In August of 1955, William Faulkner traveled to Japan.  Based in the out-of-the-way mountain province of Nagano—which, until the 1998 Winter Olympics, enjoyed a benign anonymity in perfect proportion to its relative unimportance in world affairs—Faulkner lectured and temple-toured for two weeks, doing the bidding of the U.S. State Department, which had sponsored his trip.  Capitalizing on Faulkner’s sudden fame following on his Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949 and his Pulitzer Prize in 1954 was surely part of the arrangement.  Selling the idea of liberal democracy, bedizened as it was with awards and prizes and Great Novels and the like, to a country that had recently and repeatedly been humiliated into swallowing it, was certainly the end goal of the exercise.  (Lest there be any doubt that democracy was the real hero of this morality play, Faulkner’s sole literary companion on the Far East sojourn was Gay Wilson Allen, who had just written a biography of Walt Whitman on the occasion of the centennial of Leaves of Grass.)

A year later, in July 1956, Kenkyusha Press of Tokyo published, in English, a record of Faulkner’s Nagano sojourn.  Both the book and the visit are now largely forgotten.  Looking through the former, it is easy to understand why.  Perhaps Faulkner was working, marionette-like, from a State Department script.  Perhaps he was merely as dull at the podium as he was lively at the typewriter.  In any event, his many speeches and colloquia are burdened with such a larding of soulless platitudes that reading the written record of his remarks seems almost preferable to having had to sit through such bland boilerplate in person.

The rehearsal of stale apothegms about the human condition is suddenly made more interesting, though, toward the end of the book, when Faulkner delivers himself of a brief prepared speech addressed “To the Youth of Japan.”  In these short remarks, fewer than a thousand words in all, Faulkner turns to a consideration of the similarities between his own ruined country in 1865 and the state of Japan—the name of whose Sherman was Curtis LeMay—almost exactly 80 years later.

For his entire trip, Faulkner’s overarching theme had been his belief in man.  Great faith in mankind, in all of his arts and bravery and hopefulness, was, to hear Faulkner tell it, the only thing we as a species had going for us.  Democracy—the political iteration of this brand of unreflective utopian humanism—was the cure for whatever self-inflicted ailment might have befallen the poor human race.  Sure enough, in “To the Youth of Japan,” Faulkner, without a trace of irony, tells his Japanese interlocutors to take heart, because the South, too, had once been torched and looted by radical republicanism, lorded over by a military dictatorship, subjected to every matter of emasculation and knavish carpetbaggery, and forced into a political union with a group of people that it happened to find fundamentally distasteful and insufferably sanctimonious.  But happily, in the end, it had all worked out for the best.

I will not dwell here on the irony of William Faulkner using the language of Abraham Lincoln to eulogize the War Between the States.  (Democracy, Faulkner breezily declares, is free from the taint of ideology, because democracy “is simply a human belief that no government shall exist immune to the check of the consent of the governed.”  President Lincoln, who would go on to kill some 300,000 of his countrymen who had dared not to consent to his style of “popular” government, might, while standing up at Gettysburg to laud “government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” have found some dark humor in the foreknowledge, and in the context, of Faulkner’s strained defense.)

No, what is of greater import than Faulkner’s amnesia about his own region’s history is his much more troubling forgetfulness about democracy in general.  The War Between the States, Faulkner blithely reports, “taught us compassion for other peoples whom war has injured.”  Never mind that this democratic compassion was not enough to prevent the incineration of 100,000 people in the firebombing of Tokyo, or 120,000 more in the atomic bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima.  As for mankind’s “invincible durability and courage beneath disaster,” one suspects that when Faulkner, accepting his Nobel Prize in Stockholm, held that “man will not merely endure; he will prevail,” he was not speaking of the propensity of democracy to amplify those inborn horrors of the human heart that made Stalingrad, Treblinka, and Guadalcanal—to take just a one-year period in mankind’s democratic annals—possible to begin with.

