Stick with me here valued audience. I know awards speeches are not a popular genre. First off, everyone watching has just lost except for the speaker—not just the tuxedos in the hall, but anyone watching at home who aren’t important enough to be invited to the event. So maybe it’s safest to thank others effusively until your time is up and the music plays you off. A choice to make other points can be ineffective.
Yet, this isn’t the first time I’ve used an awards speech as the text for a piece, though the other two times they were speeches by actors, David Harbour and Viola Davis. Both of those speeches made claims about the value of dramatic art: Harbour making the claim that we may use make-believe heroes to inspire us to do necessary things, and Davis testifying that art, because it includes the illuminated communication of intense human experience, is the only complete way to explore humanity.
The Nobel Prize award requests an acceptance “lecture,” which sounds more high-falutin and boring than an acceptance speech. The literature winners often take the bait and tell us something about the value of their art—but it just so happens that I’m listening for that right now, because I’m not sure about the value of the arts of poetry or music, the things this project is made of, in the midst of this year’s multiple crises: a pandemic, an economic downturn that I fear we haven’t sounded the bottom of, a king of misrule, and a tragic occasion to consider remedies to racial oppression. When I talked about these things this week with friends, they reminded me, “And we haven’t even talked about global warming lately.”
The first section of today’s piece is taken from William Faulkner’s 1949 Nobel Prize acceptance speech. Even a couple of decades later his statement was much loved in liberal arts departments as I was getting in touch with them in “The Sixties,” because we still hadn’t gotten over the fear we talk even less about: global atomic warfare destruction. Faulkner was a wordsmith to reckon with, even if he couldn’t figure out the plot of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep.* When I looked back at his speech this month, the line I open up with today grabbed me in 2020 as much or more than it would have back in the mid-20th century:
Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it.”
Don’t misread the end of that sentence. He is saying we can bear that fear (his contemporary fears, and ours) and go on writing. One may raise their hand before the Nobel-Dynamite-Prize winner Faulkner and ask: “Well, yes I suppose we could. But shouldn’t we be doing something else instead? A lot of people’s survival is at stake.”
The next section I quote from Faulkner’s speech tries to answer that. It’s a fine piece of writing too. If one abstracts the thought from the rhetoric, he’s saying that we have jobs in relationship to those that will be doing something else instead. This is akin to Viola Davis’ argument about art: no position paper, resolution, or negotiating point can fully connect one heart with another, and no struggle can see its way without full illumination of the human experience.
Is Faulkner right about that? I don’t know. It may not be right for you, but it’s a plausible idea for an old man like myself, one who lacks the social cohesion to build a barricade and the bravery to mount and advance over it.
An example of writers not being much good at other jobs, Faulkner was bad when given a job as a postmaster. His resignation letter read: “As long as I live under the capitalistic system, I expect to have my life influenced by the demands of moneyed people. But I will be damned if I propose to be at the beck and call of every itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp.” The Postal Service had its revenge in 1987. Faulkner’s price had risen by 20 cents.
The concluding statement in today’s piece is from another American Nobel Literature prize winner’s “lecture,” Bob Dylan’s. The inspiration for this came from a gift Dave Moore gave me this month, a small, handsome book containing Dylan’s lecture. When Dylan won the Literature prize there was a great deal of consternation that what he did wasn’t literature, possibly also not very good, but for sure not literature. Some commentators seemed to feel that poetry might not even qualify, wondering what novels he had written.** But never mind, song lyrics can’t be poetry can they?
In the concluding part of his speech Dylan cleverly concedes that point, and then collapses his wings around those objecting that performed oral poetry is not literature. That’s books, stuff written and read on paper. Suddenly they are surrounded with no retreat. Shakespeare*** wrote for voices and audiences in common. We only know his plays in page form from bootleg tapers. Songs, music, are like that too. They are alive, they live on the currents of breath. Literature is an artifact—a voice is the art, a song is the immediate fact of an experience. I, you, anyone, can doubt art in its absence, in silence—while fear likes that space just fine. But while a song is sounding in your breath and ear, doubt is beside the point. “Songs are alive in the land of the living” Dylan proclaims.
My performance mashing up these quotes from the two Nobel Prize speeches accompanied by my own music can be heard with the player below. If you’d like to read the entirety of these two speeches, Faulkner’s text is here, and Dylan’s is here (with a link to his own audio reading).
*A Hollywood anecdote had Faulkner, who was working as screenwriter for hire in the 1940s, getting stumped about the famously convoluted plot of Chandler’s detective novel he was adapting for a classic 1946 movie. A point about an early murder that deepens the plot was unclear. “Yes, but who killed General Sternwood’s chauffeur?” he queried. Chandler replied: “Dammit, I don’t know either.”
**I found it interesting that novelist Faulkner more than once refers to poets as he speaks about the writer’s task in his speech.
***And Dylan closes with Homer, the blind one in the silence of sight, who didn’t ask the muses for paper but the music to tell the story.