Authors: Arnold Weinstein
Tags: #Social Sciences, #Essays, #Writing, #Nonfiction, #Education
Copyright © 2011 by Arnold Weinstein
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Random House, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.
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LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA
Weinstein, Arnold L.
Morning, noon, and night: finding the meaning of life’s stages through books/by Arnold Weinstein.
1. Life cycle, Human, in literature. 2. Human beings in literature. 3. Maturation (Psychology) in literature. 4. Aging in literature. 5. Literature, Modern—History and criticism. I. Title.
Jacket design by Susan Zucker Koski
Jacket painting: Evelyn De Morgan, Night and Sleep, 1878 (© The De Morgan Centre, London/Bridgeman Art Library International)
To Catherine and Alexander
This is the most personal book I have written, personal in ways I had not anticipated. For close to three decades I have been teaching a large undergraduate class called “Rites of Passage.” In this course I deal with coming-of-age narratives from medieval France up to our own moment, using a mix of famous writers such as Twain and Faulkner, along with other, less known favorites of mine, such as Tarjei Vesaas’s
The Ice Palace
. One of my chief reasons for teaching this course is to urge students to realize that their own experience of growing up is—surprisingly, rewardingly—mirrored in books from other times, other places. Exploring such texts with students is gratifying, for they easily see that their own college experience is itself a rite of passage.
Therefore, when I set out to write a book on two major phases of life—growing up and growing old—I figured it would be easy enough to make use of my teaching for the growing-up part, while finding the appropriate books about aging to use as the second part of the diptych. I had never worked with students on issues of growing old—a nonstarter topic, if ever there was one—but I felt confident that I could make a judicious selection of literary materials dealing with that topic, to create a balanced study. This was going to be fun, I felt.
What I failed to realize was the impress of passing time on myself. During the several years I have spent writing this book, I have moved, at a surprising speed, into the territory of old age. And I began to realize that these literary matters were disturbingly existential for me, that I was in effect doing my own crash course in learning about the challenges, travails, surprises, and (hopefully) rewards of growing old. At the far side of this book now, I am a rather different person than I was when I first envisaged this study: closer to retirement, more aware of physical decline, more attuned to my own gathering exit from much I had taken for granted, more certain that I (like peers my age) am increasingly engaged in dodging bullets. My vision has changed. I now see growing up as something far more precious and exposed, more vulnerable and fateful, than I did in the confident, breezy courses I have taught on this topic over the years. And I now feel the awful weight of Freud’s words on King Lear: “making friends with the necessity of dying.” There is little that is strictly literary in all this.
But literature is what I know best. And I realized that my most intimate feelings about these key matters of entry and exit nonetheless have their source in literature. And, of course, that is what I am arguing in this book: that literature shows us who we are; it never stops doing this. I’ve posited this view before, but never with quite the personal conviction that you’ll see in the pages ahead. This (very likely valedictory) book also constitutes something of a conclusion to my career. The ground I cover—from Sophocles and Shakespeare to Art Spiegelman and Jonathan Safran Foer—represents pretty much a roll call of the works of literature I’ve dealt with over a lifetime, but I now understand that they illuminate my own lifetime. And the personal voice I’ve allowed myself throughout this book is a voice that finds both its matter and its manner, its substance and its timbre, in the books I love. I mean this quite literally: literature frees my tongue and imagination, liberates and creates my best thinking, brings to the fore whatever gift I may have, and is arguably what is most social as well as most private about me. Literature, a term derived from the Latin for “letters,” feeds my own letter to the world. I have lived a life of privilege in the academy—working year after year with the ever young as I move through time—and this is my way of repaying the debt I owe to the great writers of then and now. At this late stage of my life, it feels like the right thing to do.