Heinrich Böll

Nobel Lecture



Nobel Lecture on 2 May, 1973


An Essay on the Reason of Poetry

It is said by those who ought to know – and by others, who also ought to know, it is disputed – that in matters which to all appearances are rational, calculable and achieved by the combined efforts of architects, draughtsmen, engineers, workers – accomplishments such as a bridge – there remain a few millimetres or centimetres of incalculability. This incalculability (tiny with regard to the masses being treated and shaped) may stem from the difficulty of calculating with the nicest precision a mass of complicated interlocking chemical and technical details and materials in all their possible reactions, including the effects of the four classical elements (air, water, fire and earth). The problem here seems not merely to be the design, the repeatedly recalculated and checked technical/chemical/statistical composition, but – let me call it this – their incarnation, which can also be called their realisation. This remainder of incalculability, be it only fractions of millimetres, which correspond to unforeseen tiny differences in extension – what shall we call them? What lies hidden in this gap? Is it what we usually call irony, is it poetry, God, resistance, or (to use a popular phrase nowadays) fiction? Someone who ought to know, a painter who had previously been a baker, once told me that even baking breakfast rolls, which is done early in the morning, almost in the night, was extremely dicey business; you had to stick your nose and your backside out into the grey dawn in order more or less instinctively to find the right mixture of ingredients, temperature and baking time, since each and every day demanded its own freshly-baked rolls, an important, even holy element of the first morning meal for all those who shoulder the burden of the new day. Should we also call this almost incalculable element irony, poetry, God, resistance or fiction? How can we cope without it? Not to mention love. No one will ever know how many novels, poems, analyses, confessions, sufferings and joys have been piled up on this continent called Love, without it ever having turned out to be totally investigated.

When I am asked how or why I wrote this or that, I always find myself quite embarassed. I would gladly furnish not merely the questioner, but myself as well, with an exhaustive answer, but can never do so. I cannot recreate the context in its entirety, yet I wish that I could, so that at least the literature I myself make might be made slightly less of a mysterious process than bridge-building and bread-baking.

And because literature in its incarnation as a whole, in its message and shape, can clearly have a liberating effect, it would after all be quite useful to tell people about the genesis of this incarnation, so that more people can share in this process. What is it that I myself, although I demonstrably produce it, cannot even approximately explain? – this something which from the first to the last line I myself set down on paper, vary repeatedly, rework, somewhat shift the emphasis of, yet which as it recedes in time grows alien to me, like something that is gone or past, retreating further and further from me, even as it is perhaps becoming important for others as a shaped message? Theoretically, the total reconstruction of the process would have to be possible, a form of parallel protocol created as the work progresses, and which, if done in detail, would probably be many times larger than the work itself. Not merely the intellectual and mental, but also the sensory and material dimensions would have to be satisfied, mental and physical nourishment and metabolism, the mood and flashes of wit enlighteningly provided, the function of one’s environment not only in its incarnation as such, but also as backdrop. For example, I often watch sports shows with my mind almost completely blank, in order to practise contemplation with a blank mind, admittedly a rather mystical exercise – yet all these programmes would have to be included in their entirety in the protocol, since after all a kick or a leap might happen to spark some reaction or other in my thoughtless contemplation, or perhaps the movement of a hand, a smile, a commentator’s word, a commercial. Every telephone call, the weather, letters, each individual cigarette would have to be included, a passing car, a pneumatic drill, the cackling of a hen that disturbs a context.

The table upon which I am writing this is 76.5 cm high, its top is 69.5 by 111 cm. It has turned legs, a drawer, seems to be seventy to eighty years old, was a possession of a great-aunt of my mother’s, who, after her husband had died in a madhouse and she herself had moved into a smaller flat, sold it to her brother, my wife’s grandfather. And so, after my wife’s grandfather had died, it came into our possession, a despised and rather despicable piece of furniture of no value, knocking around somewhere, no one knows exactly where, until it surfaced during a move and proved to have been damaged by a bomb: somewhere, at some time or other, a piece of shrapnel had bored a hole through its top during the Second World War – already it would seem to be not merely of sentimental value, but an entry into a dimension of political and social history worth relating, using the table as an entrance vehicle, in which connection the deadly contempt of the furniture porters who nearly refused to bring it along would be more important than its present use, which is more of an accident than the stubbornness with which – and not for reasons of sentiment or memory, but rather for reasons of principle – we kept it from reaching the refuse dump, and as by now I have written a few things on this table, I might be permitted a passing attachment to it, with the emphasis on ‘passing’. Not to mention the objects lying on this table; they are incidental and exchangeable, also accidental, with the possible exception of the Remington typewriter, model “Travel Writer de Luxe”, produced in 1957, to which I am also attached, this means of production that has long since lost all interest for the tax authorities, although it has played a major part in their acquisition of such income, and still does so. On this instrument that any specialist would regard or touch only with disdain, I have written at a guess four novels and several hundred items, and even so I am attached to it not only for that reason, but again because of principles, as it still works and proves how small the writer’s opportunities and ambitions for investment are. I mention the table and the typewriter in order to demonstrate to myself that not even these two necessary utensils are completely understandable to me, and were I to attempt to elucidate their origins with the necessary exact correctness, their precise material, industrial, social process of production and their origins, it would give rise to an almost endless compilation of British and West German industrial and social history. Not to mention the house, the space in which this table stands, the soil on which this house was built, especially not to mention the people who – probably for several centuries – lived in it, the living and the dead, not to mention those who bring the coal, wash the silverware, deliver the letters and newspapers – and especially not to mention those who are close, closer, closest to us. And yet mustn’t everything, from the table to the pencils, that lie there in their history in its entirety, be brought in, including those close, closer, closest to us? Will there not be enough remainders, gaps, resistances, poetry, God, fiction left – even more than in building bridges and baking rolls?

It’s true and it’s easily said that language is material, and something does materialise as one writes. Yet how might one explain that – as is occasionally demonstrated – something like life appears, people, fates, actions; that this incarnation occurs on something so deathly pale as paper, where the imagination of the author is linked to that of the reader in a hitherto unexplained manner, a process that cannot be reconstructed in its entirety, where even the wisest, most sensitive interpretation remains only a more or less successful approximation; and how indeed might it be possible to describe, to register the transition from the conscious to the unconscious – in the person writing and the person reading, respectively – with the necessary total exactitude, and furthermore break it down into its national, continental, international, religious or ideological details, not neglecting the continually changing proportions of the two, in these two – the person writing and the person reading – and the sudden reversal where the one becomes the other; and that in this abrupt shift the one is no longer to be distinguished from the other? There will always be a remainder, whether you call it the inexplicable (‘secret’ would also be fine), there remains and will remain an area, however tiny, into which the reason of our origins will not penetrate, because it runs into the hitherto unexplained reason of poetry and of the art of the imagination, whose incarnation remains as elusive as the body of a woman, a man or even merely of an animal. Writing is – at least for me – movement forward, the conquest of a body that I do not know at all, away from something to something that I do not yet know; I never know what will happen – and here ‘happen’ is not intended as plot resolution, in the sense of classical dramaturgy, but in the sense of a complicated and complex experiment that with given imaginary, spiritual, intellectual and sensual materials in interaction strives – on paper to boot! – towards incarnation. In this respect there can be no successful literature, nor would there be any successful music or painting, because no one can already have seen the object it is striving to become, and in this respect everything that is superficially called modern, but which is better named living art, is experiment and discovery – and transient, can be estimated and measured only in its historical relativity, and it appears to me irrelevant to speak of eternal values, or to seek them. How will we survive without this gap, this remainder, which can be called irony, be called poetry, be called God, fiction, or resistance?

