Harold Pinter: See This Fist?

Somebody correct me if I’m wrong about this, but I’ve read several reactions to Harold Pinter’s aggressive Nobel Prize acceptance speech, and I get the feeling I’m the only one here who actually knows Pinter’s work.

Harold Pinter has spent his career studying the way human beings lie. It is his obsession, his medium. A play is called “Pinteresque” when the audience cannot trust a single character on stage. His working class Brits deceive, intimidate and overpower each other in tightly packed, oppressive rooms. They speak with great volume and speed, but they never mean anything they say — their words are either weapons of cruelty or pathetic pleas for help.

By the time a Pinter play ends, at least one character has been completely destroyed, and at least one character has won a petty, hollow victory. The audience shuffles out of the theater feeling both excited by the naked display of power and guiltily complicit in the depraved brutality of human aggression.

A Pinter play is not a feel-good event. See “Spamalot” if you want to laugh, and see “Rent” if you want to sing. Don’t ever take a first date or a business partner to a Pinter play, unless you want distrust to hang in the air like a DeLillo dark cloud when the evening ends.

The Nobel Prize acceptance speech he delivered yesterday was entirely Pinteresque. Like the virulent father in The Homecoming who howls with impotent rage at his three repulsive sons, Pinter is yelling because he’s sure nobody is listening. Pinter won the Nobel Prize for literature, not the Peace Prize; he offers no positive message, just fury at the stupid waste of it all. Like the friendless jazz musician in The Birthday Party, he sees no way out, so he’s going to bang on his drum.

“You see this fist?” Pinter said in his videotaped acceptance speech, imagining himself as a militant world leader. “This is my moral authority. And you better not forget it.” This is the basic truth Pinter sees behind recent world events — everything else is propaganda and decoration.

I love Harold Pinter’s plays — they are masterpieces of controlled tension and layered ambiguity. I entirely agree with Pinter’s extreme disgust at the foolishness of the world we live in, and as an American Jew I probably relate to the fact that Pinter is a British Jew, a member of the world’s most famous and most hated minority. Literary ideals aside, it takes a lot of rage to create a body of work as sharp and paranoid as Pinter’s.

Putting aside my general high regard for everything this writer says, I do not personally agree with his words about the United States of America or Britain, and he certainly does not speak for me. I hated and still hate the fact that my country invaded Iraq, and I am deeply embarrassed and horrified at my country’s inability to comply with a simple universal policy against torture as an interrogation technique. However, there is already plenty of anti-USA rhetoric spinning around this planet, and I don’t think it helps to single out USA or Britian among all the other corrupt, greedy, dishonest governments in the world. They’re all equally bad, and nationalism itself is a bigger enemy than any single nation.

I wish Pinter had delivered a more forward-looking, forgiving and hopeful speech. But Pinter ain’t Gandhi, and it would have been entirely out of character if he had done so. He’s using words as a blunt weapon, because that’s what words are in a Pinteresque world. See this fist?

10 Responses

  1. Talking about PinterLast
    Talking about Pinter

    Last December I did a cut of Pinter’s ‘Victoria Station’. I was the cab driver. I have to say the highlight of my academic career at NSU was shouting ‘I break you bone by bone, I’ll eat all the hair off your body, I’ll make you look like a pipe cleaner…’

    I thought it was awfully funny, but no one laughed. All I got was ‘You’re really good at playing crazy people’ and I tried to explain Pinter’s characters aren’t crazy because they live a sane theatre world with different rules then ours, but South Dakotans usually don’t get Ionesco, Pinter, Sartre, Beckett, etc… I still really got off on it.

  2. PinterHe has a lot to say and

    He has a lot to say and he says it. Should he have played down his thoughts on this occasion with a world-wide audience? Should a man whose life is drama, stage and theatre offer something less?

    He is what he is. My brother sent me the speech in the mail at 10:30 pm my time Tuesday (before the speech was presented, I think) and by 1:30 in the morning, I could barely sleep. There was a lot of energy generated in those words and energy is good.

    What will come, is up to the energized. It’s not the what, it’s the how. And how the how continues.

    Glad you commented here, Levi.

  3. pinter and fury and the
    pinter and fury and the truth

    good article, levi – thanks!
    (i kept nodding in agreement while reading.)

  4. Waiting for the Movie to Come
    Waiting for the Movie to Come Out

    I don’t know Pinter’s work but “I’m waiting for the movie to come out” (which was the usual b.s. laid on me as a teenager whenever someone felt they had to comment on the latest best seller I’d got from the county bookmobile).

