in THE AGE OF EMPIRE
Art, Truth &
2005 Nobel Prize Winner for Literature,
Nobel Lecture - 7 December 2005
"I believe that
despite the enormous odds which exist,
unflinching, unswerving, fierce
intellectual determination, as citizens, to
define real truth of our lives and
our societies is a crucial
obligation which devolves upon us all. It is in
In 1958 I wrote the following:
'There are no hard distinctions
between what is real and what is unreal, nor
between what is true and what is false. A
thing is not necessarily either true or false; it
can be both true and false.'
I believe that these assertions
still make sense and do still apply to the
exploration of reality through art. So as a writer
I stand by them but as a citizen I cannot. As a
citizen I must ask: What is true? What is
Truth in drama is forever elusive. You never quite
find it but the search for it is compulsive. The
search is clearly what drives the endeavour. The
search is your task. More often than not you
stumble upon the truth in the dark, colliding with
it or just glimpsing an image or a shape which
seems to correspond to the truth, often without
realising that you have done so. But the real truth
is that there never is any such thing as one truth
to be found in dramatic art. There are many. These
truths challenge each other, recoil from each
other, reflect each other, ignore each other, tease
each other, are blind to each other. Sometimes you
feel you have the truth of a moment in your hand,
then it slips through your fingers and is lost.
I have often been asked how my plays come about. I
cannot say. Nor can I ever sum up my plays, except
to say that this is what happened. That is what
they said. That is what they did.
Most of the plays are engendered by a line, a word
or an image. The given word is often shortly
followed by the image. I shall give two examples of
two lines which came right out of the blue into my
head, followed by an image, followed by me.
The plays are The Homecoming and Old Times. The first line of
The Homecoming is 'What have you done with the
scissors?' The first line of Old Times is
In each case I had no further information.
In the first case someone was obviously looking for
a pair of scissors and was demanding their
whereabouts of someone else he suspected had
probably stolen them. But I somehow knew that the
person addressed didn't give a damn about the
scissors or about the questioner either, for that
'Dark' I took to be a description of someone's
hair, the hair of a woman, and was the answer to a
question. In each case I found myself compelled to
pursue the matter. This happened visually, a very
slow fade, through shadow into light.
I always start a play by calling the characters A,
B and C.
In the play that became The Homecoming I saw a man
enter a stark room and ask his question of a
younger man sitting on an ugly sofa reading a
racing paper. I somehow suspected that A was a
father and that B was his son, but I had no proof.
This was however confirmed a short time later when
B (later to become Lenny) says to A (later to
become Max), 'Dad, do you mind if I change the
subject? I want to ask you something. The dinner we
had before, what was the name of it? What do you
call it? Why don't you buy a dog? You're a dog
cook. Honest. You think you're cooking for a lot of
dogs.' So since B calls A 'Dad' it seemed to me
reasonable to assume that they were father and son.
A was also clearly the cook and his cooking did not
seem to be held in high regard. Did this mean that
there was no mother? I didn't know. But, as I told
myself at the time, our beginnings never know our
'Dark.' A large window. Evening sky. A man, A
(later to become Deeley), and a woman, B (later to
become Kate), sitting with drinks. 'Fat or thin?'
the man asks. Who are they talking about? But I
then see, standing at the window, a woman, C (later
to become Anna), in another condition of light, her
back to them, her hair dark.
It's a strange moment, the moment of creating
characters who up to that moment have had no
existence. What follows is fitful, uncertain, even
hallucinatory, although sometimes it can be an
unstoppable avalanche. The author's position is an
odd one. In a sense he is not welcomed by the
characters. The characters resist him, they are not
easy to live with, they are impossible to define.
You certainly can't dictate to them. To a certain
extent you play a never-ending game with them, cat
and mouse, blind man's buff, hide and seek. But
finally you find that you have people of flesh and
blood on your hands, people with will and an
individual sensibility of their own, made out of
component parts you are unable to change,
manipulate or distort.
