“Professor of Comparative Literature Arnold Weinstein reads from his new book, Morning, Noon and Night at the Brown Bookstore.” (Brown Daily Herald, 2011)
Recently, I finished Brown University Professor Arnold Weinstein‘s audio course Classic Novels: Meeting the Challenge of Great Literature (the Great Courses series, 2007).
For someone like myself overly habituated to approaching literature as an object of sometimes deadening academic analysis, Professor Weinstein’s lectures are reinvigorating. The lectures invite us to read literature anew as a miraculous, romantic and royal road towards truth that makes available to us, as Weinstein says, “things that we cannot get in other way.”In the introductory lecture, “life” is a fundamental keyword. Literature is the miraculous way in which two bookends contain life. Between two covers of a novel a whole life flows. Literature is the transcription of human life into language. Literature makes life startling. Nowhere may that be more true than for Weinstein. For over fifty years, “literature has been my life, my passion and will probably be my death.”
In his invitation, Weinstein tempts us. Having read the novels or not, we are going to be in some very real surprises. For example, on my end, I was inspired to finish Tristram Shandy only half read 25 years ago. That is if one can ever exhaust Laurence Stern’s digressive novel — as Weinstein says — never gets to the point and never finishes what it’s saying. Nonetheless, Tristram Shandy is certainly a transcription of human life into language.
(Hear approximately one minute of Lecture 1: Meeting the Challenge of Great Literature.)
[Below see Professor Weinsteins’s discussion of audio courses.)
Early in the lectures, Weinstein mentions a course he taught at Brown University, Order and Chaos in Literature. In 1983 I took that class.
The reference impelled a trek into attic where buried in the piles were my essays written for the class. Sparking that Proustian wave of memory, I rediscovered the final essay for the course, “Iago and The Underground,”David Kramer (Order and Chaos in Literature, Fall 1983).
In his comments, Weinstein wrote:
The last sentence reads: “Can I have a copy of this?” I do not definitively recall whether the copy was delivered. I mailed the original to the Comparative Literature Department, and now Professor Weinstein has the essay, 37 years later.
Unaccustomed to such high marks, the comments were reassuring to this insecure undergraduate.¹ In fact, I originally received an incomplete, compelling — or allowing — me to spend Winter Break with Dostoevsky and Shakespeare. I still vividly remember retrieving the essay from the mailboxes in the Comparative Literature Department. Fearful, I walked all the way to Prospect Park off campus before gathering the courage to open the envelope.
Weinstein’s class was also memorable because it ran during a particularly tense time nationally, internationally and on campus. For example, in October 1983, more than one million people filled the streets of West Germany to protest President Reagan’s deployment of the Pershing 2 and cruise missiles accelerating the Cold War nuclear arms race. In late October, six Brown anti-nuclear activists were charged with disorderly conduct in a case ultimately dismissed.
Also in October 1983, this intensifying fear of atomic war came into sharp focus when some Brown students brought about a referendum calling for the campus health center to stockpile ”suicide pills” for use in case of nuclear apocalypse. The referendum failed and the measure itself was largely symbolic; the sugar pills were not to contain real cyanide. Many called the referendum a juvenile political stunt. But the protesters were earnest in their motivation to heighten awareness that nuclear weapons always leave humankind perched on the edge of collective suicide.
On November 20th 1983, the much anticipated made-for-tv movie The Day After was viewed by more than 100 million Americans. The film postulates a fictional war between NATO forces and the Warsaw Pact countries that rapidly escalates into a full-scale nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union.
The next morning when arriving for Professor Weinstein’s Order and Chaos in Literature, we learned the planned lecture on Baudelaire and Rimbaud was partially altered. Instead, Weinstein showed excerpts of the film and led a class discussion.
Switching gears from 19th century French poetry to nuclear armageddon was jarring and illuminating. I think Weinstein wanted to reinforce the power of literature (or film) to deeply move us and — in the case of The Day After — to transform our perceptions of what order and chaos can mean in imagination and actuality.
I asked Professor Weinstein some questions about himself, audio courses and the state of the humanities.
In the first lecture, you say “literature has been my life, my passion and will probably be my death.” Now in your 80th year, you are still teaching and advising students. What keeps you going? In what ways have your students changed since 1983?
What keeps me going is that this is the best work imaginable. Teaching – not merely Brown students, but diverse populations including adults via The Great Courses and Coursera – is an immensely gratifying activity for me. In lecturing as well as in conducting small discussion groups, I have found one of the pinnacle – even repeatable – experiences of my life. The interpretation of literary texts from Sophocles to our time is a personal as well as scholarly exercise, a form of self-discovery. The ‘great books’ are now lodged deep in my own brain, via their insights and discoveries, and I am certain they underwrite a good deal of what I am capable of thinking and feeling. Hence, teaching makes me me.
