Arnold Weinstein

ISBN 978-0-691-17730-4  Princeton  £25.

 reviewed by Alan Dent

Weinstein is a US literary academic of long-standing. Some of this book is about that; his experiences, the nature of the academy, how it has changed, students, his mistakes. Much  is interesting and hits the high notes when he’s willing to say what has to be said about neo-liberalism and education: 

            Our expensive institutions of learning, despite their high-sounding rhetoric about liberal education, are finding themselves increasing bound to the harshest of economic metrics…the humanities are being priced out. 

Better not let Trump hear him or he’ll be sending his rioters to storm his study. Weinstein is clearly a liberal-minded, sensitive, clear-thinking intellectual. It must be hard for such people in contemporary America. Not in material terms, of course; but he’s no materialist in the vulgar sense. On the contrary, he’s a high-minded defender of literature as a supreme expression of what it means to be human. Rather, in the sphere of values, to use a somewhat outdated term, as far as the “spiritual” side of life is concerned. Here and there, he might be a touch self-indulgent but that can be forgiven in a man who has devoted himself to the education of the young and to the promotion of the world’s best literature. All the writers he focuses on are of the highest order. There is nothing here of that post-modern slovenliness which proposes that if you like a book there is nothing more to be said. Weinstein believes in critical criteria. Nor does he fall into the false liberalism of identity literature. The colour, gender or sexual orientation of an author or a book’s characters is irrelevant when is comes to dispassionate criticism. Flaubert was right about Uncle Tom’s Cabin: it’s well-meaning but badly written. Today we are witnessing the dismissal of critical honesty in a putative search for equality which in fact undermines its own purpose. Equality is the correct aim but it is best served by intellectual and moral honesty. He accepts that “great books” has sneaked in western hegemony, and is pleased by the broadening of horizons. What needs to be said is that literature, by definition, is world literature. 

This book comes into its own when he concentrates on his chosen writers. If you wanted to be churlish you could point up those who aren’t examined but those he does are of the highest quality: Sophocles, Shakespeare, Dickinson, Twain, Emily Bronte, Melville, Kafka, Faulkner, Toni Morrison, Baudelaire, James Merrill, Strindberg, Proust, Joyce, Calvino. For good measure, he includes a couple of philosophers: Pascal and Kierkegaard, and a film, Alphaville. He divides his exploration of these writers into two sections: Literature and the Cost of Knowing, and Literature and the Map of Human Dimensions. This is the real meat of the book and is a thorough joy because of Weinstein’s excellent scholarship and insightful analysis. In his discussion of Kafka he remarks: “ we do not understand the other until we become the other”. This is not empathy, but “far more radical”.  It entails “wreckage”,  as our old self has to be dismantled in order to become the other. Weinstein is very good on literature’s demands: it is no entertainment, though it may be entertaining in a way. It is every bit as unsettling as the science which overthrows our established relationship to the world. Perhaps that entails a change in our relation to ourselves, but literature by its very nature puts our sense of self in question. You might say it exposes “the unbearable lightness of being”.  

            The section on Dickinson is terrific. He quotes her: 

            “If I read a book, and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head of my head was taken off, I know that is poetry.” 

It’s hard to reconcile Dickinson’s response to literature with the pay-and-receive doctrine which governs today’s universities. How are students looking for a ticket to take them up the escalator to money and status supposed to take that?  

Dickinson had a take on “success” at odds with our culture’s glib notions: 

Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne’er succeed
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.  

Weinstein examines her subversion of our customary assumptions, her ability to turn them inside out and upside down in what he terms a “calamitous reversal”. He calls “I felt a Funeral in my Brain” “the finest rendition of anguish as place that I have ever read.” Dickinson had scant “success” during her lifetime. She wouldn’t fit into today’s literary culture of prizes, residencies and celebrity. Weinstein’s students were lucky to have a teacher who took her seriously and devoted effort to making her understood. 

Early on, Weinstein muses on the poor writing skills of his students. A few write “like angels” but most are fairly hopeless. They are students of literature. They are required to write essays. Mostly they write according to the dismal thesis-argument-conclusion model and without “flair”. His own prose is energetic but academic writing in general is not usually at George Orwell’s level. The structuralist stuff which hit universities in the seventies, especially French departments, was for the most part incomprehensible drivel because it was trying to be scientific. Literary criticism isn’t and can’t be a science because science is excluded from the arena of values. It can tell us how to blow up the biosphere but it can’t tell us whether we should. That’s the role of philosophy and literature, and perhaps especially literature.  

In his brief but penetrating discussion of Lear, Weinstein remarks “…Shakespeare is less concerned with moral justice than…with the cost of knowing.” Perhaps the two go together. Lear believes himself a king by nature but discovers, agonisingly, that his power rests on his ownership of land. He comes to know himself as human when he divests himself of what he thinks makes him more than human. Naked and mad he at last gains insight: “Plate sin with gold/ And the strong lance of justice hurtles(s) breaks.” As we struggle to know ourselves as human in the face of our self-made climate disaster which might end the human adventure, hasn’t Lear got more to offer than ever-advancing technologies in which we put faith?

The great virtue of this book is that it sites literature at the centre of our search not only for truth but for a way of living at peace with ourselves, one another and the planet; but the lessons we have to learn to do so are not for the cowardly or self-indulgent.  

If you are familiar with the writers Weinstein treats you will return to them renewed; if not you will be impelled to get to know them. What more could you expect from a teacher and critic?