NOTES from the UNDERGROUND No. 201 | October 7, 2009
To take a full measure of a writer’s life, work, character, I relish the possibility and surprise of looking beyond the book, the style, the body of work he or she is most noted for.
Yes, Faulkner IS Sanctuary, The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying… (Hemingway IS The Sun Also Rises, The Old Man and the Sea; Tolstoy IS War and Peace, etc.) but could there be something else that might prove revealing?
I see within most serious writers both ‘the dancer’ and ‘the walker”–or the pedestrian. The dancer, in Faulkner’s case, is exemplified in the passage I quoted from his story “The Bear” in the previous entry (#200), Part I.
The dancer is where the art lies, where discovery lives, where everything comes together, words and ideas in a swirl…there is form, rhythm, movement…there is meaning and beauty and immense satisfaction. It’s the magic act, right before the writer’s eyes. He can hardly believe his own words—coming from where? He is in that zone again, where time has no meaning, the day disappears.
The ‘walker’ is more careful, deliberate, perhaps a little unsure of his steps … casting an eye before, around, glimpsing back at times. Leisurely. He checks his watch. Moves in a straight line. Time may be of the essence, but there is no hurry. He’s fairly certain where he is headed, that he will accomplish what he set out to do. He slows to examine a plant, stops to turn over stone, pick up a stick, check a bird in a tree…all the while proceeding toward his destination, almost within sight. Just ahead.
Here’s Faulkner, in that ‘pedestrian’ mode. Faulkner on Camus… Hemingway…Melville.
Great stuff. Insightful.
CAMUS said that the only true function of man, born into an absurd world, is to live, be aware of one’s life, one’s revolt, one’s freedom. He said that if the only solution to the human dilemma is death, then we are on the wrong road. The right track is the one that leads to life, to the sunlight. One cannot unceasingly suffer from the cold.
So he did revolt. He did refuse to suffer from the unceasing cold. He did refuse to follow a track which led only to death. The track he followed was the only possible one which could not lead only to death. The track he followed led into the sunlight in being that one devoted to making with our frail powers and our absurd material, something which had not existed in life until we made it.
He said, ‘I do not like to believe that death opens upon another life. To me, it is a door that shuts.’ That is, he tried to believe that. But he failed. Despite himself, as all artists are, he spent that life searching himself and demanding of himself answers which only God could know; when he became the Nobel laureate of his year, I wired him ‘On salut l’ame qui constamment se cherche et se demande’; why did he not quit then, if he did not want to believe in God?
At the very instant he struck the tree, he was still searching and demanding of himself; I do not believe that in that bright instant he found them. I do not believe they are to be found. I believe they are only to be searched for, constantly, always by some fragile member of the human absurdity. Of which there are never many, but always somewhere at least one, and one will always be enough.
People will say He was too young; he did not have time to finish. But it is not How long, it is not How much; it is, simply What. When the door shut for him, he had already written on this side of it that which every artist who also carries through life with him that one same foreknowledge and hatred of death, is hoping to do: I was here. He was doing that, and perhaps in that bright second he even knew he had succeeded. What more could he want?
[from: ESSAYS SPEECHES & PUBIC LETTERS by William Faulkner, edited by James B. Meriwether, Random House, 1965. Originally published in Transatlantic Review, Spring 1961; the text printed here has been taken from Faulkner's typescript.]
The Old Man and the Sea
BY ERNEST HEMINGWAY
His BEST. Time may show it to be the best single piece of any of us, I mean his and my contemporaries. This time, he discovered God, a Creator. Until now, his men and women had made themselves, shaped themselves out of their own clay; their victories and defeats were at the hands of each other, just to prove to themselves or one another how tough they could be. But this time, he wrote about pity: about something somewhere that made them all: the old man who had to catch the fish and then lose it, the fish that had to be caught and then lost, the sharks which had to rob the old man of his fish; made them all and loved them all and pitied them all. It’s all right. Praise God that whatever made and loves and pities Hemingway and me kept him from touching it any further.
[from: ESSAYS, SPEECHES & PUBLIC LETTERS…Originally published in Shenandoah, III (Autumn 1952)]
TO THE BOOK EDITOR OF THE Chicago Tribune*
It is a difficult question. I can name offhand several books which I should like to have written, if only for the privilege of rewriting parts of them. But I dare say there are any number of angels in heaven today (particularly recent American arrivals) who look down upon the world and muse with a little regret on how much neater they would have done the job than the Lord, in the fine heat of His creative fury, did.
I think that the book which I put down with the unqualified thought “I wish I had written that” is Moby Dick. The Greek-like simplicity of it: a man of forceful character driven by his sombre nature and his bleak heritage, bent on his own destruction and dragging his immediate world down with him with a despotic and utter disregard of them as individuals; the fine point to which the various natures caught (and passive as though with a foreknowledge of unalterable doom) in the fatality of his blind course are swept—a sort of Golgotha of the heart become immutable as bronze in the sonority of its plunging ruin; all against the grave and tragic rhythm of the earth in its most timeless phase: the sea. And the symbol of their doom: a White Whale. There’s a death for a man, now; none of your patient pasturage for little grazing beasts you can’t even see with the naked eye. There’s magic in the very word. A White Whale. White is a grand word, like a crash of massed trumpets; and leviathan himself has a kind of placid blundering majesty in his name. And then put them together!!! A death for Achilles, and the divine maidens of Patmos to mourn him, to harp white-handed sorrow on their golden hair.
And yet, when I remember Moll Flanders and all her teeming and rich fecundity like a market-place where all that had survived up to that time must bide and pass; or when I recall When We Were Very Young, I can wish without any effort at all that I had thought of that before Mr. Milne did.
* Faulkner was one of a number of authors asked what book they would most like to have written.
[from: ESSAYS, SPEECHES & PUBLIC LETTERS…Originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune, July 16,1927]
- William Faulkner on the Web site maintained by the University of Mississippi
- Teaching Faulkner site maintained by the Center for Faulkner Studies at Southeast Missouri State University
- The Faulkner Journal site maintained by the University of Central Florida
- William Faulkner at the Mississippi Writers Page
- The Paris Review Interview (1956)
- Nobel Prize in Literature Acceptance Speech (text and audio)
- (Audio) William Faulkner reads the 1949 Nobel Prize acceptance speech and excerpts from As I Lay Dying, The Old Man and A Fable.
- William Faulkner biography, quotes, multimedia, & teacher resources