Category Archives: Literature

Summary of Faulkner’s Nobel Prize Speech

William Faulkner’s speech at the Nobel Banquet at the City Hall in Stockholm, December 10, 1950 * (My brief summary followed by the transcript of the speech.)

Faulkner’s Main Ideas– Good writers want to create something new, but this is difficult. And existential threats (especially the possibility of nuclear war) make the writer’s job—to uncover the secrets of the human heart—even harder. Yet writers must put aside their fear, and remember good things like love and compassion and sacrifice. If they forget the good, they write of despair and of the impending doom of our species. But Faulkner believes that we will survive and prosper. So the role of the writer is to inspire humanity by reminding them of what we are capable of. In this way the writer helps us to “endure and prevail.”

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 someday 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.

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From Nobel Lectures, Literature 1901-1967, Editor Horst Frenz, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1969

* The speech was apparently revised by the author for publication in The Faulkner Reader.These minor changes, all of which improve the address stylistically have been incorporated here.

 

Summary of Tolstoy’s, The Death of Ivan Ilyich

Leo Tolstoy’s short novel, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, provides a great introduction to connection between death and the meaning of life. It tells the story of a forty-five year old lawyer who is self-interested, opportunistic, and busy with mundane affairs. He has never considered his own death until disease strikes. Now, as he confronts his mortality, he wonders what his life has meant, whether he has made the right choices, and what will become of him. For the first time he is becoming … conscious.

The novel begins a few moments after Ivan’s death, as family members and acquaintances have gathered to mark his passing. These people don’t understand death, because they cannot really comprehend their own deaths. For them death is something objective which is not happening to them. They see death as Ivan did all his life, as an objective event rather than a subjective existential experience. “Well isn’t that something—he’s dead, but I’m not, was what each of them thought or felt.”[i] They only praise God that they are not dying, and immediately consider how his death might be to their advantage in terms of money or position.

The novel then takes us back thirty years to the prime of Ivan’s life. He lives a life of mediocrity, studies law, and becomes a judge. Along the way he expels all personal emotions from his life, doing his work objectively and coldly. He is a strict disciplinarian and father figure, the quintessential Russian head of the household. Jealous and obsessed with social status, he is happy to get a job in the city where he buys and decorates a large house. While decorating he falls and hits his side, an accident that will facilitate the illness that eventually kills him. He becomes bad-tempered and bitter, refusing to come to terms with his own death. As his illness progresses a peasant named Gerasim stays by his bedside, becoming his friend and confidant.

Only Gerasim shows sympathy for Ivan’s torment—offering him kindness and honesty—while his family thinks that Ivan is a bitter old man. Through his friendship with Gerasim Ivan begins to look at his life anew, realizing that the more successful he became, the less happy he was. He wonders whether he has done the right thing, and comprehends that by living as others expected him to, he may not have lived as he should. His reflection brings agony. He cannot escape the belief that the kind of man he became was not the kind of man he should have been. He is finally experiencing the existential phenomenon of death.

Gradually he becomes more contented and begins to feel sorry for those around him, realizing that they are too involved in the life he is leaving to understand that it is artificial and ephemeral. He dies in a moment of exquisite happiness. On his deathbed: “ It occurred to him that his scarcely perceptible attempts to struggle against what was considered good by the most highly placed people, those scarcely noticeable impulses which he had immediately suppressed, might have been the real thing, and all the rest false.”[ii]

Tolstoy’s story forces us to consider how painful it is to reflect on a life lived without meaning, and how the finality of death seals any possibility of future meaning. If, when we approach the end of our lives, we find that they were not meaningful—there will be nothing we can do to rectify the situation. What an awful realization that must be. It was as if Kierkegaard had Ilyich in mind when he said:

This is what is sad when one contemplates human life, that so many live out their lives in quiet lostness … they live, as it were, away from themselves and vanish like shadows. Their immoral souls are blown away, and they are not disquieted by the question of its immortality, because they are already disintegrated before they die.[iii]

Now consider an even more chilling question. What difference would it make even if a life had been meaningful? Wouldn’t death erase most, if not all, of its meaning anyway? Wouldn’t it be even more painful to leave a life of meaningful work and family? Perhaps we should live a meaningless life to reduce the pain we will feel when leaving it? But then that doesn’t seem right either.

Summary – Confronting the reality of death forces us to reflect on the meaning of life.

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[i] Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich (New York: Bantam Books, 1981), 37.
[ii] Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Chapter XI.
[iii] Soren Kierkegaard, “Balance between Esthetic and Ethical,” in Either/Or, vol. II, Walter Lowrie, trans., (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1944).

The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Alternative Lives

“There is no means of testing which decision is better, because there is no basis for comparison. We live everything as it comes, without warning, like an actor going on cold. And what can life be worth if the first rehearsal for life is life itself? That is why life is always like a sketch. No, “sketch” is not quite a word, because a sketch is an outline of something, the groundwork for a picture, whereas the sketch that is our life is a sketch for nothing, an outline with no picture.” ~ Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

One of the hardest things in life is dealing with thoughts of the alternative lives we could have lived. Our consciousness naturally considers such possibilities, and all too often our lived lives don’t compare favorably with our imagined lives.  And that’s why we should resist thinking about those now non-lived lives—it only causes us pain. Still, it is hard not to imagine how our lives could have been, and how we might have chosen better. Yet, like Stoics we must move on, reject regret, and be thankful for what we have. For our lives can still be the sketch of a picture of our own choosing.

