Undergraduate Writing Class, tape 2
DATE: 24 April 1958
OCCASION: John Coleman's Undergraduate Writing Class
Play the full recording:
William Faulkner: [...] not only a privilege, but everybody's right, to find mankind and love mankind and be accepted into mankind, and he couldn't, because mankind, as I tried to say in my paper, in Holden's terms, wasn't there anymore.
William Faulkner: Yes, sir.
Unidentified participant: Sir, mankind, as you say, wasn't there. That—in this time, well, [it isn't.] The problem is [...] [in things before these, would you say like] Hamlet or times past [these same] conditions [point—man] has always struggled to find mankind and often he can't do it. [It's] sort of [universal].
William Faulkner: Except it's only now in history that—that man has been compelled into groups, that there was no way for him to exist unless he belonged to a group, that everybody has to belong to a group. If it's a not a union, not a trade union, not a guild—of course, they existed five hundred years ago—but now everybody—a teacher has got to belong to a group. It's—it's got to be a Phi Beta Kappa badge or got to be an income tax bracket or if nothing else, as I said, it's how many installments he still owes on his icebox or his car, that nobody belongs to himself anymore. He belongs to a finance company or a group or an organization. If he don't, there's no place for him.
Unidentified participant: Would you [believe that this system]—it seems to me that this is a certain class of people, and it may prevail because we have television. We have certain [standardizations]. But I—I still think there are as many individuals growing up now as there were in times before.
William Faulkner: I would like to think so. I'm afraid, though, that it takes so much of a man's time to be an individual now that he don't have very much left be a—a poet.
Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, how does a man who works in a chewing gum factory in Detroit communicate with a man who shepherds sheep in Algeria? Let's say that they're both simple, [pensive] men, [and you] put them together. This is the man-to-man confrontation that you speak of. On what terms can they communicate?
William Faulkner: It's almost impossible because the only way two people can communicate is to meet one another in—in quiet. I don't think they can do it over any artificial means of—of communication like radio or—or telephone. They've got to meet face-to-face because only a very small part of communication is from speech, and how a—a man in Detroit and an Algerian shepherd can—can meet I don't know, but all they need to do to communicate is to meet in solitude and peace, I think. To sit on the same sand hill together for a while. But the pressure is against that, that people mustn't do that. They must function through committees with slogans and catch phrases, [the] polysyllabic abstractions that really mean nothing.
Unidentified participant: Don't you think nowadays that possibly there are a great many individuals whom—whom you don't recognize as individuals because they don't—don't seem to be doing anything, and that's where they are individuals—they're not belonging? They're not necessarily worrying about the next [...]?
William Faulkner: I hope so. I hope there are a lot of them.
Unidentified participant: [...]
William Faulkner: I don't know very many of them that are—that are free of the pressure to belong to something. There may be some. I would like to—to know that there are a great many of them.
Unidentified participant: Well, I should think that probably in—in the teaching world, in universities and colleges, there might be more than elsewhere. Would you disagree with that?
William Faulkner: No, I would say that there would be. That is the—the best, the happiest place, for the man to be an individual, is in college.
Unidentified participant: [You're saying] the solution is talk to everybody?
William Faulkner: Yes.
Unidentified participant: I'd like to suggest that this talk [has been] profoundly true, as I recall a [white paper] [...] if you'll examine earlier propaganda you will find an appeal to the individual, the individual by the millions, [very much] to the individual as he sits in a bazaar in Baghdad or [...] or in Calcutta, in his own language [...] as for one individual to another, that is where I think that they have their [big success].
William Faulkner: Yes, sir, but—but ain't most of that telling the individual something? It's not saying to the individual, "Talk to me." It's saying, "Listen to me." That's the trouble with all propaganda.
Unidentified participant: No, sir, it is not, if I may contradict that. I think the African is very much invited to talk, and the proof of it that's he talking today, in Ghana.
William Faulkner: Well, I certainly hope you're right.
Unidentified participant: And I would say that your [mass man] is a creation of western civilization. I don't think he exists in India. I must say [...] individual [...]of the individual which is probably so intense. There again, I was [very much struck]. I couldn't help wondering whether all this about the howling and the hardship of the present generation couldn't be found very much more profoundly if you look at the lives [of the poets] and [...] [the lives of Dickens], and the hardships [...]. Aren't we merely basing ourselves upon the Cadillac standard? [He doesn't have any ideals].
William Faulkner: Isn't that the point I'm trying to make, that our culture is—is founded on the Cadillac ideal?
Unidentified participant: Yes, [that's where I agree with you].
Unidentified participant: [...] to inform you how [...] howl [...] juxtaposed to the academics, I suppose [...]. Now, my point is that these are extremes of the arts. One is the—the breaking away, which is not [true] [...] howl, not speech, and I juxtapose this to the academic poets. And I think we used the term a—just a shrill shriek. Now, this is not speech. Speech is somewhere in the middle.
William Faulkner: Yes, that's right. I agree with that.
Unidentified participant: You're not breaking it up, and you're not holding it back, but you're [comfortable]. I think our culture is [accustomed] [...] [extremes] [...] Perhaps it's waiting for [the poet in the middle, before it starts] talking and talking.
Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, [...] background of [the San Francisco] poets. They seem to get together in a group and play music and generally carouse while they create. And I was wondering how this would fit in with your ideas that the artist is an individual. Can they be individuals when they're creating as a group?
William Faulkner: Oh, I'm sure he can. His—his pursuits in his spare time wouldn't have to do with his—his attitude toward his own freedom, as freedom is no good to you if you can't—it's worth nothing if—if you can't relinquish it now and then, use it. The only way you can test that you've got it is to see how far it will go.
Unidentified participant: Can I say one more thing?
William Faulkner: Yes, sir.
Unidentified participant: The poets in San Francisco are unlearned. They've not read the [greats]—they've not read their predecessors in literature, and they resist any kind of [learning], and it seems to me all the great poets, all the great writers have read and know [their style], and these don't [...]. And I would say that the academic poets are over-read and have no vitality. These people have all the vitality, and no control, and the others are over-controlled. Where are the middle people [...] [in the poems that I read and the novels I read]?
Unidentified participant: Sir, do you think economically hard times could aid creative energy? People can't go on buying pricey cars and living [...], and it seems like a little more aggressive spirit. In times like this, if there were a real recession, it might not harm some of the individualism [that seems to die if there is plenty of everything.] Do you agree at all?
William Faulkner: I don't know whether that would—would produce any—any more and better poetry. More people might buy what poetry is for sale. That—that is, if they couldn't buy the Cadillacs—and nobody likes to sit down and just think. He has to do something with himself, so maybe they may even buy poetry at the last, but it wouldn't make people write any better poetry I think.
A. K. Davis: Mr. Faulkner, your—your—your speech of acceptance of the Nobel Prize was one of the most encouraging things that I've ever heard said in my very long lifetime. You haven't changed your mind, have you?
William Faulkner: No, sir.
A. K. Davis: You don't think that this generation, like a former neighbor of yours said, is poor in spirit and common as hell, do you?
William Faulkner: No, sir, I don't think so. [audience laughter]
A. K. Davis: Well, then—then what do you mean in relation to what you said at that time, when you accepted your Nobel Prize?
William Faulkner: Well, I—I mean what I thought I said. [audience laughter] I—I'm sorry. Maybe I don't understand your question.
A. K. Davis: Well, I—I'm sure it's my fault, but it seems to me now that you seem rather hopeless about the—the prevalence of individuality and the—the human spirit, and that in that speech you seemed to have stressed the importance of that by strongly [agreeing]. Do you feel the world has changed now to the point where it's all but impossible for individualism [to prevail]?
William Faulkner: No, sir. I've never said that. I was simply pointing out to—to the young writer what I believe was his trouble. He knows there's something wrong, but maybe he hasn't seen this, that I was simply trying to show him what a—a little more experience than he—has suggested to me may be the trouble. That he himself without knowing it is—is constricted too much by the regimentation necessary for a—a nation to sacrifice as much as nations have to to oppose two antipathetic ideologies, that I'm convinced that the poet can do his bit toward supporting the manufacture of—of A-bombs and things like that if that is necessary and can still be a good poet. I'm convinced, too, that if anyone is to bring us to some sense, it's not going to be the people that make the A-bombs nor sell the Cadillacs. It'll be the poets, the artists.
Floyd Stovall: Mr. Faulkner, I can't resist asking one more question a propos of what you've just said—interests me considerably. If the poet must not address himself to the world to try to change it but must write what's in him, what he knows, then is the benefit which the poet is to give to the world to come from the world's recognition of what he writes or is he to find some point in between, writing in and of himself exclusively and writing what the world needs for him to write? I'm not sure whether—where—where a poet must fall in that dilemma, if it is a dilemma.
William Faulkner: I still don't think he needs to worry about that. If—if he is writing of the—the struggles of the human heart in conflict with itself or with others or with its environment, he'll be writing in the—the recognizable terms which people have all met in their own private dilemmas.
Floyd Stovall: Well, if—if it's his own—suppose if it's his own private world that he knows, which happens to be unlike the real world but is quite real to him. How is that to—how is the world to interpret that?
William Faulkner: Well, we would say that—that every man has what you have called his own private world, but if he does not write about that in recognizable terms, in terms which everybody else can apply to his and her own private world, then it's not going to be of much value. That he's got to write of his own private world in universal terms. That's what I mean by the—the eternal, simple, few verities which man's heart anguishes over. They are recognizable by anyone, who wouldn't recognize the—the—the culture and the economy of—of 1950. He would have to translate that into his own terms, but these verities that I speak of, the—the—the simple truth would be recognized by—by anyone of any age, of any time, which I think is the reason that—that—the—the good music, good poetry, the good pictures don't have any date, because anyone recognizes them. They're still true, what they were talking about, no matter what costume they wore.
Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, isn't it possible, though, that these eternal verities may be spoken of in certain styles, addressed to contemporaries and yet misunderstood and therefore neglected? Aren't there—aren't there writers who are addressed by their contemporary audiences who are totally neglected because of the—of the manner in which they were addressed and not because of the subject matter?
William Faulkner: I don't know, sir. It's seemed that [gap in tape] in recognizable terms—there'll always be somebody to read it. I mean by recognizable terms you can write a long treatise about honesty, and your audience—will go to sleep in a few minutes, but if you write about honesty in some dramatic form in terms of recognizable people, then the audience will stay awake to see what happened to them, whether they got away with be—being dishonest or whether honesty paid. That's what I mean by recognizable terms. That if you write in a—in a language, an essay, people won't listen because it's not familiar, but if—if you write in terms of people in motion, they will listen and they will learn. The—the poet can talk to people that way when they wouldn't listen to him at all if he wrote a speech or an essay.
Unidentified participant: How do you feel about The Hamlet being made into a movie and did you work on the script of that?
William Faulkner: No, I'm not a moving picture man and don't probably—don't really care for pictures. Oh, I see one occasionally, but I suppose I don't take moving pictures very seriously. Maybe they come at the wrong time of day [audience laughter] to go to see. And they make too much noise, too. I'd rather sit down with a book and read it than to listen to something.
Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, [but] that is the great medium it seems for the artist [...]. Shakespeare [...] Shakespeare who speaks to all people—to the people who can't read.
William Faulkner: That's right. What's against it is it costs too much money. It's impossible for one man to have the—the camera and the film and to make exactly what he thinks is right and true to make. You can do that with a dollar's worth of paper and a nickel pencil but you can't do with that film. It costs too much.
Unidentified participant: [You can write a bad novel but you can't make a bad movie.] [audience laughter]
Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, did you say that the highest form of endeavors is not to sit back and say, "Well, I won't be a part of this," but it's saying that "It's is sad, and I'm going to do something about it." How—how do you reconcile this to what you say, the fact that the writer shouldn't care whether he makes any effect on society?
William Faulkner: Oh, that's easy, because you can't—the—the one thing that—that man can do for eight hours a day is work, but you can't work even longer than eight hours a day. You can be a reformer, but you don't need to be a poet at the same time. You'll be a poet for eight hours and be a reformer for eight hours and sleep for eight hours. It's—there's—there's no reason why they should ever conflict. If you try to be a reformer and a poet at the same time, then you're going to be writing propaganda, which stops being poetry.
Unidentified participant: I—I disagree with you. Some of the greatest poetry in the English literature is didactic. It's teaching, preaching [poetry]. I mean, Wordsworth was one of them, I think. I think we underrate the—the—the didactic [element in poetry].
William Faulkner: Wouldn't you have liked his poetry if he were not preaching?
Unidentified participant: Yes, but I think that—I think we need to come again to an appreciation of his didacticism. I think it's a time again almost for preaching poetry.
William Faulkner: Well, that's—
Unidentified participant: [...]