    I want to read Pinter or put on his shows because I just read Pinter’s acceptance speech and it is dynamite. He even included what he concluded as the American victims of America, viz., the 40 million poor and 2 million imprisoned.
    His last 3 sentences are killer: “sometimes a writer has to smash the mirror – for it is on the other side of that mirror that the truth stares at us. I believe that despite the enormous odds which exist, unflinching, unswerving, fierce intellectual determination, as citizens, to define the real truth of our lives and our societies is a crucial obligation which devolves upon us all. It is in fact mandatory. If such a determination is not embodied in our political vision we have no hope of restoring what is so nearly lost to us – the dignity of man.”

    Pinter’s indignation could be spread around to all the powerful who are absolutely corrupted by their power every time, even Pinter himself who admitted in his own acceptance speech that he snubbed an American fan whose only guilt was that he’d found a job working for the government. Hopefully there’s more to Pinteresque than that tiny hollow victory.

    Pinter’s been on the metaphorical barricades for a while so this speech is nothing new and as for the USA. One has to take the good with the bad, e.g., good short stories in the New Yorker and poor reviews in the NYTBR, Chinese prosperity paid for by Americans buying Chinese cheap goods at the cost of US manufacturing, and global prosperity — as a result of US foreign policy — that heats up the atmosphere.

    I’m still on the fence when it comes to a writer getting political. Direct action is more effective than outrageous opinions and a blockbuster movie, e.g., The Grapes of Wrath, speaks a million more words than a cranky speech no matter how well crafted.

  5. very interestingthanks, levi,
    very interesting

    thanks, levi, for posting such an interesting article.

  6. Here, hereThat was a cool
    Here, here

    That was a cool piece. I’m not familiar with Pinter, but that will change now.

    I especially liked where you said: “and nationalism itself is a bigger enemy than any single nation.” Nothing could be more true. Why don’t people get it? Nationalism is an incredibly narrow-minded, narcissistic way of looking at the world. Nationalism is THE fomenter of war, period. We all stand well do be rid of it.

  7. thanks for commentsThanks for
    thanks for comments

    Thanks for all the comments (above) — it’s good to hear all your reactions. Agree or disagree, I really want Pinter’s words to get a lot of attention and generate discussion, and I’m glad that you all feel this topic is important as well …

  8. There is more to it than
    There is more to it than that…

    I have been following Pinter’s TWO careers for about a decade now and, as much as he has been a playwright, he has also been a human rights activist. His Book ‘Various Voices’ is a must read if you are to understand Pinter’s Nobel Speech.

    Pinter’s Nobel Speech will go down in history as being like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s speech but, because it has to do with America, in a negative form. Pinter is the first public figure I have ever seen come out so strongly against the US government for its history of covert violence and aggression. Pinter is not just Anti Bush; he has been following the development of the ‘American Elephant’ as he called it once in an essay (it can be found in Various Voices) for better than a quarter century. His activism goes back to the Contras and US subsidized wars in central America in the early 80’s.

    As an artist Pinter’s concern is for that language that is operating beneath common language that always communicates. He says that our problem is not an inability to communicate — we actually communicate all too well. In his political activism Pinter shows us how that secret hidden language pops up in public discourse, and he analyzes it. He comes to the conclusion that in American political discourse language is used to ‘keep thought at bay.’ Think about it — the person who uses the term Iraqi liberation cannot say anything like we attacked Iraq, invaded it and are currently occupying it. See, the terminology the administration uses cages our thoughts. That is only one small example. Then, consider this, when we encounter political discourse from other countries it has been translated for us by people who know the administration language; therefore, the foreign political discourse will not retain its own native flavor but rather be translated into our own, which is meant to keep thought at bay. So, just like Pinter’s characters who, in hearing each other translate others’ lives into their own desires, we automatically return to our own views, unchallenged.

    Pinter’s discourse is a bomb. He is standing up to Bush with a language that is explosive, that is as penetrating as Bush’s language is ambiguous. Pinter’s speech is, in my opinion, how George Bush would address the public if George Bush actually was what he pretends to be. Only an explosive language like Pinter’s can penetrate the thick cloak of ambivalent language that has been coming out of Washington for half a century.

  9. Fascinating, Mark O., thanks.
    Fascinating, Mark O., thanks. I’m particularly drawn to this line:

    “our problem is not an inability to communicate — we actually communicate all too well.”

    That’s a line I’m going to remember.

  10. This is good info, Mark. As
    This is good info, Mark. As much as I am glad to live in the United States, I can’t shake the nagging awareness of covert wrongdoing.

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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!