While perusing the internet (when, really, I should have been doing other things, like working), I came across William Faulkner‘s Nobel Prize acceptance speech. Now, I’m quite abashed and abased to say I only know of the literary giant that is William Faulkner through word-of-mouth and second hand articles I read about him; I’ve never read any of his works, an unforgivable sin on my part (hyperbole intended), since the subjects he tackles might be something I can identify with, being a Southern and all, and since his prose is supposed to be the stuff of legends, long and winding, unlike Hemingway’s terse prose. Apparently, in Hemingway’s case, being a suicidal alcoholic makes you write in journalese, something I’ll be sure to remember if and when I ever start writing. Hell, while I’m being honest, perhaps, maybe it bit too honest, I may as well confess to not having read James Joyce either: stream of consciousness writing, the idea of reading Ulysses, makes me apprehensive and self-conscious, makes me feel stupid, because I feel I won’t ever know what’s going on in the story – maybe that’s the point. Yet again, pouring out my ignorance and ignominies to the world, as if WordPress, the blogosphere, Twitter, and Facebook are now the new confessors of our generation, similar to those celibate confessors I frequented as a Catholic. I must now do Penance, which includes reading two Faulkner novels.
Just kidding. Loosen up.
Anyway, sarcasm aside, his speech moved me, and I think it, along with a cathartic conservation I had with a good friend of mine, provided an appropriate anodyne for my growing pessimism and cynicism. Some Muslim theologians say iman, usually translated as “faith,” undulates, waxes and wanes, like the phases of the moon. Others say it’s not iman but rather taqwa, one’s piety or God-consciousness, which behaves in this manner. Whatever the case maybe, and only God knows best as to what that is, there’s no question that standing in the shadows of giants – the Prophets, philosophers, playwrights, polemicists, poets, and poetesses – can provide a shady bastion for a weary soul traveling in the desolate deserts of life and being. We all need to go visit these physicians of the soul once in a while, just as we should visit our regular physicians. Mammoths of knowledge and wisdom from days once pasted administer remedies with their words, sometimes bitter in taste, in order to heal our sick selves. “I decline to accept the end of man,” said Faulkner, who was a shy man I’ve read. “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.”
After reading his speech, I’ll be more keen on adding some Faulkner to my ever growing, never-ending To Read list as “Spinach Reading,” insha’Allah. Below is the speech transcribed in its entirety. Revel in its eloquence and its courage to hope, for so few orators I’ve chanced upon in my short life can garner the power of words as this.
Ladies and Gentleman,
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 some day 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 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.
And speaking of poetesses, check this out! Nothing makes this Black man weak in the knees like a beautiful sister with mad flow! Props to all my sistas who got mad flow! Making a Black brotha turn green with envy…