Positivity 3: William Faulkner

My apologies for the 30 days not necessarily being calendar days. Time spent helping a friend move and celebrating mothers got in the way of a new post. In any case, I assure you I haven’t stopped being positive.

When I was 21, I took a class on Hemingway and Faulkner under the phenomenal Mr. Walker Rutledge up on the green hills of WKU. I had read Hemingway before, and knew I liked his work– sparse, athletic, muscular writing that was easy to dip into. Faulkner, well, he was some Southern weirdo who wrote bizarre short stories.

Over the course of the semester, Mr. Rutledge, as he has a profound gift for doing, brought Faulkner first out into our world, and us then into his. We traveled to Oxford, visiting the venerable square, with the watchful eye of its old Rebel soldier, and its statue of Mr. Faulkner, looking out enigmatically across the square as if to wonder how John Grisham would become Oxford’s best selling writer. We ate catfish and later enjoyed the hospitality of the venerable Dr. Noyes, who told us tales from the days when James Meredith struggled valiantly to integrate the University of Mississippi.We traveled to Faulkner’s home, Rowan Oak, where at outline of one novel is written on a study wall, and his telephone cabinet features the numbers of various family and friends, similarly inscribed in pencil on the wall itself.

Somewhere in there, I realized that Faulkner was crazy like a religious prophet. He spoke in shadowy rambling phrases, because the mind works in such turns. He wrote about people and places that were more real than the truth itself. I started to stretch out my own phrases into sentences and sentences into paragraphs. William Faulkner was a man whose words reached to the heart of the human soul, and what he brought back, while sometimes lacking in literal sense, stands alone.

Why?

I’ll let him speak for himself.

(paste portion of 1949 Nobel Prize acceptance speech)

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.

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.

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.

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