Brown University literature professor Arnold Weinstein is recalling a half-century of reading and teaching books. He’s tracing the “Morning, Noon, and Night” — in the title of his new book — of his literary life. He begins, in this conversation, with two books that he read as a senior at Princeton: Melville’s Benito Cereno and Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.
Benito Cereno, the story of a Spanish captain whose cargo of enslaved Africans rebels and deposes him, is, in Weinstein’s telling, a narrative of misunderstood power that resonates with America’s modern misadventures abroad. It is also, he says, the most cinematic writing of the 19th century. His long-held dream is to make it into a film.
It was in reading The Sound and the Fury that Weinstein began to understand the tussle between the “there and then” that dominates our inner lives and the “here and now” that constitutes our movement through public life.
I think each one of us lives exactly that ballet. We are always juggling what’s roiling inside of us versus the moves or steps in our public lives. Faulkner taught me that. … Once you see past the picturesqueness of Faulkner’s world, or the evils of both racism and sexism, … then you are confronting an extraordinarily rich picture of human maneuvering room: how you live with your inner ghosts, how you try to reach to the other. Books in that sense are profoundly ethical.
I think books are mirrors for readers. But they’re not mirrors in the lazy narcissist sense, that it’s kind of facile self-reflection. There’s labor in it. Call it a distorting mirror. It’s a picture of who you are, but it’s perhaps an elemental version of you that either you’ve never noticed, or never wanted to notice.
Arnold Weinstein with Chris Lydon in Providence, April 2011.
Professor Weinstein is sharing a profound faith in the essential nutrients of books, paired with a healthy dislike for the literary theory that has dominated the academy over the last four decades. We should read for emotion and experience, he reminds us, and remember that literature is not, as the theorists exhort, more “complex” than we realize, but rather richer and more resonant.
He’s learned, in years of leading celebrated courses on the tough masterpieces — his favorite is “Proust, Joyce and Faulkner” — that teaching literature is carrying out an injunction “that says we’re part of an ongoing life. They’re young, I’m three-score-and-ten, and these book are in many cases centuries old. There’s a kind of parallel between the blood-line in students, the blood-line in faculty and the blood-line in books. We’re there to keep these alive.”