Topping Shakespeare?


Aspects of the Nobel Prize for Literature

by Professor Sture Allén
The Swedish Academy, Sweden

One of the many subjects treated vituperatively by August Strindberg in his “Addresses to the Swedish Nation”, 1910, was the choice in 1901 of the first Nobel Laureate in literature, Sully Prudhomme: “Moreover, the prizewinner should have written ideally (later tampered with to make it idealistically, which is something else), but he was a materialist and had translated Lucretius.” Strindberg goes on to state that the prize was awarded to Prudhomme “contrary to statutes and will”.

What Strindberg is referring to is the fact that Alfred Nobel had stipulated in his will in 1895 that the Nobel prize for literature should be awarded to the person who had produced “the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”. As a contemporary of Nobel, Strindberg is most likely right when he points out that the adjective idealistic is something else than the adjective ideal and incompatible with the will. But he does not say what the difference is. The question of the meaning of the adjective ideal as used by Nobel – considered strange or even anomalous – has been discussed for almost a hundred years and many interpretations have been proposed. As Kjell Espmark puts it in his book The Nobel Prize in Literature. A Study of the Criteria behind the Choices, 1991: “Indeed, the history of the literature prize is in some ways a series of attempts to interpret an imprecisely worded will.”

Nobel provided us with five criteria. Three of them are of a general type, valid for all the five prizes, and two are specifically designed for the literary prize. (1) “to those who … shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind”. This is the basic criterion, introduced in the very first sentence of the relevant paragraph in the will. (2) “during the preceding year”. For obvious reasons, this is interpreted in such a way that the writer shall be alive at the moment of nomination – no room for Shakespeare – and the oeuvre shall be of current interest. (3) “no consideration whatever shall be given to the nationality of the candidates”. This was a far-sighted criterion although not in keeping with the national romanticism of the late 19th century. In the last decade or so it has been possible for it to apply extensively. (4) “to the person who shall have produced … the most outstanding work”. It goes without saying that this means literary excellence. (5) “in an ideal direction”. In accordance with a philological analysis, including an investigation of an amendmentin the handwritten will, this means ‘in a direction towards an ideal’, where the domain of the ideal is indicated by the first criterion above.

With the conservative permanent secretary Carl David af Wirsén setting the trend, the discussion in the Academy during the first Nobel years led to an idealistic reading of the will in spite of balancing contributions from Esaias Tegnér and others. This was accomplished in the spirit of the Swedish philosopher Christopher Jacob Boström, the German aesthete Friedrich Theodor Vischer, advocating ideal realism, and with them, then, Wirsén. No doubt, this is what Strindberg had noticed and turned against.

The attitude of the Academy is, of course, reflected in the history of prize citations. Almost every third prize citation in the first three decades makes use of words like idealistical(ly) in one way or another.

However, other aspects gradually came to the fore. Using available sources, like reports and correspondence, Kjell Espmark has investigated, in the book I mentioned, the criteria behind the choices. His informative study has disclosed a sequence of notions underlying the decisions in different periods, such as literary neutralism (in the days of the First World War, incidentally favouring Scandinavian writers), the great style (in the wake of Goethe), universal interest (as opposed to national or restricted in some other way), pioneers (recognizing innovative and exclusive writing), and a pragmative attitude (drawing attention to a significant but unknown writer, since none is best where there is no common measure). Thus, these are different types of internal arguments used in prize discussions over the years.

The external citations, on the other hand, form an official source of information, making up the Academy’s explicit statements of motives. A study of these reveals, quite naturally, some reflections of the underlying arguments just exemplified. However, these reflections are not abundant and the picture is somewhat complex. Still, a number of recurrent arguments can be observed.

By far the most common element in the prize citations is a reference to the writer’s native country or, sometimes, continent. This applies to more than one out of three citations, from Grazia Deledda‘s plastic picture of life on her native island Sardinia, Anatole France‘s Gallic temperament and Yasunari Kawabata‘s great sensibility expressing the essence of the Japanese mind, to Toni Morrison‘s visionary force giving life to an essential aspect of American reality and Pablo Neruda‘s elemental force that brings alive a continent’s destiny and dreams.

Especially in the early days, and in any case no later than Sholokhov‘s “epic of the Don” in the citation of 1965, the Academy often pointed out a single work as the main reason for the prize. The other eight books mentioned in this way are Mommsen‘s A History of Rome, Spitteler‘s Olympian Spring, Hamsun‘s Growth of the Soil, Reymont‘s The Peasants, Thomas Mann‘s Buddenbrooks, Galsworthy‘s The Forsyte Saga, Martin du Gard‘s Les Thibault, and Hemingway‘s The Old Man and the Sea.

