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I neglected to mention earlier, in response to the Nobel Prize litmus test, that Sartre was not awarded the Nobel Prize until 1964. Camus won in 1957.
Sully Prudhomme in 1901.
Frederic Mistral in 1904.
Romain Rolland in 1915.
Anatole France in 1921.
Henri Bergson in 1927.
Roger Martin du Gard in 1937.
Andre Gide in 1947.
Francois Mauriac in 1952.
(Camus '57)
Saint-John Perse in 1960.
(Sartre '64)
Claude Simon won the prize in 1985.
Gao Xinjian, originally from China, won in 2000 in the name of France.
If you look at prize prior to 1950, however, you notice them leaving Europe rarely, and then usually going to the United States.
Given the distribution among other prize winners, I'd be hard-pressed to called Sartre and Camus widely-known and highly-regarded by their peers, if the point in their careers at which they were acknowledged by the Nobel Committee is any indication.
 
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Originally posted by Michael Ernest:

I neglected to mention earlier, in response to the Nobel Prize litmus test, that Sartre was not awarded the Nobel Prize until 1964. Camus won in 1957.
Given the distribution among other prize winners, I'd be hard-pressed to called Sartre and Camus widely-known and highly-regarded by their peers, if the point in their careers at which they were acknowledged by the Nobel Committee is any indication.


I think you are mistaken, Michael. It is my distinct impression that important scientists and writers are recognized as important (and indeed as future Nobel winners) many years before they are actually awarded the Prize. A contemporary example might be V.S Naipaul, who won the Nobel only in 2001 at the age of 70. The bulk of Naipaul's best work was written during the 60's and 70's and he was knighted in 1989.
It is my belief that both Camus and Sartre had become famous in France well before 1950 and remained so until after their deaths, Camus' in a car crash in 1960. Sartre lingered until 1980 and his funeral was attended by 25,000 people. These men (and others in their circle) were certainly very famous in educated circles in the US by the late 50's, and their influence certainly had spread in western circles by that time. Perhaps not in China, I'm not sure.
One way I measure these things is the availability of their works. There is a series of �1 books sold widely in the UK by a series of influential and 'lasting' writers. Most of the names I cited can be found in this series, and I've read many of these books with pleasure and some understanding. They are accessable in more than one sense. Even the Existentialists are accessable with some work on the reader's part.
I cannot think of a major French intellectual who made their name post-1960 who fits the criteria of availability and accessability.
You pointed out in an earlier post that the 'canon' has gone out of fashion. This may be part of the problem here. When our teachers cease to provide an index of what is truly important in any generation, presumably because there are no 'absolutes' and the student's opinion may be as valid as that of the teacher, something is lost. That opinion may be valid enough once the mind is trained. How can you and I debate the validity of Derrida's thought when I know next to nothing about him while you may believe he is one of the giants of the century? My uninformed opinion is as good as your informed one in the absence of such a canon.
This may help to explain why there is a seeming dearth of dominant literary figures within the past 50 years in France and elsewhere, but I think there may be something else going on here. I think the very idea of the public intellectual has gone out of fashion.
Victor Hugo expressed important ideas in a form accessible to the educated person of his and future ages. So did Sartre and Camus. Derrida doesn't seem to see the necessity to do so.
From my POV that seems to be a profound abdication. It's the question of whaether a tree falls in the wood and nobody hears it, did it happen? If an idea is formulated but never put into accessible form, does it have any importance? The canon may be something of a straightjacket but it also gives a structure against which new ideas can be measured and argued about. Any idea of worth should arouse some passions. Absent a canon that is not a public argument, just a vast 'Whatever'.
[ December 18, 2003: Message edited by: Alfred Neumann ]
 
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One other thing to think about is that many of the Frenchmen on the lists of great 20th century writers were communists. Therefore, we must consider much of their work discredited and their early popularity embarassing, much as we would view the late 19th-century racial-hygene theorists.
Derrida, founder of Deconstructionism, likewise did more harm than good to scholarship. How many post-WWII Europeans were intellectually prominent in a _positive_ way? Not many, I think.
(I cannot think of many recent great Americans in literature, either, by the way. At least in economics, the Chicago school made great strides.)
 
