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Literature professor Arnold Weinstein has been generating controversy as an apologist for the canon, but he says his new book is really an apology for art. A Scream Goes Through the House: What Literature Teaches Us About Life (Random House) argues that art makes mind travelers of us allputting us in touch with other peoples experience. In the book, Weinstein surveys a generous range of artists, from Ingmar Bergman to Edvard Munch to F. Scott Fitzgerald, exploring what it means to occupy a body in pain.

BAM: This book is not your average work of literary criticism. What inspired it?
AW: The premise was that the great issues of medicineall kinds of somatic experiences that people have, including depression, anxiety, fear of dyingare richly treated in the arts, while science, which is where the culture goes to learn about these matters, has little to say about how people experience them. Medicine wants to know about the nature of your disease, not the nature of your experience.

BAM: Whom do you imagine reading this book?
AW: People whove never heard of the Modern Language Association. I suppose its an extrapolation of Brown students. Just thoughtful young people or thoughtful older people, the huge number of people in their sixties or seventies whove retired and now are returning to books they read too early. I had all those audiencesnone of them a professional audiencein mind. I took what came from my courses and thought more about what the ramifications might be in somebodys life, including my own. Its not that the book is confessional, but its self-reflective. The book is an apology for art. It says that art is based on feeling, that art helps us discover who we are and that it is a form of community. Its a kind of talk academicians dont like.

BAM: Now that you mention it, why do we so seldom hear about these topics in an academic settingin a literature class, say?
AW: This is where Ill put my foot in my mouth. Literature departments have created these ever more complex critical scaffoldings and structures that lean farther and farther away from the material theyre supposed to be about. The creative work itself is full of feelings, it expresses feelings, its about compulsions, its about love, its about sex and fear. I think we corral these feelings and rope them off and domesticate them by putting them in the frames and paradigms that the academy has constructed.

BAM: How has your book been received?
AW: Mixed. Ive gotten lots of great reactions from people, and the books been reviewed in most of the major papers. For the most part the reviews are good, some are mixed. But I got slammed in the New York Times Book Review by Laura Miller, who writes the Last Word column. She put my book along with some others into the box of apologies for the canon, basically making the argument that books like this are sort of self-help books celebrating the great authors as an improvement schemewhich is not what my book is about.

BAM: I gather an editor at Random House asked you to write this after hearing your lectures on tape. You have more than 200 lectures on video and audiotape. What makes a great lecture?
AW: Lecturing is almost a prehistoric form. Its dying around me. Even in educational circles, lectures have a bad reputation: theyre not democratic, they put people to sleep, etc. So good lectures are obviously lectures that dont put people to sleep. Good lectures have to have some drama in them, theyve got to have a certain air of the performative, some acting in them. I like to lecture because it gives me the chance to play out other sides of my personality. I think lectures give an opportunity for a remarkable kind of economy and artistry. Theres a possibility for artful arrangement that allows you to maximize what you want to say about what things mean. I think I have a conversational tone in my lectures. People say it feels like Im talking to them, not talking at them.

BAM: Do you have a next project on tap?
AW: Im under contract with Random House to do another book, which for now is called Recovering Your Story. Itll be about five major writersProust, Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner, and Toni Morrisonwho tend to be admired from afar but not read. Basically its about recovering your story: how this hermetic art form, modernism, is really about our own consciousness.

interview by Lori Baker 86 A.M.

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