, evoke a picture I have had in my mind since my early youth, whenever I think of human progress. I see it as an endless procession in which men and women move steadily along. The line they follow is not invariably straight but it does take them forward. They are urged on by an irresistible force, purely instinctive at first but eventually more and more conscious. Not that human progress is ever entirely a matter of conscious effort, and no man has ever been able to make it so. It is in this no man’s land between conscious progress and subconscious forging ahead that imagination is at work. In some of us, the gift of prescience is so great that it enables us to see far ahead to the new paths along which human progress will travel.
Nothing has ever moulded our conscience so strongly as our knowledge of what is good and what is evil. Therefore, our sense of good and evil is so much a part of our conscience that, to this day, no one can disregard it and feel at ease with himself. That is why I have always been so puzzled by the idea that we writers should lay down our sense of good and evil before we take up our pens. The effect of this reasoning would be to turn our minds into cameras indifferent to good and evil, to beauty and ugliness alike!
I do not want to dwell here on the extent to which modern man – always assuming he is a sane individual – can shake off a conscience that is the heritage of millions of years, and by which all the generations of mankind have been guided to the present day. I shall merely ask why those who subscribe to this theory choose certain images instead of others? Is their choice a purely mechanical one? Why are the pictures that present themselves to their imagination almost invariably shocking? Are they sure that it is not they, in fact, who have chosen them?
I do not think we need to wait for the answer. They can no more shake off the ideas that have come down to them through centuries of inherited morality than we can. The only difference between them and ourselves is that, whereas we serve these ideas, they try to rebel against them. I should quickly add here that not all is immoral that appears to be so. Many of today’s guiding ideas were revolutionary ones in the past. What I do say is that the writers who reject tendentiousness and purpose in their work are the very ones who display it in every word they write. I could draw countless examples from the history of literature to show that the more a writer clamours for spiritual freedom, the more tendentious his work is liable to be. The great poets of Greece were equally at home with mortals and immortals. Shakespeare’s plays were a great Teutonic Valhalla with brilliant sunshine at times and violent tempests at others. The world to him was a battlefield, but his sense of poetic justice, his sublime faith in life and its infinite resources guided the battles.
We may invoke from their graves, as often as we wish, the characters of Molière and Holberg, to see nothing but a procession of figures in frilly costumes and wigs who, with affected and grotesque gestures, fulfill their mission. They are as tendentious as they are verbose.
I spoke just now of our Teutonic Valhalla. Did not Goethe and Schiller bring something of the Elysian fields into it? The sky was loftier and warmer with them, life and art happier and more beautiful. We may perhaps say that those who have basked in this warmth, in this sunshine – young Tegnér, young Oehlenschläger, and young Wergeland, not forgetting Byron and Shelley – have all had something of the Greek gods in them.
This time and this trend are gone now, but I should like to mention two great men who belong to it. First, I think of my old friend in Norway who is now ill. He has lit many a beacon along our Norwegian coast to guide the mariner, to warn him of the danger that lies ahead. I think, too, of a grand old man in a neighbouring country to the east, whose light shines forth and gives happiness to many. Their spirit, their many years of work, were lit by a purpose that was ever brighter, like a flame in the evening wind.
I have said nothing here of the effect of tendentiousness on art, which it can make or mar. «Ich rieche die Absicht und werde verstimmt.»
If tendentiousness and art appear in the same proportion, all is well. Of the two great writers I have mentioned, it may well be that the former’s warnings are so severe as to be frightening. And the latter may lure us with the charms of an ideal that passes human understanding and therefore frightens, too. But what is necessary is that our courage to live is strengthened, not weakened. Fear should not turn us back from the paths which open before us. The procession must go on. We must be confident that life is fundamentally good, that even after frightening disasters and the most tragic events, the earth is bathed in a flood of strength whose sources are eternal. Our belief in it is its proof.
In more recent times, Victor Hugo has been my hero. At the bottom of his brilliant imagination lies the conviction that life is good and it is that which makes his work so colourful. There are those who talk of his shortcomings, of his theatrical mannerisms. Let them. For me, all his deficiencies are compensated by his joie de vivre. Our instinct of self-preservation insists on this, for if life did not have more good than evil to offer us, it would have come to an end long ago. Any picture of life that does not allow for this fact is a distorted picture. It is wrong to imagine, as some do, that it is the dark aspects of life which are bad for us. That is not true.
Weaklings and egotists cannot abide harsh facts but the rest of us can. If those who choose to make us tremble or blush were also able to hold out a promise that, for all that may befall us, life has happiness to offer us, we might say to ourselves: all right, we are faced in this plot and in these words with a mystery that is part of life, and we should be roused to fear or amusement according to the author’s will. The trouble is that writers seldom achieve more than a sensation, and often not even that! We feel doubly dissatisfied, because the author’s attitude to life is so negative and because he is not capable of leading us. Incompetence is always galling.
The greater the burden a man takes upon his shoulders, the stronger he must be to carry it. No words are unmentionable, no action or horror beyond powers of description, if one is equal to them.
A meaningful life – this is what we look for in art, in its smallest dewdrops as in its unleashing of the tempest. We are at peace when we have found it and uneasy when we have not.
The old ideas of right and wrong, so firmly established in our consciousness, have played their part in every field of our life; they are part of our search for knowledge and our thirst for life itself. It is the purpose of all art to disseminate these ideas and, for that, millions of copies would not be one too many.
This is the ideal I have tried to defend, as a respectful servant and enthusiast. I am not one of those who believe that an artist, a writer, is exempt from responsibility. On the contrary, his responsibility is greater than that of other men because he who is at the head of the procession must lead the way for those who follow.
I am deeply grateful to the Swedish Academy for recognizing my efforts in this direction and I now wish to raise my glass to the success of its work in promoting all that is sound and noble in literature.
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