Jonathan Littell was recently awarded the Athens Price for Literature — but he won’t go to Athens to pick it up & explains this in the letter below. An odd explanation, to my mind, as I don’t really think that the contemporary writer is — or should be — any less a politically visible citizen than in older times.
Barcelona, June 23, 2009
Ladies and gentlemen,
I have just been informed that my book Les Bienveillantes — Eumenides in Greek — has been awarded the Athens Prize for Literature. I am very touched by this honor, all the more so as it has been granted in and by the very city where those same Eumenides, pacified at last, were once settled “in honor for the rest of time,” to make “their home at Athene’s side.”
In the days when Aeschylus wrote his great tragedy, literature was a public affair, the affair of every citizen. It was a political affair, in which the most fundamental values and problems of the polis would be invoked and debated, a religious affair too, an affair of ethics as much as aesthetics. Judgment of the work was thus the business of the whole city. The prize that was awarded incarnated the public’s sense that the work had, in some important way, contributed to the public good, and the prize ceremony, like all political and religious ceremonies of the time, was a public event, one worthy of record, to be remembered by succeeding generations.
Today, the matter is different. While literature may touch on affairs of politics or religion, it no longer participates directly in them. Even when it seeks to explore the deepest questions besetting mankind, it now properly belongs, in the common view, to that sphere of human activity known as “culture.” The divorce, one might say, is complete. This fact in itself is neither admirable nor deplorable, it is simply a state of affairs. And as such it implies new roles, new responsibilities. It has always been my view that literature is a very private matter now, and that what takes place between a writer and his work belongs to a sphere utterly separate from the interaction of that work with those who read it, comment it, praise it or damn it. Privacy, for me, is a fundamental condition of creation, of work. It was so before my book was published, and must remain so now. It is in this spirit that I express my hope that my inability to join you today will be taken for what it is, an expression of our common love for literature. I thank you very much.