Countries, too, are always only approaching what they claim to be, and there can be no state which does not leave this gap between the verbal expression of its constitution and its realisation, a space that remains, where poetry and resistance grow – and hopefully flourish. And there exists no form of literature which can succeed without this gap. Even the most precise account do without the atmosphere, without the imagination of the reader, even if the person writing it refuses to use it; and even the most precise account must omit – why, it must omit the exact and detailed description of circumstances that actually are required for the incarnation of the conditions of life … it must compose, transpose elements, and even its interpretation and its working protocol are not communicable, if only because the material called language cannot be reduced to a reliable and generally comprehensible communicative currency: so much history and invented history, national and social history, and historical relativity – which would have to be included – weighs down every word, as I have tried to suggest via the example of my work desk. And determining the range of the message is not only a problem of translation from one language to another, it is a much more weighty problem within languages, where definitions can entail world views, and world views can entail wars – I would merely remind you of the wars after the Reformation, which although explicable in terms of power politics and hegemony, also are wars about religious definitions. It is therefore, by the way, trivial to claim that after all, we do speak the same language, if we do not also demonstrate the load that each word can bear at the level of regional, and frequently even local history. For me, at least, much of the German I see and hear sounds stranger than Swedish, a language of which I unfortunately understand very little.

Politicians, ideologists, theologians and philosophers try time and again to provide solutions with nothing remaining, prefab solved problems. That is their duty – and it is ours, the writers’ – since we know that we are not able to solve anything without remainders or resistance – to penetrate into the gaps. There are too many unexplained and inexplicable remainders, entire provinces of waste. Builders of bridges, bakers of rolls and writers of novels normally finish their jobs, and their remainders are not the most problematic areas. While we struggle over littérature pure and littérature engagée – one of the false dichotomies to which I shall return in a while – we are still not aware of – or are unawares diverted from – thoughts about l’argent pur and l’argent engagé. If one really observes and listens to politicians and economists talking about something as supposedly rational as money, then the mystical, or perhaps merely mysterious area within these three occupations already mentioned becomes less and less interesting and astonishingly harmless. Let us take, merely as an example, the amazingly bold recent attack on the dollar (which was modestly called a dollar crisis). Naive layman that I am, something occurred to me that no one called by name: two countries were deeply affected, and most emphatically found it necessary – if we assume that the word ‘freedom’ is not merely a fiction – to do something so remarkable as to support the dollar, i.e., were asked to open their coffers; and these two countries had something historic in common, namely their defeat in the Second World War, and they are both spoken of as having something else in common: their industriousness and diligence. As for the person it concerns – the one who jingles his pocket money or flashes his tiny bankroll – can’t it be made clear to him why, although he is by no means working less for his money, it fetches less bread, milk, coffee, miles in a taxi? How many gaps does the mysticism of money offer, and in which strongrooms is its poetry hidden away? Idealistic parents and educators have always tried to convince us that money is filthy. I have never understood that, because I only received money when I had worked (always excepting the large sum that I have been awarded by the Swedish Academy), and for anyone who has no choice other than to work, even the dirtiest job is clear. They provide a living for the those close to him, and for him, too. Money is the incarnation of his work, and that is clean. Between work and what it brings in there admittedly is an unexplained remainder, which vague formulas such as to earn well or to earn poorly are far less successful at filling than the gap left by the interpretation of a novel or poem.

