As I was reading about the Nobel award ceremony, I followed a link supplied by a blogger (James Fallows of the Atlantic Monthly…I read several of the Atlantic’s bloggers, Fallows less often than I should) to what he claimed was the only memorable speech in Nobel laureate history.
He may be right, though it wasn’t famous enough for me to recognize it—it’s William Faulkner’s speech from 1949, and it’s extraordinary. It’s incredibly brief, but that’s no bad thing: it has the pacing and rhetorical style to make it very memorable, a sort of “Gettysburg Address” about the power of literature. If you’ve never read it, I’d encourage you to; the Nobel committee makes the text (and an audio file) available to you here.
The speech begins with the following sentence:
“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.”
If that doesn’t make you want to read the whole speech, I don’t know what could. I’ve never in my life wanted to read Faulkner, based on everything I ever heard about him (he always sounded like a pretentious snob who wrote intentionally obscure novels to bedevil literature majors into thinking themselves erudite for studying them….you know, someone like James Joyce). And now I can’t wait to read whatever Faulkner novel won the Pulitzer….and might just cheat and read something else by him before I get to his Pulitzer novel. “To create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before.” Not bad words to live by; maybe suitable words to die in service to. My thanks to James Fallows, and to William Faulkner, for that shot of inspiration today.