We are trying to understand what William Faulkner meant when he said that all good writing was born of “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself.”
I suggested that such a statement requires the existence of some notion of a soul. And it’s no good pointing to plants animals or the wind as somehow endowed with the same meaning, the same drama, the same depth of inner conflict, because this is simply us projecting our human experience on object of nature which we may love very much.
So here we go.
I submit that by “the heart” Faulkner is referring to the deepest inner aspect of a person. And to be in conflict with itself suggests that the one heart has two aspects, two “knowledges”, two separate grasps of reality and of self. The first is an ideal heart, with a certain sort of perfection, and the other is the heart of the everyday self. One is the heart that knows bravery, honor, reason, love, trustworthiness and all virtues. The other heart operates mainly out of some appetite – it wants pleasure, peace, control, homage, security.
Faulkner is insinuating that there are dual principles battling for mastery of the human, and each have their moments of control. Occasionally we obey a call to serve The Good (a thing outside of us): the need of a loved one, a noble cause, justice, exposure of some falsehood. This side tends to be based on the rational, the divine spark within all humanity, the thing that separates us from the animals.
And other times we obey our appetites, the thing inside: hunger, lust, what we are owed, our protection. This side tends to be based on an instinctual impulse, the animal side.
And here you have the classic quest for humanity to rise above those animal passions still dwelling inside, and live according to the higher principal that we possess.
The heart in conflict with itself happens when these two principals smash up against each other. The higher human principal vs. the animal principal. Rational vs. instinctual. Spiritual vs. material. Even freedom vs. slavery, if you will.
And this is why I say that understanding this phrase necessitates the notion of a soul which is the container of the ideal, the seat where the knowledge of The Good abides. I maintain that everyone has this as a part of human nature, though it is possible to suppress to such an extent that it is for all purposes lost.
Now. Back to good writing. The best writing, says Faulkner, is in those books that take the reader into the midst of such a contest of hearts as it battles in the soul of the characters. And this is what makes his fiction so stunning – the way he lays out messed-up people – freaks really – and messy relationships, brokenness, all dripping with the particular problems of the 1930’s South. He is so good at it in fact, that his fiction is inaccessible to some.
If you are used to Nicholas Sparks and are wondering if you should read a Faulkner novel, the answer is ‘yes,’ but please email me first. Or at least prepare yourself with some back reading.
The heart in conflict with itself may take the form of insanity. It may take the form of incest. It may take the form of prejudice. It may take the form of addiction. Some of these are factors beyond our control, which adds even more dimension. It may not just be a struggle of The Will, it may be a battle in which the odds are completely against the ideal, as in the case of insanity or addiction, where reason is compromised and cannot even enter the fight. The battle may be further complicated by societal forces, such as social rank, prejudice or politics.
I suppose the most ragged edge of the heart in conflict with itself is involved in what a character thinks about God. Does it love some false notion of God, or does it create its own God. It may insist there is no God. It may be in a fierce battle with God, as in Moby Dick, Jude the Obscure or the Greek myth of Prometheus (not the movie).
But in each of these cases, the heart can only be in conflict with itself…IF there is such a thing as an ideal principal, which is what we can call a soul.
If there is no soul, then Faulkner’s phase is either meaningless, or is reduced to an much less interesting chemical or organic reaction. The badger choosing to dig the hole.