Absalom, Absalom, American literary Canon, Atom Bombs, Civil War, Fall Out 4, KKK, Literature, Modernism, Nobel Prize, nuclear annihilation, Postmodernism, Reconstruction, The Catcher in the Rye, The Deep South, The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner, World War I, Writers, Writing
It may just be attributed to the region I find myself in, but it’s heartbreaking to discover how many of my fellow English majors admit that they do not like William Faulkner. It is just as heartbreaking discovering that William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, and Dante Aligheri are included in the list of authors that, in my compatriot’s words, just aren’t that interesting. Once I’ve gotten over the homicidal urge to implode their skulls with a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire and have managed to smile my widest shit-eating-grin that I can muster, I begin to make my case as best I can. At the core of all final, and let’s be honest, desperate defense my plea often amounts to the sentiment that studying literature is not just about the stories, it’s as much about the craft that goes into the words as their final meaning.
While I understand the animosity towards the other writer’s on the list (their language is perceived of as either outdated or full of itself but that’s only true for Hemingway) I don’t fully understand the animosity towards Faulkner. I understand, from a common reader’s perspective, that Faulkner is difficult as fucking fuck, there’s a scar that runs down the length of my chest that serves as a reminder that I’ve read Absalom, Absalom and survived, but that doesn’t mean that the man was farting around. Faulkner was a craftsman and the only masturbating he ever did with words were the screenplays he wrote while he was in Hollywood. In the man’s defense he needed money and we’ve all done things we’re not proud of behind the dumpster at a Red Lobster that one Sunday in 2010 to pay for a laptop that one time…ahem. Like Shakespeare, Faulkner recognized what writing could do, what it was for, and how it could benefit the rest of humanity while also using it to tell stories.
This is clear and apparent to anyone who has ever read or listened to his Nobel Prize acceptance speech.
The Nobel Prize is, for many people, still an indication that you’ve actually done something with your life unlike Dale who’s forty and still living at home. I know, we’re planning on talking to him about looking for work, but it’s his birthday next week and it feels like it would be a dick move to just kick him to the curb. We’ll get to it eventually. The fields of nomination, in case the reader is unfamiliar with the topics, are Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, Peace, Economics, and Literature, and for the record I believe it’s a bum rap for Historians that their work are left unrewarded. Anybody who’s willing to dig through parchment and use an actual Microfilm machine deserves a fucking gold medal in my opinion.
Faulkner worked his entire life exploring themes, attitudes, and the general atmosphere of the Deep South, a territory defined by its physical beauty and marred by the jarred and damaged psyche of the post-Civil War South, and in that time the man managed to accomplish things with prose that can only be imitated today. Twelve years before his death, December 10 1950, he received his Nobel Prize and began his speech accordingly:
Ladies and gentlemen,
I feel that this award was not made to me as a man, but to my work – a life’s work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit, not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before. So this award is only mine in trust. It will not be difficult to find a dedication for the money part of it commensurate with the purpose and significance of its origin. But I would like to do the same with the acclaim too, by using this moment as a pinnacle from which I might be listened to by the young men and women already dedicated to the same anguish and travail, among whom is already that one who will some day stand here where I am standing.
The reader who fancies themselves a writer in some form or fashion might take an opportunity to recognize a great introduction when they read it. Looking over this speech there seems a wonderful humbling character that Faulkner is able to pull off, yet at the same time he goes nowhere near the level of self-depreciation that is the stock image of writers. Instead he positions himself as a voice or a beacon summing young men and women who desire to become writers to him to understand or hear his words of experience.
Faulkner’s speech is not a preachy sermon, but rather he pushes forward, recognizing a larger issue at hand:
Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.
It’s easy to forget how imposing the threat of nuclear annihilation was for the people living in the 1950s, even if you play Fall Out 4 on a regular basis like I do and have found the Fat Boy, a weapon that literally shoots miniature nuclear bombs at the player’s enemies. The Mushroom cloud, that potent phallic burst of light, has faded into a soft glow or plot device that inspires only momentary awe before we remember that the main character is being voiced by Ryan Reynolds and that the boy at the counter overcharged for that second refill of popcorn. Nuclear annihilation infected the zeitgeist and consciousness of everyone who lived in the world following the end of the Second World War thus making it difficult to really recognize problems that didn’t involve the total and utter collapse of human existence. I find it difficult to hold it against the people of that time, the bomb was so new, so powerful, and the people in charge of wielding it were, at times, unpredictable or nightmarishly evil.
For those of us living in the twenty-first century, the bomb has lost much of its potency and so topics dealing with the heart, the self, and the spiritual power of the individual have been able to slowly but surely seep back into the literature being produced, but not as much as there could be.
There’s something missing in much of the work being produced, either for the larger public or for the small handful of literary weirdos and geniuses (I only fall into the first category) that are writing and publishing. Faulkner offers up his summation.
He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.
The word bones shall always an archetypal quality because it speaks to the root of ourselves. Looking at my own creative writing, and speaking to other creative writers close to me, I’ve expressed some concern that Faulkner’s summation here may be correct. Theendless scenes of cock and balls and dick and pussy haunt my pages as well as the pages of numerous authors even if they don’t use those words. With a few exceptions (McCarthy and Eugenides to name two) there are few contemporary authors that try to use writing to speak to that core space where lessons of destiny and greatness are sealed on the edifice of time…god I sound like a fucking AM radio, but the point stands: writing exists to understand the nature of human beings and dissolve the barriers that exist between peoples.
