April 14, 2018
As female head of Swedish Academy takes the fall for a scandal-hit man, the institution is left in ruins
Scandal in Sweden: Nobel prize for literature faces #MeToo moment
What, exactly, is the Swedish Academy? Or rather – what was it?
Until 12 April, the academy, which chooses the winners of the Nobel prize for literature, was a royal academy founded in 1786 by the so-called “theatre king”, Gustav III.
But after its head, the permanent secretary Sara Danius, was ousted that day, and with only 11 of its 18 members left, the institution has nearly ceased to exist, brought down by allegations of sexual abuse, in-fighting and subterfuge. It is almost Shakespearean.
An editorial in Dagens Nyheter, the biggest-selling Swedish daily paper, compared the tragedy in the country’s most prestigious cultural organ with the final scenes of Hamlet. Unscrupulous duels with poisonous swords, poison-smeared goblets, everyone dies. Perhaps Fortinbras will march on stage – disguised as the current Swedish king, Carl XVI Gustaf – to deliver the final lines that look to a hopeful future. What has happened in the normally peaceful kingdom of Sweden?
It started with a number of women who came forward to a Dagens Nyheter reporter, Matilda Gustavsson, last November. They spoke of harassment and sexual abuse, allegedly committed by Jean-Claude Arnault, the husband of academy member Katarina Frostenson. In some cases, the abuse was said to have taken place in apartments belonging to the academy. Arnault’s strategy, the women claimed, had been to use his close relationship with the institution, which also funded a club called the Forum that he co-owns with Frostenson. He denies all the allegations.
Dagens Nyheter’s coverage shook Sweden’s cultural world. State prosecutors opened an investigation, and they say that, while some allegations are not being considered because of Sweden’s statute of limitations or lack of evidence, the investigation is ongoing. The academy hired a law firm to investigate its links to Arnault (who is referred to as “the cultural profile” in Swedish media).
The maelstrom has hurt not only the Swedish Academy, but also the only thing that really gives the organisation its glory: the Nobel prize for literature.
The academy’s investigators reportedly said that “the cultural profile” had leaked the names of seven prize-winners – something Arnault’s lawyers have denied. In a blunt statement, the Swedish Nobel Foundation wiped away any remaining confidence in the academy, saying it had been “seriously damaged” and raising concerns that the prize’s reputation may be tarnished.
The law firm’s investigation also allegedly recommended that the Swedish Academy should file a police report to allow the authorities to investigate suspicions of financial irregularities, but the institution has reportedly refused to do so, revealing splits within the committee.
Danius announced she was leaving, following several members who had already gone. A remaining academician called some of them “sore losers”.
Members of the Swedish Academy were once referred to as “the 18 best and brightest” – mirroring the popular belief that they represented the highest standards among poets, writers and intellectuals. Today, there are only 11 left and public support for Danius is huge, while confidence in the remaining members is at rock bottom. It seems a dark and cruel irony that a man has been accused of sexual misconduct, but a woman has taken the fall.
What now? Ironically, the only remaining hope seems to be that the Swedish king will enter the stage like a deus ex machina. He has already made his intentions clear: to change the academy’s statutes so that members can resign properly if they wish to do so. At the moment, the only possible ways out are exclusion or death.
Such a change would been seen as severe punishment. The academy’s lifelong membership has enabled some to maintain a mythologised self-image. They have been able to say and do anything without repercussion. If the king removes their status, the magic surrounding the demi-gods of Parnassus would disappear and they would be transformed into the flawed and mortal members of a dull committee.
What happened on 12 April is of historic importance. The origin of this collapse is the women’s allegations of sexual misconduct, with echoes of the New York Times revelations about Harvey Weinstein which launched the #MeToo movement. Their allegations have brought one of the world’s most renowned cultural institutions to ruin.
The disenchantment, today, is total.
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