(this is part 2 in a discussion about Faulkner’s famous statement “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself, which alone can make good writing…” Read the short Nobel Prize acceptance speech here.)
Stories that reveal the innate conflict of humans with themselves.
What is that supposed to mean? Am I in conflict with myself? If so, am I even aware of it? What is the nature of the conflict? What does it feel like? And what does it mean if I don’t feel myself to be in conflict with myself?
The first thing this idea suggests is the necessity of some notion of a soul. What internal conflict can there be within a creature that has no soul? Or if a writer attempted a story about a soulless object, would it be interesting enough to write about? Does a tree have some innate psychological conflict? Does the wind wage war within it’s heart? No.
What about animals? Perhaps you could have an animal, say a badger, in a state of turmoil over whether to dig a hole or find food to eat. That is not worth writing about. Or perhaps if you had a badger fooling around on his wife at a local night club, spending money he didn’t have and going into debt, a pacifist badger who has just been drafted into the military and must either flee the country or go against his principles…
If badgers have this kind of drama in their daily existence, it is not apparent (the honey-badger notwithstanding.) Now, I can imagine someone who is inclined to be contrary insisting that the drama of all creation is as noble as the silly scurrying around of humans. But is it the heart in conflict with itself?
If it is anything, this is what’s called an anthropomorphism, or humanization of some thing; taking a non-human creature or object and speaking as if it had human characteristics. This is an extremely common literary turn, but it falls short of revealing the heart in conflict with itself, except insofar as the creatures are really showing us something about human experience in the fun form of a talking animal or tree.
Might Faulkner simply be talking about double-mindedness? Ah! We’re getting warmer. But that is still not terribly worth writing about, much less something that Faulkner would hold up as the Holy Grail of good writing. It is a mundane human experience. Hardly the sine qua non of good writing.
The kind of heart-conflict that Faulkner is talking about requires all the complexity that is innately present in a human soul. A psyche, if you will. But not just any human psyche. A human psyche that fundamentally at odds with itself in some way. A broken psyche – one that possesses, in a distinctly human way, the capacity to recognize and desire the ideal and yet to choose otherwise. It is the story of internal battle of the will, the angel and the devil sitting on each shoulder. And the best books, according to Faulkner, are those that present the problems that arise when a character is at war with himself.