Faulkner's words resonate in this new age of anxiety

September 21, 2005|By Arthur J. Magida

Fifty-five years ago, William Faulkner proved, once again, his prescience. Speaking at the banquet in Stockholm, Sweden, for that year's Nobel laureates, Mr. Faulkner - that wonderfully boozy, inspired, gentlemanly chronicler of Southern life, Southern charm, Southern decadence, Southern mythologizing - took the world by the shoulders and tried to knock some sense into it.

"Our tragedy today," he told the audience of bigwigs and trailblazers, "is a general and physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only one question: When will I be blown up?"

Mr. Faulkner was right, then and now. The operative question today is as crudely and fundamentally as existential as it gets. And, sadly and so frustratingly, it is the same question that Mr. Faulkner asked, a mere five years after Auschwitz and Hiroshima: "When will I be blown up?" The 9/11 attacks and Katrina - the new twin towers of our dread - have awakened our basest fears, our most primitive instincts, and we're stuck in their cusp.

At the turn of the last century, the byword was "progress." History was riding toward incessant betterment: The working man was getting better wages, electricity was lighting the world, the stockyards in Chicago and the bogus patent medicines in everyone's medicine chest were coming under control, and everywhere, it seemed, America's star was ascendant. "Progress" was so contagious, so infectious, so irrefutable that an entire political movement bore its name.

Now, 100 years later, who among us can honestly look toward the horizon and say it'll be rosier than yesterday's? Who can fully subscribe to a relentlessly benign tornado that will sweep away corruption and malice? Who can say that that damned plague of a thought - "When will I be blown up?" - doesn't cross their mind once a week? Twice a week? Every day?

In a sense, we've been through this before. Well, not us, but some of our predecessors. The years after World War I were labeled the "age of anxiety." In the decades to come, there would be the aspirin age, the nuclear age, the age of one-dimensional man, the post-industrial age. No one, unless he is a politician, ever called any of these years a "happy age."

In the end, the original nameplate is the best, then and now: "the age of anxiety." Or as the poet Philip Larkin wrote in his lovely and elegiac poem about Victorian society's pre-war views about death, "MCMXIV":

Never such innocence,

Never before or since ...

Never such innocence again.

That could be us. That is us. Lost is innocence: our fresh-eyed, dewy-eyed, wide-eyed take on a world that's got to get better every day in every way, that shoves aside the ossified and the rigidified and the neuterized because, dammit, this is the way the world was made, this is what God molded into His Creation, this is the Force that we embody and we employ and we demand: a force for the fine and the sweet and the tender, for the weak and the faceless and the invisible, for the bright and the cheery and the uplifted.

Sept. 11, 2001, and Katrina have taken their toll. Only a fool would say otherwise, to which I must maliciously add: We've heard a lot from fools since Katrina struck. Their mouths are larger than their brains.

But ultimately, this cannot be the moment of our despair, the victory of our anxiety. The Dadaists made a good point in one of their wacky manifestoes: "No more of these idiocies, no more, no more." If we succumb to the idiocies, then all that's left is the anxiety, and that's a bummer.

We also need to remember that Mr. Faulkner was not content with simply mirroring the "one question" of his time. He went on to say, "I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure. Man 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 man from Oxford, Miss., knew what he was talking about. A half-century after he spoke in Sweden, we should heed him.

Arthur J. Magida, author of The Rabbi and The Hit Man, is writer-in-residence at the University of Baltimore.

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