There will be no Nobel prize for literature this year. The decision not to award one was motivated by the lack of foreign confidence in the Swedish Academy, which awards it, after a series of scandals. But this is something more than a morality tale about the alleged misdeeds of a predatory man and his enablers coming to light. That is certainly part of it. The energetic sexual advances of which the French photographer and arts entrepreneur Jean-Claude Arnault stands accused can hardly have been unknown to his friends in the academy. As well as the 18 women who spoke to the Stockholm daily Dagens Nyheter about his behaviour in the autumn, there was also, according to the latest twist in the story, Crown Princess Victoria.
Mr Arnault, who denies all the charges, was not himself one of the 18 members of the academy, although his wife, the poet Katarina Frostenson, was; but he is said to have thought of himself as the 19th member, although there are only 18 seats. The club the pair owned and ran took money from the academy for many years. The academy is down to 10 functioning members now after a series of resignations and expulsions, when some members demanded that Ms Frostenson withdraw, while her defenders demanded the head of the permanent secretary, Sara Danius. All these resignations and expulsions have a rather unreal quality because it is impossible actually to leave under the 18th-century statutes that established the academy. The members who have withdrawn remain members, in a sort of zombified existence, but the institution itself is also now a shambling undead thing.
It is not, however, completely without credibility: this scandal has been about squandered authority as well as the misuse of power. The Nobel prizes are worth having because people think they are. There are prizes that offer more money for excellence in other fields, such as the Templeton prize for progress in religion, but they have nothing like the prestige and name recognition of the literature prize. This is a phenomenon of demand, not of supply. The world wants cultural authorities it can believe in, just as it wants there to be glamorous royal families. The notion that someone qualified to do so is weighing up the merits of a Chinese novelist against an Austrian avant-gardist, a Swedish poet against an American rock star, and determining which of them is the best, or most idealistic writer in the world this year, is ridiculously comforting, when it is not simply ridiculous.
When the prize was founded, it seemed entirely possible that the entirety of world literature could be judged from Stockholm by scholars who could all read fluently in the four or five European languages they considered civilised. The cultural and political authority of western Europe has collapsed since then. So has the ideal of a global high culture. That dream, rather than the academy’s reputation, is the loss to mourn in this rather squalid farce.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010