[Just a note to my faithful readers: this is my 100th post to this blog since I started writing weekly. When I have been tempted to walk away, you have kept me here. Thank you so much!]
Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature this year. For whatever reason, he decided not to attend the award ceremony. His choices are his own and not mine to judge.
Oddly enough, I came upon this week another American’s acceptance speech for that award. Written in 1950, William Faulkner had originally said he would not be traveling to Stockholm for the ceremony either. “It was, he said, “too far from his home in Oxford, Mississippi: ‘I am a farmer down here and I can’t get away.’” At some point, however, he changed his mind and showed up but only after “a drinking binge whose effects were compounded by a high fever and the grippe.”
I read Faulkner’s remarks which were reportedly difficult to understand when delivered due to his alcohol and fever. I also read Dylan’s remarks for this year which were delivered in his absence. As much as those of us living today may have enjoyed Dylan’s music over the years, the written statement would have fallen far short of a Nobel Prize itself. Faulkner is a different story.
However drunk and feverish he might have been, however much he did not want to make that trip to Stockholm, Faulkner, in his consideration of the transcending nature of the award itself, rose above his own fallen disposition and considered the audience, both in the short- and long-term, of the words he would share that day, December 10, 1950. He put his speech into the context of a world intimidated by nuclear power and its ramifications. He spoke of fear.
It wasn’t as simple and concise a statement as “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” (Franklin D. Roosevelt in his first inaugural address in 1933), a declaration that current-day speech writers would salivate to compose for the benefit of news clips and sound bites. But what Faulkner wrote and delivered in some fashion or another in person was only five paragraphs in length and with a depth of understanding that, perhaps, writers, artists, and humanitarians, might best understand.
He spoke of the “physical fear” the world was facing. “When will I be blown up?” he queried on behalf of everyone. But he followed that with a short treatise on the problem of fear conflicting with not only good writing (the reason he was in Stockholm that day), but with all human compassion. When we fear so much and so greatly, we cannot put our own needs aside to look into the hearts and souls of other humans whether they are of a fictional nature or non-fiction.
As these end-of-the-year summaries go, there are folks reflecting through social media about the fears they hold for 2017. Interestingly, I haven’t seen anyone say, “I was afraid in 2016, but I managed to get through it.”
No, once we put fear behind us, once we live through our fears, they are no longer foreboding. We already know how 2016 turned out. Those of us who lived through it may be anxious to move on and away from this year.
But it’s what we don’t know that we fear. A young woman wrote on Facebook just this morning, “If only I wasn’t so afraid of 2017.” She didn’t say what she feared. Perhaps it was political. Perhaps it was a health issue or money or family concerns. “If only…,” she said. “If only.”
In his drunken stupor (was Faulkner coping with his own fears through alcohol?), the distinguished author managed to share in 1950 and now at the end of 2016 his belief that “the basest of all things is to be afraid; leaving no room . . . 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 compassion and sacrifice.”
These necessary deeper and newer understandings of the human spirit are not limited to poets and writers. They are demanded of human beings who dwell in the houses of power throughout the world, the streets and the slums of First and Third-World countries, the meat-packer, the farmer, the theologian, the accountant, the scientist, and the mathematician.The problem is that most of us have not practiced coming to terms with our fears whether they are real or not. We leave the articulated terrors to people like Faulkner and, yes, Bob Dylan. We fear sharing with others that we are fearful. We fear that we will be seen as weak and frail and vulnerable. We don’t want people to know us as we are.
So we leave it to others, whether they are writers or presidents to acknowledge on our behalf those things, those philosophies, those unknown people who make us fearful because we have not yet experienced them enough to put the fear behind us.
What Faulkner was telling us, I believe, is simply that fear is paralyzing. It banishes the best of our selves to the depths of our consciousness. Fear centers our thoughts on our own and prevents us from seeing the good in others and in other ways of thinking.
“It is [the writer’s] privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity,” Faulkner said that day.
That privilege, however, is not limited to writers. It is one bestowed upon us all by our Creator. We become courageous by lifting others so that they too might be courageous. We become honorable, hopeful, proud, compassionate, and kind by helping those known and unknown to us realize the beauty of honor, hope, pride, compassion, and kindness. We work through our fears by coming to grips with them and stepping out despite them.
None of us knows what 2017 holds for us. There will be good and there will be bad. But as Faulkner observed, we “can be one of the props to help [people] endure and prevail.”
5 The coastlands have seen and are afraid,
the ends of the earth tremble;
they have drawn near and come.
6 Each one helps the other,
saying to one another, “Take courage!”
7 The artisan encourages the goldsmith,
and the one who smooths with the hammer encourages the one who strikes the anvil,
saying of the soldering, “It is good”;
and they fasten it with nails so that it cannot be moved.
8 But you, Israel, my servant,
Jacob, whom I have chosen,
the offspring of Abraham, my friend;
10 do not fear, for I am with you,
do not be afraid, for I am your God;
I will strengthen you, I will help you,
I will uphold you with my victorious right hand. – Isaiah 41:5-8, 10
 Stephen E. Lucas & Martin J. Medhurst, Words of a Century, The Top 100 American Speeches, 1900-1999, “William Faulkner,” Oxford Press, 2009, p. 298
 All subsequent quotes from Faulkner in this piece come from the Lucas/Medhurst source previously cited.Share here: