Department of Psychiatry, tape 1
DATE: 7 May 1958
OCCASION: Department of Psychiatry
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Moderator: [...] that there was a possibility of meeting with you, we thought it might be an opportunity for us to get together and talk about some of these [things].
William Faulkner: That's good. You'll find a complete amateur in me. I don't know whether you can find anything in me that would interest the people in your profession.
Moderator: Well, I think that—that—that we've decided maybe we're the amateurs in a great many respects. [audience laughter]
Unidentified participant: [Some of] your people that you select—of course, they're unusual people, in a way. Do you select the—them as unusual? Or [I guess there's] a type that seems to appeal to you?
William Faulkner: I doubt if—if I know whether I select these people or they select me. I think that the writer is—is trying to—to take some comic or tragic moment of man in his struggle inside the human condition and tell it in some form which other people would find comic or tragic. I—as far as I know, I am dealing simply with people in the—the condition that I have seen people. That these people, to me, seem quite sane and quite normal, even ones that—that are mad, seem to me quite sane people. Probably that's because the writer has already accepted the premise if the man believes he's Mahatma Gandhi, so when he lies on a board full of tacks, he's a rational creature.
Unidentified participant: By "mad" [do you mean] by society's [...]?
William Faulkner: Yes, sir. Yes, sir. The—the character in the book As I Lay Dying, Darl, one of the sons, was mad, as society would call him mad. To me, he wasn't—wasn't mad. Or, that is, I didn't set out to say, "Now, one of these brothers will have to be mad, so I will invent a good mad one according to what I do know of the rules of insanity." I was just writing about what was, to me, a—a pitiable, tragic human being.
Unidentified participant: And you haven't had much experience in state hospitals or anything [...]?
William Faulkner: None whatever. None whatever. I think you don't need to go to state hospitals to find people that society calls mad. [audience laughter]
Unidentified participant: There certainly seems to be a common denominator of interest. So often the psychiatrist is interested in much of the same area of human function that comes out in so-called madness or in the different individuals [who are crazed and things]. It seems to me a very definite similarity in at least perception, interest, on the part of the novelist and the psychiatrist, perhaps, in this vein.
William Faulkner: I should agree with you. Yes, sir.
Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, could you say a few words about what you might consider as irrational human behavior?
William Faulkner: No, I couldn't. I've never tried to set up what might be a pattern for me to measure irrational human behavior. To me, all human behavior is—is unpredictable, and considering man's frailty the—in the ramshackle universe he functions in, it's—it's all irrational. It couldn't be very rational because his universe is not a very rational one, it seems to me. I—I think that probably no writer would set himself up to judge. If he'd begun to judge the people he writes about, his—all the—the—whatever the gods are that lets him do something which is his cup of tea, he likes, might withdraw the gift. If he begins to—to preach or—or proselytize or—or pass judgment, that the fire might go out. Also, I think the—the writer is not really interested in—in bettering man's condition. He really doesn't care a damn about man's condition. He is interested in all man's behavior, with no judgment whatever. That it's—it's motion. It's life. The only alternative is—is nothingness, death. And so, to the writer, anything man does is fine because it's motion. If he were not doing that, he would be nothing. He'd be dead. Maybe the writer has no concept of morality at all, only an integrity to hold always to what he believes to be the—the facts and truth of human behavior, not moral standards at all. But that man in his books does what man will do, not what man should do, but what he will do, maybe what he can't help but do.
Unidentified participant: Is the writer's motivation then simply just a portrayal of that which most people see but perhaps don't take in?
William Faulkner: Did you say the writer? No, I think that his aim is—is maybe more specific. He simply wants to make something which wasn't here yesterday. There's not much that he can do. He can take only the—the old struggles of man within the human predicament, and by showing it slightly awry or with some faint new light from an individual perception, make something which was a little different from what was here before. That is, what—what the writer ahead of him did. There's nothing new he can write about. I think that's maybe the—the writer's denial of—of mortality, of death, that he's going to write on the wall, "Kilroy was here."
Unidentified participant: Theoretically, the psychiatrist also does not make judgments. He essentially takes man as he is, and life as it is, and tries to understand him. And yet [...] we think that we would be kidding ourselves if we [...] do nevertheless look at these things from our own perspective, and certainly when—when the idea comes in of trying to do anything about it, which the writer doesn't do and which we do actually do attempt to do as we attempt to better the situation, you've got to think in terms of bettering it to what aim or what goal, and those are essentially the goals that we, ourselves, will hold at the—at the present time or at any given time. Can a writer really avoid personal judgment or value systems or —?
