"Memory Believes before Knowing Remembers": Faulkner, Canetti, and Survival

Article excerpt

In his Nobel Prize acceptance address, William Faulkner, speaking of the "fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it" ("Address" 723), alluded to the instinctive fear of violence that threatens to reduce human existence to a barbaric world of threat and counterthreat. In this world, prejudice and mistrust are the controlling motives for human action, and society is ruled by mere force rather than by the power of reason or the rule of law. A world reduced to this level has no room for loyalty or selflessness, and in such a world it is always the weak who suffer the most. As Faulkner makes abundantly clear, the potential for such disorder is always present, yet he "refuses to accept" this vision of life. In asserting that "man will not merely endure: he will prevail," Faulkner is pointing to the distinction between mere survival and a civilized conduct of life based on understanding and compassion and defended by courageous action. Mankind's "immortality" is grounded not merely in the ability to survive physically but, more importantly, in the possession of "a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance" ("Address" 724).

In transcending the instinctive level of fear, human beings reach toward a more enlightened state of forgiveness and hope, but in order to reach this condition of "prevailing," they need to grasp the destructive potential of mistrust, egotism, and greed, instincts that are rooted in a deep-seated anxiety concerning survival and that too often control human relationships. In their place, mankind needs to develop a more courageous and selfless form of human interaction that will lead beyond mere survival toward a more benevolent and secure condition. As Faulkner developed the idea in his Nobel Prize speech, the writer exists to serve others through a fearless and self-sacrificing, if not exactly "selfless," dedication to the telling of "the old universal truths." Faulkner insists that man "is immortal ... because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance" (724). Clearly, these sentiments must be tempered by Faulkner's recognition that, in the words of Issac McCaslin, "man made a heap of his circumstances, him and his living neighbors between them" ("Delta Autumn" 646), yet Issac's less than sanguine words are themselves contradicted by his final gesture of passing General Compson's hunting horn, his most precious inheritance, along to the child of Roth Edmonds and the African American descendant of James Beauchamp. For once, Issac's action is selfless and courageous.

It is this same vision of the development from the instinctive level of fear and violence to a humane concern for others that is of central importance in the writing of one of William Faulkner's major contemporaries, Elias Canetti. Although there is no evidence of mutual influence, indeed no indication in their published works, letters, or public statements that Faulkner and Canetti were familiar with one another's works, the two authors were affected by the same historical crises--two world wars, a global depression, the rise of totalitarianism, and the holocaust--and the effect of these events on their writing is similar in many respects. In particular, the focus on the theme of survival is a central concern of both writers. Despite their different cultural and intellectual backgrounds, Faulkner and Canetti appear to have arrived at surprisingly similar conclusions concerning the innate propensity of human beings toward violence, and in response each writer forged a conception of art as, in some sense, a corrective to the destructive tendencies of human society.

Elias Canetti, born just eight years after William Faulkner, in 1905 in Ruschuk, Bulgaria, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1981, thirty-two years after Faulkner received the award. Canetti, however, was much more a literary contemporary of Faulkner than the dates of their Nobel Prizes would suggest, for Canetti's only novel, Die Blendung (translated as Auto-da-Fe in 1946) was published in 1936, and two major dramatic works, Hochzeit (The Wedding) and Die Komodie der Eitelkeit (Comedy of Vanity) were composed in the early 1930s though, in part for political reasons, not published or produced until after World War II. …