Well so what? My contester asks, Faulkner was a Modernist, one of those weirdos that draw dots against dots and call it art. What relevance does this speech possess to someone working as a mechanical engineer or a doctor?
The purpose, dear reader, has already been said. Writing can at times merge into esoteric malarkey and I have read some novels labeled as “genius” (*Cough, cough*Finnegan’s Wake*cough, cough)* that honestly would have been better served as sketches than actual “art works.” Faulkner is difficult, and anyone who has struggled through The Sound and the Fury has probably wondered why they should give three shits about a splintered family in Mississippi and holy crap I just figured out that’s what the novel was actually about. Faulkner was a Modernist that bordered on Postmodernity, and while the reader may not believe that’s terribly important I assure you it is. It will require a small history lesson though.
Following the end of the First World War many young men returning from battle were disillusioned about the previous beliefs and attitudes society held. Words like honor, religion, authority, and god didn’t seem to possess any kind of meaning after watching scores of their friends and acquaintances gunned down in No Man’s Land or suffering from the various gasses that were spilled over them. Putting it simply, when you watch your friend cough up his own lungs after breathing in mustard gas it’s a little hard to take a phrase like “the glory and honor of battle” seriously. As such the people that followed the war known as “the lost generation.” In the case of Faulkner this ideology is compounded by the fact that he lived and developed his craft in the Deep South. On one side note my father permanently sealed the impression of Faulkner on me when I was a young man by always lowering his voice and shuddering “the Deep South” with a mixture of disgust and pleasant glee. Following the end of the Civil War a period known as Reconstruction took place in America. When the Union armies had swept over the Confederacy they had a tendency to burn everything as they went. Even after the war was done Union soldiers occupied the southern states and Northern generals and commanders occupied positions of power in the local governments until, through the help of guerilla warfare and a fucked-up organization known as the KKK, “them damn Yankees were plum kicked out a the south.” Losing a war is different than winning one and before you say “fucking duh” it’s not for the reason you think. Ask anyone from Texas about the war and the sentiment you reach is generally “We didn’t lose, we just put the war on pause.” The Civil War left a scar on the hearts and minds of Southerners inspiring folk-songs, legends, narratives, terrible bumper stickers, but above all it lingering created pain.
At the start of this year I began my last semester of grad school taking two classes. One over the works of Emily Dickinson (127 poems, two chapters of a biography, and two chapters of an academic book… a week) and another on 20th Century American Literature. The professor, Dr. Karen Sloan, is a good friend of mine and when I saw the reading list I knew I had to take it because, apart from The Catcher in the Rye, was the novel Light in August. Like much of his work the novel follows the splintered and damaged people of a southern town trying to understand their hearts and minds that feel, often, broken. Faulkner’s work was about the South, but far more often it was about sealing on the bones of human consciousness that feeling of isolation and damage.
Faulkner as a writer tried only to capture that feeling and make sure humanity saw that work for what it was.
Until he relearns these things, he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man. I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking.
I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.
Looking at this last paragraph I find myself where I began, scratching my head and biting my tongue as I consider those people that tell me they despise Faulkner. I many ways, and I’m terrified to write this since many of them count as members of my audience, I despise them for it. The criticism of the man’s work is never in fact against his work, it’s never because they believe he has nothing to say as a writer, nor is it ever that they feel that his work is empty of meaning or creative direction. In the end the sentiment is: Faulkner is hard therefore not worth my time.
This speech should silence that sentiment, as well as my patient contester who keeps me going. Seriously bro[dette] we need to go out for drinks soon, it’s been too long. Faulkner’s Nobel Prize speech is a work that should be read to and by any and all people who wish to become writers because the job is more than just telling cute stories with fun characters. Writing is first and foremost the physical manifestation of thought, it’s the way we shape and refine our thoughts and even recognize what is lost, broken, beautiful, and damaged about our souls. Writers like Faulkner have inspired men like Cormac McCarthy who in turn inspired people like me to pick up a pen, or a word processor, and start typing hoping somebody, somewhere, would read my thoughts and recognize a kindred spirit, or in the very least some wacko with a blog who bitches about why people don’t like Faulkner.
The Poet’s, or really the writer’s voice, is ultimately the fire that attempts to fill the authoritarian darkness that attempts to stamp out our voice in the first place. Writer’s don’t and shouldn’t write for glory, but because they have a few more words to carve into the bones for the future ones to read and inspire.
To be fair to the reader I haven’t read the entirety of Finnegan’s wake. I’ve read the first few pages and found it a jumbled mess of jibberish and esoteric genius that, try as I may, I cannot find any ground to move forward into. I will defend Joyce as a writer only so far as Ulysses and Picture of the Artist as a Young Man, because even I admit that art should have some relevance to people actually living in society instead of their own mind.
**Writer’s Second Note**
Below I’ve posted a link to a transcript of the entire speech, though I’ve quoted it in it’s entirety in the essay, and I have also posted link to a recording of Faulkner reading the actual speech. A professor friend of mine always posts this whenever she teaches Faulkner and I never grow tired of hearing the man’s voice. It’s the Johnney Rep in me.
The recording, NOTE, this recording does NOT include the entire speech: