Posted by: Harold Knight | 01/01/2010

“Well, you’ve done it again, you’ve wasted a perfectly good hour listening to ‘Car Talk’…” (1)

Well, I’ve done it again. For the 64th time, I’ve awakened to discover another calendar year has passed, 2009 C.E. The question I ask more and more as the years go by is, “Have I,” to paraphrase Click and Clack, The Tappet Brothers (Tom and Ray Magliozzi) as they end each “Car Talk” installment on NPR, “wasted a perfectly good year” listening to the idiocy that passes for a) religious enlightenment, b) political discourse, c) social commentary, d) scholarly investigation, or e) all of the above in this country? 

In high school, our Advanced Placement English class (when AP was a way to give advanced work to advanced students) read William Faulkner’s The Unvanquished. I don’t remember the book—I’ve never reread it because I read it once—but I know the incalculable influence reading it had my self expression.

Faulkner’s language makes more sense to me than almost any other writer’s. Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor, Cormac McCarthy, and Louise Erdrich, rank right up there, but none of them gets under the layers of my brain the way Faulkner does. During that AP semester, I read Absalom, Absalom! because I loved The Unvanquished. When I could not understand it, Mr. Simpson suggested I read the novel sections (not the drama sections) of Requiem for a Nun to learn about Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha County.

Two years ago on March 18, 2008 Barak Obama gave a campaign speech about “racism,” or, rather, suggesting that on-the-fence Republicans could trust him not to start race wars if he were elected. A good speech titled, “A More Perfect Union.” 

Oops! Here’s my point. Mr. Obama misquoted (or, perhaps “paraphrased”) a line from Requiem for a Nun. The candidate said, “The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.” The line reads, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” (2) Some talking head on TV decided to deride the future President for the misquotation. I looked it up and couldn’t put the book down. The TV talking head, of course, had no clue what human realities the novel/play explores, and he proved by pointing out Mr. Obama’s misquotation that Faulkner’s insight is correct. The past was not dead that day. In fact, it wasn’t even past. The TV head’s speaking in the present showed that the past of racism and hatred is “not even past,” necessitating Mr. Obama’s speech.

My favorite Faulkner novel is As I Lay Dying. (3) I have laughed out loud until I cried at passages in that story, and then cried until I cried some more. It is a fairly new acquisition in my knowledge of Faulkner—read in 1995 for a novel writing class. We paid particular attention to the “writerly” phrases in the novel, and one sentence has become more or less my watchword for every writing I attempt.


Addie Bundren, as she lies dying, says, “Words dont ever fit even what they are trying to say at.” The novel works out the absolute certainty that “words dont ever fit even what they are trying to say at.” Everyone in Addie’s family has a go at “trying to say at” what the matriarch’s dying means, and none succeeds. They “say at” what she has done to make each of them, in turn, miserable. They take her in her casket to town to bury her and drop the casket in the river and. . . 

“[My words] dont ever even fit what they are trying to say at.” “Well, I’ve done it again, I’ve wasted another perfectly good” year reading and writing and trying my level best to understand in what sense the past is never dead, that it’s not even past—both my past and “our” past. 

All of this palaver about Faulkner, and Click and Clack, and President Obama and Addie Bundren I fear is leading up to making a point “all about me.” For a couple of weeks I have not written about the little quirks of my brain. But today I must. I apologize for this giant non sequitur. However, in my brain this all fits together. 

The past isn’t even past, and words don’t ever even fit what they are trying to say at. Our communal past may not even be past because our singular, individual pasts are not even past. Yesterday I had a positive conversation with my therapist about my breaking my isolation to throw myself a birthday party (the passing of the calendar year and my personal year are but two days apart). 

Almost immediately after that conversation, on the way home I stopped to get groceries. I rushed through crowds, under too-low ceilings with the harsh intensity of fluorescent lights. I checked out at a self-service register. I scanned my items, pushed “pay now,” swiped my card, and waited. The screen said, “continue checking out,” with no indication how—I had already followed the instructions. 

I started over. A knot tied in my chest. I followed the machine’s instructions. Same result. I went looking for the “attendant” who was chatting with a friend. By now, five people were behind me. The knot in my chest tightened and pushed into my throat forcing me to hold back tears. The attendant came, punched the screen, took my card and swiped it, exactly as I had done. I was, by this time unable to be polite. I said unkind things. The machine registered my purchase, spat out my receipt. The next guy in line was already scanning his stuff before I retrieved my bags. 

Nearly to my car I realized I had not taken the $40 change I’d asked the machine for. I ran back, demanded my $40, virtually accused the guy behind me of pocketing my money, and asked the “attendant” if the store was going to give me my money. “You can take it up with the manager.” “Fuck!” I’m pretty sure everyone in the store heard me. 

Walking in the rain to my car, I vaguely remembered the “attendant” handing me my receipt and saying, “Don’t forget you change.” I realized I had tried to put the receipt and the money in my wallet, but the receipt would not fit, so I stuffed all of it in my pocket. My anger (can I control such outbursts or not?) completely disoriented me. By the time I reached my car, I wasn’t crying. I was sobbing, I don’t know whether from anger or embarrassment. 

From The Unvanquished to President Obama to Addie Bundren to my temper tantrum. Volatility lies very close to the surface of all my feelings and actions. One of the signs of bipolar depression that my doctors advise me to watch for is exploding over what might otherwise be a mild irritant –or over nothing at all. 

Perhaps what I’m trying to say is this simple. I have a disorder (it may really be simply a very bad temper) that causes me to explode. When I am in that mode, “words dont ever even fit what they are trying to say at.” And my “past is never dead. It’s not even past.” 

A possible New Year’s resolution: try to use words to “fit even what they are trying to say at,” not yelling “Fuck” at a hapless grocery store clerk. And try to remember that the past is in the present, so I must be careful. 

Is the Past Past?

This is not a clear argument. It’s more of an intuition. But perhaps I’m not the only one who might resolve those things. So we don’t “waste another perfectly good year.”

(1)  Tom and Ray Magliozzi, the Peabody Award-winning hosts of Car Talk on NPR.
(2)  Faulkner, William. Requiem for a Nun. New York: Random House, 1951.
         Act I Scene III, Gavin Stevens:”The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
(3)  Faulkner, William. As I Lay Dying. New York:  J. Cape &H. Smith, 1930.


  1. I’ve never been able to read Faulkner. I think it’s some kind of weird tic in my brain. I like what people quote, though, and I know enough about him to understand the context (I did read “A Rose for Emily” and “Barn Burning,” though). I also love his Nobel Prize Speech: “I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail.” also “the last ding-dong of time.” Wow!

    But that’s not what you asked of me, Beloved Hak-night. You want an evaluation of what you wrote. What you write aligns so well to my own (non)writing life. I can’t even get a blog going. I’m great at email (even funny, esp in the hospital), I’ve certainly written my share of rants to politicians (and I live in NE Tarrant County the REDDEST of RED counties in the state). I just keep processing, processing, processing unable to commit to anything except writing teacher things. Yeah, and I really relate to the Car Talk material. I think you CAN write; I think you have wonderful things to say; I wish I had the persistence to even attempt a blog or a journal. For me, it has to be assigned or something to teach a class.

    Our mutual problem Beloved One is that we get each other at such a visceral level (and I may not return that wonderful shirt you brought me). We grok (remember that piece of sci-fi) and now I feel as if I am so near the end of my life that it’s hopeless to try anything new but only to pick up the pieces that might become something for Kierstin.

    You are so totally OUT which I respect about you more than anything. Everything that I’ve read of yours, I’ve liked, respected, wished I had your courage to get it out there. Yes, it’s courage which all your writing SHOWS–an inner integrity that shines through the dreck of the haute viciousness that so consumes the media, the academy, the society. (Please pardon the collocation of Yiddish and French).

    You always have something to say, and I always learn something from what I read. I can’t say that for anyone else that I know.


  2. Harold,

    I was browsing through your blog and found this, which moved, enlightened and edified me. How poignant to see Anne’s words around the idea that the past lives on.



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