The New Word, by Allen Upward, , at sacred-texts.com
p. 8 p. 9
The Nobel Prize.—1. Philanthropy and Barabbas.—2. Charity and Genius.—3. "Idealistic."—4. Eleven Guesses.—5. Prize for a New Religion.—6. Challenge to Materialism?—7. The Academy and the Idealist.—8. The Bequest in Abeyance.
ALFRED BERNHARD NOBEL, maker of dynamite, died in the year 1896, and by his will gave the bulk of his great wealth to benefit mankind, by these remarkable provisions:—
“With the residue of my convertible estate I hereby direct my Executors to proceed as follows: They shall convert my said residue of property into money, which they shall then invest in safe securities; the capital thus secured shall constitute a fund, the interest accruing from which shall be annually awarded in prizes to those persons who shall have contributed most materially to benefit mankind during the year immediately preceding.
“The said interest shall be divided into five equal amounts to be apportioned as follows:—
“One share to the person who shall have made the most important discovery or invention in the domain of Physics;
“One share to the person who shall have made the most important Chemical discovery or improvement;
“One share to the person who shall have made the
most important discovery in the domain of Physiology or Medicine;
“One share to the person who shall have produced in the field of Literature the most distinguished work of am idealist tendency;
“And finally, one share to the person who shall have most or best promoted the Fraternity of Nations and the Abolition or Diminution of Standing Armies and the Formation and Increase of Peace Congresses.
“The prizes for Physics and Chemistry shall be awarded by the Swedish Academy of Science in Stockholm; the one for Physiology or Medicine by the Caroline Medical Institute in Stockholm; the prize for Literature by the Academy in Stockholm, and that for Peace by a Committee of five persons to be elected by the Norwegian Storthing.
"I declare it to be my express desire that in the awarding of prizes no consideration whatever be paid to the nationality of the candidates; that is to say, that the most deserving be awarded the prize, whether of Scandinavian origin or not."
The more attentively we study these provisions the more we shall be struck by their originality and insight.
Hitherto the hereditary objects of charity have been the sad leavings of mankind—
Nobel is the first philanthropist who has desired to benefit the forerunners of the race, as well as the laggards, and who has seen that in benefiting them he would benefit all the rest.
There are two kinds of human outcasts. Man, in his march upward out of the deep into the light, throws out a vanguard and a rearguard, and both are out of step with the main body. Humanity condemns equally those who are too good for it, and those who are too bad. On its Procrustean bed the stunted members of the race are racked; the giants are cut down. It puts to death with the same ruthless equality the prophet and the atavist. The poet and the drunkard starve side by side.
Of these two classes of victims the stragglers are not more in need than the forlorn hope; but the ambulance has always waited in the rear. It would seem as though the vanity of benevolence were soothed by the sight of degradation, but affronted by that of genius. Even the loafer and the criminal have found friends. The thinker and the discoverer have been left to the struggle for existence. For them are no asylums; for them no societies stand ready to offer help. Millions have been spent in providing libraries for the populace; the founder of German literature was refused a librarian's place. And so philanthropy has cast its vote to this day for Barabbas.
Nobel alone has had the courage not to be afraid of genius, and the wisdom to see that whatever
is conferred on it really is conferred on all mankind.
The third of these bequests may serve to illustrate the superiority of Nobel's method.
Many benefactors have desired to relieve bodily suffering. But they have discerned no way of doing this except by building a hospital for the advantage of a limited class. Nobel's aim has been at once wider and higher. He has sought to relieve all suffering. He has demanded worldwide remedies; he has offered rewards for the abolition of disease.
And in doing so he has at the same time remedied a great injustice, by endowing medical discovery. The mechanical inventor has long had it in his power to acquire wealth by the sale of his idea. Nobel's own fortune owed its rise to a patented invention. But the noble etiquette of the healer's calling voluntarily renounces an advantage that would hinder the relief of human pain. In medicine every advance made by one is placed freely at the service of all. For such saviours of humanity there has been hitherto no material recompense, and humanity has been content that it should be so. Neither parliaments nor emperors have ever wished that the healers of men should take rank with their destroyers, and that a Pasteur should receive the rewards of a Krupp. Nobel willed otherwise.
The fifth bequest contains a yet more striking instance of that refined and beautiful inspiration which distinguishes the Testament of Nobel.
