In the long history of the Nobel Prize there have been 2 refusals from its chosen recipients. Refusals potentially carry as much if not more weight than that of the prize itself. To take a stand against such an established cultural institution promotes the award recipient’s ideas, beliefs and cultural, social, and political affiliations to a wider audience without diluting them in the melee of the award itself.
In 1964 the philosopher, writer, and social commentator Jean-Paul Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He declined the prize having consistently refused all other official honours. As one of France’s most forthright proponents of existentialism and Marxism, and based on his previous views regarding accolades, Sartre’s refusal was to be expected.
He is alleged to have stated that he did not wish to be “transformed”, a reflection of the capacity of such high and socially sanctioned levels of approval to change one’s intellectual and emotional trajectory. Neither did he wish to lend his intellectual stature to the East/West struggles of the day by appearing to take sides with such a prominent Western establishment.
Le Duc Tho was to be the joint recipient of the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize, alongside the then US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, for their joint efforts in negotiating the Paris Peace Treaty to end the Vietnam War. Tho was one of the founders of the Indochinese Communist Party, which was set up in 1930. He was imprisoned by the French on 2 occasions for his political beliefs, was a member of the Politburo of the Vietnam Workers’ Party, and one of the leaders of the Viet Cong, a large group of Communist fighters. Tho very evidently saw politics interwoven throughout his life and did not segregate himself from it.
He refused the Nobel Peace Prize on the grounds that his ‘fellow laureate’ had violated the grounds of the treaty and accordingly termed Kissinger the “destroyer of Vietnam”.
Unsurprisingly it was Tho and Sartre’s world views, philosophies and politics which propelled them to reject the notion of receiving their Nobel Prizes. The money was no longer an issue for them. The acclaim that they might have derived from the Prize was available to them simply through the act of being offered their respective Prizes, and the amount of energy and interest that they were both able to generate as a result of refusing was potentially beyond anything they could have achieved by accepting it. The power of the Nobel Prizes resides not just in the Prize fund capital, which can be used to charitable, social or individual effect, but in the very core of their institutional and organisational systems. It was just such systems which, in their different ways, both Tho and Sartre sought to undermine. In this regard, their rejection of their Prizes did just that.