Have the students changed since 1983? Yes and no. They are probably more drawn to ideological issues today than they were then, and there is an ever greater recognition of how much sexism, racism and the like exists in the books we read. Teaching Twain’s Huckleberry Finn today is risky business, for example, since the N-word is all over the text, and the students can’t bear it. I find this laudable but also worrisome, given that I grew up in Memphis in the 40s and 50s, and the word was everywhere, this was the ‘climate’ back then. I worry that today’s ‘reformers’ want to sanitize the past, and I think that ends up being a disservice to their own progressive goals. I often tell them how ridiculous their assumptions and rock-solid beliefs may end up looking to their future grandchildren. Modesty on this front is desirable. But, let me add that the student remain the same also, inasmuch as young people between 18 and 21 – certainly the ones coming into my classroom – are so filled with energy, enthusiasm and belief that it is a pleasure working with them. They complete a kind of social contract between the young and the old, and I think perhaps that is what School-as-institution has always been.
Why and how did you become involved in audio courses? You write and deliver the lectures and also prepare the course Guidebook. How does the course differ from your undergraduate classes? How is recording a lecture in a studio different from speaking before a live audience where you can gauge the audience’s moods and receptivity? What responses have you gotten from the listening audience?
The stint with audio-visual courses was surprisingly easy to manage. One gets used to speaking into a microphone. Of course one is unable to ‘see’ their moods or receptivity, but when you’ve taught as long as I have, you have a fairly reliable sense of what will resonate – or not – with your audience. As for responses, I have received countless letters and, more recently, emails from listeners and viewers of those courses, saying they liked or were impacted by what I was saying, and sometimes putting tough questions to me as well. Teaching is a surprisingly 1-way street, somewhat akin to sending a message in a bottle out to sea, since most students never respond; I don’t think it occurs to them. One consequence is: you never really know what, as teacher, you’ve wrought. I suspect that is true in most areas of life, including parenting.
At Brown, I was a history major while my graduate degrees are in English. At one point, you say — not disparagingly — that your course is a literature class not a history class. How are they different?
Obviously history and literature have a good bit in common. But one major difference is that literature is pre-eminently imaginative, and in that regard it is keyed to subjectivity: both that of the writer and that of the reader. I personally believe it is the greatest storehouse of subjectivity available to us. You cannot go back to Pericles’s Athens, but you can ‘encounter’ Sophocles through the words of his plays, which live on, and invite you in. History, on the other hand, is more bound to the actual record itself: what happened, and why it happened. But literature is no less interested in what Faulkner called ‘might-have-been’s,’ what you wanted or desired or indeed feared, but it never came to pass. My conviction is that our minds and hearts work along exactly those lines – which is why résumés are such reductive documents – and we have little record for it, other than through literature and the arts.
In a January, 2020 column, “Academic Apocalypse: The crisis of English departments is also a crisis of faith” , The New York Times’ Russ Douthat discusses the apparent “field collapse” of the academic study of literature, manifested by the ongoing decline of undergraduate humanities majors.
Douthat says “a thousand different forces are killing student interest in the humanities and cultural interest in high culture,” arguing that both preservation and recovery:
Depend at least on that belief, at least on the ideas that certain books and arts and forms are superior, transcendent, at least on the belief that students should learn to value these texts and forms before attempting their critical dissection.
To what degree do you agree with Douthat? Is preserving and recovery interest in the humanities and cultural interest in high culture –both for students and the general population — a mission of The Great Courses in Literature and Language series?
I do agree with Douthat on most of this. And this is seen as a conservative position today, I fear. But, yes, the ‘great books’ are great because of the complexity of life, thinking and feeling that they display. This is not to say that one should genuflect before them, or not subject them to rigorous critique. Here, Douthat seems wrong to me; no one should check their intelligence at the door when approaching a text, and only decide later how to criticize it. On the contrary, that is what they reward. Readers should regard important books of literature the way an aspiring thief would: break into them, take from them, get what is nurturing or enriching or challenging from them. Ponder what you find wrong in them, and then consider what this says about you as well as about the book. It is commonplace to say that Shakespeare’s heroes are harder to understand today than his villains are: now, why do you think that might be the case? My guess is: we are more like the villains. This is why I tell my students that literature is not a morality test. Neither is life. And further, they got into Brown on the strength of their intelligence, not their virtue. (Students rarely appreciate remarks of this stripe.
¹ One of my other high grades was in Literature, History and Ideology in the Nineteenth Century taught by Professor Edward Ahearn, a close colleague of Professor Weinstein’s in the Comparative Literature Department. Josué also took the class.
In the class, we read Frederic Jameson’s The Political Unconscious. In a review of a recent film, “Parasite” at The Little: What would Frederic Jameson see?, I realized I was influenced by Professor Ahearn’s teaching some 35 years ago. Some of what we learn in college lasts a lifetime.
Also found in the attic piles was an essay written for Professor Ahearn,“Monsieur Flaubert vs. Herr Marx Round I” (Literature, History and Ideology in the Nineteenth Century, Fall, 1985).
UPDATE: Lauren Gill ’85 offered this comment while also taking a trip into her own early 80s archive:
I, too, have papers from Weinstein’s classes–single-paged, no margins–and the memories. Robbe-Grillet, Beckett, Jack Hawkes (who, being in residence, accepted Professor Weinstein’s invitation to come speak to our class after we read Second Skin.) Exhilarating. I draw on those experiences still with gratitude. Thank you, Arnold Weinstein.