It’s the oldest question among those who judge art and measure men: Can a bad man produce good art? The Nobel committee that has awarded Austrian playwright Peter Handke the Literature Nobel this year – along with Poland’s Olga Tokarczuk belatedly for the 2018 award – certainly think so. The quality of Handke’s works hasn’t been brought to question even by those criticising the choice. What has troubled some critics is that he is not just a public sympathiser of Yugoslavian and Serbian war criminal Slobodan Miloševic (Handke attended Miloševic’s funeral in 2006), but also publicly stated that Sarajevo’s Muslims had ‘massacred themselves’ to blame the Serbs of genocide during the Balkan War in the 1990s – a notion as fantastic as it is disgusting.

The problem, of course, lies in our idea of what an award like the Nobel Prize is (ironically a ‘good’ prize set up by the inventor of a ‘bad’ entity like dynamite, and owner of the weapons manufacturer Bofors). One of the staunchest critics of the Nobel giving the award to Handke, writer Salman Rushdie, himself knows what it means to be considered a ‘bad man, and therefore, by extension, a bad writer’ – his The Satanic Verses was not allowed to be printed in India as it was considered to be denigrating Islam, this prohibition leading to the fatwa from Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini which put his life in danger.

This is not to stretch moral or aesthetic relativism to a ludicrous extreme – Handke’s support of the architect of an established genocide cannot be put at par with Rushdie’s ‘poetic licence’.

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But whether it’s the confusion of retrospectively finding moral and ethical faults with great writers like Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay (for being an inspiration much later to the Hindu Right), or great composers like Richard Wagner (for inspiring Germany’s Nazi Party racist ideology decades later), or great singer-songwriters like Steven Morrissey (whose anti-immigrant and pro-Brexit stand has become loud enough for admirers to press the pause button) – or contemporary ‘good writers, with bad values’ like the American poet Ezra Pound, who was an open sympathiser of fascism, and Handke himself, it is tough to separate the man and his artistic works, something that the Nobel Committee may, in its utter aesthetic objectivity, may have managed.

Perhaps, what is being judged is not so much the Nobel laureate – remember, the 1953 Nobel Prize in Literature winner was Winston Churchill, who only 10 years prior to that year was the architect of the 1943 Bengal famine that saw some 3 million Indians perish – but the Nobel Prize itself. And the only way to deal with the discomfort of some of the ‘poor’ choices made by this recognised and still-prestigious award is to take it less seriously. Especially at a time when such awards and recognitions have proliferated for one to tip one’s hat at some choices, and give the cold shoulder to the more ‘problematic ones’.





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