Compared to the unexplained gaps of money mysticism, the unexplained remainders of literature are strikingly harmless, and even so there are still people who with criminal frivolity let the word ‘freedom’ roll off their tongue, where submission to a myth and its claims to power is unequivocally demanded and obtained. They then call for political insight, precisely when insight and perception about the problem are blocked. On the bottom line of my cheque I see four different groups of numbers, 32 characters in all, two of which resemble hieroglyphs. Five of these thirty-two characters are meaningful to me: three for my account number, two for the branch of the bank – what do the other twenty-seven represent, including quite a few zeroes? I am certain that all of these characters have a rational, meaningful, or as that lovely phrase would have it, an enlightening explanation. It’s just that in my brain and my consciousness there is no room for this enlightening explanation, and what remains is the cipher mysticism of a secret science which I have more trouble penetrating, whose poetry and symbolism remains more alien to me than Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past or the “Wessobrunn Prayer”. What these 32 digits demand of me is trusting belief in the fact that everything is quite correct, that there remains no unclarity and, if I only were to make a slight effort, it all would be clear to me too; and yet for me something mysterious remains – or perhaps fear, much more fear than any realisation of poetry could produce in me. However, no successful currency policy is clear to those whose money is involved.

Thirteen digits on my telephone bill, too, and a few on each of my various insurance policies, not to mention my tax, car and telephone numbers – I won’t take the trouble to count all these numbers that I ought to have in my head or at least written down, in order to be able to note my exact place in society at any time. If we quite happily multiply these 32 digits and the numbers on my cheque by six, or let’s give a discount and multiply them by four, add in the numbers of one’s birthday, a few contractions for religious affiliation, civil status – have we then at last grasped the Occident in the addition and the integration of its reason? Is this reason, as we perceive and accept it – and it is not only made enlightening for us, but actually enlightens us – perhaps merely an occidental arrogance that we have exported to the entire world, via colonialism or missions, or in a mixture of them both as an instrument of subjugation? And for those affected, aren’t or wouldn’t the differences between Christian, socialist, communist, capitalistic outlooks be small, – and even if the poetry of this reason does at times enlighten them, yet doesn’t the reason of their poetry remain the victor? What did the greatest crime of the Indians consist of, when they were confronted with European reason exported to America? They didn’t know the value of gold – of money! And they fought against something, against that which we even now are fighting as the most recent product of our reason, against the destruction of their world and environment, against the total subjugation of their earth by profit, which was more alien to them than their gods and spirits are to us. And what indeed could have revealed to them the Christian message – the new and joyous tidings – in this insane, hypocritical smugness with which on Sunday people served God, praising him as the Saviour, and on Monday once again opened the banks right on time, the places where they administered the only idea they truly believed in, that of money, possession and profit? For the poetry of water and wind, of buffalo and grass, in which their life found its form, there was only scorn – and now we civilised Westerners in our cities, the end product of our total rationality – for in all fairness it must be said: we have not spared ourselves – we are beginning to sense just how real the poetry of water and wind actually is, and what is incarnated therein. Did, or does, the tragedy of our churches perhaps indeed consist, not of what the Enlightenment might have designated as unreasonable matters, but in the despairing and desperately failed attempt to pursue or even overtake a reason that has never been and never can be merged with something so irrational as the incarnated God? Regulations, law texts, approval of experts, a figure-laden forest of numbered regulations, and the production of prejudices that have been hammered into us and set out along the tracks of history teaching, in order to make people ever more estranged from one another. Even in the extreme western reaches of Europe our rationality is in opposition to another, which we simply label irrational. The horrifying problem of Northern Ireland nevertheless consists of the fact that here two kinds of reason have been entangled and hopelessly attacked one another for centuries.

