Excerpt From the Prophet Faulkner

By: Larry Levinger in the Atlantic Monthly June 2000
Contributed by: Jim Hill

William Faulker was born in 1897 and died in 1962.
He won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1950.
Some 1,300 books have been written about him.
The main question behind the article was “what was it about this guy?” Why so much more prominence 50 some years after his death than when he was alive?
“beautiful manners, soft speech, controlled intensity and astonishing capacity for hard drink.”

In 1958 William Faulkner, as writer in residence at the University of Virginia, fielded questions from members of the Department of Psychiatry. The exchange begins this way:

“Mr. Faulkner, could you say a few words about what you might consider… irrational human behavior?”

A: No, I couldn’t… all human behavior is unpredictable and, considering man’s frailty… and… the ramshackle universe he functions in, it’s… all irrational….

Q: You don’t have any idea of where you learned psychology?

A: No sir, I don’t… What little of psychology I know the characters I have invented and playing poker have taught me…

Q: Most of your characters are certainly highly individualized human beings. Do you have any particular ideas on the so-called trend toward conformity, the loss of individualization in our current society?

A: Yes, I have very definite ideas about that… I’m against belonging to anything….

Q: Why is that?

A: I think one man may be first-rate but if you get one man and two second-rate men together, then he’s not going to be first-rate any longer, because the voice of that majority will be a second-rate voice, the behaviour of that majority will be second-rate….

Q: Can you go further and say how you rate people like that – first and second-rate?

A: Well, sir… I would say that a first-rate man… is a man that did the best he could with what talents he had to make something which wasn’t there yesterday… that [he]… never harmed the weak, practiced honesty and courtesy, and tried to be as brave as he wanted to be whether he always was that brave or not. I think that a man that held to those tenets wouldn’t get very far if he were involved in a group of people that had relinquished their individualities to some one voice…

I think that one of the special characteristics of this choir is that we sing with one voice, at least when monophonically, and at the same time, celebrate our individualities.