The Nobel lecture Art, truth and politics
This is the text of the lecture to be given by Harold Pinter when he
receives the 2005 Nobel prize for literature on Saturday. Forbidden by
doctors from going to Stockholm to receive the £720,000 prize,
the ailing playwright and poet has delivered his speech by video
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
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 'Dark.'
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 matter.
'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 ends.
'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 any time.
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 function.
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 of subjugation.
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 true.
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 here.
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 verified.
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 liked.
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 activity.'
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
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 said.
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
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 popular revolution.
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 Salvador.
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
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 forgiven.
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
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 Britain.
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 residents. 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
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 East'.
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 on television.
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 streets
without fuss, like children's blood.
Jackals that the jackals would despise
stones that the dry thistle would bite on and spit out,
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 of civilians.
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
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 forget it.'
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 'Death'.
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 journey?
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 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.
* 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.
© The Nobel Foundation 2005