Bones and Breath: On Faulkner and Faith

After World War I, the United States fell into an economic depression. We could say that it fell into another kind of depression as well. A depression, or spiritual funk, stimulated by philosophical polarities of the day. Indeed, forty years had already passed since the German philosopher Nietzsche claimed it was logical to reason that “God is dead.” There were those supposed inconsistencies between religion and science. Perhaps not in mainstream culture, but perhaps in academic atmospheres and in the classrooms of its universities. Clashes between scientists and religious fundamentalists in the 1920s certainly existed.

The human mind reasoned: how could God be alive? He obviously didn’t have control; man’s advancement had pretty much been obliterated at that point. Humanistic philosophy claimed that man could build and maintain society. And then World War I happened. Engineers pointed to crowning achievements of man’s inventions. And then the Titanic sank. The Roaring Twenties turned into the Great Depression of the ‘30s. Upon whose heels came the terrifying and unimaginable World War II. Man’s ability for progress, once accepted as fact, was now in question.

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Humanity was not asking: Will I prosper? Rather, in fear, it was crying out: Will I survive?

William Faulkner in his 1950 Pulitzer Prize speech addresses this fear.

“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?”

The thing with which we must come to terms is what a society full of fear produces. Think about the time in which you were most afraid. How did it control your decisions? How did it control your productivity? How did it control your understanding of life?

This fear, I think, has the possibility to produce a hopeless fatalism, which Faulkner must have observed on the earth, seeping from below the ground of modern society. And to that trembling mind, he offers this reminder:

“the basest of all things is to be afraid.”

For, Faulkner reasons, when writers are crippled by fear, they forget “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.” Faulkner insists that a writer…

“…must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid… 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.”

Here we notice Faulkner’s expression of mid 19th century Romantic sensibilities in his emphasis on the human heart. But there is his concurrent recognition of modernist skepticism, in which he says that humanity is basically saying: “The meaning of life? What meaning? What life? I’m fighting for my life, for control of my glands!”

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And Faulkner laments the effect of this perspective of survival. If a writer writes “of the glands,” Faulkner says,

“he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man. I decline to accept the end of man. …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.”

This message of hope (and concurrent responsibility) certainly retains humanistic undertones. And maybe that is my point.

How utterly human is hope! We always hope even in the most impossible of situations! Why do children in concentration camps write poetry? Why does, as Maya Angelou asks, the caged bird sing?

Have you ignored that basic human emotion of hope? What is your mind’s perspective? What is your voice saying?

Is it fear that guides your voice? Is your voice a raucous squawk, your breath being crushed out of you, your voice simply the rush of oxygen into your lungs, a timid cry, an elemental whimper realizing that today you are, indeed, still alive? Or is your voice that of boredom, like SO MANY voices that we hear today… whether the tintinnabuli of posts, shares, likes, and updates… searching for meaning, trying to create meaning… where there is none?

Perhaps you are like those humans, of which, when contemplating life as if it’s the eternally inspirational sky, say only, “it has been wet… it has been windy… it has been warm.” You do not, as Victorian English art critic John Ruskin puts it, reject apathy against the mundane. Ruskin laments:

“Who, among the whole chattering crowd, can tell me of the forms and the precipices of the chain of tall white mountains that girded the horizon at noon yesterday? Who saw the narrow sunbeam that came out of the south and smote upon their summits until they melted and mouldered away in a dust of blue rain? Who saw the dance of the dead clouds when the sunlight left them last night, and the west wind blew them before it like withered leaves?”

These are the observations only possible through a perspective of hope in the midst of the mundane.

Now imagine this human hope infused with that which is divine, a hope which comes when we release ourselves, allowing our stubborn selves to accept sonship, claiming that we are children of God, and finally accepting the benefits of divine childhood, living in an assurance, and if not assurance, then careful, guarded acknowledgment of the promises of God, those promises which say, “I will never leave you; I will never forsake you.” Or those manifestations of belief: “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid.”

Faulkner calls for hopeful artists.

Do you have a hope? Do you have a voice?

I pray you shall.

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6 thoughts on “Bones and Breath: On Faulkner and Faith”

  1. Esther,
    I read a comment about John Ruskin who taught Lillias Trotter art. She gave up her art with him to become a lady missionary to the Arab world. Do you know of her? Goshen PL has books about her. joy yoder evrsole

    1. Most interesting comment today! Thank you for pointing this out. I’m suddenly interested in her and her work, and I hope to take a look at books about her soon. I also noticed that Oxvision Films just released a Lilias Trotter documentary. I can’t wait to see it!

  2. I am a stay at home mom of 3 and I love when a blog so nicely articulates my musings since I don’t have time to. This was excellent!

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