George Orwell’s 1984

Books of My Youth

The first books I remember reading as a child were baseball biographies. Stories of baseball legends like Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and Stan Musial. I also have a fond memory of reading a book about the favorite baseball player of my youth titled: Ken Boyer: Guardian of the Hot Corner. (Why do such trivial things makes such impressions?) The first novel I remember reading was Across the Five Aprils by Irene Hunt. It was a short novel about the American civil war that I read when I was about ten years old. Amazingly, it is still on my bookshelf! In high school I read Charles Dicken’s Great Expectations Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry FinnErnest Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea, George Orwell’s Animal Farm, and many others.

In college I remember reading Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, and I was particularly moved by Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha.
No doubt the memory of reading many other books has long since evaporated from my mind, and there are thousands of wonderful books that I’ve never read.

The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power, pure power. … Power is not a means; it is an end … The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. ~ George Orwell 1984

But the novel that influenced me the most was George Orwell’s masterpiece, 1984. ( It was the Boston Public Library’s choice as the most influential book of the twentieth-century.) It is the most personally transformative novel that I’ve ever read. No one who reads and understands the book remains the same. Orwell removes a curtain that hides reality behind it—a reality so different from its portrayal by the voices and images that proceed daily in front of us and which mislead and control rather than inform, thereby making a mockery of truth. In Orwell’s world The Ministry of Truth lies; The Ministry of Peace wages war; The Ministry of Love tortures. In our own society, politicians lie with impunity; the Department of Defense wages war, and the CIA and penal system torture. We live in an authoritarian and nationalistic right-wing system of government—a near fascist state.

It is as if Orwell allows us to peer past Kant’s phenomenal world to the neumonal world—to the way things really are. To a social and political reality so bleak and barren that even love cannot thrive. In the end, the novel’s protagonists, Winston and Julia, betray each other because, contrary to what I’ve written in previous posts, love is not stronger than death, at least it is very hard for it to be in this world. (It is hard to love in a society which pits each person against others.) Here is Winston and Julia’s conversation after both have been emptied of their most noble inclination—the inclination to love another.

“I betrayed you,” she said baldly.

“I betrayed you,” he said.

She gave him another quick look of dislike.

“Sometimes,” she said, “they threaten you with something—something you can’t stand up to, can’t even think about. And then you say, ‘Don’t do it to me, do it to somebody else, do it to so-and-so.’ And perhaps you might pretend, afterwards, that it was only a trick and that you just said it to make them stop and didn’t really mean it. But that isn’t true. At the time when it happens you do mean it. You think there’s no other way of saving yourself and you’re quite ready to save yourself that way. You want it to happen to the other person. You don’t give a damn what they suffer. All you care about is yourself.”

“All you care about is yourself,” he echoed.

“And after that, you don’t feel the same toward the other person any longer.”

“No,” he said, “you don’t feel the same.”

If Orwell is right, life is bleaker than we usually let ourselves imagine. If Orwell is right, life may be even bleaker than we can imagine. Power and the lust for it largely remove the beauty and love from the world. Orwell taught me how the world really is. Let’s hope that is not how it has to be.

The Meaning of The Unbearable Lightness of Being


Should we take life seriously or not? Should we think of it as heavy or light? Perhaps we shouldn’t take it too seriously, enjoy the pleasures it affords, and reject all heavier philosophies of meaning. But is this solution satisfactory? This is the fundamental question posed Milan Kundera in his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being. (Kundera is a writer of Czech origin who has lived in exile in France since 1975, where he became a naturalized citizen. His books were banned by the Communists of Czechoslovakia until the downfall of the regime in the Velvet Revolution in 1989.)

Kundera begins his novel by pondering Nietzsche’s idea of eternal recurrence—the notion that everything that has already happened will recur ad infinitum. Although it is hardly Nietzsche’s interpretation, Kundera remarks: “Putting it negatively, the myth of eternal return states that a life which disappears once and for all, which does not return, is like a shadow, without weight, dead in advance, and whether it was horrible, beautiful, or sublime, its horror, sublimity, and beauty mean nothing.”[i]

For Kundera a life lived only once is light or unimportant; by contrast, if all recurred infinitely, a tremendous heaviness or significance would be imposed on our lives and choices. Kundera contrasts the heaviness and lightness of life as follows: “If the eternal return is the heaviest of burdens, then our lives can stand out against it in all their splendid lightness.”[ii] But is heaviness truly deplorable and lightness splendid? Kundera answers:

the heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground. But … the heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become. Conversely, the absolute absence of a burden causes a man to be lighter than air, to soar into the heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant.[iii]

The problem is that the light life is meaninglessness. If everything happens only once, it might as well not have happened at all. In response, all we can do is live for beauty and pleasure. Yet, we find the insignificance of our lives unbearable—the unbearable lightness of being. But if we act as if our actions eternally recur, then the heaviness of our actions and choices crushes us under their weight.

Despite these conundrums, the main characters in the novel who embrace the heaviness of life and love die happy, while those who live lightly suffer the unbearable lightness of being. This suggests that heaviness is better after all. Still, nothing is eternal for Kundera, and if there were eternal ramifications the followed from our choices, our lives would be too burdensome. Perhaps the fact that some of his characters find love is enough, but nothing matters ultimately. In the end nihilism is, for conscious beings, both true and unbearable. A heavy life crushes us; a light life is unbearable.

Reflection

Perhaps the best we can do is to consider life significant, but not too significant; light but not too light. Here is this idea in a simple form.

Nothing matters -> life is unbearable
Everything matters -> life is unbearable
Some things matter but most things don’t -> life is bearable and occasionally meaningful.

Wisdom is, in large part, differentiating what matters from what doesn’t.

Here, in the final scene from the movie, the protagonists Tomas and Tereza have finally found happiness. Perhaps they learned what was important—real but transitory love.

 

[i] Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 1999), 3.
[ii] Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, 5.
[iii] Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, 5.