The Lives of Literature tackles the central, all-too-unasked, question that undergirds my teaching and writing career: why read literature? It’s the question all students ponder—why read these books?—and it seems especially urgent today, given the ever greater prestige of the STEM fields and the shrinking enrollments in the Humanities throughout higher education.
The surprising word in my book’s title is “knowing.” What do we “know” after we’ve read a novel or poem or play? From an informational point of view: nothing verifiable or easily testable. Certainly nothing comparable to the theorems and truths of the sciences and even the social sciences. But there’s the rub: literature’s truths are of a different sort altogether. Just as life’s truths are. I know that 2 + 2 = 4; I know my wife and children. Both statements are true, but they are radically different. One is factual, objective; the other is existential, subjective. My argument is that literature both illuminates and engenders a different kind of knowing: existential, but also experiential, moral, neural, sentient. And I think that’s why we read it. We experience—safely, at a distance, only vicariously, and ‘exitably’—the crises and feelings of Oedipus, Lear, Cathy and Heathcliff, Huckleberry Finn, Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, Faulkner’s Quentin Compson, Morrison’s Sethe.
As an identical twin who was often mistaken for his brother during our childhood, I have always had a rather porous sense of people’s outlines and identities. Most people don’t. But only now do I realize how much that basic experience has shaped my understanding of books. Not only can our outward forms be illusory or subject to change, but there is something at once deeply promiscuous and deeply ethical in all this: are we capable of seeing others as ourselves (as the Good Book says)? Shape-shifting happens. President Obama said of Trayvon Martin: he could have been my son. Readers might—must?—intuit, at some unexamined level, in the books they read: this could be, could have been, me.
And nothing here is easy. So many of our greatest books are about people discovering, with horror, that much of what they have believed true (about themselves, about others, about the world) is bogus, turned inside-out. It is often unsurvivable. This is what I call “the cost of knowing.” But the reader, who is a fellow-traveler in this journey toward dark knowing, does not bleed or die. Long ago Aristotle claimed that watching tragedy onstage was for the audience “cathartic,” purgative. I think reading literature can—should—be seen in just this light. It is more than a lesson: it is an experience. And the role of the teacher is to help students discover just how potent and far-reaching this encounter can be.
Today, our students and their professors very often read literature through a political lens: what does this book tell us about the ideological arrangements in play in either the author’s life or the period when it was written? This makes sense. Our important books do shine a light on such matters. And our best students are nothing if not critical: they want to illuminate the sins of the past and of the present, in order to move forward. They are often in a hurry.
This was no less true in 1968 when I began my career at Brown University. It was the time of the Vietnam War; soon after came the scandal of the bombing in Cambodia. Students were in uproar. At Brown, they went on strike and shut down classes. And when they did come into your classroom, they put hard questions to you: how does this novel or poem (that you are assigning) contribute to improving the world? In short, there has never been a time when literature and the arts did not have to prove their “relevance.”
But the upshot of this imperative is that we’ve lost sight of what literature actually is, and why we need to read it. To read a poem exclusively for its political pay-off is a reductive exercise. Further, it willy-nilly positions literature as a thin alternative to social science. Yes, we are interested in the operation of power, but what we miss seeing is the actual power of literature itself. Important works of art do tell us about the work of ideology, but they also tell us about the work (and play) of the mind and heart. And, offensive as it may sound today, life itself is more than ideology. Eating, drinking, talking, laughing, loving, hating, seeing, doing, thinking, imagining, remembering, dreaming: these fundamental activities of life occupy us 24/7, both awake and asleep. Our best books enrich us on all these fronts, for they display—writ large, as it were—the antics and energies that fuel us from birth to death.
Finally, the power of literature is inseparable from the power of words. Words—written and spoken—are the very medium of books and of teaching. And of human relationships. Words can be outright combustible; they are, in some real sense, “the arms we bear,” a form of munitions that requires no Second Amendment protection. Emily Dickinson memorably said, “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 were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?” Please note: Dickinson is telling us about what constitutes both poetry and knowing. And she’s right. The best reading and teaching experiences have an element of fission.
This book is intentionally hybrid: it mixes literary criticism, commentary on teaching, reflections on the role of the Humanities, and personal memoir. This was a risky choice, on my end, and questions were raised by the Press’s readers about this mélange, when the manuscript was being evaluated for publication. All this bears on what I can recommend to a reader, for sampling, for getting a taste of what the book’s about.
