Another aside—this time, about William Faulkner

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.


3 comments on “Another aside—this time, about William Faulkner

  1. Daniel Castro says:

    I have read “Go Down, Moses” “The Sound and the Fury” and “As I Lay Dying” and I liked them all. The latter two are of the obscure variety, but I think they make more and more sense the more you talk and think about them. For example, I think my brain expoloded a little bit when I read TSatF, but after I read it a second time, suddenly a LOT of things made sense early on in the novel that made less than 0 sense the first time I read it. I think as long as you read his novels with an eye looking towards the south, you can catch a lot of things. Mainly, it is importnat to go back and look at how the novel comes togother after you read it the first time, because then the world makes sense.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      You offer some good advice here, or at least it seems like good advice to me. It turns out the Pulitzer I’ll read of his is “A Fable”…no idea what it’s like, or whether or not it will be “obscure”. Your comments about this fit nicely, actually, with your comment about literature on another post, which I’ll respond to shortly. What you say about TSATF sounds very much to me like what I’ve always said about Moby Dick…I’ll have to read it (twice) someday.

  2. Bonnie Hood says:

    Makes me wish I liked The Sound and the Fury better. I hated it, actually!

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