Tacked to the wall of my office, just above the spot on my desk where the telephone sits, I keep a copy of William Faulkner’s 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech. If you’ve never read it, or if you haven’t read it lately, take a minute and Google it. In five short paragraphs, he manages to say more than I could in 50,000 words.
Faulkner gave his speech to a world that was still bleeding from the wounds of the Second World War, at a time when nuclear annihilation seemed not just likely, but imminent. Humanity had reached a point where the only relevant question seemed to be, in Faulkner’s words, “When will I be blown up?”
Thankfully, we’ve backed away from that particular precipice. I haven’t lost a lot of sleep worrying about a nuclear strike from our former Cold War adversaries. But, as I look out my window, across West Street and down onto the two memorial fountains that mark the mass grave in my neighborhood, I know that mankind’s worst self-destructive tendencies are still very much alive in the 21st Century.
Today is a day for remembering an act of almost incomprehensible evil. But, for me at least, it’s also a day to affirm my faith in humanity, not by trying to forget the evil, or pretending that we’ll never see its like again, but by staring it in the face and declaring that it will never overcome us. As will always be the case, Faulkner said it better than I could:
“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.”