Michael Ernest
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Originally posted by Frank Silbermann:

(I cannot think of many recent great Americans in literature, either, by the way. At least in economics, the Chicago school made great strides.)


What's your measure of greatness? "Recent" greatness, especially in literature which values the test of time, is a dubious measure to me. Would these all count as not recent, not recently great, not great, or what, in your estimation?
Edward Albee
Maya Angelou
T. Coraghessan Boyle
Truman Capote
Joan Didion
Robert Hass
Joyce Carol Oates
Ken Kesey
Normal Mailer
David Mamet
Jay McInerney
Marshall McLuhan
Toni Morrison
Susan Sontag
John Updike
Kurt Vonngeut
Tom Wolfe
 
Al Newman
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Originally posted by Frank Silbermann:
One other thing to think about is that many of the Frenchmen on the lists of great 20th century writers were communists. Therefore, we must consider much of their work discredited and their early popularity embarassing, much as we would view the late 19th-century racial-hygene theorists.
Derrida, founder of Deconstructionism, likewise did more harm than good to scholarship. How many post-WWII Europeans were intellectually prominent in a _positive_ way? Not many, I think.
(I cannot think of many recent great Americans in literature, either, by the way. At least in economics, the Chicago school made great strides.)


I'm not sure I agree that Karl Marx is completely discredited, Frank. His economic conclusions were flawed by his imperfect understanding of economics but his philosophical work retains some importance. Dialectical Materialism has not been discredited by the fall of Marxism because it had nothing to do with Marxism in the first place. We should not assume that a theory is invalidated by the mistakes of the author in other areas.
Derrida apparently doesn't view Deconstructionism as a school of thought. He sees it as more of a school if I understand correctly. I agree that he's done a lot of damage, but sometimes I wonder whether it's not a mass abdication by an entire class rather than something which can be ascribed to any individual.
You note the success of the Chicago School of Economics. I agree, and I think that success is precisely because the major figures in the Chicago School did NOTabdicate from being public intellectuals. Almost every major economist of the past 50 years has made his/her ideas publically accessable to the educated population. Isolationhas never caught on in economics and mostly hasn't happened in history, one reason why those two disciplines remain healthy, I think.
 
