Of Faulkner and polar bears

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Image from endangeredpolarbear.com

A writer who I don’t know but follow on Twitter posted this William Faulkner quote today: “The only thing worth writing about is the conflict in the human heart.” And my first thought was, “Wait, is that right?”

I like quotes from writers and quotes about writing, but the thing about quotes is they sound like edicts when, in fact, they’re just the musings of creative people who, like the rest of us, are making it up as they go.

And writing as an art form carries with it a certain self-importance. It often defaults to taking oneself too seriously — a side-effect of all that time spent in solitude. After hours and weeks and months with just the white of the page and the arrhythmia of the keyboard, writers are deluded that they know something particular about the human psyche and its workings and its purpose.

But even if that’s the case, so what? We humans are fascinated with human nature because it is us; but so much of the world we live in is not of us or like us or about us. We neglect sea and sky and bird and beast and write on and on about the human heart, that bloody, faulty muscle that we attribute to emotion and sentiment and compassion when it’s only actually concerned with
cardiovascular exertion.

Should we not, perhaps, write about the conflict between Israel and Palestine? Between scientists and climate deniers? Between polar bears and rising sea levels? Between Democrats and Republicans? These are not struggles of the heart, but of the head, of the elements, of forces of good and evil, giving and taking, greed and moral code.

Should we not write of those powers that turn our societies into a tug-o-war, of the ideologies that split our families and communities, of the constabularies that undermine our humanistic leanings?

Why even write if not to explore the world and its nuances? Why work with words if not to tell stories, seek truth, endeavor to offer explanation for what seems so muddied and incomprehensible?

Or perhaps Faulkner knew this and concluded, ultimately, that the conflicted human heart — by which he meant mind — was at the root of all of these woes. The troubled mind dreamt a troubled world into being. And therefore, by rooting out the human seed that sprouted a forest of discontent, we can begin to make real change.

But I suspect Faulkner’s quote has more to do with the practice of writing in solitude about solitude, of creating a world in which each person is an island and each person’s baggage is private and unique and more worthy of examination and attention than all the polar bears on all the melting icebergs.

And that, of course, is just silly.

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