Special to The Washington Post
Friday, February 11, 2011; 10:41 AM
MORNING, NOON, AND NIGHT
Finding the Meaning of Life's Stages Through Books
By Arnold Weinstein
Random House. 442 pp. $27
If there is a riddle attached to the riddle of the Sphinx, it is why no one but Oedipus was smart enough to solve it. Luckily for readers, Arnold Weinstein has made more of the riddle than I have with "Morning, Noon, and Night," his study of literature as it illuminates the three stages of being human. The substance of this book is an ecstatic celebration of the gifts that great books bring to our lives. The shadow of the book is Weinstein's own life which, either because of his inborn diffidence or too much hard labor in a classroom, hides within the text like a Shakespearean character behind an arras. When, from time to time, this character peeks out, we want more of him, and are reminded of something that unwittingly undercuts Weinstein's thesis - that literature, for all its value to life, is not life.
But first to the thesis, the idea that great works are indispensable to living young, old and in between. The idea is neither new nor is it meant to be, though the tripartite structure suggested by the lady-lion riddler offers Weinstein an orderly way to deal with it. Neither the thesis nor the writers invoked to support it could have a more thoughtful or careful proponent. He brings more than a first-rate mind to the likes of Balzac, Dickens, Faulkner, Hemingway, the Bronte sisters, Dostoevsky, Strindberg, Alice Walker, Jean Rhys and other major and minor leaguers. He brings them a loving heart. Thus he sees more than most critics have seen in Dickens's Pip, for example. Rather than reading "Great Expectations" merely as a primer on moral maturity, he unearths Pip's deep sorrow and examines the boy's many lifelong wounds. At the outset of the novel, Pip is in a cemetery, staring at the gravestones of his mother and father. Weinstein peers into his soul: "Getting clear of the dead may not be easy."
Looking at the end of life, he presents a brilliantly sympathetic understanding of Hemingway's maritime old man, seeing Santiago not as an abstraction of courage, but rather as the living, feeling being whose body is corrupted with age. Santiago must make use of his hard-earned knowledge of fishing - lines, winds, currents - to battle the marlin in "The Old Man and the Sea." He must use bone and muscle. Any old man who once was an athlete knows the value of moving slowly. Weinstein's Santiago shows us every practiced gesture employed in staying nobly alive.
Which brings me to Weinstein's own practiced gestures and their effect on his book. The best teachers we have are those who worry about the material in public, and we students overhear them. Clearly Weinstein is a wonderful worrier, and his book shows it. Yet there is another book within this one, whose author says some remarkably telling things when you least expect them. Such as: "You never quite forget the beauty you long ago had, a beauty whose every feature you remember with bitterness." Such as: "Enduring love is the daily effort to convert insentience into sentience, silence into language, indifference into interest, lumps of flesh into people sharing food, wine, and conversation around a table." And such as: "I look back at my own education, and want to weep."
This last confession makes us want to weep for Weinstein's hidden book in "Morning, Noon, and Night," for it hints of his own imaginative life, born of reading. He calls the present work "the most personal" he has written. Yet there is evidence of a far more personal and moving book pacing around off-stage - one that does not defer to the great texts, but rather tells of a life they inspired, perhaps failed. That is, a professor's memoir minus the professorial caution or modesty or whatever - the story of the fellow who believes that enduring loves can turn insentience into sentience.
Weinstein has a bad habit of diluting assertions with the word "arguably," the professor's arras. The book I wish for him, and for his readers, has no "arguably" in it. Arguably, he has written the best book ever on the practical and spiritual uses of literature. When he reads that sentence, I hope he shudders.
Roger Rosenblatt's most recent book is "Unless it Moves the Human Heart."