THE LIVES OF LITERATURE
reviewed by Alan Dent
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outdated term, as far as the “spiritual” side of life is concerned.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
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
Success is counted sweetest
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?