Columns » Hal Crowther

Harold Pinter: No belief in happy endings


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Some odd and justifiably obscure characters have won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Even the most wide-ranging international reader may puzzle over Verner von Heidenstam, Grazia Deledda or Franz Eemil Sillanpaa. Yet few recent winners were more deserving than the 103rd laureate, British playwright Harold Pinter, a venerable giant of the English theater whose plays and film scripts are Holy Writ for most of us who take a dimmer view of human nature.

In the dark book of Pinter, every decent impulse masks an indecent impulse vying for control. If that doesn't precisely explain me and everyone I know, it seems to account nicely for the human race as it performs on the larger stage. "Hell is other people" ("L'enfer, c'est les autres") comes from Jean-Paul Sartre's play No Exit, but it was Pinter who proved Sartre's theorem mathematically.

Pinter's wintry insights and tormented, venomous characters secured him an honored place in the pantheon of modern drama long before the Swedish Academy offered its coveted laurel. Plays like The Caretaker and The Homecoming signaled a tectonic shift in the theater, toward a postmodern consciousness where neither wit nor honesty can save us from ourselves. But the crowning irony of Pinter's selection in 2005 is that the academy gave only secondary consideration to his famous plays and biting poetry. As the government of the United States staggered from episode to episode of scandalous deceit and incompetence, this was the year for the wily Swedes to take their best shot at the beleaguered American empire. The Nobel Peace Prize, announced earlier, went to the International Atomic Energy Agency and its director, Mohamed ElBaradei, who openly disputed the Bush administration's pre-invasion claim that Iraq owned a nuclear arsenal. In case ElBaradei didn't make the Academy's position clear, the prize for literature has been awarded to a dramatist who invoked in a recent speech "the nightmare of American hysteria, ignorance, arrogance, stupidity and belligerence," and added, "We have brought torture, cluster bombs, depleted uranium, innumerable acts of random murder, misery and degradation to the Iraqi people and call it 'bringing freedom and democracy to the Middle East.'"

Though I thoroughly agree with Pinter (sometimes I wish the pacifist left would mention that Iraq generates some fairly terrifying murderers of its own, and I don't mean Saddam), it's painful to hear, in your own language, a great writer denounce your own country in terms usually reserved for fascist states and genocidal dictatorships.

Frankly, it hurts. But my skin's much thicker since we traveled in Europe a year ago and discovered that support for the Iraq war, and for American foreign policy in general, is statistically nonexistent. Harold Pinter speaks for an overwhelming majority of Britons and Europeans, and he speaks for virtually all writers, artists and intellectuals. Intelligent, accomplished, articulate admirers of George Bush and his Freedom Train are nowhere available abroad. You can canvass hotel bars in city after city, poll the natives in any rustic inn or tavern and you will come up empty and discouraged. If support for your president is a thing you require from Europeans, you had best stay home. Even in Great Britain, our one implicated and compromised partner, anything you utter that falls short of furious opposition to the war places a strain on courtesy and sets eyeballs rolling behind your back. At best, you may find a concierge somewhere who will humor you for a bigger tip, or a predatory businessman who humors all Americans because they remind him of money.

The evolving prejudices of the Swedish Academy, which has been functioning since 1901, provide a disturbing thumbnail history of political correctness in the West. Before World War I, as Bolsheviks and radical workers' movements were gathering their forces, anti-communism must have prevailed. With the rise of Mussolini and Hitler, anti-fascism would have dominated for several decades, superseded by anti-Soviet bias after World War II. In the age of the oil wars, Stockholm's come full circle and turned anti-American.

A student of Harold Pinter's dramas learns that the most guileless, amiable public face often masks a ravenous fascist, which in our George W. Bush phase is, sadly, the way most of the world sees Uncle Sam. On the eve of the invasion of Baghdad, another British writer, novelist John le Carre, published a column in London's Times under the headline "The United States of America has gone mad." ("The religious cant that will send American troops into battle is perhaps the most sickening aspect of this surreal war-to-be," wrote le Carre.)

Pinter's prize will be regarded as an insult, and his views as an outrage, only by Americans who've managed to remain stone ignorant of the way this administration has isolated us from the rest of the civilized world. Only in the United States can you find media that remain enthusiastic, supportive or silent while the body count mounts in Baghdad and Mosul and tales of torture from Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib erase, in a few short months, a century of American prestige and credibility. America, the hope of the free world--no empty boast 50 years ago--is the crushing disappointment of the free world today. Even "free" begins to ring hollow here as corporate leviathans tighten their stranglehold on this country's markets, media and impressionable minds. Most Americans, who do not read foreign newspapers (or even Harper's, The New York Review of Books or The New York Times), are astonished to discover that the third of America still wed to the president's "vision" of the Middle East is part of an imaginary coalition with no other active members except the Israeli Right and Tony Blair's immediate family.

