“The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. It anguishes him so much he must get rid of it. He has no peace until then. Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.” — William Faulkner
Faulkner wasn’t fucking around.
It’s his birthday today.
While I haven’t written here about Faulkner’s books, I did write about the film adaptation of Faulkner’s 1940 story “Tomorrow”, starring pre-fame Robert Duvall (it was my Dad’s favorite Duvall performance. He referenced it to me before I had even seen it. Dad only saw it once, and it stuck in his mind all those years.)
Faulkner was a great interview. His Paris Review is fantastic and rich. A couple quotes:
“Writers have always drawn, and always will draw, upon the allegories of moral consciousness, for the reason that the allegories are matchless – the three men in Moby-Dick, who represent the trinity of conscience: knowing nothing, knowing but not caring, knowing and caring.”
On the writers and books he loves:
“The books I read are the ones I knew and loved when I was a young man and to which I return as you do to old friends: the Old Testament, Dickens, Conrad, Cervantes, Don Quixote – I read that every year, as some do the Bible. Flaubert, Balzac – he created an intact world of his own, a bloodstream running through twenty books – Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Shakespeare. I read Melville occasionally and, of the poets, Marlowe, Campion, Jonson, Herrick, Donne, Keats, and Shelley. I still read Housman. I’ve read these books so often that I don’t always begin at page one and read on to the end. I just read one scene, or about one character, just as you’d meet and talk to a friend for a few minutes.”
On Ulysses (Faulkner’s first-response is one of my favorite quotes about the book):
You should approach Joyce’s Ulysses as the illiterate Baptist preacher approaches the Old Testament: with faith.
And finally: Faulkner’s Nobel Prize speech. It’s a doozy. He bought his first dress suit for the ceremony. It was a big deal that he even showed, that he left Oxford, Mississippi at all. 1950. Important to consider the context. The bombs had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki just 5 years before. The horror of what was unleashed was fresh. Humanity faced extinction. Faulkner, one of the bleakest writers who ever lived, spoke about “the end of man” and where he stood on that urgent issue.
Stockholm, 10 December 1950
“The agony and the sweat”
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 someday stand here where I am standing.
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 honour and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labours 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 grive 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 simplyl because he will endure; that when the last ding-dong 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 endue: 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 honour 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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