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The connection of art and heart

A Scream Goes Through the House: What Literature Teaches Us About Life; Arnold Weinstein; Random House: 426 pp., $29.95

October 26, 2003|Frederic Raphael | Frederic Raphael is the author of many novels and screenplays, co-editor of "The Great Philosophers From Socrates to Turing" and translator of a forthcoming edition of "Satyrica" by Petronius.

"Death," Wittgenstein said, "is not an event of life; it is not lived through." I used to find these words a consolation, but there is less in them than experience proves. When deaths are of those whom we love, of course we live through them.

The sense of mortality is fundamental to our literature: "The Iliad" is an account of how one kind of anger (little more than wounded vanity) is banished by rage at the death of Patroklus, whose wounds go deeper in Achilles than his own pique. The hero has already accepted that revenge and everlasting fame can be bought only at the price of his own early death, which is the crowning event of the hero's life. Martin Heidegger -- that prime example of moral (and physical) cowardice -- proclaimed that "living-towards-death" was the only posture for those who wish truly to inhabit the human condition. (It sounds brave, but remember his Nazi chums: The SS carried death's heads on their caps.)

I happened to be reading Joseph Epstein's "Fabulous Small Jews" while making notes on Brown University professor Arnold Weinstein's book "A Scream Goes Through the House." In one of Epstein's mordant stories, I came across a fictional Arnold Weinstein, a mortician. Both Weinsteins are much possessed by death: The professor sees the apprehension of mortality as the grim source of human anguish. "This book," he tells us, "is about the urgency, centrality, and reach of human feeling. I regard feeling as the very stuff of which art is made.... Human feeling connects us. Works of literature and art can be the bridge. A scream goes through the house. Pain, hurt, feeling, can be shared."

This incantatory repetitiousness is typical of Weinstein's style, especially when justifying his title. It caused a sigh or two to go through my house. When, on an early page, I came on the expression "garden-variety stress" -- presumably the cliche "common-or-garden" in pruned form -- I dreaded the 400 pages still to come. Fortunately, Weinstein's ideas survive their delivery. Just.

His cull of great literature and minor painting is wide and bold: The expected masters (Proust, Kafka, Hemingway, Hawthorne, Dickens) are compared and contrasted with such authors as William S. Burroughs, Georg Buchner, Daniel Defoe, Emily Dickinson and the (to me) unknown poet Linda Pastan. The idea is to recruit us not to an aesthete's notion of critical finesse but to a more literal, generous aesthetic of common feeling.

Like Turgenev, Weinstein sees art as something that unites people rather than flatters the happy few. He makes a forceful case for the relevance of serious writing to the stressed-out reader-in-a-hurry who is liable to be lured to the shallows by self-help manuals and the gross pap of bestsellers.

If he cleaves to the cultural high ground (and I should hope so), Weinstein emphasizes -- does he ever! -- the "somatic" nature of the reading animal that is man: Readers are not disembodied minds but sentient articulations of flesh and bone. Hence he makes iconic use of that Nordic sadster Edvard Munch, whose small painterly genius he ignores in favor of the artist's morbid subject matter.

Munch may be a minor painter, but, like T.S. Eliot's John Webster, "he sees the skull beneath the skin." The painter of "The Scream" is said here to "know anxiety to be the place we live in. The 'we' counts here as a strange counterforce to the solipsism usually identified with anxiety, as if Munch were bent on communalizing horror." Skeptics may notice that the "we" on which Weinstein bases his conclusion about the artist's intentions is of the critic's own composition.

"To be sure," Weinstein pads on, "many painters have done homage to the authority of the human body, but few have sought its peculiar grammar and syntax in the way Munch has.... Looking at Munch's depiction of bodies in thralldom to the great forces welling up in and out of them helps us to citizenship rights in the somatic country we inhabit." The painting "illustrates to perfection" -- what else? -- "the range of our issues." Does it? Munch is minor precisely because he can hit only one note. If Munch were to succeed in what Weinstein alleges to be his purpose, we should live astride the grave, paralyzed by angst. Do we? Should we? Voltaire said no; Pascal yes. All vote now!

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