So language in art remains a highly ambiguous
transaction, a quicksand, a trampoline, a frozen
pool which might give way under you, the author, at
But as I have said, the search
for the truth can never stop. It cannot be
adjourned, it cannot be postponed. It has to be
faced, right there, on the spot.
Political theatre presents an
entirely different set of problems. Sermonising has
to be avoided at all cost. Objectivity is
essential. The characters must be allowed to
breathe their own air. The author cannot confine
and constrict them to satisfy his own taste or
disposition or prejudice. He must be prepared to
approach them from a variety of angles, from a full
and uninhibited range of perspectives, take them by
surprise, perhaps, occasionally, but nevertheless
give them the freedom to go which way they will.
This does not always work. And political satire, of
course, adheres to none of these precepts, in fact
does precisely the opposite, which is its proper
In my play The Birthday Party I think I allow a
whole range of options to operate in a dense forest
of possibility before finally focussing on an act
Mountain Language pretends to no such range of
operation. It remains brutal, short and ugly. But
the soldiers in the play do get some fun out of it.
One sometimes forgets that torturers become easily
bored. They need a bit of a laugh to keep their
spirits up. This has been confirmed of course by
the events at Abu Ghraib in Baghdad. Mountain
Language lasts only 20 minutes, but it could go on
for hour after hour, on and on and on, the same
pattern repeated over and over again, on and on,
hour after hour.
Ashes to Ashes, on the other hand, seems to me to
be taking place under water. A drowning woman, her
hand reaching up through the waves, dropping down
out of sight, reaching for others, but finding
nobody there, either above or under the water,
finding only shadows, reflections, floating; the
woman a lost figure in a drowning landscape, a
woman unable to escape the doom that seemed to
belong only to others.
But as they died, she must die too.
Political language, as used by politicians, does
not venture into any of this territory since the
majority of politicians, on the evidence available
to us, are interested not in truth but in power and
in the maintenance of that power. To maintain that
power it is essential that people remain in
ignorance, that they live in ignorance of the
truth, even the truth of their own lives. What
surrounds us therefore is a vast tapestry of lies,
upon which we feed.
As every single person here knows, the
justification for the invasion of Iraq was that
Saddam Hussein possessed a highly dangerous body of
weapons of mass destruction, some of which could be
fired in 45 minutes, bringing about appalling
devastation. We were assured that was true. It was
not true. We were told that Iraq had a relationship
with Al Quaeda and shared responsibility for the
atrocity in New York of September 11th 2001. We
were assured that this was true. It was not true.
We were told that Iraq threatened the security of
the world. We were assured it was true. It was not
The truth is something entirely different. The
truth is to do with how the United States
understands its role in the world and how it
chooses to embody it.
But before I come back to the present I would like
to look at the recent past, by which I mean United
States foreign policy since the end of the Second
World War. I believe it is obligatory upon us to
subject this period to at least some kind of even
limited scrutiny, which is all that time will allow
Everyone knows what happened in the Soviet Union
and throughout Eastern Europe during the post-war
period: the systematic brutality, the widespread
atrocities, the ruthless suppression of independent
thought. All this has been fully documented and
But my contention here is that the US crimes in the
same period have only been superficially recorded,
let alone documented, let alone acknowledged, let
alone recognised as crimes at all. I believe this
must be addressed and that the truth has
considerable bearing on where the world stands now.
Although constrained, to a certain extent, by the
existence of the Soviet Union, the United States'
actions throughout the world made it clear that it
had concluded it had carte blanche to do what it
Direct invasion of a sovereign state has never in
fact been America's favoured method. In the main,
it has preferred what it has described as 'low
intensity conflict'. Low intensity conflict means
that thousands of people die but slower than if you
dropped a bomb on them in one fell swoop. It means
that you infect the heart of the country, that you
establish a malignant growth and watch the gangrene
bloom. When the populace has been subdued - or
beaten to death - the same thing - and your own
friends, the military and the great corporations,
sit comfortably in power, you go before the camera
and say that democracy has prevailed. This was a
commonplace in US foreign policy in the years to
which I refer.