This is a bequest for practical work on behalf of peace, disarmament and the fraternity of nations. At the time when Nobel drew up his will these aspirations seemed to have no more active enemies than the Norwegian people. Norway was seeking separation from Sweden, and seeking it in that temper of hatred which unhappily accompanies such movements almost everywhere. The Norwegian Storthing was building fortresses on the Swedish frontier, and providing battleships. Every Norwegian boy was being trained with a view to an armed struggle with the Swedes, and taught to regard them with revengeful feelings, as American children were long taught to regard the English. Nobel was a Swede who loved his country, and he has placed the administration of his other bequests in Swedish hands. He entrusted the endowment of peace and brotherhood to the Norwegian Storthing.
Surely no more magnanimous appeal than this has ever been addressed by a man to men. The directions of such a Testator ought not to be regarded lightly. They begin to assume the character of a sacred text.
What was the wish of Nobel's mind when, in language destined to immortality, he drew up the Fourth Bequest?—
"One share to the person who shall have produced
in the field of Literature the most remarkable work of an idealistic tendency?"
There is hardly any class which gives so much to humanity, and receives so little in return, as the class of men of letters. There is hardly any class whose sufferings are greater; and there is none which philanthropy has done so little to relieve.
The works of Homer have been an unfailing spring of noble pleasure for three thousand years, and during all that time humanity has repeated with more complacency than shame the story of the poet begging his bread, and has warned its children to shun the literary career. The dreadful death of Chatterton seems never to have roused a momentary pity in any philanthropist. Had that boy been blind, or dumb, or idiotic, or incurably diseased, how many benevolent hearts would have yearned over him! How many luxurious homes, standing in stately gardens amid glorious scenery, would have opened their doors to take him in! On his behalf the preachers would have preached, and the purse-proud would have loosed their purse-strings. But because, instead of being blind, he saw too well, saw the beauty and the wonder of the world, and would have told of them, philanthropy turned its back on him, and humanity would not suffer him to live.
Poe, himself the most gifted and the most wretched of his kind, has declared that the laudation of the unworthy is to the worthy the bitterest of all wrong.
[paragraph continues] But what, then, of the rewards of the unworthy? and the rewards of literature are too often in inverse ratio to its worth. The author of a successful farce destined to three or four years’ life could afford to look down on the Nobel prize. The writer who faithfully reflects every prejudice in the public mind can never stand in need of charity. But what of Dante and Milton, of Villon and Verlaine?
The man of genius, above all the man of original genius, must generally look for bread to some other pursuit than his own. The exceptions are those whom robust health, or some strong talent auxiliary to their inspiration, has enabled to overcome the public prejudice of their own day. And too often the victory has been won at some cost to the abiding value of their work. Happy is he who, like Spinoza, has been able to make out a livelihood by grinding lenses, instead of demeaning himself to the tasks that humanity offers him through its agents the booksellers and editors. Unhappy, who must echo the mournful cry of Shakespeare—
And yet the title of genius to protection and relief is hardly other than that of the idiot, the epileptic and the paralytic. Science has told us that the lunatic, the poet and the criminal are compact of one clay. The lives of the poets reveal them as sufferers from strange infirmities often beyond the
reach of medical lore. The most precious possessions of literature are verily pearls, the glorious disguisement of some inward sore.
Literature is the chief ornament of humanity; and perhaps humanity never shows itself uglier than when it stands with the pearl shining on its forehead, and the pearl-maker crushed beneath its heel.
There is in England a thing called a Royal Literary Fund, for the pretended purpose of showing charity to men of letters. By the published rules of this institution its alms are only to be bestowed on those whose lives and writings are alike free from reproach on the score of religion and morality. What a clause for the charter of a hospital! It is evident that those responsible for this public insult to literature are inspired, not by compassion for genius, but by fear and hatred of genius. They know well that it is as hard for a great poet to be a regular churchgoer and a respectable father of a family, as it is for themselves to write a great poem. Their true object is to give alms in the name of literature to the enemies of literature. And so they have built an asylum for well-behaved dunces, and have written over the door: "No admittance for Shakespeare and Goethe."
If Nobel had only made a bequest to literature, he would have done a brave thing. As it is, he has done a far braver.
The word Literature is not an exact term, because literature is not an exact art. It is a term wide enough to cover every kind of communication by means of words, from the Song of Songs to the least newspaper advertisement. Nobel has manifestly used the word in a broad sense. He was not thinking of literature from the literary standpoint, nor has he laid the stress upon artistic merit. Instead of offering this prize for the best work of literature, he has offered it for the best work of idealism, coming within the field of literature.