Michael Ernest
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AN: It is my distinct impression that important scientists and writers are recognized as important (and indeed as future Nobel winners) many years before they are actually awarded the Prize.
ME: Scientists, so far as I'm aware, are more often noted for distinct achievements rather than a body of work. Writers are more often recognized for a body of work that extols virtues or experiences of the human condition, but I see no clear pattern of awarding the prize to a career. Some are recognized "late" (Hemingway), or "early" (Faulkner), or neither (Derek Walcott).
AN: It is my belief that both Camus and Sartre had become famous in France well before 1950 and remained so until after their deaths, Camus' in a car crash in 1960. Sartre lingered until 1980 and his funeral was attended by 25,000 people. These men (and others in their circle) were certainly very famous in educated circles in the US by the late 50's, and their influence certainly had spread in western circles by that time. Perhaps not in China, I'm not sure.
ME: The basis of what I intended to rebut shifts in this paragraph. Before this statement you asserted a "wide international audience" for these two without respect to the 1950 meridian. That's fine. But to compare a Sartre or Camus with a writer whose first works have appeared in the last 20 years, and then bemoan a deficiency of "recent greatness" seems to me based on apples-and-oranges.
AN: One way I measure these things is the availability of their works. There is a series of �1 books sold widely in the UK by a series of influential and 'lasting' writers.
ME: Well, yes, but the teaching of those works in undergraduate courses has something to do with continued market appeal, don't you think? Making a thinker who can make Existential thought accessible to the layperson takes some time, and somewhere along the line that person has to be introduced to the subject, possibly by way of an affordable copy sitting on a remainder table somewhere...
AN: I cannot think of a major French intellectual who made their name post-1960 who fits the criteria of availability and accessability.
ME: Maybe not you. But those people whose children have taken a lit course from me might think you haven't looked very hard. I gave those students a reason to want to know; some of them found their parents (surprisingly) conversant on the subject; others wouldn't dare try. But the great ideas, we've since shown, don't arrive a priori. Someone has to point to them or find them, and share their thoughts.
If we're responsible purveyors of our own culture, we don't simply point to a writer or a book and say, "this is great" to have students concur in some bovine fashion. We teach them to see what there is of worth in these writings, and they determine for themselves if they will explore. It's in that air of cultural enlightenment that a publisher might be persuaded to bang out some Keats collection at a quid a pop. Why else would you buy Sartre, even for cheap, when you could get a Kylie wristband for the same price?
AN: You pointed out in an earlier post that the 'canon' has gone out of fashion. This may be part of the problem here. When our teachers cease to provide an index of what is truly important in any generation, presumably because there are no 'absolutes' and the student's opinion may be as valid as that of the teacher, something is lost.
ME: To me it is teaching students how to think, rather than what to think, that is important. If the Canon falls out of fashion, it's fair to at least guess that the Canon might just be a fashion. We can do no greater justice to the Canon than identifying it for what it is. If the works of the Canon are indeed great -- and greatness is what we want in our lives -- we'll come back to them. The test of time is the thing.
AN: That opinion may be valid enough once the mind is trained.
ME: But who decides on what foundation training takes place? William J. Bennett? Harold Bloom? The Dean of Letters and Science? A Committee on Greatness? The individual faculty member, by way of an independently drawn reading list? Isn't this really more an argument that consistency leads to a culture of better thinkers?
AN: How can you and I debate the validity of Derrida's thought when I know next to nothing about him while you may believe he is one of the giants of the century? My uninformed opinion is as good as your informed one in the absence of such a canon.
ME: It seems to me you are illustrating the logical extreme of a condition that arises if we presume all knowledge takes a hierarchical shape. You can think of it as being more vs. less informed (or totally informed vs. totally ignorant), sure. Or you can approach a subject to see how far insight will takes each person toward grasping the idea you want to discuss. Following that, a person can propose a formalized structure for discussing that idea and continue the conversation by teaching from knowledge and learning from other perspectives on that knowledge. This is real learning, in my view. When a teacher merely promulgates the greats ideas and considers their greatness self-evident to the properly trained mind, you're not far from what made some of us question the catechism...I mean Canon...to begin with.
AN: I think the very idea of the public intellectual has gone out of fashion.
ME: Indeed it has! But even public intellectuals need to eat and pay rent. If you haven't noticed, the public's willingness to finance a culture that supports your average public intellectual has dwindled, lots. We question every penny that goes to the NEA. In my mother's generation, many promising graduate students could make it through their dissertations on scholarship. In my day, you'd be among a rare few if you could secure funding through your doctoral coursework. We're at a time when public intellectuals must find broad appeal or committed patronage, and frankly it's not that fashionable among the wealthy to do a whole lot of that anymore.
It's not that this system guarantees greatness, mind you. It's the environment of activity that combines to give good minds a reason to think they could make a living as intellectuals. We give out very few signals to that effect nowawadays.
AN: Victor Hugo expressed important ideas in a form accessible to the educated person of his and future ages. So did Sartre and Camus. Derrida doesn't seem to see the necessity to do so.
ME: That sounds only like so much curmudgeony romanticization of the greats to me. "In my day you knew what a philosopher was about, by gum! Why a good one would come to your school and tell stories. Camus brought cookies! Those were men of the people, I tell you. And we liked it! Weeeeeee loved it!"
AN: From my POV that seems to be a profound abdication. It's the question of whaether a tree falls in the wood and nobody hears it, did it happen? If an idea is formulated but never put into accessible form, does it have any importance?
ME: This strikes me as a refined tautology. Can the public appreciate something which is not available for appreciating? How many answers are possible? In that sense, a text that is difficult to read can take many forms: the turgid, tedious prose of Marx in translation; the ethereal implications of Derrida; the onanistic layer-upon-layer-upon-layer narrative games of Robert Browning's poetry; those are, to my way of thinking, no more or less lamentable than folios of Shakespeare or Schubert which served for a time as roofing paper.
If the public cannot get to an idea, what does it matter how it cannot get to it? If someone uncovers, discovers, or recovers these things, or simply takes something from the dark, dusty corner of a library, gives it light and makes it plain, then we can all celebrate it....once we get some help understanding what we are looking at. The great ideas all ultimately require great listeners. And if you're suggesting understood Camus or Sartre from the get-go, I can only say it was either an inspired team of widespread erudition or you're simply waxing nostalgic about the past.
AN: The canon may be something of a straightjacket but it also gives a structure against which new ideas can be measured and argued about. Any idea of worth should arouse some passions. Absent a canon that is not a public argument, just a vast 'Whatever'.
ME: The Canon provides clothing that for some, as you say, takes the form of a straightjacket. But why? Because these works are pronounced "worthy of the attention" of people who may not have heard of them, much less shown how to appreciate them. Because the expectation of knowing when one doesn't manifests as a pressure to pretend one knows what one 'should' know?
You can of course simply advise students that if they will agree Madame Bovary is great and will essay points to that effect, they can get on their way to nursing program or back to something real, like business or law or engineering. Or worse, insist that they explain why Madame Bovary is great and require them to defend its greatness while you play Devil's advocate; your former Catholic Sunday school students, in particular the Jesuit-trained, will appreciate this familiar environment.
You could, alternatively, find out what your students value. You can choose to emphasize ideas in (quite often the very same) literature that will alternately get them to nod, or argue, or pause, or show contempt. You can forego the mandate of greatness and ask yourself what in the cultural record can be brought to light in a meaningful, enriching way. You can simply accept that if a student rejects some of that information, it is still not the same as failing to understand it.
[ December 18, 2003: Message edited by: Michael Ernest ]
 
Frank Silbermann
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Alfred Neumann: I'm not sure I agree that Karl Marx is completely discredited, Frank. His economic conclusions were flawed by his imperfect understanding of economics but his philosophical work retains some importance. Dialectical Materialism has not been discredited by the fall of Marxism because it had nothing to do with Marxism in the first place.


Aside from the impracticality of "making Marxism work" there is also the matter of his policies being profoundly immoral, and would have been no less immoral had the Soviet Union been economically much more productive.
Is it possible to give a short definition of Dialectical Materialism?

Michael Ernest: Would these all count as not recent, not recently great, not great, or what, in your estimation?
Edward Albee
Maya Angelou
T. Coraghessan Boyle
Truman Capote
Joan Didion
Robert Hass
Joyce Carol Oates
Ken Kesey
Normal Mailer
David Mamet
Jay McInerney
Marshall McLuhan
Toni Morrison
Susan Sontag
John Updike
Kurt Vonngeut
Tom Wolfe


Not being a student of literature, I am unfamiliar with many of these. Kurt Vonnegut was a writer of "paperback fiction with a message for teenagers" -- which puts him in the same category as science fiction writers. Probably the quality of his writing was better, but I don't know about greatness. I've heard of John Updike and Tom Wolfe as being "serious writers" but I don't know of any works of theirs that have become cultural icons on the level of Poe or Clemens. Maya Angelou is famous for her appearances on Seseme Street and the Electric Company; I don't know enough about her work to say whether she's actually a good poet or whether she merely has been thrust into prominence for the sake of racial diversity.
Norman Mailer is mainly known for inspiring a hilarious skit on Saturday Night Live starring Eddie Murphy twenty years ago (based on his work to help give murderer/prison-author Jack Abbot a chance to get out of prison and murder one more person). Also, he wrote best-sellers like "The Naked and the Dead" which helped pioneered the use of raw sex and violence in "serious" literature.
Susan Sontag belongs in the same category as Julius Streicher (editer of "Der Stuermer"). Great only in the sense of "great in evil."
 
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