How many provinces of disparagement and disdain has history bequeathed to us? Continents are hidden under the victorious sign of our rationality. Entire populations remained strangers to one another, supposedly speaking the same language. Where marriage in the Western manner was prescribed as creating order, people ignored the fact that it was a privilege: unattainable, inachievable for those who worked the land, the people called farmhands and milkmaids, who simply didn’t have the money even to buy a pair of sheets, and if they had saved up or stolen the money, wouldn’t have had the bed to put the sheets on. And so they were left untouched in their illegitimacy; they produced kids anyway! From above and from the outside, everything seemed completely settled. Clear answers, clear questions, clear regulations, catechism as delusion. But please, no wonders, and poetry only as the sign of the supernatural, never the natural. And then people are surprised, even long for the old ways of life, when the disparaged and hidden provinces show signs of revolt, and then of course either the one party or the other must gain material and political profit from this revolt. Attempts have been made to bring order into the still unexplored continent called sexual love by means of regulations similar to those provided budding philatelists when they start their first album. Permitted and nonpermitted caresses are defined down to the most meticulous details, when suddenly, to their mutual horror, theo- and ideology confirm that on this continent which was regarded as determined, cooled and ordered, there yet remain a few unextinguished volcanoes – and volcanoes are simply not to be extinguished with tried and tested firefighting equipment. And just think of everything passed off, foisted off on God, this much-abused and pitiable authority: everything, yes, everything that was a problem: all the guides for inescapable misery in social, economic or sexual form pointed to him, everything despicable, contemptible, was palmed off on God, all the leftover &”remainders”, and yet at the same time he was being preached about as the Incarnate, without considering that one cannot place the burden of man on God, nor the burden of God on man, if he is to be considered incarnate. And who then can be surprised if he has survived where godlessness was prescribed and where the misery of the world and one’s own society was put off to an unfulfilled catechism of equally dogmatic form and a future that was ever further away, and ever further delayed, until it turned out to be a dismal present? And once again we can also only be reacting to it with insufferable arrogance if we here presume to denounce this course of events as reactionary; and similarly, it is arrogance of the same kind if the official custodians of God claim as their own this God who appears to have survived in the Soviet Union, without clearing away the refuse dump under which he is hidden here, and if they cite the appearance of God there as justification for a societal system here. Again and again, whether boasting of our convictions as Christians or atheists, we wish to capitalise on one pigheadedly represented system of ideas or another. This madness of ours, this arrogance “in itself” again and again buries both: the incarnate Deity, who is called God become Man, and the vision set in its place, that of the future of the entirety of mankind. We who so easily humiliate others, we are lacking in something: humility – which is not to be confused with subordination or obedience, let alone submission. This is what we have done to the colonised peoples: transformed their humility, the poetry of this humility transformed into their humiliation. We are always eager to subjugate and conquer, hardly a surprise in a civilisation whose first text in a foreign language has long been Julius Caesar’s De Bello Gallico, and whose first exercise in self-satisfaction – unequivocal and clear answers and questions – was the catechism, one catechism or the other, a primer in infallibility and in complete, pre-fab, pre-explained problems.

I have got a bit away from the building of bridges, baking of rolls and writing of novels, and hinted at gaps, ironies, fictive areas, remnants, divinities, mystifications and resistance of other regions – they appeared to me worse, in greater need of illumination than the slight, unilluminated corners in which not our traditional reason, but the reason of poetry – as in for example a novel – lies hidden. The roughly two hundred figures, group by group (including a few codes), that I ought to have in exact sequences, in my head, or at least on a piece of paper, as a proof of my existence, without exactly knowing what they mean, incorporate little more than a pair of abstract claims and proofs of existence within a bureaucracy that not only claims to be, but actually is reasonable. People refer me to it and teach me to trust it blindly. May I not dare expect that people do not merely trust in, but strengthen the reason of poetry, not by leaving it in peace, but by absorbing a bit of its calmness and the pride of its humbleness, which can only be a humbleness towards those below, and never a humbleness towards those above. Regard for others, politeness and justice reside therein, and the wish to recognise and be recognised.