The tragedy of Nicaragua was a highly significant
case. I choose to offer it here as a potent example
of America's view of its role in the world, both
then and now.
I was present at a meeting at the US embassy in
London in the late 1980s.
The United States Congress was about to decide
whether to give more money to the Contras in their
campaign against the state of Nicaragua. I was a
member of a delegation speaking on behalf of
Nicaragua but the most important member of this
delegation was a Father John Metcalf. The leader of
the US body was Raymond Seitz (then number two to
the ambassador, later ambassador himself). Father
Metcalf said: 'Sir, I am in charge of a parish in
the north of Nicaragua. My parishioners built a
school, a health centre, a cultural centre. We have
lived in peace. A few months ago a Contra force
attacked the parish. They destroyed everything: the
school, the health centre, the cultural centre.
They raped nurses and teachers, slaughtered
doctors, in the most brutal manner. They behaved
like savages. Please demand that the US government
withdraw its support from this shocking terrorist
Raymond Seitz had a very good reputation as a
rational, responsible and highly sophisticated man.
He was greatly respected in diplomatic circles. He
listened, paused and then spoke with some gravity.
'Father,' he said, 'let me tell you something. In
war, innocent people always suffer.' There was a
frozen silence. We stared at him. He did not
Innocent people, indeed, always suffer.
Finally somebody said: 'But in this case "innocent
people" were the victims of a gruesome atrocity
subsidised by your government, one among many. If
Congress allows the Contras more money further
atrocities of this kind will take place. Is this
not the case? Is your government not therefore
guilty of supporting acts of murder and destruction
upon the citizens of a sovereign state?'
Seitz was imperturbable. 'I don't agree that the
facts as presented support your assertions,' he
As we were leaving the Embassy a US aide told me
that he enjoyed my plays. I did not reply.
I should remind you that at the time President
Reagan made the following statement: 'The Contras
are the moral equivalent of our Founding
The United States supported the brutal Somoza
dictatorship in Nicaragua for over 40 years. The
Nicaraguan people, led by the Sandinistas,
overthrew this regime in 1979, a breathtaking
The Sandinistas weren't perfect. They possessed
their fair share of arrogance and their political
philosophy contained a number of contradictory
elements. But they were intelligent, rational and
civilised. They set out to establish a stable,
decent, pluralistic society. The death penalty was
abolished. Hundreds of thousands of
poverty-stricken peasants were brought back from
the dead. Over 100,000 families were given title to
land. Two thousand schools were built. A quite
remarkable literacy campaign reduced illiteracy in
the country to less than one seventh. Free
education was established and a free health
service. Infant mortality was reduced by a third.
Polio was eradicated.
The United States denounced these achievements as
Marxist/Leninist subversion. In the view of the US
government, a dangerous example was being set. If
Nicaragua was allowed to establish basic norms of
social and economic justice, if it was allowed to
raise the standards of health care and education
and achieve social unity and national self respect,
neighbouring countries would ask the same questions
and do the same things. There was of course at the
time fierce resistance to the status quo in El
I spoke earlier about 'a tapestry of lies' which
surrounds us. President Reagan commonly described
Nicaragua as a 'totalitarian dungeon'. This was
taken generally by the media, and certainly by the
British government, as accurate and fair comment.
But there was in fact no record of death squads
under the Sandinista government. There was no
record of torture. There was no record of
systematic or official military brutality. No
priests were ever murdered in Nicaragua. There were
in fact three priests in the government, two
Jesuits and a Maryknoll missionary. The
totalitarian dungeons were actually next door, in
El Salvador and Guatemala. The United States had
brought down the democratically elected government
of Guatemala in 1954 and it is estimated that over
200,000 people had been victims of successive
Six of the most distinguished Jesuits in the world
were viciously murdered at the Central American
University in San Salvador in 1989 by a battalion
of the Alcatl regiment trained at Fort Benning,
Georgia, USA. That extremely brave man Archbishop
Romero was assassinated while saying mass. It is
estimated that 75,000 people died. Why were they
killed? They were killed because they believed a
better life was possible and should be achieved.
