Earlier this week, National Public Radio's "On Point with Tom Ashbrook" spent an hour picking the brain of Brown University's Arnold Weinstein, professor of comparative literature and author of Morning, Noon, and Night: Finding the Meaning of Life's Stages Through Books.
The show was a nice spotlight on a year-old tome that pulls literature down from the heights and artfully suggests what it might tell us about our real, complicated, mundane, and important lives.
The Phoenix caught up with Weinstein, fresh off his radio appearance, for a Q&A via email.
WAS THERE EVER A TIME WHEN AMERICANS SAW LITERATURE AS LIFE GUIDE, OR HAS IT ALWAYS BEEN VIEWED — IN THE MAIN — AS SOME SORT OF HIGH-MINDED ESCAPE? American culture has by and large always been a pragmatic one, and the arts have risked seeming a frill. But this situation has worsened, I think, because the academy has fashioned a specialist language and approach that frequently make little sense for the uninitiated reader or spectator. Still, good teaching can open readers' eyes to what is essential, galvanizing and to-the-bone in our finest books.
WHICH BOOK OR BOOKS ABOUT YOUTH HAVE RESONATED, MOST, WITH YOUR STUDENTS OF LATE? I always teach a wide swath of novels about growing up. Students continue even today to be moved by Jane Eyre and Huckleberry Finn; most of Faulkner's novels present young people in crisis situations; and modern fare such as Satrapi's graphic novel, Persepolis, and Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close deal with cultures and issues absolutely on their plates.
YOU'RE CLEARLY TAKEN WITHKING LEAR. WHAT'S THE GREAT TAKEAWAY, FOR YOU, ABOUT AGING? Freud rightly claimed that Lear is about the necessity of making friends with dying, and as someone over 70, I feel in my bones how right he is. But the play is oddly enough also about the same learning curve as books about the young: the king must come to see how much misery and exploitation exist as daily reality in his kingdom, and not merely in the family drama that he has triggered.
YOU'VE GOT A REMARKABLE PASSAGE OF YOUR OWN IN THE BOOK: "YOU NEVER QUITE FORGET THE BEAUTY YOU LONG AGO HAD, A BEAUTY WHOSE EVERY FEATURE YOU REMEMBER WITH BITTERNESS." STRONG STUFF. CAN YOU EXPLAIN? That sentence refers specifically to Marguerite Duras's powerful novel, The Lover, which depicts a young girl's sexual initiation as the crowning moment of her life, a moment she returns to over and over, in her thoughts and writing. In lecturing on this book I even said that her sexual liaison (with an older man) is a flowering rather than the older term, a deflowering. I am quite aware that this reading is offensive on many fronts, and I am scarcely defending sexual abuse or the like, but Duras simply discards traditional ethics in her version of erotic life. So — once again — my strongest lines probably have to do with books I read, rather than with my private experiences, but the larger thrust of Morning, Noon, and Night (and all the books I've written) is that art is no less than a vicarious form of experience; in this regard, Duras's girl does become a version of myself, just as Brontë's, Twain's and Faulkner's young people become avenues of experience for me, for all readers. One relives other via art. That's why it matters.