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Sartre’s ‘Non to Nobel prize came too late’

A letter sent by French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre in 1964 declining the Nobel Prize for Literature came too late to avert one of the biggest debacles in its history, Swedish media reported Saturday.

Sartre's 'Non to Nobel prize came too late'
Photo: Pascal Hee/AFP

Sartre's letter arrived nearly a month after he had been picked as the top choice by the Nobel Committee, the daily Svenska Dagbladet reported, based on archival material made available at the end of a customary 50-year period of secrecy.

The report throws light on the sequence of events leading to Sartre's decision to become the only person to willingly turn down the world's most prestigious literary prize.

Sartre later explained that he had "always declined official honours", including the French Legion of Honour in 1945, as it would limit his independence and institutionalise him.

It had been widely speculated that Sartre's letter asking not to be considered for the award had been too late, but only now is this backed up with actual historical evidence.

Sartre, who had been mentioned as a likely candidate for several years, sent his letter to the Nobel Foundation on October 14, 1964, saying he would not be able to accept the prize "either in 1964 or in the future", according to the paper.

However, the Nobel Committee for Literature had agreed on Sartre as the top candidate on September 17th, the paper said.

In principle the decision on the year's winner had already been taken, Sartre was told in a reply from the Swedish Academy, which awards the prize.

Consequently, when the Swedish Academy met on October 22, 1964, its 18 members decided to follow the committee's recommendations and award the prize to Sartre — who, good as his word, refused it.

Had Sartre's letter arrived before the committee met in mid-September, it is likely that the award would have gone to someone else, Svenska Dagbladet reported.

Some of the committee's members were ambivalent about Sartre's literary merits, and a letter from the famous Frenchman would have given them an additional argument against him, the paper said.

There is only one known case of a Nobel being refused in advance: Swedish poet Erik Axel Karlfeldt succeeded in persuading the members of the jury not to award it to him in 1919, but he had the unfair advantage of being a member of the jury himself.

He later won the prize posthumously in 1931 at a time when death was not a barrier to becoming a laureate.

In 1958, Soviet writer Boris Pasternak was awarded the literature prize for his novel Doctor Zhivago and other works, but the Kremlin forced him to decline the honour.

The only other laureate to willingly refuse the Nobel was Vietnamese prime minister Le Duc Tho, who did not want to share the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize with US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger for negotiating the end of the Vietnam War.

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Nobel Prize: Six things to know about Jean Tirole

French economist Jean Tirole picks up his Nobel Prize for Economics on Wednesday, a victory that French PM Manuel Valls said "thumbed the nose at French bashing". Here's six things to know about the economist everyone is talking about.

Nobel Prize: Six things to know about Jean Tirole
French professor Jean Tirole, the winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize for Economics. Photo: Remy Gabaldi/AFP
 
1. "One of the most influential economists of our time"
 
Tirole, who was born on August 9, 1953, in the city of Troyes, is a professor at the university in Toulouse, southern France and has long been tipped as a potential economics laureate.
 
The 61-year-old specialises in both the theoretical and practical application of game theory – the study of strategic decision making, as well as in industrial organisation.  For his important analysis of big companies, market power and regulation, the Nobel Prize jury said "he was one of the most influential economists of our time".
 
The jury argued that Tirole's work has provided a framework for designing policies for a number of industries, ranging from telecommunications to banking that could help governments manage mergers or cartels and regulate monopolies, the bank said.
 
The citation comes amid growing controversy over the market power of such companies as Amazon and Google.
 
2. Leader in his field

While little known outside his field, Tirole has racked up an impressive body of work that includes some 200 articles in economics and finance and has given scores of distinguished lectures. Tirole has written 11 books, including on the theory of industrial organisation. He holds some seven honorary doctorates from universities around the world.

3. Studied in the US

After studying engineering and mathematics in Paris, Tirole moved to the US to complete a PhD at the renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he was a professor for eight years. 
 
4. Previous accolades
 
Aside from a multitude of academic distinctions, Tirole in 2007 won the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) Gold Medal, awarded to those who have made an exceptional contribution to the innovation and influence of French research.
 
He also in 1993 won the Yrjo Jahnsson prize of the European Economic Association, for economists who have made a significant contribution in theoretical and applied research.
 
In 2010, Tirole won two prizes, the Claude Levi-Strauss Prize for his significant contributions to the social sciences and the CME Group's Mathematical Sciences Research Institute Prize in Innovation Quantitative Applications.
 
5. Breaks US dominance of Nobel prize
 
Some 18 out of the last 20 winners of the Nobel Economics Prize have been from the US. Tirole laments this fact but understands why America has dominated the award in recent years. Earlier this month, he said the dominance of the United States in the category showed they had "invested heavily to attract the best economists. I greatly regret this, but at the same time, I cannot cry foul."
 
6. Third Frenchman to win Economics Prize:
 
Tirole follows in the footsteps of two French economists:
 
Gerard Debreu: He won in 1983 in the midst of a career spent in the United States for the most part. His work focused on proving the existence of general economic balance in a market economy.
 
He won the Nobel Prize "for having incorporated new analytical methods into economic theory and for his rigorous reformulation of the theory of general equilibrium," according to the Swedish central bank (Sveriges Riksbank).
   
Maurice Allais: He won in 1988 "for his pioneering contributions to the theory of markets and efficient utilization of resources," according to the Sveriges Riksbank.
 
Allais favoured market-based exchanges within a group of countries that had generally equivalent economies and could form a free-trade zone, but was protectionist with respect to trade between countries with very different economies.
   
 
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