William Faulkner: Well, maybe a poet could be—be happier being a preacher and a poet, too, but I think that—that he's primarily either a poet or primarily either a preacher, and if he's got to try to be both at the same time, one is going to suffer.
Unidentified participant: Well, I don't know. I like your Fable very much and admire it as a great, great novel, but I think [it's a] —a terrible sermon, [a frightening sermon]. I use the word terrible as you do.
William Faulkner: It wasn't intended to be a sermon. That is, it was a matter of indifference to the writer whether it was a sermon or not. He was simply writing about something that seemed—seemed true and moving to him.
Joseph Blotner: Sir, last spring you spoke of the work of—when you were asked, of William Styron and Shelby Foote and Warren Eyster as young writers whose novels elicited some approval from you. They seemed promising writers. Do you think that the fact that they, as far as I know, write—do not write about cities gives them more of a possibility for showing the human heart in conflict with itself?
William Faulkner: I would say that in a city, the—to belong, to conform that I spoke of is more apparent, not necessarily more prevalent, but there's—there's—there's more space between you and—and the wall of pressure in the country where there is—is not so much fewer people but—but fewer of the constant symptoms of—of belonging, of being grouped, of being pressed. I don't think that their work is any better because they—they—they write about the country. I think that to me that work, too, reflects the same thing, that—that the characters don't participate in that free, almost jolly, [ordinary] moil and seethe of simple people, that the characters of—of Dickens, every time they stepped outdoors, they were in it. They were right in the middle of the human race. Every simple act they performed they were in the middle of mankind, the human race, which the characters in the books today don't seem to be able to attain.
Joseph Blotner: You'd feel that Salinger, for example, just hasn't created enough characters who seem to be a part of this big human race. There isn't just a—there just isn't enough for Holden Caulfield to come in contact with before he can get anywhere?
William Faulkner: He couldn't get to them. He tried. There was the chance with the professor that understood him and—and could have helped him, but there he had—right in there he had run into a—a preconception which was foisted on him, that every man if—if—if he's not happily married, he must be homosexual. That's the—the pressure to belong to a group, to be typed, that you can't be yourself, you've got to—to belong to something. If he—if he ran into two people that should have been a part of the—of the moil and seethe of—of simple people which I spoke about, that was the prostitute and the pimp, and the only point they met on was that—that shabby five-dollar bill, that there was no human contact otherwise, even when the—the man hit him it might have been a door swinging into him. There's nothing human in it. The only human contact he could reach was with his little sister, who was too young to—to see that she knew that he was in trouble, but she had no conception of—of what the anguish and trouble was.
Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner—
William Faulkner: Yes, sir.
Joseph Blotner: Before you spoke about, when you gave your list of the great masters [...] you seemed to end with Twain and with James, and then later when you spoke about the subject of our cycle of decadence, you named the years 1912, '13, '14. Do you think it may be possible that there is a coincidence between that time, and the beginning of the cycle, if indeed there is one, and the works of such great European masters as Joyce, Proust, Mann, Gide, the people who seem to deal with fiction in an interiorizing way as opposed to the outdoor world of such earlier masters that you mentioned like Fielding, Smollett?
William Faulkner: I would say that the—the people who had matured as writers by 1910 had the same concept of—of the world of humanity as the people two hundred years ago, but since 1910, the—the young man who had no actual experience of that world had no concept of it, that he had—has been born into a different world, that the world he is born into is the world that is—is enclosed by all the—the subtle pressure to belong to something. Whatever the—the reason that—that everyone must belong to something is—is not the point that I was trying to make. The fact is that, it seems to me, it is there, that if—if you're going to be an eccentric, the first thing you know you're going to be lumped with a group of eccentrics.
Unidentified participant: But isn't it just as greatly pronounced in the 19th century novels, both English and French, Dickens' Great Expectations or Stendhal's Red and the Black, the heroes in both of those novels? Aren't they betrayed once they tried to touch out or reach out and touch society?
William Faulkner: Yes, sir, but the society they touched was a—a moil and seethe of simple people. When the—the character nowadays reaches out to touch something, he—he touches a—a formula. He touches something that—that's called "labor" or called "people's democracy" or "social welfare" or "communism" or "anti-communism" or "Citizen's Council." He's don't touch just a moil and seethe of simple people functioning on man's own simple desires to—to have—have fun at no cost or as little cost as possible.
[end of recording]