Arnold Weinstein's `Scream' seeks the core meaning of art

ON BOOKS

November 16, 2003|By Michael Pakenham | Michael Pakenham,SUN BOOK EDITOR

Arnold Weinstein's `Scream' seeks the core meaning of artArt is our supreme record of human feeling over the ages, and it enables us, quite wonderfully, to access our own emotional depths." So insisting, Arnold Weinstein argues in radical opposition to the common belief that art is "a largely intellectual enterprise."

Criticism, even at its most provocative, is hardly regular fodder for the general reader. Exceptions happen. I believe one of them, a rarity, is his A Scream Goes through the House: What Literature Teaches Us About Life (Random House, 480 pages, $29.95).

It is both a provocative book and a perturbing one. Much of it is delightful to read - it presents crisp ideas, some of them way beyond any orthodox accepted wisdoms, many of them seemingly more mind games than serious criticism. But even the outrageous is well put. Weinstein's extraordinarily broad spectrum of apt references is intellectually energizing - challenging readers to recall familiar works and making unknown ones titillating.

Weinstein is a chaired professor of comparative literature at Brown University and has written four previous books of criticism and analysis as well as making some 200 lectures on audio or video media for The Teaching Company. The central theme of this book is that art - literature, painting, music, film - has a role and purpose that is not simply intellectual, but, rather, is rooted in feeling, in the heart. The "scream" of his title is drawn from a dream of his in which his father irreconcilably - and piercingly - laments his own impending death and his mother joins in, expressing her own agony.

Weinstein uses this metaphor to argue for an understanding of the purpose, or the value, of art that communicates deeply with the feelings, and thus the somatic whole, of the reader or observer. It's thus an intensely personal book, and at the same time a sermonical one. He has previously written and lectured a great deal on the connection between literature and medicine. That nexus is explored in this book.

Weinstein has a passion for taking art out of its usual academic boxes and making it central to the best of human experience. He sees art as an antidote against anxiety or resignation - therapy for the inescapable pains of life. His sweep is as wide as the ambition of his book is deep. But in making his argument, he focuses in particular on the works of William Blake, James Baldwin, Eugene O'Neill, Edvard Munch and Ingmar Bergman. He approvingly agrees with Harold Bloom's contention that Shakespeare "invented the human" - that his work "may well be our most authoritative source when it comes to the behavior of the human psyche; his works are the literary version of the human genome."

He makes more of the importance of Munch than almost any art critic would. But, then, he is using Munch's art in a very literary, or even clinical, manner. Writing of the 1894 painting, Puberty, of a naked and obviously fearful girl, he declares "Munch's sights are invariably focused on the career of the body ... and although sickness and death are his favorite topics he shows us here that the discovery of life is no less unhinging."

Weinstein's point, or theme, in this is that to thinking humans, or even indifferent ones, the body imposes heavy burdens, as well as being both the defining necessity of life and a source of many joys. "The human body," he concludes his chapter on the subject, "is seen to be the sacred material of life, sacred by dint of its capacity to triumph over death, to nurture, to seed, and to love."

If this seems heavy - well, it is. But it is put so well as to seem conversational - good conversational.

As the book goes on it becomes increasingly clear that Weinstein - who has a reputation of being a galvanizingly theatrical lecturer - is hopelessly in love with learned controversy, more or less for its own sake. And it cannot be ignored he seems equally enamored with his own voice and mind. Fair enough. He's good at it.

In a long and fascinating element about death and Emily Dickinson - that ultra-ladylike genius of the 19th century - Weinstein admiringly quotes Camille Paglia's contention that Dickinson's imagination was driven by "sheer violence and savagery," that she was "Amherst's Madame de Sade." Weinstein concludes that Paglia's view is "over the top ... but it is also salutary as a way of peeling off the layers of Victoriana and maidenly decorum that, like cobwebs of yesteryear, sometimes cast these poems in misleading prissiness and that obscure their pith and rage."

There's a lot of such celebration in this book. Some, even much, of it is outrageous, but I defy any readers not to find it making them think.

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