All too often, people fail to give the great books the attention they deserve. They might feel locked out of these masterpieces because they believe themselves unequipped to savor their richness. Or they might feel that great literature has only some antiquarian or museum value. As an introduction to the major texts of Western culture from antiquity to the present, this course empowers you to enter into these great works of the past.
A Gratifying and Enlightening Experience
Taught by an extraordinary scholar and educator, this course is a gratifying experience that can widen your views on self and society in enduring ways.
Dr. Arnold Weinstein of Brown University has been honored as Brown's Best Teacher in the Humanities and has studied and taught at major universities all over the world.
His remarkable ability to make a writer's voice come alive makes this one of our most exciting literature courses. And he has made a point of creating a wide-ranging, enriching experience.
The course has been designed to exhibit not only the themes and techniques of great literature but also to expose both the power and limitations of several different analytic tools in assisting our understanding of these monuments of the human spirit, including:
A Pandora's Box of "Potent Stuff"
- Close reading.
"Literature—that of the past and that of the present—is potent stuff," says Professor Weinstein, serving not only as transcription of history but also as a literary Pandora's box, capable of shedding light on those transactions which remain in the dark for many of us: love, death, fear, desire.
"We are talking about more than artful language; we are talking about the life of the past and the life of the world."
These lectures with Professor Weinstein examine great works in the three forms of literary expression: drama, poetry, and narrative. Understanding Drama
The lectures on drama begin with the pre-eminent text of Western culture, Sophocles's Oedipus the King, continue through Shakespeare and Molière, and then go on to the realist and naturalist work of the 19th century, closing with Beckett's Waiting for Godot.
Theater itself is a profoundly social art form. It possessed a religious character for the Greeks and its staging of values and crises are still resonant today.
The sequence of plays discussed thus illuminate for us the changing notions of "representative man," from Sophocles's king to Beckett's clowns.
You learn that theatrical literature makes visible the conflicts and wars of culture in ways other forms cannot manage, because theater is founded on the agon, the struggle between disparate subjectivities and voices.
Notions of self, human relationship, and meaningful action are debated, forged, actualized, and undone before our very eyes. This enables a holistic and environmental picture of life that we do not have in our daily affairs. Understanding Poetry
Poetry is at once the most artful and most elemental form of literature.
Its conventions of rhyme, meter, metaphor, and the like distinguish poetry unmistakably from the prose we use all the time. It enables it to go to the heart of human existence with a purity and power akin to surgery.
It is truly a privileged form of expression, a mode of discovery that bids to challenge and change the way we customarily do business.
The means by which it gains its remarkable power include its:
Portraits of Private Psyche and Public Setting
- "Thickened" language
- Economy of verse
- Startling vistas of metaphor and simile
- Play of rhythm
- Sheer concentration of vision.
From Shakespeare's sonnets through the great poets of our own times, Dr. Weinstein demonstrates what a bristling human document the poem can be and how it offers a unique portrait of private psyche and public setting.
More than any other art form, poetry captures the dance of the human mind. It displays for us the way meanings are made and makes us understand just how precious a resource language itself is in our lives. Understanding Narrative
Narrative is doubtless the most familiar form of literary expression, since everyone reads, or used to read, novels.
The perspective of this section is long-range, with the lectures beginning with a medieval Arthurian romance and closing with Alice Walker's The Color Purple.
The varied list of works includes:
- The picaresque classic, The Swindler
- The 18th-century saga of a self-made woman, Moll Flanders
- Classic coming-of-age stories by Dickens and Brontë
- Metaphysical probes by Melville and Kafka
- Faulkner's The Bear, which asks painful questions about race and progress.
The lectures reveal some astonishing common ground, including the emphasis on rites-of-passage; the fit or misfit between self and society; the creation of an identity; and the weight and presence of the past.
You learn that narrative is especially constituted to convey the curve of time in human life; the central business of the novel is to tell the life story, enabling a possession of that life that is hardly imaginable any other way. Encounter Works of Undisputed Value
Though notions of "completeness" and coverage make little sense in a course such as this, the texts chosen are of undisputed literary and historical value and place particular emphasis on the English and American traditions.
Dr. Weinstein's approach to each of these works is multifaceted, including:
- Acquaintance with the historical moment
- Introduction to the verbal and formal features of the work
- Close study of both the artist's craft and the larger meanings of the text
- Final consideration of the "life" of the text
- Its analogues in other cultures
- Its continued vitality in other times.
This course is meant to widen your view by using single texts as touchstones for other texts and other moments. A Dialogue of Books Across the Centuries
Reading great literature makes it possible to grasp something of the march and struggles of history and to apprehend the contours of a second history—a history composed of books that signal to one another and that are revisited and replayed throughout the centuries.
"Civilization and its discontents" is Freud's term for the external and internal warfare and policing that characterize the work of culture.
These lectures show that works of art give us vital testimony about the actual cost of civilization—about the tensions between anarchy and order and between experience and language.
"It should be no surprise," notes Dr. Weinstein, "that literature is a privileged locus for these conflicts, conflicts that we would scarcely understand at all if it were not for the record provided by art.
"The study of literature, then, must be both microscopic and macroscopic, attuned to the nuances and craft of artistic packaging no less than the larger philosophical and socio-political forces that attend human life."