That belief immediately qualified them as
communists. They died because they dared to
question the status quo, the endless plateau of
poverty, disease, degradation and oppression, which
had been their birthright.
The United States finally brought down the
Sandinista government. It took some years and
considerable resistance but relentless economic
persecution and 30,000 dead finally undermined the
spirit of the Nicaraguan people. They were
exhausted and poverty stricken once again. The
casinos moved back into the country. Free health
and free education were over. Big business returned
with a vengeance. 'Democracy' had prevailed.
But this 'policy' was by no means restricted to
Central America. It was conducted throughout the
world. It was never-ending. And it is as if it
The United States supported and in many cases
engendered every right wing military dictatorship
in the world after the end of the Second World War.
I refer to Indonesia, Greece, Uruguay, Brazil,
Paraguay, Haiti, Turkey, the Philippines,
Guatemala, El Salvador, and, of course, Chile. The
horror the United States inflicted upon Chile in
1973 can never be purged and can never be
Hundreds of thousands of deaths took place
throughout these countries. Did they take place?
And are they in all cases attributable to US
foreign policy? The answer is yes they did take
place and they are attributable to American foreign
policy. But you wouldn't know it.
It never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even
while it was happening it wasn't happening. It
didn't matter. It was of no interest. The crimes of
the United States have been systematic, constant,
vicious, remorseless, but very few people have
actually talked about them. You have to hand it to
America. It has exercised a quite clinical
manipulation of power worldwide while masquerading
as a force for universal good. It's a brilliant,
even witty, highly successful act of hypnosis.
I put to you that the United States is without
doubt the greatest show on the road. Brutal,
indifferent, scornful and ruthless it may be but it
is also very clever. As a salesman it is out on its
own and its most saleable commodity is self love.
It's a winner. Listen to all American presidents on
television say the words, 'the American people', as
in the sentence, 'I say to the American people it
is time to pray and to defend the rights of the
American people and I ask the American people to
trust their president in the action he is about to
take on behalf of the American people.'
It's a scintillating stratagem. Language is
actually employed to keep thought at bay. The words
'the American people' provide a truly voluptuous
cushion of reassurance. You don't need to think.
Just lie back on the cushion. The cushion may be
suffocating your intelligence and your critical
faculties but it's very comfortable. This does not
apply of course to the 40 million people living
below the poverty line and the 2 million men and
women imprisoned in the vast gulag of prisons,
which extends across the US.
The United States no longer bothers about low
intensity conflict. It no longer sees any point in
being reticent or even devious. It puts its cards
on the table without fear or favour. It quite
simply doesn't give a damn about the United
Nations, international law or critical dissent,
which it regards as impotent and irrelevant. It
also has its own bleating little lamb tagging
behind it on a lead, the pathetic and supine Great
What has happened to our moral sensibility? Did we
ever have any? What do these words mean? Do they
refer to a term very rarely employed these days -
conscience? A conscience to do not only with our
own acts but to do with our shared responsibility
in the acts of others? Is all this dead?
Look at Guantanamo Bay. Hundreds of
people detained without charge for over three
years, with no legal representation or due process,
technically detained forever. This totally
illegitimate structure is maintained in defiance of
the Geneva Convention. It is not only tolerated but
hardly thought about by what's called the
'international community'. This criminal outrage is
being committed by a country, which declares itself
to be 'the leader of the free world'. Do we think
about the inhabitants of Guantanamo Bay? What does
the media say about them? They pop up occasionally
- a small item on page six. They have been
consigned to a no man's land from which indeed they
may never return. At present many are on hunger
strike, being force-fed, including British
No niceties in these force-feeding
procedures. No sedative or anaesthetic. Just a tube
stuck up your nose and into your throat. You vomit
blood. This is torture. What has the British
Foreign Secretary said about this? Nothing. What
has the British Prime Minister said about this?