If you’re interested in literature, but sometimes wonder what all the fuss is, I suggest that you read my chapters on “The Cost of Knowing” and “The Map of Human Dimensions.” Here is the “lit/crit” component of the book. The essays about ‘Knowing” focus on Shakespeare, Emily Brontë, Melville, Dickinson, Twain, Kafka, Faulkner, and Morrison, whereas those about “Human Dimensions” deal with Baudelaire, James Merrill, Strindberg, Joyce, Godard, and Calvino. The texts I write about—many of them canonical—constitute the backbone of my argument about why literature matters. One set of analyses gauges the crises that come about when all that we think we know is exploded; the other set maps our astounding whereabouts in time and space, occurring in our brains and on show in our best books. There is nothing abstract or exotic here; this is meat-and-potatoes. All of them are testimony to literature’s unique power.
If you’re drawn to the STEM-fed crisis of the Humanities in higher education today, I’d recommend that you read my chapter on the “3 R’s,” for it utilizes the venerable triad of Reading/Writing/Arithmetic as a kind of test-case for what Literature does. We know, of course, that reading and writing are central to literature, but the texts I discuss—from Faulkner, Knut Hamsun, and Kafka—are intentionally extremist in nature, laying bare the rationale and purchase of these two central modes of representation. It seems to me that these two activities—each devilishly hard to teach, by the way—lay the very groundwork for what Education aims for: self-impowering entrance into the word-world, and discovering/recovering the (sometimes awful) record of our doings, the “tale of the tribe.” As for Arithmetic, you may assume literature has no light to shed; my argument there has some whimsy, but it is quite serious in seeking to illuminate limits and boundaries, to explore what is measurable in numbers versus words.
Finally, the book deals with my lifetime in the classroom: what the challenges, rewards and pitfalls are, and have been. These matters have their historicity. I have had the unusual pleasure of teaching in many distinct modalities: classroom, video cassette, CD, online, Zoom. Each has different audiences; each has its own terrain, rewards and costs. I have taught university students at Brown, high school students throughout Rhode Island, and adult audiences throughout the country. Their interests and needs do not easily align. So I include, late in the book, a chapter where the wryer, failed and more absurd experiences of teaching are (at long last) acknowledged and dealt with. I call them “Gaffes.” Friends who have read my book tell me this is where they started.
My expectations for The Lives of Literature are uncertain. This is my 9th—or 10th, depending on how you count—book, and it is very possibly my last. But it comes out at a tricky time. Our culture today is riven, in more ways than one. I am concerned about the reception that may await a book dealing with the Western canon, written by an old white male. In some quarters such credentials and aims are dicey, perhaps even toxic. There is a widespread (and, yes, justifiable) suspicion that my demographic has hogged the stage for quite some time now. Time for other voices.
This is especially distressing, because the book itself is timely: it addresses the diminishing prestige of the Humanities, and it offers up a view of literature that has broad appeal to the larger reading public, well beyond the academy. The existence of countless reading groups and book clubs throughout our country testifies to the ongoing vitality and reach of great books, from long ago to the present. And to a hunger to plumb those books, to derive nutrients from them. I believe The Lives of Literature meets that hunger, that demand. Further, I know I could not have written it earlier, because it has taken this many years in the academy (54, to be exact) to gain a fuller, more longitudinal sighting of what a career of teaching literature signifies: what I tried to do, why I did so, what I wrought, and whether it matters.
All this is why I appreciate the unusual opportunity to shape this Rorotoko Interview myself. It gives me the last word. And I guess that is, in a nutshell, what my book is: a literature professor’s last words about what he has spent his life doing.
Arnold Weinstein is the Edna and Richard Salomon Distinguished Professor emeritus at Brown University. His earlier books include The Fiction of Relationship; Nobody’s Home [American Fiction from Hawthorne to DeLillo]; A Scream Goes Through the House [Literature and Medicine]; Recovering Your Story: Proust, Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner, Morrison; Northern Arts [Scandinavian literature and art]; Morning, Noon and Night [nominee for Pulitzer Prize]. His audio-video lectures on world literature are produced by the Teaching Company, and his online course version of The Fiction of Relationship was produced by Coursera. He has been Professeur Invité at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris and Fulbright Professor of American Literature at Stockholm University. He has received National Endowment for the Humanities and Brown University Awards for scholarship, teaching, and teaching innovation.