Monday, June 13, 2011


William Faulkner
1897 - 1962

There is a scene in Woody Allen's recent film, Midnight in Paris, in which the protagonist reminds his fiancĂ©e of one of my favorite lines from William Faulkner: "The past is never dead.  It's not even past."  Hearing that line again reminded me of a couple of brief, personal encounters I had with Faulkner in 1961, when I was a student at the University of Mississippi, better known perhaps as "Ole Miss."

Like most other students at the university, my roommate, Anthony, and I were reading Faulkner as part of our freshman curriculum.  Emboldened by our intellectual pursuits, we decided one day that we could better appreciate Faulkner's novels — perhaps even understand The Sound and the Fury — if we had a personal, face-to-face conversation with the writer, who lived in Oxford, just a couple of miles from the university campus.  We recognized, of course, that Faulkner was a man of considerable fame, having received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950, and having published more than sixteen novels, but we remained undaunted in our quest.  If Faulkner had such great affection for all of those dreary characters he created in the fictional Yacknapatawpha County, Mississippi, he would surely welcome a couple of idealistic, albeit naive, students from the real deal — Stone County, a few hundred miles to the south.

Thus inspired, Anthony and I drove to Faulkner's home on Taylor Street one afternoon and entered the tree-lined driveway that led past a couple of barking bloodhounds to the house.  After knocking on the front door several times, all to no avail, we walked to the back of the house and mounted the back steps to the door of a screened-in sleeping porch.  Peering through the screen door, we saw an elderly man taking a nap on an old iron bed.  Immediately sensing that we were pressing out luck, we turned and attempted to scamper away with nothing more than a few giggles.  Alas, however, it was too late.  The man arose from the bed and demanded to know what we wanted.  Summoning what little courage I could find, I replied that my friend and I were just university students who were hoping to get a chance to talk with him about his work.  "I'm not Faulkner," he replied.  "Faulkner is in New York to see his agent and will not return until next week."

Armed as I was with a paperback copy of Faulkner's third novel, Sartoris, which boldly displayed a photo of Faulkner on the back cover, I knew for certain that this was Faulkner and that he was lying through his teeth, all in the hope of banishing the two students who had disturbed his afternoon nap.  In deference to the Nobel Prize winner, however, and with due respect for his menacing bloodhounds, Anthony and I apologized for our intrusion and politely asked the gentleman to please give Mr. Faulkner our best wishes.  We then promptly departed, plotting our next move as we drove away.

Having been rebuffed in our first attempt to have a serious conversation with Faulkner, Anthony and I decided that a more creative approach was required.  We needed to make better presentations of ourselves, perhaps by wearing suits, and, more importantly, we needed our next visit to be accompanied by dates with two lovely university coeds, whose charms would prove to be irresistible to the curmudgeonly author.  Happily, the approach worked flawlessly.  When we returned to Faulkner's house a few evenings later, he came to the front portico and spent a short amount of time with us as we made idle chat and I asked inane, pretentious questions.  At one point, I told Faulkner that I was reading Sartoris and wondered if the rumors were true that Colonel John Sartoris, the old patriarch of the novel, was modeled after the author's great-grandfather.  With a look of considerable disgust, tempered by patience, Faulkner stared at me for a moment and then brushed the question aside, strongly suggesting that we should confine our discussion to a matter of mutual interest, specifically, the comeliness of the two young ladies who had joined us.  Respectfully, though reluctantly, I complied.

I have never been a great fan of Faulkner's novels, with the possible exception of Light in August.  Had I been given another chance to meet the author, however, I would have asked  him a question that has puzzled me for years.  The question relates to two quotes, one the soliloquy from Macbeth that inspired the title of Faulkner's fourth novel, The Sound and the Fury, and the other being from Faulkner's Nobel Prize acceptance speech.  In Macbeth's soliloquy, Shakespeare wrote:

                    Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
                    That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
                    And then is heard no more: it is a tale
                    Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
                    Signifying nothing.

This philosophy — beautifully written as it is — offers little solace to the questing heart.  In his Noble Prize acceptance speech, however, Faulkner suggests that we are not condemned to a fate of despair, that we may, indeed, find lasting meaning in our lives.  Listen!

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 ding-dong 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.

So this is the question I have always wanted to ask, Bill (as Faulkner was affectionately referred to around Oxford).  Did you finally conclude that Shakespeare was wrong?  Did you discover that our shadowed lives are more than tales told by idiots, more than mere sound and fury, and that our lives do, in fact, signify something, especially when the compassionate soul finds a way to speak, to lift the human heart, and to imbue man with courage, honor, and hope?  As you can see, Bill, there was so much we could have discussed on that humid summer evening some fifty years ago.  Ah, but why debate the past?  As you have always reminded me, Bill, the past is never really dead — indeed, it's not even really past.

Faulkner's House, "Rowan Oak,"
Now Maintained as a Museum 
By the University of Mississippi

Photo by Gary Bridgman


  1. 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.

    SO loved that! Thank you. And I just LOVE the image of you two and the gorgeous co-eds chatting on that front porch with Faulkner... Well done! (I can't believe you went around back at first... LOL ... gotta love youth!)

  2. The entire speech can be pulled up online, Margaret. It' quite brief, but very beautiful and very moving. Yes, there were things I was willing to do in my youth that I would never consider today. Oh how proper we have all become. C'est domage!

  3. Hello George and welcome back! Your writing and photos have been missed. Your remembrances of "visiting" Faulkner made me smile. Now, he might have a Facebook page, and you could "friend" him! I've always liked those lines from Shakespeare, but maybe I wish that Faulkner's writing on Man's immortality is more true. Hope you're well, George, and finding pleasure in your days,

  4. BARB: Thanks for the comments and the welcome back. I've missed doing this on a frequent basis, and I'm looking forward to staying more current with my blogging friends.

  5. Too much "proper" can lead to a lack of joy. Youth may have moments of indiscretion, but we could all use an infusion of what might be viewed as naivete. Maybe it's just a willingness to be open and vulnerable. I've done similar things and love the image of your brief visit at the back porch.

    I agree entirely with your last statement to "Bill." How wonderful to come face to face with him.

  6. Hi Teresa,

    Nice to hear from you, and thanks for the comments. Yes, there is value in a little naivete. Propriety always places creativity and spontaneity in a straightjacket.

  7. What a beautifully written recollection of your adventures as a student, and the unanswered questions you still carry.

    How daring you were to return a second time, and how cunning to 'arm' yourself with the allure (or distraction) of female charms!

    A delightful read George. And where do fall in terms of the seemingly opposing quotations at the end of your piece?

  8. Ah, the brashness of youth! I love the gumption you showed in visiting the Nobel laureate. Where does our gumption go? With regard to whether our lives signify anything important....

    I'm reminded, George, of the saying,

    My mind tells me I am nothing.
    My heart tells me I am everything.
    Between these two, my life flows.

    I favor the heart end of that statement, acting as if every kindness I show matters, and let my mind mutter not to take myself too seriously.

    Good to have you back in the mix!

  9. I loved how you and your friend visited him, I think it wonderful that you went to the back of the house then went to visit a bit later with companions....I love some of his work, disagree with some others but in my mind he was unique....Hugs

  10. Good to see you back George. An interesting encounter with Faulkner who is not my kind of author so I'm completely unfamiliar with his work apart from knowing the titles. You (or rather your female companions!) obviously brought a certain amount of pleasure into his life that evening and gave you a lasting memory.

  11. I enjoyed this as much as if not more than anything you've written, George, and that's saying something.

    In contrast with Macbeth's nihilism, Hamlet believes in the possibility of being 'a king of infinite space' within the constriction of his world, and tells Horatio 'There are more things in heaven and earth ... than are dreamt of in your philosophy'.