William Faulkner: He can, as long as he is a writer. I think that—that a writer is a—a perfect case of split personality, that he is one thing while he is a writer, and he is something else while he's a—a—a denizen of—of the world. It may be that—that that's not—that he can't be rid of that split, that—that maybe he has a hope that what he does may improve man in the sense that it will give to man some instance of—of man's fine record, being fragile and frail and—and not his own boss by any manner of means, yet out of that he has managed somehow to endure, to have accomplished a few things which have lasted. Maybe, in that sense, the writer has got to work for man's betterment, even if he is not deliberately trying to. I think that, in a way, the—the psychiatrist is doing that too. That—I imagine a psychiatrist in—with one human being could learn about all he would need to know about what makes man do what he does, and he would stop then, and since he will devote his life to it, he must have some thought that somehow he will improve, in the end, man's condition.
Unidentified participant: What is your idea of what makes man do what he does?
William Faulkner: I think that man is trying to do what he does because he wants to, that he himself does not always know why he wants to, but it—it makes him feel good. It makes his glands function right. People do foolhardy, reckless, dangerous things because it makes the glands flow good, makes them feel good. I think that man is—is not a gambler just to get a lot of money, that he gets some pleasure. His system works good when he is engaged in taking chance for money or using his skill to gain money. The money is just a symbol of it. I think he would be a gambler if he were—had to gamble for matches. I would say that man does what he does because he wants to.
Wilson: You don't have a—any idea of the subconscious, something going on underneath the surface?
William Faulkner: No, sir, I don't. Only what I have—have learned about it from listening to people that do know. What little of psychology I know, the characters I have invented and playing poker have taught me. [audience laughter] But Freud I'm—I'm not familiar with.
Unidentified participant: You apparently believe in [human] extra sensory perception, though, don't you?
William Faulkner: Yes, I probably depend almost completely on it. I don't have—have a trained mind. I've got to depend on extra sensory perception.
Unidentified participant: Would you tell us something perhaps about your acquaintanceship with some of the people that have been the—the prototypes for the characters in your writing? I'm just wondering how you got to know them so well, to have been able to pick their thoughts. I think this is related to Dr. Wilson's idea about the subconscious.
William Faulkner: Yes, sir. That would be through a—a—an unflagging curiosity about people, interest in what people are doing, how they do it, and what they say. Not with any desire to study people or to store up material to work from, but out of simple curiosity, I reckon. Though it—it may be that no man could be that—that disinterested in the material he works from. Maybe that any writer's something like a packrat. He gathers up every scrap he sees on the chance that someday he may need it, and sure enough, there it is. The characters, I think, are composite of experience, observation and imagination, but nobody could say just how much of which goes into it. I'm convinced, though, that no writer's going to be satisfied just to—to write—use people as he saw them, because he's convinced that he can do a better job of creating credible people than the Lord can. He can always improve on [it.] And he's also probably a congenital liar. That's why they call it fiction, I suppose. [audience laughter] He probably couldn't tell the truth on any subject.
Unidentified participant: Do you actually make notes of people who arouse your curiosity?
William Faulkner: No, sir. Never did any research, never made any notes. I have a lot of faith in my memory. If I can't remember it, it wasn't worth keeping anyway, probably. [audience laughter]
Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, as I understand it—correct me—when you said that you thought the psychiatrist took a man and was capable of knowing him well enough or understanding him well enough, he would know about the nature of man more as—as much as that you would otherwise, for example studying people as a group or as a culture?
William Faulkner: I would assume so. But then I—I don't know. I'm ignorant. As I say, I have no training in psychology, psychiatry. I would assume that psychiatrists could learn as much about man from one man as a surgeon could about man from one cadaver. That's probably wrong, but that's my assumption.
Unidentified participant: How much influence in—for example, in your portrayal and creation of people, how much influence does—does a given culture have in determining this person that you make or write about?
William Faulkner: It'd have a great deal of influence, but—but mostly on the surface. It would influence his idioms, his—his surface actions, his—his manners. But I would say if you went deep enough, he would look a good deal like the same individual of his—his age and physical condition in some African culture.
