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Unpleasant thoughts about Harold Pinter

December 27th, 2008 - 8:43 am

It being the Christmas season, I didn’t want to spoil the warm glow of fellow-feeling by contemplating the death at 78 of Harold Pinter, Nobel Laureate, political adolescent, absurdist dramaturge. Now that Santa has come and gone, however, I suppose I should take some notice of his passing. Predictably, the outpouring of adulation–despite a few noteworthy exceptions–was fulsome. “Masterworks . . . captured the anxiety and ambiguity of life in the second half of the 20th century with terse, hypnotic dialogue filled with gaping pauses and the prospect of imminent violence.”–The New York Times.

More on those “gaping pauses” in a moment. Pinter’s hypnosis works even on some resilient souls. My friend Roger L. Simon, for example, rightly abominated Pinter’s repulsive politics but nonetheless confessed that he found himself “in awe” of Pinter the playwright ever since seeing an early London production of The Caretaker in 1960.

It pains me to disagree. But I have always felt about Pinter the playwright the way Mark Twain felt about James Fenimore Cooper, though I am inclined to be less generous. Twain observed that “Cooper’s gift in the way of invention was not a rich endowment; but such as it was he liked to work it.” Cooper had his broken twig: “Every time a Cooper person is in peril,” Twain wrote, “and absolute silence is worth four dollars a minute, he is sure to step on a dry twig.” In the same way, Pinter prized his minatory silences above all else. “Mick is alone in the room, U. S. C., his back to the audience. He wears a leather jacket. Silence. . . . A door bangs. Muffled voices are heard. Mick turns his head. He stands, moves silently to the door, turns off lights at a wall switch, goes out, and closes the door quietly. Silence.” Et very much  cetera.

Even at his early best (The Birthday Party, say, or The Dumb Waiter, both 1957), Pinter’s was always a small and highly derivative literary gift–more of a handout, really. Indeed, I would suggest that his talent was not so much literary as histrionic, one of literature’s degeneracies.

What Pinter dispensed was a certain tone–an atmospherics of menace, borrowed largely from Samuel Beckett. Its chief effect, when you first encountered it, was to make semi-articulate dissatisfaction seem like existential profundity.

Alas, it wasn’t long before the illusion of profundity evaporated, leaving only semi-articulate dissatisfaction. Hence Mark Steyn’s unsurpassable definition of “Pinteresque”: “a pause followed by a non-sequitur.” The Pinteresque inhabits a basement flat in the “theater of the absurd.” It tells us a lot that the phrase was–is it still?–taken a compliment, an expression of praise, as if the absurd were something to be proud of. Pinter injected a certain senility into language and counted on a credulous public to mistake catalepsy for depth. It paid off. It paid off so well that Pinter’s admirers often sound a lot like the master. Back in 2005, when Pinter won the Nobel Prize, the Swedish academy’s citation told us that Pinter “uncovers the precipice under everyday prattle and forces entry into oppression’s closed rooms.” Would anyone care to parse that paean to opacity? I’d suggest starting with the word “prattle.”

Pinter himself said: “I have no idea why they gave me the award.” Really? Let me help you, Harold! Remember your speech before the House of Commons in October 2002? That was the one in which you suggested that Tony Blair was a “deluded idiot” and that “Mr. Bush and his gang . . . are determined, quite simply, to control the world and the world’s resources. And they don’t give a damn how many people they murder on the way.” Or consider your remarks on being granted an honorary degree at Turin University later that year. The terrorist attack on New York in September 2001, you said, was “predictable and inevitable. It was an act of retaliation against constant and systematic manifestations of state terrorism on the part of the United States over many years, in all parts of the world.” And let’s not forget your poems–”God Bless America” (2003), for example, which begins:

Here they go again,
The Yanks in their armoured parade
Chanting their ballads of joy
As they gallop across the big world
Praising America’s God.

There are other poems, little scatological ditties–”shit” is one of Pinter’s favorite words–that pursue the same theme. Johann Hari provides a round-up in his dissenting piece on Pinter. The answer to the question Why did Harold Pinter receive the Nobel Prize? can be stated in two words: his politics. Not, I hasten to add, that every aspect of his aspect of his political opinions counted in his favor. Pinter’s support of the International Committee to Defend Slobodan Milosevic, for example, cannot have done much to recommend him to the Nobel Prize selection committee. No, by “politics” I mean the most conspicuous arrow in his quiver: his virulent anti-Americanism–more precisely, his ostentatious campaigns against George W. Bush and American military action to liberate Afghanistan and Iraq and confound the murderous plans of Islamic terrorists. That’s what set hearts in Stockholm beating pit-a-pat.

Knut Ahnlund, a Swedish writer and long-time member of the Nobel Prize Committee, resigned from the committee a few days before Pinter’s award was announced. His public reason was the 2004 literature prize, which went to the Austrian pornographer and anti-American fantasist Elfriede Jelinek. That award was certainly grounds for anyone’s resignation. As Mr. Ahnlund noted, it did “irreparable damage” to the reputation of an already tarnished prize. But why did Mr. Ahnlund wait nearly a year to act? Could it have been the prospect of the award going to Harold Pinter? Many people reacted to the Swedish Academy’s latest flirtation with absurdity by quoting the English wit who, writing about Harold Pinter’s plays, observed that Pinter was “a man of few words, most of them silly.” There was a lot of sniggering when Stockholm announced Pinter as the winner of the prize for literature. But there was also a certain anger, a certain outrage. If nothing else, Harold Pinter has done us the service of demonstrating that the silly is by no means at odds with the malevolently deranged. R.I.P.

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