I do not wish to provide new missionary starting-points and vehicles, but I do believe that in the sense of poetic humbleness, politeness and justice I must say that I see considerable similarity, I see possibilities for rapprochement between the stranger à la Camus, the strangeness of the Kafkaesque official and the incarnated God, who after all remains a stranger and – if one neglects a few outbursts of temper – is polite and literal in a remarkable way. Why else has the Catholic church long – I don’t know exactly how long – blocked direct access to the literal nature of the texts they declare holy, or else kept it hidden in Latin and Greek, available only to the initiated? I imagine it is in order to keep out the dangers they sensed in the poetry of the incarnated word, and to protect the reason of their power from the dangerous reason of poetry. And after all it is not accidental that the most important consequence of the Reformation was the discovery of languages and their corporeality. And what empire ever could do without language imperialism, i.e., the diffusion of their own language and suppression of the languages of those ruled? In this – but in no other – connexion I regard the for once not imperialistic, but supposedly anti-imperialistic attempts to denounce poetry, the sensuality of language, its incarnation and the power of the imagination (for language and the power of the imagination are one and the same), and to introduce the false dichotomy of information or poetry, as a new version of “divide et impera”. It is the brand-new, but once again almost international arrogance of a New Reason, which may possibly permit the poetry of the Indians as an anti-ruling class force, but withholds its own poetry from the classes to be liberated in its own land. Poetry is not a class privilege, it has never been one. Again and again well-established feudal and bourgeois literatures have renewed themselves out of what they condescendingly called popular language, or, to use more modern phrases, jargon or slang. This process may readily be labeled linguistic exploitation, but nothing about this exploitation is changed by spreading propaganda about the false alternatives: information or poetry/literature. The nostalgia-flavoured disapproval perhaps to be found in the expressions’ popular language, slang, jargon does not warrant sending poetry, as well, into the exile of the rubbish heap, nor all the forms and expressions of art. Much about this is papal: withholding incarnation and sensuality from others while developing new catechisms which speak of the only correct and the truly false possibilities of expression. One cannot separate the power of the message from the power of the expression in which the message occurs; this paves the way for something that reminds me of the controversies about the communion in both forms, controversies that are theologically rather boring, but important as examples of rejected incarnations, and which in the Catholic part of the world became reduced to the pallor of the Host, which could not even be called a real piece of bread – not to mention the millions of hectolitres of wind withheld! Therein lay an arrogant misunderstanding, not merely of the substances involved, but even more of that which this substance was intended to incarnate.

No class can be liberated by first withholding something from them, and whether this new school of Manichaeism claims to be a- or antireligious, it thereby takes over the model of the Church as a ruling class, the model which could end with Hus being burned at the stake and Luther excommunicated. One may readily quarrel about the concept of beauty, develop new aesthetics – they are indeed overdue – but they must not begin by withholding matters, and they must not exclude one thing; the possibility of transferral that literature offers: it transfers us to South or North America, to Sweden, India, Africa. It can also transfer us to another class, another time, another religion and another race. It has – even in its bourgeois form – never been its goal to create strangeness, but to remove it. And although one may regard the class from which it is largely derived as overdue for replacement, yet as a product of this class it was in most cases also a hiding-place for resistance to that class. And the internationality of resistance must be preserved, that which keeps or makes one writer – Alexander Solzhenitsyn – a believer, and another – Arrabal – an embittered and bitter enemy of religion and the Church. Nor is this resistance to be comprehended as a mere mechanism or reflex which calls forth belief in God here, lack of belief in God there, but rather as the incarnation of the relationships of intellectual history as they are played out between various rubbish heaps and provinces of rebellion and apostasy … and also as recognition of their interconnections without arrogance and without claims of infallibility. To a political prisoner or perhaps only isolated dissidents in, e.g., the Soviet Union it may seem wrong or even insane when people in the Western world protest against the Vietnam War – psychologically, one can understand his situation in his cell or his social isolation – and yet he would have to realise that the guilt of the one cannot be ticked off against that of the other, and that when people demonstrate for Vietnam, they also demonstrate for him! I know that this sounds utopian, and yet this appears to me to be the only possibility of a new internationality, not neutrality. No author can take over alleged or specious divisions and judgements, and to me it appears almost suicidal that we are even and still discussing the division into committed literature and other kinds. Not only do we, precisely when we think that it is the one, have to intervene for the other with all our might; no, it is precisely through this falsified alternative that we accept a bourgeois principle of divisions, one which turns us into strangers. It is not only the division of our potential strength, but also of our potential – and I’ll risk this without even blushing – incarnated beauty, since it too can liberate, just as the communicated thought can: it can be liberating in itself, or as the provocation that it may create. The strength of undivided literature is not the neutralisation of directions, but the internationality of resistance, and to this resistance belong poetry, incarnation, sensuality, imaginative power and beauty. The new Manichaean iconoclasticism which wants to take them away from us, which wants to take all art away from us, would rob not only us, but also those for whom it does what it believes it must do. No curse, no bitterness, not even the information about the desperate situation of a class is possible without poetry, and even to condemn it requires that it first must be recognised. Go and read Rosa Luxemburg carefully and note which statues Lenin ordered erected first: the first for Count Tolstoy, of whom he said that until this count began to write, Russian literature contained no peasants; the second for the “reactionary” Dostoevsky. If one wishes to choose an ascetic road to change, one might personally renounce art and literature, but one cannot do so for others until one has brought them to the knowledge or recognition of what they are to renounce. This renunciation must be voluntary, or else it becomes a papal decree, like a new catechism, and once again an entire continent, such as the continent of Love, would be doomed to a parched sterility. It is not merely for frivolity nor only to shock that art and literature have again and again transformed their forms, discovering new ones by experiment. In these forms they have also incarnated something, and that something was almost never the confirmation of what existed and was already available; and if it is extirpated, one gives up a further possibility: artifice. Art is always a good hiding-place, not for dynamite, but for intellectual explosives and social time bombs. Why would there otherwise have been the various Indices? And precisely in their despised and often even despicable beauty and lack of transparency lies the best hiding-place for the barb that brings about the sudden jerk or the sudden recognition.