Unidentified participant: You don't deliberately use symbolism, [do you]?
William Faulkner: I suspect the writer's too busy to deliberately use anything, even good grammar. That he is simply trying to get something down, and he has—he's completely immoral. He will rob and steal from any source he finds, just like the packrat, against the day when maybe he'll need it. And writing out of a culture, which—which has certain symbols, in time he will reproduce those symbols without any deliberation. That's not himself, not his own erudition. It was simply the culture, which he—which was the environment he grew up in, and maybe something of [its residue] which produced [it]. But I think any writer's too busy dealing with people, and—and people are incredible and in motion. All the writer can do once the characters come to life is to—to run at top speed behind them and try to put down everything they do and say before they get out of sight, out of hearing, that he hasn't got time to—to use symbols deliberately.
Unidentified participant: Most of your characters are certainly highly individualized human beings. Do you have any particular ideas on the so-called trend toward conformity or loss of individualization in our current society?
William Faulkner: Yes. I have very definite ideas about that, and if I ever become a—a preacher, it will be to preach against man, individual man, relinquishing into groups, any group. I'm—I'm against belonging to anything. [audience laughter] Of course, when—when I was young, I belonged to young people's fraternities and things like that, but now I don't want to belong to anything except the human race.
Unidentified participant: Why is that?
William Faulkner: I think that there's too much pressure to make people conform, and I think that—that one man may be first-rate, but if you get one man and two second-rate men together then he's not going to be first-rate any longer because the—the—the voice of that majority will be a second-rate voice. The behavior of that majority will be second-rate. And I think that a second-rate man [who stays] himself at least won't be third rate. But no second-rate man is going to become first-rate just by joining one or two more first-rate people.
Unidentified participant: Could you go further and say how you rate people like that, for instance second-rate?
William Faulkner: Well, sir, that would be a little difficult and maybe a little trite. I would say that—that a first-rate man is one—is a man that did the best he could with what talents he had to make something which wasn't here yesterday and also to—that never hurt an inferior, never harmed the weak, practiced honesty and courtesy and tried to be as brave as he wanted to be whether he always was that brave or not. I think that a man that—that held to—to those tenets wouldn't get very far if he were involved in a—a group of people that had relinquished their individualities to some one voice which would—could control their behavior.
Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, do you feel like—that man is, you might say, by nature, first-rate or second-rate [and] influences or circumstances lead to his being what he is? By nature being one—being other—in other words, man, by nature, has to pull himself up or—to first-rate—being a first-rate person or man, by nature, would be a first-rate person, and some are pulled down to being second-rate people?
William Faulkner: I would say that he would have to pull himself up to be what I have premised as a first-rate human being, that the child is not born a first-rate human being, in that sense, because the child is still a savage until it—well, until a little boy is not civilized until he—about thirteen or fourteen when he falls in love with his teacher. She teaches him to wash his face, behave like a member of the human race. I don't believe that all people are—are born equal, if that's what you mean, that they are all—people are not born second-rate or tenth-rate, that some people may be incapable of ever becoming first-rate. But that would be from possibly—yes, it would have to be heredity because environment could be changed, and if all—if there was only environment that held people second-rate that [could] be changed, but some people are born incapable of being first-rate.
Unidentified participant: This freedom that you insist on interests me a great deal. It seems to me that that's where much of psychiatry goes astray, is in loss of—of freedom to think and act and so forth as we would if we were totally free or, as you say, relinquish our individuality. Aside from joining [things, though], do you find—find that it's a constant path of maintaining freedom or is—is it something that comes natural to you. In other words, are you a natural rebel against convention or conformity?
William Faulkner: I don't know whether I believe there's such things as natural rebel. I think that man's impulse—that man really doesn't want to be free, that he is willing to relinquish his freedom to anyone that will give him bread and circuses, that it takes a certain amount of education or precept by someone older and wiser to make a—a young man value freedom enough to struggle for it. It's very easy for him to submit to the constant pressure from the people who have got to sell him something in order to keep an economy of waste in motion like ours. To be free, he's an anachronism. He's against—he's a fly in their ointment. And whether he had a—an impulse to be free, that impulse will not be enough in a young man against all the concerted, organized pressure to make him relinquish freedom into the hands of whoever runs the finance company that collects on his automobile or—or compels him to be married in order to sell a—another dishwashing machine to somebody.