In an even broader sense, what makes Faulkner’s strange optimism about the human race (“man’s hope is the capacity to believe in man”) remarkable is that, for all its cultural coloring as a distinctly Yankee characteristic, this misguided virtue is not really an American phenomenon at all.  Faulkner was in Japan in order to put a literary imprimatur on the American Century, that age of progress and industry when the bureaucratic hegemon in Washington, D.C., would oversee the “development” (the word was as common in Japan in the 1950’s as it was in the United States) of the half of the world it had subdued.  But this ability to speak of advancing enlightenment at a time of unparalleled barbarism was a product of the Enlightenment itself.  It predated the founding of the United States.

Here is the fatal conceit, expressed succinctly in Faulkner’s own words, and pronounced amid the ruins of a country that Enlightenment democracy had quite literally leveled, starved, and burned: “Man’s condition can be bettered. . . . Man’s condition does change.”  For Faulkner, as for all good Enlightenment fellow travelers (and this includes the collectivist Marxian millenarians in Moscow just as much as it does the bean-counting New Dealers in D.C. who razed Japan in the name of Franklin Roosevelt and then went and remade it in the spirit of Woody Guthrie), human beings were not, after all, so bad.  We weren’t perfect yet, but we were perfectible.

Speaking at a question-and-answer session held at the American Cultural Center in Tokyo, Faulkner elaborated on his democratic-minded progressive idealism.  “There are evils of yesterday that don’t exist any more,” he declared.  Next followed a string of soothsaying.

The evils of today will be gone tomorrow by the advancement, woman will have more freedom in this country than they had once.  There will be a time when the older people that get the world into wars won’t be able to get the world into wars any more for the young people to get killed in.  That will come, it will take time, it will take patience, and it will take a capacity of people to believe that man’s condition can be improved, not as a gift to him, but by his own efforts.  That he can do it.

Faulkner got at least some of his predictions right.  The “evils of yesterday”—for example, the oppression of women by the patriarchal family structure that Friedrich Engels loathed as much as Faulkner seems to have—are, in fact, now largely gone.  But in the 60 years since Faulkner made that prognosis about gender equality, well more than one billion children have been aborted worldwide (most of them, of course, little girls).  The “older people that get the world into wars” did give way, it is true, but to youngsters like Osama bin Laden, Bashar al Assad, and “Jihadi John,” who has lately preferred to while away his callow youth by beheading those who oppose his designs for a new caliphate in the Dar al-Islam.  The forward-thinking managerial cadre that now runs every European country has, in the two decades since the founding of the European Union, run up more than 12 trillion euros in debt—some half a trillion euros a year.  (The debtors, who never had any respect for their benefactors in the first place, now elect brazen con artists who stroll into their creditors’ wainscoted offices and hold whole nations ransom with threatened default.)  The furthest advanced of the vanguard of the “changing human condition”—the professoriate—now busy themselves with studying lesbian farming, female masturbation, transgender pornography, and queer literature in sub-Saharan Africa.  And, just to prove that religion is not exempt from progress, either, Christians are crucified from North Korea to the Sudan while the Holy Father, fenced in by bodyguards, frets about climate change.

The American Century, then, which started somewhere around Midway (if not during the Hundred Days of 1918) and gained official artistic sanction with the long-forgotten visit of William Faulkner to America’s most rubbled prize, was not really American at all.  Born of the same Miltonian rejection of God’s order that we find at creation’s first “enlightenment,” Our Century actually started long ago, with the sophomoric frittering away of Christendom’s achievements at the end of the 14th century—first to national churches, then to national projects, and finally to international revolutions that wasted no time in stripping the altars of God and erecting new ones to Man and all His Great Works.  William Tecumseh Sherman, Oliver Cromwell, Napoleon Bonaparte, Adolf Hitler, Mao Zedong, Woodrow Wilson, Pol Pot, Kim Il-sung, and Franklin Roosevelt all roved the wide earth in the name of The People.  Not one of them, it seems, saw fit to submit his designs to any power higher than that.