Only once is a laureate referred to, in the prize citations, as a pioneer: T. S. Eliot. But Pirandello is praised for his bold and ingenious revival of dramatic and scenic art, and Faulkner for his artistically unique contribution to the modern American novel. In addition, Hemingway and Sartre are credited with the influence they have exerted.

Conversely, Benavente was awarded for the happy manner in which he had continued the illustrious traditions of the Spanish drama. In the same vein, Bunin, Pasternak, and Solzhenitsyn were cited for having pursued the classical/great/indispensable traditions of Russian literature.

The notion most often brought out in the last fifty years – a dozen times since Gide 1947 – is the depiction of human conditions. This is found in the lines to, e.g., Beckett, whose writing acquires its elevation in the destitution of modern man; to Singer, who brings universal human conditions to life; to Golding, whose novels illuminate the human condition in the world today, as well as to Oe, whose citation mentions his disconcerting picture of the human predicament.

Today, I think it is fair to say, there is a drift back to the will in the light of the efforts of the past. As an example, consider the prize citation for Nadine Gordimer: “who through her magnificent epic writing has – in the words of Alfred Nobel – been of very great benefit to humanity”.

Due to the efficient administration of Nobel’s fortune by the Nobel Foundation, our Academy has sufficient resources to engage a network of experts for reports from any cultural sphere. Those who are entitled to nominate candidates and take advantage of this prerogative form another international network. But the basis of the evaluation process is the reading done by the members of the Academy. Priorities are of course subjective, but they emerge from the group’s vast experience and are tested in thorough discussions at the sessions. The members are well aware of the fact that the reputation of the Nobel Prize rests on the list of laureates.

In an essay in Scientific American, October 1994, Marvin Minsky makes the following comment: “As a species, we seem to have reached a plateau in our intellectual development. There is no sign that we are getting smarter. Was Albert Einstein a better scientist than Isaac Newton or Archimedes? Has any playwright in recent years topped William Shakespeare or Euripides?” His answer is no and it does not satisfy him. We ought to find ways to transcend our intellectual limits. This can be done, he thinks, by engineering replacement bodies and brains using nanotechnology. An option will be immortality.

At the first stage, researchers will invent electronic devices and connect them to our brains through large numbers of microscopic electrodes, thereby increasing brain capacity. In the end, however, they will find ways to replace each part of the brain. In doing so, we will be making ourselves into machines, Minsky observes. These new intelligent machines he prefers to call our “mind-children”, following Hans Moravec in Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence,1988. Since chips are millions of times faster than brain cells, “mind-children” could be designed to think very much faster than we do. Minsky calculates that to such an entity half a minute might seem as long as one of our years and each hour as long as an entire human lifetime.

Topping Shakespeare? Well, although it is not a prerequisite you would be most welcome. As for robots, I do not expect any real competition. By the way, would a machine appreciate a prize? Let us rejoice in the wisdom of Wislawa Szymborska, the Nobel Laureate of 1996, in her “Notes from a nonexistent Himalayan expedition”:

We’ve inherited hope –
the gift of forgetting.
You’ll see how we give
birth among the ruins.

Yeti, we’ve got Shakespeare there.
Yeti, we play solitaire
and violin. At nightfall,
we turn lights on, Yeti.


The Danish literary critic Georg Brandes states in a letter that he had asked one of Nobel’s friends what Nobel might have meant. The answer given was that Nobel was an anarchist and that by idealistic he meant ‘adopting a polemical or critical attitude to religion, royalty, marriage, social order in general’. Of this it may first be said that a comment on idealistic is all very well, but the word at issue here is ideal. Nonetheless, it seems to suggest that Nobel took an independent stand.

Anders Österling, a former permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, was inclined to emphasize the role played by Shelley’s utopian idealism in what he called “Nobel’s practical idealism”. According to him, Nobel was referring to a work of a positive and humanistic tendency. He added that only the very broadest interpretation would be of any use.

The Swedish scholar Gunnar Brandell has pointed out that the contents of Nobel’s library do not suggest that he was particularly influenced by Shelley. Brandell doubts whether it will ever be possible to ascertain what Nobel meant. For his part he still ventures the guess that, by linking the prize for literature to the other international prizes, Nobel specifically wished to make a contribution to international understanding through literature.

Artur Lundkvist, a former member of the Academy, once gave the following answer to an interviewer’s question: “The prize should have an idealistic tendency; it should represent humanism. It cannot be awarded to those who advocate violence.” It may be noted that Lundkvist does not confine himself to purely literary production; he is referring to writers’ views taken as a whole.

