Sunday, September 13, 2009

"No Man Can Write Who Is Not First a Humanist"

The title of this entry is a quote from William Faulkner. Like the statements Faulkner made when accepting his Nobel Prize, this statement has much truth to it. After all, Shakespeare is considered the world's greatest writer because his writing plumbed the depths of human experience better than any writer before or since.

But is this what Faulkner was referring to when he said the above quote? Clues come from the aforementioned Nobel Prize acceptance speech. In brief, remembering all that makes us human makes us humanists. And yet in the speech, Faulkner highlighted mankind's best attributes, saying it is not enough to write about mankind's worst attributes only. If mankind (and womankind) is to prevail, writers must remind their readers of all the good that is within them.

Think of the last great movie that you saw and see if any of the universal truths that Faulkner highlighted are found within. You should find at least one. If you don't, I'd recommend watching different movies. Great books, great movies, great paintings--they all include universal truths that speak to the better parts of our natures. That is not to say that one cannot write about or enjoy reading or seeing or hearing about the darker aspects of humanity, but it cannot be all dark, or we shall not care what the outcome is. Even in the dark Japanese movie Sansho the Bailiff, the struggles and hardships that the main family endures would mean nothing if none of the universal truths that Faulkner mentioned--"love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice"--were not displayed by that long-suffering family, if they forgot their humanity in the face of their hardships. One of them almost does, but his sister--through her love and sacrifice--makes him remember.

One of the problems I find with much of the fiction written today is its dark view of humanity. The characters endure, but they do not prevail. The encroaching darkness has become darker, the struggles have become more pointless, and while these writers know that "the human heart in conflict with itself...alone can make good writing," too many of these conflicts seem to succumb to outside forces beyond the control of their characters. Is not one of the writer's jobs to shine some light in the darkness? Is it not to ignore the fear that may grip the real world, and detail how the world can once again find itself? I feel this is what Faulkner meant when he closed his speech with these words:

"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."


  1. I fully agree with you. I also loved Sansho the Baillif. I have missed Faulkner, though I wanted to read As I Lay Dying.

    Writing and film making or any other human activity makes sense only when it is motivated by a desire to effect a positive transformation in one's environment.

    I really could relate to this post.

  2. I admire Sansho the Bailiff more than I love it, maybe because of what Ebert writes in his great Great Movies essay, about the suffering almost being too much for us to bear. The ending, though, is wonderful. As for Japanese films that I love, they would include Tokyo Story and The Seven Samurai, not to mention numerous Miyazaki films and the wonderful Grave of the Fireflies.

    As for Faulkner, As I Lay Dying is great. It's opening chapter should be studied, along with the opening from Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, in how to set a scene. I can hear the sawing and smell the sawdust in the first novel, and I can hear the bees and smell the flowers in the second. Still haven't gotten around to The Sound and the Fury, but I would highly recommend that you also seek out Absalom! Absalom!, and the slightly less good (though more accessible) Light in August.

  3. Tokyo Story, Seven Samurai and Grave of the Fireflies are all great films.

    I would add the magnificent Rashomon and of course Ikiru, not to forget Kurusawa's two Shakespeare derived movies from Macbeth and Lear.

    The more recent Perfect Blue is also intersting as a study of a rare psychiatric condition.

  4. How could I forgot Rashomon? Perfect Blue was also quite good, and Millenium Actress (by the same director) is worth checking out, too. In my great film list, I would also include the sci fi movie short Voices of a Distant Star, which proves that short movies need not be short in emotional impact.

    Have yet to see Ikiru or Ran, but thought Throne of Blood to be the best Macbeth adaptation that I've seen, though I don't care as much for that story as I do Hamlet or (especially) Othello.

  5. I have an English teacher who tells me that writing(/making movies/painting/etc) is the writer trying to exorcise his ghosts. Not literally; what he means is that the writer writes to, more than anything, express himself. From experience, and nothing but experience of my writing, I'd agree.
    I suppose it can be said, if you subscribe to that interpretation, that great writing is something that ends up affecting people and creating a positive change.

    SM, you say that writing is to produce a positive change in the environment, but then you are completely ruling out post-modernists(not those like Dave Eggers, Italo Calvino and Faulkner), who have phenomenally inaccessible oeuvres.
    Umberto Eco described it this way: 'I think of the postmodern attitude as that of a man who loves a very cultivated woman and knows that he cannot say to her "I love you madly", because he knows that she knows (and that she knows he knows) that these words have already been written by Barbara Cartland. Still there is a solution. He can say "As Barbara Cartland would put it, I love you madly". At this point, having avoided false innocence, having said clearly it is no longer possible to talk innocently, he will nevertheless say what he wanted to say to the woman: that he loves her in an age of lost innocence.'
    These post-modernists address that woman, but everyone else gets left out that way.

    As for Japanese cinema, Kurosawa was a bad starting point. His work is so distinctive that I'm having trouble getting down to the others.
    LD, I share your respect for Throne of Blood, though I actually do care about the story; I studied it in school for two years.

  6. Yeah, but post-modernists to me (and Faulkner was a product of the culture that existed between the World Wars, so I wouldn't include him as post-modern) miss the point if their point is to be inaccessible. At its core, writing is a form of communication between the author and his or her readers. Joyce and Faulkner challenge the reader, but their works are not impenetrable. And writing only about the dark side of humanity is just as bad as writing only about the good side.

    I wonder, too, if post-modern artists (particularly painters and sculptures) have forgotten that art must stir the emotions to be art, not just the brain.

    Concerning Japanese cinema, I'd try Ozu next. His style is distinct and separate from Kurosawa's, and just as enjoyable, if not more so. I still don't care much for Macbeth. ;-)

  7. Isn't that slightly circular? "This is art, and the movement of artists that contradicts it misses the point."

    Maybe it would be easier if we decided that art was an attempt to express oneself. It's just that the readers in this case are people who have knowledge of these things rather than those who don't.

    About Faulkner, you're probably right. Umberto Eco again: "there seems to be an attempt to make it[po-mo] increasingly retroactive: first it was apparently applied to certain writers or artists active in the last twenty years, then gradually it reached the beginning of the century, then still further back. And this reverse procedure continues; soon the postmodern category will include Homer."

    I realised I've watched two Miyazakis, but in English dubbing.

  8. True, art is always about expressing oneself, and certainly if artists want to express themselves in ways that the audience can't comprehend, that's fine with me. But then, if there's no possible way for the audience to comprehend what the artist is saying, what's the point? Communication can be cryptic, but it shouldn't be impossible, even if, as the Elements of Style puts it, you're always writing to "an audience of one."

  9. They try, you know. Post-modernism is the most popular thing in lit academia right now. And they come up with some really weird explanations, but they (against all odds) get communicated to.
    In fact, it can be said that we can never know what the artist is telling us and we can, at best, hazard a guess. Post-modernists, yet again, display their self-awareness, and show how they are one step ahead of our expectations. ;)

  10. I agree that one can never know exactly what the artist is telling us (and sometimes, even the artist doesn't know), but that doesn't mean the artist should try to be confusing, unless it serves the story. Everything should serve the story. I know there are schools of thought that won't agree with me on this, but even theory should serve the story, not the other way around. If people want to read theory, they can buy philosophy books or theological tomes. We authors write to entertain. We write to educate. But we don't write to lecture.

  11. Yeah, you are right, they shouldn't (you more or less convinced me on this).
    But, they are, and we have to live with it. :D

  12. But we don't have to read what they write when they do. ;-)


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.