That such is his intention seems to be fully recognised by a provision in the statutes drawn up since the Testator's death to govern his Trustees:—
"The term 'literature', used in the Will, shall be understood to embrace not only works falling under the category of Polite Literature, but also other writings which may claim to possess literary merit by reason of their form or their mode of exposition."
The spirit which breathes in this bequest is the same which breathes in the others. The Testator has kept one end steadily in sight, the increase of human happiness. His method is to encourage those whose work is, in his opinion, most beneficial to mankind, the work of the inventor, the work of the idealist, the work of the peacemaker.
In this bequest the word idealist is mightier than the word literature, and must prevail over it. This is not an endowment of the author, but of some one greater than the author.
Nobel died, and the publication of his Will brought about a significant discovery. No one could tell the meaning of the word idealist, or idealistic.
The history of the world is glanced at in the following inquiry. Here it will be enough to say that while it was in use in all the leading languages of Europe in the Testator's lifetime, his Will revealed it as a riddle.
In what astonishing senses the Testator's word was understood appears from the list of the explanations given me by educated men in various walks of life, soon after I had launched in this investigation.
The mood of humanity towards the poet is that of the schoolboy towards the butterfly—without pity but without malice. Towards the prophet it is that of the spoilt child towards the physician—one of angry resistance.
There is no more pitiful sight than this; mankind suffers under no such curse; it is the tragedy of the world, the stoning of the messenger of good tidings. "Ye build the sepulchres of the prophets, and your fathers killed them." Alas! it is in sacrifice to the dead prophet that the living prophet is offered up.
There is no instinct much more deeply rooted in the heart of man than this old cannibal one that the suffering of the best man is for the benefit of mankind. "I exiled Dante," exults proud Florence, "and lo! the Divine Comedy." "I hounded forth Mohammed," boasts Mecca, "and here is Islam." It needs a Diagoras to ask where are the votive offerings of those who were wrecked. It takes a Nobel to discern the difference to mankind between the labours of Hercules and the agony of the Meriah.
The instinct of hatred is stronger than reason. It is not to be baffled by etymologies. Whatever the uncertainty belonging to the Testator's language, his fourth bequest was taken very differently from the remainder of the Will. It drew to itself the prompt hostility of the two great schools of thought which
divide between them the intellectual government of the world. Pharisee land Sadducee both scented danger in the unknown word. Both felt themselves threatened by something more formidable than a literary competition.
The antagonism of both was summed up in the scornful criticism that Nobel had offered a prize for a new religion. Nobel himself was branded as a dreamer. There were those ready to insinuate that he had not been in his right mind.
In the present age more than a hundred millions are paid every year for the repetition of old texts; in England alone there are several custodians of prophecy who each receive every year a sum greater than that here proposed as the life's wage of the prophet. Nobel wished to give eight thousand pounds a year among the writers of new texts. That was his dream. His madness lay there. Humanity is not mad to spend one hundred millions a year on phonographs. Nobel was mad to offer these few thousands for a living voice.
On the whole the feeling aroused most by this bequest was incredulity. It was regarded as a challenge to materialism, a word not really better understood than idealism, but taken to signify the spirit of modern science, triumphant in so many departments of life.
And in these days material science is very great, so that the very word idealist is in some discredit. There is an opinion abroad that while Idealism has been talking, Materialism has been doing. Materialist science has conferred endless benefits on mankind. It has given us new medicines and tools and carriages, and all manner of useful and pleasant things. It has opened up the history of the world and man, and bidden him recast all his beliefs and habits. Inch by inch it has invaded every province of human knowledge; and now it is carrying the war into the very citadel of Idealism, and beginning to measure nerves and brain cells instead of arguing about mind.
Now this bequest does indeed come as a challenge, but not to those very materialists to whom the Testator has given the chief place among his legatees. The challenge is a challenge to the idealists, to show that they also are contributing to benefit mankind.
Because of that it marks an era in the history of philosophy. Three hundred years ago a challenge was addressed by Bacon to the physical sciences, under the name of natural philosophy. His famous substitution of inductive for deductive reasoning amounted to no more than this advice: Learn from the things themselves, instead of from the words about the things. But in asking for fruits he proposed to the philosopher the same end that Nobel has proposed—the benefit of mankind.
It is since that date that the physical sciences have
arisen out of their sleep and marched to victory. Height after height has been scaled, and all the glory of creation has burst on our eyes. But still our eyes remain dim eyes. The march of reason has not kept pace with that of knowledge. Men stand before the wonders of the scientific revelation as they formerly stood before the sculptured stones of Egypt, unable to decipher them, and half afraid to try.