    May we all find some meaning, beauty and wonder in the infinite spaces of our mind and the universe, in the manifold and inexhaustible riches of heaven and earth, and in the significant tales told by Shakespeare, Faulkner and others.

  12. An interesting post George. Macbeth being my favourite Shakespeare tragedy I have often thought about these lines - now living up here amongst country farmers who have lived and farmed these farms for generations I have over the last twenty years developed a different view entirely. My farmer would wonder what on earth the fuss was all about. We walk the fields and he will point to a tree and say his grandfther planted it, or a fence his father put up. I think the men of the countryside have life and death firmly established in its rightful place.

  13. I sure do enjoy getting to know this young George.

    I just read the speech, and you’re right, it is beautiful. It speaks to me in this time, though it was spoken in 1949. I’ve been feeling the spirit of his words myself in these days when so much in disarray and worse. His words, There is only the question: When will I be blown up?. And then, . . . the basest of all things is to be afraid . . .

    So many would have us be afraid!

    Remember in “Midnight in Paris” when it was that Gil felt immortal? After Hemingway’s questions to him in the carriage about courage and passion, that subsequent scene with Gil and Adriana? As John in the gospel says, Perfect love casts out fear. I am fascinated by the message of Woody Allen’s film, and by Faulkner’s speech, and how times and eras don’t really change much, we have the same longings and discontents, but this truth keeps opening through the years, like the inner petals of a rose.

    It’s terrific to read a post at Transit Notes again.

  14. To Bonnie,

    Thanks, Bonnie, for your comments, and thanks again for your thoughtful response to my comments on your current posting. As to where I stand on these seemingly opposite philosophies, I must reject the nihilism that is inherent in Macbeth's soliloquy. If life is simply a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury and signifying nothing, there would be no reason for many of us to carry on. I continue to think, sometimes against all odds, that there is purpose and meaning to life. As Faulkner reminds us, we not only have voices to be heard; we have souls and spirits that are capable of compassion, sacrifice, and endurance. With due respect to the Bard, our lives do, indeed, signify something, even is that something is nothing more than the fact we live well, love well, and gracefully endure the challenges we encounter.

  15. To Dan,

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Dan. The saying you quote summarizes it best for me as well. Our lives do, indeed, take place in that space between the the minds, which are telling us we are nothing, and our hearts, which are telling us we are everything. As always, it's a matter of finding the balance, though, like you, I prefer the messages of the heart to those of the mind.

  16. To Bernie,

    Thanks for your comments, Bernie. Yes, Faulkner was unique. For the most part, people either love his work or hate it. Personally, I find it difficult to generalize. I like some of his novels, but not others.

  17. To Rowan,

    Thanks for the comments, Rowan. It was great fun to summon up these memories of my encounters with Faulkner some fifty years ago. I miss that boldness of youth; we were often wrong, but never in doubt.

  18. To Robert,

    Thanks for your thoughtful and kind comments, Robert. Yes, I prefer Hamlet's more expansive view of life. There are, indeed, more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our ever-changing philosophies. Literature, at its best, always reminds us of this truth.

  19. To Pat,

    I loved your comment, Pat, and you are right on point! It's easy to believe that countryside farmers have a better perspective than the intellectuals on matters of life and death. Life's meaning is never derived from debates and scholarly treatises; it comes from living in the fullness and complexity of every passing day.

  20. To Ruth,

    Thanks once again, my friend, for your thoughtful comments. This is one of the few stories about "young George" that I can recount without embarrassment.

    Yes, I remember that colloquy between Gil and Hemingway. Perfect love does cast out all fear, be it love for another person, love for an idea, or love for art.

