Sunday, June 11, 2017

Land of the Living

The basest of all things is to be afraid.

― William Faulkner

When he accepted the 1949 Nobel Prize for Literature―the same year Russia exploded its first atom bomb―William Faulkner asked writers to put aside physical fear and choose life over death.

"There are no longer problems of the spirit," Faulkner said. "There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing, because only that is worth writing about."

Until the writer rediscovers "the old verities and truths of the heart," Faulkner said, he "will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man. I decline to accept the end of man."

Last week―while terror reigned in London, Paris, Melbourne, Kabul and Tehran―
Bob Dylan delivered his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, a biblio-memoir seven times longer than Faulkner's address.

Where Faulkner was brief, Dylan rambles, Kerouac-style.

But one chord sounds the same.

Midway through, Dylan describes reading All Quiet on the Western Front as a schoolboy:

"This is a book where you lose your childhood, your faith in a meaningful world, and your concern for individuals. You're stuck in a nightmare. Sucked up into a mysterious whirlpool of death and pain. You're defending yourself from elimination. You're being wiped off the face of the map."

Dylan found the novel's depiction of war exhausting. "I put this book down and closed it up. I never wanted to read another war novel again, and I never did."

He discovered the "old verities and truths of the heart" instead in an adventure tale, The Odyssey, where the hero determinedly chooses life over death.

Dylan describes Odysseus' visit with Achilles in the underworld. Odysseus is shocked to hear the condemned warrior say, "I traded a long life full of peace and contentment for a short one full of honor and glory. I just died, that's all. There was no honor. No immortality."

Were he able, Achilles says, he'd return to the world, even if that meant he'd be some farmer's slave. "Whatever his struggles of life were," Dylan says, "they were preferable to being here in this dead place. That's what songs are too. Our songs are alive in the land of the living."

Songs may not be literature in the same sense novels are, Dylan says, but they come from the same neck of the woods, a country where physical fear is so base it's forgotten.

Or as the evangelist John said, "There is no fear in love."

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