Nothing. Why not? Because the United States has
said: to criticise our conduct in Guantanamo Bay
constitutes an unfriendly act. You're either with
us or against us. So Blair shuts up.
The invasion of Iraq was a bandit act, an act of
blatant state terrorism, demonstrating absolute
contempt for the concept of international law. The
invasion was an arbitrary military action inspired
by a series of lies upon lies and gross
manipulation of the media and therefore of the
public; an act intended to consolidate American
military and economic control of the Middle East
masquerading - as a last resort - all other
justifications having failed to justify themselves
- as liberation. A formidable assertion of military
force responsible for the death and mutilation of
thousands and thousands of innocent people.
We have brought torture, cluster bombs, depleted
uranium, innumerable acts of random murder, misery,
degradation and death to the Iraqi people and call
it 'bringing freedom and democracy to the Middle
How many people do you have to kill before you
qualify to be described as a mass murderer and a
war criminal? One hundred thousand? More than
enough, I would have thought. Therefore it is just
that Bush and Blair be arraigned before the
International Criminal Court of Justice. But Bush
has been clever. He has not ratified the
International Criminal Court of Justice. Therefore
if any American soldier or for that matter
politician finds himself in the dock Bush has
warned that he will send in the marines. But Tony
Blair has ratified the Court and is therefore
available for prosecution. We can let the Court
have his address if they're interested. It is
Number 10, Downing Street, London.
Death in this context is irrelevant. Both Bush and
Blair place death well away on the back burner. At
least 100,000 Iraqis were killed by American bombs
and missiles before the Iraq insurgency began.
These people are of no moment. Their deaths don't
exist. They are blank. They are not even recorded
as being dead. 'We don't do body counts,' said the
American general Tommy Franks.
Early in the invasion there was a photograph
published on the front page of British newspapers
of Tony Blair kissing the cheek of a little Iraqi
boy. 'A grateful child,' said the caption. A few
days later there was a story and photograph, on an
inside page, of another four-year-old boy with no
arms. His family had been blown up by a missile. He
was the only survivor. 'When do I get my arms
back?' he asked. The story was dropped. Well, Tony
Blair wasn't holding him in his arms, nor the body
of any other mutilated child, nor the body of any
bloody corpse. Blood is dirty. It dirties your
shirt and tie when you're making a sincere speech
The 2,000 American dead are an embarrassment. They
are transported to their graves in the dark.
Funerals are unobtrusive, out of harm's way. The
mutilated rot in their beds, some for the rest of
their lives. So the dead and the mutilated both
rot, in different kinds of graves.
Here is an extract from a poem by Pablo Neruda,
'I'm Explaining a Few Things':
And one morning all that was burning,
one morning the bonfires
leapt out of the earth
devouring human beings
and from then on fire,
gunpowder from then on,
and from then on blood.
Bandits with planes and Moors,
bandits with finger-rings and duchesses,
bandits with black friars spattering blessings
came through the sky to kill children
and the blood of children ran through the
without fuss, like children's blood.
Jackals that the jackals would despise
stones that the dry thistle would bite on and spit
vipers that the vipers would abominate.
Face to face with you I have seen the blood
of Spain tower like a tide
to drown you in one wave
of pride and knives.
see my dead house,
look at broken Spain:
from every house burning metal flows
instead of flowers
from every socket of Spain
and from every dead child a rifle with eyes
and from every crime bullets are born
which will one day find
the bull's eye of your hearts.
And you will ask: why doesn't his poetry
speak of dreams and leaves
and the great volcanoes of his native land.
Come and see the blood in the streets.
Come and see
the blood in the streets.
Come and see the blood
in the streets!*
Let me make it quite clear that in quoting from
Neruda's poem I am in no way comparing Republican
Spain to Saddam Hussein's Iraq. I quote Neruda
because nowhere in contemporary poetry have I read
such a powerful visceral description of the bombing
I have said earlier that the United States is now
totally frank about putting its cards on the table.