Lars Gyllensten, a former permanent secretary of the Academy, writes that one must refrain from attempting a detailed analysis of the phrase in question. In his view, it suffices to say that serious, high quality literature generally furthers our knowledge of mankind and the human condition and strives to enrich our lives and improve the conditions under which we live.

The most recent comments on this issue are to be found in the third volume of Torgny Segerstedt’s great work The Swedish Academy from a Contemporary Perspective, 1992. Segerstedt, a member of the Academy, points out that the prizes for science and peace indicate that Nobel wished to encourage progress towards reconciliation and cooperation between peoples. Hence, he intended the prize for literature to inspire authors to bring alive and render attractive the ideals which we could attain thanks to scientific progress if only we wanted to. Alfred Nobel could be regarded as a radical ethical idealist.


Since Strindberg marks so clearly a semantic difference between the two adjectives ideal and idealistic, the idea presents itself to try to ascertain how he himself used them. A national edition of Strindberg’s works is well under way and the texts are available in the computerized Language Bank at Göteborg University. Inspecting this material, we soon get a very interesting picture of Strindberg’s repertoire. I quote some of the relevant instances.

“They were excellent youths, ideally inclined, as it was called, with good intentions and a passion for unknown obscure ideals. – – – Among them was a sensitive youth who retained his passion for all the old ideals but most of all Heine …” (The Son of a Servant, 1886.) In this specimen, it can be observed that the adjective ideal refers to ideals, one of them pointed out as Heine, the poet.

“As far as I am able to understand, Nora [in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House] offers herself in return for cash payment. After all, it is ideal and pleasurable. And all naturally for the love of her husband. To save him!” (Getting Married, 1884.) – “Society had now reached the pinnacle or the ideal of absurdity. Good was despised and bad honoured. – – – But it was life in the towns that developed most ideally. – – – The ideal way of building also contributed a great deal to this … only a few of the inhabitants had light rooms.” (Swedish Destinies and Adventures, 1883.) These two passages are examples of Strindberg’s use, in an ironical context, of the same sense as in the previous specimen.

“On the first of September this year I submit five new original works. A tragedy two comedies two proverbs. Could also be submitted earlier. A cast of only eight: an old woman a wife two girls (blonde and brunette) an old man you a lover (ideal) a ditto (real, ugly)”. (Letter to August Lindberg, 1887.) Here the ideal evoked is the opposite of real (Swedish realisk) in juxtaposition with ugly.

“Christopher Jacob Boström was an office philosopher, a ‘speculative philosopher from Piteå’, who had imprisoned himself in a philosophical system dating back to Plato’s idealistic view of life.” (Addresses to the Swedish Nation, 1910.) This is an example of the use of idealistic in the ordinary philosophical sense.

“This idealistic perception of the kingdom by divine right, which had been construed as if the monarch were above all human laws and only answered to God’s supreme court, was sown among my contemporaries and fostered a slavish, servile breed of secondary planets, who derived a modicum of power from above and thereby forgot that they were servants.” (Addresses to the Swedish Nation, 1910.) In this case idealistic refers to a conservative outlook on life and society, although with a philosophical background. The examples given make it obvious that both adjectives belonged to Strindberg’s active vocabulary and that they conveyed distinctly different meanings.

There are equivalent examples in other writers, among them Carl Adolph Agardh, who in 1857 wrote the following passage: “If one does not regard the Christian code of morality as ideal, that is to say, as representing a far-off end, which we should endeavour to approach, then it is not possible to understand what is meant by such a code.” (Collected Works, 1.) Here the adjective is given an explicitly stated meaning, approximately ‘referring to an end’.

An interesting parallel can be found in another book by Strindberg: “But the reformation came, ruthless, practical, material [Swedish materialisk], successful; the idolators (as they were called) were overthrown and the temple stripped of precious metals in particular, since wooden engravings and carvings did remain in many a place unto these times and remain there to this day.” (The New Nation, 1882.) The adjective material is used here in the sense ‘referring to material’, forming an analogue to ideal (and real mentioned above).

It is evident that, in Nobel’s time, the adjective ideal ‘referring to an ideal’ was used by several people as a natural element in their phrasing. Also notice Strindberg’s remark about the young men in one of the examples above that they were ideally inclined “as it was called”. This metalinguistic statement refers to the usage of the time in an interesting way. Thus, it is not as surprising as has been thought to find the pertinent word in the will.


It so happens that the word under discussion is the result of an amendment made by Nobel in his handwritten will. The last two letters of the Swedish word idealisk – i.e., sk – have been superimposed on other characters. This aroused my curiosity – perhaps the original letters could also shed some light on the matter.