Nobel, it seems, has hoped for a Champollion. He has asked for interpretations. Like the Babylonian king of old, he has sent for the magicians and the astrologers, the Chaldeans and the soothsayers, and has bidden them expound anew the meaning of that dream which is called Life.
For thousands of years the metaphysicians and moral philosophers, the theologians and logicians, have been muttering the words of their mystery in corners,—now at last a brave man has flung down this bag of gold in the midst of them, and has said: Let us see what it all really comes to. Let us see if you can help men to live.
In the field of Literature the academy and the idealist meet as natural foes. The academy is, by its constitution, the judge of literature, and not of truth. The idealist is only a man of letters by accident—there are no accidents!—by necessity. Of the
very greatest teachers of mankind, only two are known to have written anything, and only of Mohammed can it be said that his book affords any measure of himself. To the perfect Idealist, Lao, is attributed the saying—"Those who know do not tell; those who tell do not know."
When the idealist enters the field of Literature he does so from the opposite side to that of the academy. For him the spirit is everything, for the academy the form is everything. It would seem easier for the rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than for the idealist to find grace with the academy. Yet the Testator has placed this endowment in the hands of the illustrious body styled the Swedish Academy.
In doing so he has shown himself not less inspired than in the rest of the Will. For he is not concerned with idealism as an end, but as a means. The end is still the benefit of mankind. To this end the idealist is called upon to choose speech rather than silence. When he speaks, he is to be judged by his words.
Had the Testator done otherwise, had he directed that the idealist was to be judged by his ideals, he would have done what he has been ignorantly accused of doing; he would have founded a new Catholic Church. As it is, he has founded a Forum. By giving the prize to eloquence and not to truth, he has done what is best for the idealist, and best for mankind, and in the long run best for truth. He has secured the freedom of thought by the bondage of
expression. This golden fetter is placed on the right foot.
At the same time he has given back to literature by the word "marklig" all that is taken from it by the words "idealist tendency." I cannot render it by the official translator's word "distinguished," because that has now become cant. By a distinguished man, we mean a man who has distinguished himself in a frock coat and tall hat and kid gloves; by a distinguished writer one who has daintily picked his words out of a dictionary of synonyms, and made a delicate mosaic, rather than one in whose mind strong emotion has melted the element of language and cast down the diamond of literature.
What the Testator has asked for is the most glorious work.
Nobel was an idealist who was not a man of letters. The great subtlety with which this Will is drawn is not that of the grammarian or the lawyer, but that of a sincere mind thoroughly possessed of its purpose, and wresting words to that purpose. Has he not given this very legacy to the "idealist" who shall contribute most "materially" to benefit mankind?
The words of such a Testator must be approached in the spirit in which lawyers pretend to approach all testaments. The object must be not to explain
the words by themselves, but to gather from them what the Testator wished to be done.
It is in that spirit that I have tried to shape the following inquiry. The question I have asked myself is not, what is the meaning of the word Idealist, but, what did the Testator mean by it?
How I was tempted to undertake the task is here beside the question. I need only say that I began it just after the official publication of the Will, in the year 1901, and when it was the subject of discussion as a matter of public interest. It is as a member of the public, of that great Public designated by the Testator, under the name of mankind, as his ultimate heirs, that I am interested in this Will, and that, no one else coming forward, I have been bold to vindicate it.
The six years that have elapsed since that time have not materially changed the situation. Striking works of an idealist tendency are not being written at the rate of one every year, or, if they are, they have not been brought to the notice of the Trustees of this bequest. In the dearth of such works the Trustees have done doubtless what the Testator might have consented to, if not what he has directed, in awarding this Prize as a testimonial to distinguished men of letters, at the close of their careers. But inasmuch as they have framed no authoritative interpretation of the governing word in the bequest, they seem to be in the position of a Court which has not yet delivered judgment, and therefore may be addressed
without impertinence by any counsel interested in the case. *
I lay these imperfect suggestions before the public in the hope that they may be found of some interest, apart from their exciting cause; and in the further hope that, if they do not increase, at any rate they cannot lessen, the public gratitude for a high and unique example of benevolence.
For addressing them more directly to the illustrious body charged with the execution of the Trust I have no real excuse except that there would have been a certain affectation in doing otherwise.
I make no claim to speak as an idealist. I am a scientist, and my science is ontology, commonly called truth:—now this bequest is not in favour of works of a true tendency, nor even of the truest works of an idealist tendency. Nevertheless, I think, perhaps, that Nobel might have pardoned what I do, and let me lay this little essay in interpretation as a wreath upon his tomb.
26:* See introductory note.