That is the case. Its official declared policy is
now defined as 'full spectrum dominance'. That is
not my term, it is theirs. 'Full spectrum
dominance' means control of land, sea, air and
space and all attendant resources.
The United States now occupies 702 military
installations throughout the world in 132
countries, with the honourable exception of Sweden,
of course. We don't quite know how they got there
but they are there all right.
The United States possesses 8,000 active and
operational nuclear warheads. Two thousand are on
hair trigger alert, ready to be launched with 15
minutes warning. It is developing new systems of
nuclear force, known as bunker busters. The
British, ever cooperative, are intending to replace
their own nuclear missile, Trident.
Who, I wonder, are they aiming at?
Osama bin Laden? You? Me? Joe Dokes? China? Paris?
Who knows? What we do know is that this infantile
insanity - the possession and threatened use of
nuclear weapons - is at the heart of present
American political philosophy. We must remind
ourselves that the United States is on a permanent
military footing and shows no sign of relaxing
Many thousands, if not millions, of people in the
United States itself are demonstrably sickened,
shamed and angered by their government's actions,
but as things stand they are not a coherent
political force - yet. But the anxiety, uncertainty
and fear which we can see growing daily in the
United States is unlikely to diminish.
I know that President Bush has many extremely
competent speech writers but I would like to
volunteer for the job myself. I propose the
following short address which he can make on
television to the nation. I see him grave, hair
carefully combed, serious, winning, sincere, often
beguiling, sometimes employing a wry smile,
curiously attractive, a man's man.
'God is good. God is great. God
is good. My God is good. Bin Laden's God is bad.
His is a bad God. Saddam's God was bad, except he
didn't have one. He was a barbarian. We are not
barbarians. We don't chop people's heads off. We
believe in freedom. So does God. I am not a
barbarian. I am the democratically elected leader
of a freedom-loving democracy. We are a
compassionate society. We give compassionate
electrocution and compassionate lethal injection.
We are a great nation. I am not a dictator. He
is. I am not a barbarian. He is. And he is. They
all are. I possess moral authority. You see this
fist? This is my moral authority. And don't you
A writer's life is a highly
vulnerable, almost naked activity. We don't have to
weep about that. The writer makes his choice and is
stuck with it. But it is true to say that you are
open to all the winds, some of them icy indeed. You
are out on your own, out on a limb. You find no
shelter, no protection - unless you lie - in which
case of course you have constructed your own
protection and, it could be argued, become a
I have referred to death quite a few times this
evening. I shall now quote a poem of my own called
Where was the dead body found?
Who found the dead body?
Was the dead body dead when found?
How was the dead body found?
Who was the dead body?
Who was the father or daughter or brother
Or uncle or sister or mother or son
Of the dead and abandoned body?
Was the body dead when abandoned?
Was the body abandoned?
By whom had it been abandoned?
Was the dead body naked or dressed for a
What made you declare the dead body dead?
Did you declare the dead body dead?
How well did you know the dead body?
How did you know the dead body was dead?
Did you wash the dead body
Did you close both its eyes
Did you bury the body
Did you leave it abandoned
Did you kiss the dead body
When we look into a mirror we think the image that
confronts us is accurate. But move a millimetre and
the image changes. We are actually looking at a
never-ending range of reflections. But sometimes a
writer has to smash the mirror - for it is on the
other side of that mirror that the truth stares at
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
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.
© THE NOBEL
FOUNDATION 2005 General permission is granted for
the publication in newspapers in any language after
December 7, 2005, 5:30 p.m. (Swedish time).
Publication in periodicals or books otherwise than
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* Extract from "I'm Explaining a
Few Things" translated by Nathaniel Tarn, from
Pablo Neruda: Selected Poems,
published by Jonathan Cape, London 1970. Used by
permission of The Random House Group Limited.