    No, our longings and discontent do not seem to abate with the passage time and eras. It is our nature, I think, to always want something more perfect that what we have. As Gil says in "Midnight in Paris" — I paraphrase — "The present is sometimes unsatisfying because life itself is sometimes unsatisying." Faulkner reminds us, however, that our discontent need not lead to despair, that meaning is to be found in creativity and our soul-based capacity for compassion, hope, pity, and endurance.

  21. George,

    truly you were bold. I most likely would have chickened out or would have just gaped upon encountering an author so deeply influential. From the get-go I'd have been too worried about what an annoyance I'd have been causing... so notions of "propriety" don't always come with age. :)

    I don't think I'd be able to come up with any worthy conversation on the spot, though I sometimes imagine I could carry on a correspondence with an author. That notion is charming to me, the being able to find connection through writing - which is kind of what we do while blogging, isn't it?

    I'm glad you're back (if even only for this one post for now).

  22. Hi Neighbor,

    Thanks for your comments. If you say I was bold in my youth, some some may have chosen a less flattering word. Meeting Faulkner, however, was worth the dare. If nothing else, I have any interesting little anecdote to share, made perhaps less interesting because my friend and I were not arrested for trespassing.

  23. i just love the idea that you pushed yourself to meet him. not to mention being rejected the first time with a lie. anyway, there is always a way to trick a cat...


  24. To JJ,

    Thanks for stopping by and offering your comments. Hope you will make a return visit.

  25. I guess I am in a somewhat Macbethian mood these days, much the idiot shadow, full of sound and fury (well, more fury than sound), so my initial reaction would be to return the post-humous question to the comely coeds...

    OK, I am only being facetious. This is a delightful account of the "young George" as Ruth says, as much as it is of the elderly lion of Mississippi letters. I will go read the rest of his Nobel Laureate speech. Nice to see you back on the blog.

    The quote about the past not being dead or even past is one I return to again and again in my own "strutting and fretting".

  26. Hi Lorenzo.

    Thanks, as always, for your comments, and I certainly hope that the fury of your Macbethian mood, to which I often succumb, will soon pass. Strutting and fretting aside, rest assured that your presence here in the blogging world signifies a great deal! I look forward to that post on the pilgrimage.

  27. I am not a great Faulkner reader; perhaps he has been overtaken by modern writers. At the time you read him, he was not within my reading orbit.

    It was Macbeth for whom Shakespeare wrote the speech and Macbeth had to be seen to be defeated and defeatist. So many of the Bard's words are perfect because he found them and put them into the mouths of disparate characters, bringing each one to immediate life.

    Personally, I am not sure which of the two versions of looking at man's purpose on earth appears to be the most realistic, but then realism is not what we are looking for here.

    " that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking"

    this quote frightens me, there is so little of any worth being said that I certainly wouldn't want to listen to man's voice for all eternity.

  28. To Friko,

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Friko. Frankly, I think most of us vacillate between the two philosophies. Sometimes, it seems that life is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing; yet, at other times, we instinctively feel there is something noble and hopeful in the struggle to transcend life's challenges. Perhaps it depends more on the day and circumstances than it does on the name of the philosopher.

  29. A beautiful and inspiring blog.

    My compliments!


  30. To Diana,

    Thanks, Diana. I hope you will return and participate in our conversations on this site.

  31. Hello George
    ( hope you don't mind the familiarity)
    Since I happened upon your blog I visit here every day now, and am always delighted and uplifted when you post.
    I've always pondered the meaning of our * being here*, so as ever, your thoughts and words have challenged and inspired me.
    Thank you.

  32. Hi Anna,

    I'm delighted to have you stop by, Anna, and, no, I don't mind the familiarity. We need more of that, not less.

    I'm honored that you have found inspiration in my postings. During the past few months, I have not posted as frequently as in the past, but I hope to do more soon. This has been a year of many distractions.

    I will be in your country next month, walking the Hadrian Wall Path. When I return, I will be posting about my experiences on the trip.

    Have a great day, and thanks again for stopping by.