Like most Britons I know, Pinter finds Blair appalling and his subservience to the White House mortifying. Pinter's protests are far less subtle than his plays. He loaded all his contempt for the one-sided alliance into a recent poem titled "The Special Relationship," a montage of torture chambers, bombs and mutilated bodies. It requires some understanding of the hyper-rhetorical British--who don't hate their prime minister but treat him like a favorite cousin with a head injury--to comprehend that this fierce invective is something less than full-fledged anti-Americanism. Schadenfreude is unavoidable when any bully is thwarted and shamed. But if Europeans love to see us stumble, they would hate to see us fall. The collapse of the Soviet Union brought relief and satisfaction to Western Europe; watching the United States of America slip into debt, disgrace and disarray fills them with crushing anxiety. No one pretends that a post-American chaos, a struggle for power among rabid dwarfs, would be an improvement over even the worst of Houston hubris and petroleum geopolitics.

This prize of Pinter's is surrounded by a dense forest of irony. Pinter, whose first photograph after the Nobel announcement showed him bloody and bandaged from a nasty fall, is no believer in happy endings. His great theme as a dramatist is the impossibility of communication between human beings: "He uses language to convey miscommunication and lack of understanding rather than shared comprehension," Sarah Lyall wrote in The New York Times. This insistence on verbal and, by extension, moral impotence is Pinter's legacy from the late Samuel Beckett, who has been described as his friend and mentor. If Beckett and Pinter represented a "school" of literature--the thought would sicken them--their school would teach that humans persevere and infrequently prevail in the shadow of unconditional annihilation and pointlessness. (A lesser but by no means negligible writer of the same school is the American Kurt Vonnegut, who asserts that the subject of all great books is "what a bummer it is to be a human being." In A Man Without a Country, a new book of essays Pinter might endorse, the 82-year-old Vonnegut--who once attempted suicide--claims to be suing a cigarette company whose lethal product has somehow failed to put him out of his misery.)

The Beckett/Pinter school offers its adherents little existential wiggle room. Religion, and even the forms and traditions of religion, may provide consolation for millions of people, some of them highly intelligent; but anyone who aspires to play on the first team, philosophically or intellectually, is obliged to choose what he knows, empirically or intuitively, over what he fervently wishes. The harsh light that illuminates Pinter's universe might infect a weaker individual with a hopeless nihilism, with apathy or suicidal despair. Instead, Pinter seethes with indignation, a stoic, strenuous form of hope that sustains many of us who suffer from inadequate denial mechanisms and separates us from the dismal crowd deliberating between sleeping pills and carbon monoxide.

"God is hope, hope is God," said the smartest ex-priest I ever knew. "It's the only theology I know that works for everyone."

"Hope for what?" I asked him. "Hope doesn't take an object," he replied. "It is its own object--like God."

Without a doubt, the Nobel was the last thing it had ever occurred to Harold Pinter to hope for. He must find it droll that it was the pandemic unpopularity of the United States, the favorite target of his indignation, that finally carried him to the top of a list of candidates where his name may have been passed over for decades. And also that he, a playwright who argued that speech is ultimately useless, should win his highest honor for speaking out. But the irony barely begins there. A lifelong pacifist who refused to perform national service even in peacetime, Pinter must decide whether principle obliges him to refuse $1.3 million from the estate of Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite. That irony was too much for Samuel Beckett, the 1969 laureate, who refused his prize for literature. Then there's the subtler question of prizes as political currency--do they obligate and compromise a serious artist, do they represent a kind of establishment certification that co-opts and domesticates serious dissent?

These are appropriate considerations for a writer whose subject matter and political commitment have been as consistently high-minded as Harold Pinter's. But the richest, darkest irony for Pinter is to find himself at 75 under treatment for cancer of the esophagus--which is usually fatal--and suddenly the possessor of literature's ultimate career-capping prize, a shiny brass ring few writers even bother to covet. An unlucky TV news reader, seeing Pinter's name scroll out on her computer screen, first informed her audience that Harold Pinter had died--then after a theatrical pause corrected herself and announced that he had won the Nobel Prize. As a discomforting piece of theater, it was so exquisitely bleak that Pinter might have written it himself.


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