Unidentified participant: How long do you think that—if we know an individual's experiences—I mean, which is very difficult to do, but if we just say that ideally we know all these [experiences] that a person has—had, don't you think that we can predict his behavior?
William Faulkner: I would think if anybody could predict his behavior, it would be the psychologist, the psychiatrist.
Unidentified participant: I mean, don't you think that a person, what he does, is based on the way he has been [raised], the experiences he has had in the past? Are they [formative] of his conduct, of what he does or what he says?
William Faulkner: I was—to an extent, and—and also, to an extent, what he does at the moment is—is—his environment is responsible for it. That he would have impulses which—which his heredity may have taught him to keep down, but his environment may have released him from the prohibition. That if you change his environment, he—he might—would behave differently. It wouldn't alter what he wanted to do, but probably any morality is simply a system of—of—of enabling a man to say "don't" to himself.
Unidentified participant: With this loss of freedom, conformity, materialism, and so forth, how optimistic or pessimistic do you feel about our current culture, as we see it today?
William Faulkner: Well, pessimism is—I wouldn't—don't like to accept that term because I have a great belief in man. He has survived the dinosaur, and I am convinced he will survive his atom bombs. I am convinced that the last sound on earth will be two people building an air ship arguing about where they're going next. [audience laughter] I have a great faith in man.
Unidentified participant: More specifically, in terms of our west—so called western culture?
William Faulkner: It's a—an unpleasant one. It's a—a—a nuisance to have to live through, but the only alternative is to get out if it, and you can't. [audience laughter] It won't last any more than the other cultures. And this one, as soon as we have used up the last of the natural resources, we will have another one. This is—we are living in an economy of waste, to buy a new one next year. We clutter the earth up with the automobiles and washing machines we turned in in order to buy a new one, and that may create jobs, and maybe the scientists will invent some way to vaporize all these things. [audience laughter] And that'll be something for General Motors. They could have a gas that would vaporize every car in the street [audience laughter] and leave us sitting there with—with the steering wheel in your hand, nothing [behind you] [...] [start all over again]. It's that or finally choke the earth up and build a roof over it. [Start over].
Unidentified participant: You're writing a novel now, I guess. [audience laughter]
William Faulkner: Well, I just said—said that the writer don't ever stop. People ask me what time of day I work, and I say, "All the time." [audience laughter]
Unidentified participant: Sir, let me ask you to discuss very briefly the character of Monk, in light of his freedom and inevitability [...] [and so on]?
William Faulkner: Monk, he was the—it's—I don't re-read this, and I'm—I'll have to remember just who Monk was. Right now I—
Unidentified participant: [I thought it was] one of the short stories [...].
William Faulkner: Oh, yes, the one that—that went to the penitentiary, was sent to the penitentiary. Well, he was a—a—probably a moron that just wanted to—to get along, just wanted enough to eat, and probably liked for people to speak kindly to him. He got involved in—in a crime which he didn't commit, was sent to the penitentiary, and was used as a tool by an evil man that wanted to get revenge on the warden. He was innocent, and innocence possibly has no safe place in this world, that you can't be that innocent and survive in it, that you've got to have a little of evil in your nature to cope with the world and mankind.
Unidentified participant: [...] do you think that man changes [chiefly through] economic changes, that educational measures, for example, have rather little impact [...]?
William Faulkner: No, I think that—that he withstands economic changes pretty well. The only thing that will—will help him, will change him, in my opinion, is education. If we ever do get education in this country. I mean [audience laughter] the—the [schools] that—that children go to. That that is—that is the hope.
Unidentified participant: Some of us have been very interested in the psychological aspects of segregation. I should be interested to know whether you believe that hope for that problem lies in education?
William Faulkner: I think if we improve the schools, integration of schools would solve itself. I think that if the schools were up to the standard of the best that went there, only the best could stay and the ones that [went in] would be so busy working they wouldn't have time to bother about what color who was sitting next to them. And I—my hope is, that all this uproar over integration will improve schools to that point. To get rid of the emotional problem, the old folks will probably have to die off. The tragedy is that right now white people and colored people simply do not like and trust each other.
Unidentified participant: What are the greatest defects that you see in our current education system other than this mediocrity [and] mass leveling thing?
[end of recording]