I made several attempts to make out the word as it had originally been written, using the naked eye, but soon resolved to consult a forensic expert. Jan-Erik Karlsson was kind enough to assist me. By means of various optical methods he was first able to ascertain that all the ink in the area examined was of the same type. Using microscopy, contrast enhancement, and a comparison of characters, he concluded that the original word was idealirad. He ended his analysis with the observation that some people may omit letters, syllables or entire words when they write, perhaps because their thoughts run ahead of their pen.

However, this string of characters does not belong to the Swedish language and it may readily be understood that Nobel wanted to make a change. The word which occurred to him at the moment of writing was in all likelihood idealiserad (English idealized). Why did he not change the word accordingly in that case? I am inclined to believe that he was not satisfied with idealiserad – perhaps it was his pondering of this that caused his misspelling – but wanted to use a word emphasizing loftiness without such an obvious reference to embellishment. Thus, with a few swift strokes of the pen he wrote sk over the final letters rad, changing the string to the disputed word idealisk.

In linguistics, a distinction is usually made between classifying adjectives and characterizing adjectives. Examples of classifying adjectives are orthographic ‘referring to orthography’ as in orthographic reform and physical ‘referring to physics’ as in physical experiment. Characterizing adjectives, on the other hand, include doughy ‘being like dough’ and blackguardly ‘being like a blackguard’. In my view, idealisk is used by Nobel, as well as by Strindberg and Agardh, as a classifying adjective, that is to say it means ‘referring to an ideal’.

The solution would thus appear to be that Nobel’s phrase in an ideal direction means ‘in a direction towards an ideal’. The sphere of the ideal is in turn indicated by the fundamental criterion for all the Nobel Prizes, namely that they are to be awarded to those who “shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind”. This means, for instance, that writings, however brilliant, that advocate, say, genocide, do not comply with the will.

It has been asked how it may be determined whether one kind of literature is more ideal than another. There is no need to make comparisons of this kind, however. Classifying adjectives have an absolute meaning and thus cannot be compared, except in very special circumstances, which is not the case here. Comparison is instead relevant in the phrase preceding “in an ideal direction”, i.e., “the most outstanding”.

Once an idea has been formed of how this issue appeared to Nobel, it is up to each generation to decide how the literature of the day meets his criterion. It is perhaps not evident that Nobel himself would have seen Samuel Beckett‘s work the way we do, to mention but one example. And seen from our perspective, it is possible that the first Nobel Laureate’s name might have been different.


Swedish original Authorized translation
1901 Prudhomme hög idealitet lofty idealism
1908 Eucken ideal världsåskådning idealistic philosophy of life
1909 Lagerlöf ädel idealitet lofty idealism
1910 Heyse ideal uppfattning idealism
1911 Maeterlinck poetisk idealitet poetic fancy
1916 Rolland upphöjd idealism lofty idealism
1926 Shaw idealitet idealism
1927 Deledda hög idealitet idealistically inspired

Mind children

In my view, a machine or robot can possibly be instructed to simulate, to some extent, feelings like compassion or gratitude or sorrow but is probably unable to experience them. Could it ever feel its pulse beat with excitement? As Douglas Hofstadter points out in his book Fluid Concepts & Creative Analogies. Computer Models of the Fundamental Mechanisms of Thought, 1995, making a computer say thank you is far from making it feel gratitude. To me, the simulation of, e.g., emotion, intention, identity is not necessarily emotion, intention, identity proper.

On this matter I very much agree with Roger Penrose in his book The Emperor’s New Mind. Concerning Computers, Minds, and The Laws of Physics, 1991, with its allusion to Hans Christian Andersen. He maintains that, even though much of what is actually involved in mental activity might be algorithmic, there must be an essentially non-algorithmic ingredient in the action of consciousness. This is what David J. Chalmers, in an essay in Scientific American, December 1995, calls the hard problem of consciousness, the question of how physical processes in the brain give rise to subjective experience.

Among other things, I also appreciate the point Roger Penrose makes about our moral responsibilities in case there were a device claimed to be a thinking, feeling, sensitive, understanding, conscious being: “Simply to operate the computer to satisfy our needs without regard to its own sensibilities would be reprehensible.”

In addition, it seems to me that another question comes to mind. Are these anthropomorphic machines expected to be able to love and make love? Considering the wealth of experiences, nuances, perceptions, interpretations, etc., involved in this very human phenomenon, I think the answer is no. Furthermore, note that replacement brains will affect the recipient’s identity, a fundamental factor in a relation like love. To me, this assumes the resemblance of a decisive argument.



Quotations from Strindberg translated by Maxwell Arding.

First published 23 July 1997

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