A Thunderbolt from William Faulkner

My friend and colleague Mick Hurbis-Cherrier sent me this extraordinary and completely unexpected example of a speech of transcendent eloquence.  It was a timely and embarrassing reminder of how instinctively I still sometimes think of speeches as something that politicians do.  Thanks, Mick. 

Steve, I can’t thank you enough for the compendium of moving speeches you’ve posted here.  It reminds us that there was, and still is, nobility among our political leaders, and therefore in the voters and supporters who gave them these platforms to begin with.  These speeches also remind us of how much work there is to be done in confronting  racism and sexism (which has also reared its ugly head in this primary) despair and cynicism. 

In any case, I too was moved by Obama’s speech like I have never been moved by a political speech since before I was able to vote: honest, personal, complex, important and dead on.  I’ve heard writers, professors, friends, community leaders, colleagues, etc. talk like this, but never someone who was seeking a critical mass of votes to win national office.  You see, my political consciousness began with Watergate and late Vietnam (the American embassy in Saigon was evacuated on my 11th birthday, which made it a solemn occasion).  I cast my first presidential vote for Jimmy Carter when he lost to Ronald Reagan.  B. Clinton’s presidency was the only bright spot in an otherwise depressing experience for me as a voter in presidential elections (Reagan x2, Bush x3) and even that ended in a severe disappointment. 

And along with everyone else, I’ve witnessed the near total erosion of eloquence, substance and inspiration in political speech making.  So much have presidential hopefuls learned over these years to be more careful and less substantive with their speeches, that I was beginning to feel that anyone who held profound or complex ideas, and a desire to speak truthfully, was essentially ill equipped to be elected president in this country after so much Reagan and Bush can you blame me for thinking this?  (BTW, I never understood why Regan was dubbed “the great communicator” and I never understood people who said that George W. Bush is a guy they’d like to have a beer with, talk about dull company!)  

Anyway, I wanted to share a speech which “struck this kid like a thunderbolt” when I discovered it browsing the public library shelves as a 13 year-old, which I did a lot (like you, I was a weird kid in some ways).  This speech, which addresses being a writer (artist in general) in a cold war era on the brink of nuclear apocalypse, continues to be inspirational and influential for me, as only something which tags your consciousness at a tender age can be.  It’s not a speech made in my lifetime and it’s not a speech by a political figure, but it shares, with all the speeches you’ve posted, a fervent appeal to our collective humanity which, one hopes, remains a greater force on one’s actions than the specific crises of the day.  It is through our humanity (the recognition of ourselves in others and the recognition of the best we can be in ourselves) that we can move toward progress rather than slide back into bitterness, hatred and revenge (as RFK says in his MLK speech).  

In his speech on race, Obama quoted William Faulkner’s famous line from Requiem for a Nun, “The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past,”  (btw. Faulkner’s actual line is: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”). This reference reminded me of William Faulkner’s speech upon receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950, the text of which I am submitting here.  Nikki Giovanni’s fiercely healing poem to Virginia Tech, which you posted, stands as a perfect example of what Faulkner is talking about.


Acceptance Speech by William Faulkner, Nobel Prize in Literature, December 10, 1950

Elem Klimov’s “Come and See” (1985)

Since I am frequently watching films, the idea of occasionally recommending only one seems almost peculiar,  especially given how many have entranced me since the days I cut political science courses as a freshman at UCLA to spend 12 hour days in the Melnitz film archives.

But I would like to limit recommendations in this blog to a different class of film that comes along every so often. These are the “residue” films that transcend even the best of the medium and — almost always through compelling narrative and character development — leave you with a residue of sadness or nightmare or unresolved moral dillema that you couldn’t shake if you tried.  These films are emotional traps, in the best sense of the word. Sometimes for years.

I am sure many of you know the feeling. You’ll be walking along and you suddenly realise that you are still “living” in a film you saw months before.  The narrative might have had a superficial exit of sorts,  but that same exit slammed shut if you were seeking an easy psychological way out from the film’s emotional complexity or challenging moral dillemas.

The best way I know how to make this distinction is recalling the day my daughter’s hampster died. She was inconsolable, for five minutes at most, and then wanted to know if we were still going out for pizza. First the pathos and then, even more quickly, the pepperoni.

Yet in the years that followed, when the same daughter  (and all of us)  lost Michael,  a wonderful, creative and occasionally insufferable friend to HIV/AIDS, we entered a space that still surrounds us more than 15 years later. I am talking about films that do something like this.  

Thanks to my colleague Mick Hurbis Cherrier’s suggestion of one film,  I am now entering my third month stuck in a relentless nightmare of war. So let me recommend Elem Klmov’s “Come and See.” We had been arguing in the department whether, per Truffaut’s assertion,  anti-war films were impossible because of the inevitable tendency of film to aestheticize horror. 

So Mick pulled this film out of his hat, and in one viewing, Truffaut’s claim — for me at least — was demolished. 

Check it out. You’ll never be the same. This is war — relentlessly sad, horrifyingly violent, and morally confusing.  A nightmare.