As prizes go, the Nobel has long been accepted as one of our civilisation’s highest seals of merit. Among the great writers to have received the Nobel Prize for literature – including J.M. Coetzee, Ernest Hemingway, Alice Munro and Seamus Heaney – stands one of the all time masters of the written word: William Faulkner.
Exactly 20 years after he wrote The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1949 – and what is remarkable here is not so much that a great writer was recognized for his creative skill and genius, as well as his contribution to our culture and society; but that his acceptance speech remains a pinnacle of articulate thought and literary conviction.
Long before acceptance speeches became synonymous with the glitz and glamour of modern award spectacles – of teary-eyed celebrities reeling off a list of thank yous to a crowd filled with other celebrities teary-eyed themselves at not having the chance to read off their own list of thank yous, Faulkner seems to make his speech an art in itself. Despite the poor sound quality of the recording, his thoughts remain remarkably timely in the context of our day. The transcript, found in the ceaselessly inspiring Nobel Lectures: Literature 1901–1967 (public library), follows.
“Ladies and gentlemen,
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.”
At this point, Faulkner adjusts the tone of his speech slightly, and reflects on how toxic it is to write from a place of fear; rather than a place of hope for the human heart. While the literary titan was writing just as the Nuclear age was dawning, and dystopian thoughts of nuclear holocaust were reaching their zenith, Faulkner’s words surely seem applicable to us today – gripped as we are by news of faltering diplomatic relations across the world, as acts of terror are committed, and our media spreads fear and anxiety.
“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.”