Before concluding, I must state a necessary limitation. The weakness of my intimations and explanations unavoidably stems from the fact that although I question the tradition of reason in which – hopefully not completely successfully – I was brought up, I am nevertheless using the means of that very same reason, and it would be more than unfair to denounce this reason in all its dimensions. This reason has obviously succeeded in spreading doubt about its allencompassing claim, about what I have called its arrogance, and in retaining experience in and memory of what I have called the reason of poetry, which I do not regard as a privileged, nor a bourgeois institution. It can be communicated, and precisely because its literalness and incarnation often appear strange, it can prevent or remove strangeness or alienation. After all, befremdet zu sein ‘being strange’ can also involve being astounded, surprised, or merely moved. As for what I have said about humbleness – naturally only by way of suggestion – I say it is not thanks to my religious upbringing or memory, which always meant humiliating when it said humility, but from reading Dostoevsky early and late in life. And it is precisely because I consider as the most important literary shift the international movement for a classless, or no longer class-determined literature, the discovery of entire provinces of humbled people destined to be human waste, that I warn you about the destruction of poetry, about the arid sterility of Manichaeism, about the iconoclasticism of what appears to me to be a blind zeal which won’t even tap up the bath water before it throws out the baby. It appears meaningless to me to denounce or to glorify the young or the old. It appears meaningless to me to dream of old ways of life that only can be reconstructed in museums; it appears meaningless to me to create dichotomies such as conservative/progressive. The new wave of nostalgia that clings to furniture, clothes, forms of expression and scales of feeling only serves to demonstrate that the new world grows ever stranger to us. That the reason upon which we have built and relied has not made the world more reliable or familiar; that the rational/irrational dichotomy also was a false one. Here I have had to avoid or abandon a great deal, because one thought always leads to another and we would get carried away if we were to survey every detail of these continents exhaustively. I have had to abandon humour, which also is not the privilege of any class, and yet is ignored in its poetry and as a hiding-place for resistance.

From Nobel Lectures, Literature 1968-1980, Editor-in-Charge Tore Frängsmyr, Editor Sture Allén, World Scientific Publishing Co., Singapore, 1993

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1972

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