Saturday, October 9, 2010

Season of the Saints

In the early days of October each year, the award of the Nobel Prize reminds me that secular ages have their saints too, not least those formally recognized at the culmination of a process akin to canonization. As in religious times so also in secular, when the official powers disdain to recognize a popular figure, the folk proceed to loft certain people into undying visibility for long veneration. Today’s announcement that Liu Xiaobo, the incarcerated Chinese activist, has won the Peace Prize coincides with Google’s celebration of John Lennon’s birthday on its search page. The British government is also prone to grant titles of nobility to leading practitioners of popular arts; no doubt that happens elsewhere too.

The Nobel Prize, established in 1901, is granted for physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, and peace. In 1968 the Prize in Economic Sciences was added. Notice here the absence of the word “Nobel” in front of the word “Prize”—at least on The foundation administers that prize too, but it was established by a bank, the Sveriges Riksbank, in celebration of its 300th anniversary and in memory of Alfred Nobel.

Unlike religious sainthood, which postdates a person’s passing sometimes by many years, the top secular prize is awarded only to the living. The Nobel’s reach, to be sure, is beyond mere physical science, but in my lifetime certainly the literary prize has tended to go to writers who’ve resonated with modernity rather than with tradition. An aura of conflict surrounds this year’s peace prize—as in other years as well—sure to anger the Chinese. I’m reminded of Matthew 10:34: “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.” The Nobel Committee didn’t quite get it right. I’ve always approved of titles like “revolutionary” and “assassin”—but “activist” doesn’t quite measure up. In China the Mandate of Heaven is bestowed on people who storm the citadels with sword in hand…or, in modern times, tossing dynamite.

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