Category: Nobel Prize

Liu Xiaobo: The Man Who Stayed

Ian Johnson writing for the New York Review of Books
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Following Liu Xiaobo’s death, Ian Johnson examines for the New York Review of Books the Nobel Laureate’s future place in Chinese history:

For gentlemen of purpose and men of benevolence, while it is inconceivable that they should seek to stay alive at the expense of benevolence, it may happen that they have to accept death in order to have benevolence accomplished. 

—Confucius, Analects

In 1898, some of China’s most brilliant minds allied themselves with the Emperor Guangxu, a young ruler who was trying to assert himself by forcing through reforms to open up China’s political, economic, and educational systems. But opponents quickly struck back, deposing the emperor and causing his advisors to flee for their lives.

One, however, stayed put. He was Tan Sitong, a young scholar from a far-off corner of the empire. Tan knew that remaining in Beijing meant death, but hoped that his execution might shock his fellow citizens awake.

It wasn’t a modest decision. Tan was one of the most provocative essayists of his generation. He had published an influential book decrying the effects of absolutism. He had founded schools and newspapers, and advised other political figures on how to change the system. There was every justification for him to save his own skin so he could contribute to future battles. But these arguments also made Tan realize how valuable it was that he remain in the imperial capital: facing death proudly, at the hands of those resisting reforms, could make a difference; people might pay attention to China’s plight.

So as his friends boarded ships to Japan or fled to the provinces, Tan went to a small hotel in Beijing and waited for the imperial troops. They soon arrived and quickly condemned him to death in the inevitable show trial that followed. The trial itself was interrupted only by an order from above to get on with it: Tan was to be executed immediately.

Before his decapitation at Beijing’s Caishikou execution grounds, however, Tan was able to utter what today are some of the most famous words in China’s century-and-a-half effort to form a modern, pluralistic state: “I wanted to kill the robbers, but lacked the strength to transform the world. This is the place where I should die. Rejoice, rejoice!”

I couldn’t help but think of Tan these past few days as China’s best-known democracy activist, Liu Xiaobo, lay dying of liver cancer in a hospital prison. Death comes to all people and cancer is not the same as an executioner’s sword. But the deaths of the two seemed somehow to connect across the hundred and nineteen years that separate their fates. Like Tan, Liu threw his weight behind a cause that in its immediate aftermath seemed hopeless—in Liu’s case, the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. But with time, history vindicated Tan; I wonder if it will do the same for Liu. 

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Bob Dylan’s Nobel Lecture Was Worth the Wait

Sam Adams writing for Slate
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Sam Adams reviews Bob Dylan’s long-awaited Nobel Lecture for Slate.

Bob Dylan’s reluctance to even acknowledge he’d won the Nobel Prize for Literature, let alone show up to accept it in person, produced plenty of accidental comedy—to say nothing of a pronounced debate over whether songwriting could be considered a branch of literature. But his acceptance speech, which was delivered by the U.S. Ambassador to Sweden, was charming, and his Nobel Lecture, released in both print and audio form, is thoroughly engrossing.

Not surprisingly, Dylan’s Nobel Lecture is largely concerned with the relationship between literature and music, tracing, in what he admits is “a roundabout way,” a path through the songs and the novels that made the deepest impression on him. Dylan writes (and talks) about internalizing the vernacular of the folk and blues music that first inspired him:

You know what it’s all about. Takin’ the pistol out and puttin’ it back in your pocket. Whippin’ your way through traffic, talkin’ in the dark. You know that Stagger Lee was a bad man and that Frankie was a good girl. You know that Washington is a bourgeois town and you’ve heard the deep-pitched voice of John the Revelator and you saw the Titanic sink in a boggy creek. And you’re pals with the wild Irish rover and the wild colonial boy. You heard the muffled drums and the fifes that played lowly. You’ve seen the lusty Lord Donald stick a knife in his wife, and a lot of your comrades have been wrapped in white linen.

And he goes on to pay tribute to three of his favorite written works: Moby DickAll Quiet on the Western Front, and The Odyssey. A great storyteller himself, he approaches Erich Maria Remarque’s World War I novel not as a critic or an analyst, but by slipping into the story and taking his place among his characters:

All that culture from a thousand years ago, that philosophy, that wisdom—Plato, Aristotle, Socrates—what happened to it?  It should have prevented this. Your thoughts turn homeward. And once again you’re a schoolboy walking through the tall poplar trees. It’s a pleasant memory. More bombs dropping on you from blimps. You got to get it together now. You can’t even look at anybody for fear of some miscalculable thing that might happen. The common grave. There are no other possibilities.

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