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Understanding Literature and Life: Drama, Poetry and Narrative

Understanding Literature and Life: Drama, Poetry and Narrative

Course No.  210
Course No.  210
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Course Overview

About This Course

64 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

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.

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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:

  • Feminism
  • Marxism
  • Freudianism
  • Deconstruction
  • Close reading.
A Pandora's Box of "Potent Stuff"

"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:

  • "Thickened" language
  • Economy of verse
  • Startling vistas of metaphor and simile
  • Play of rhythm
  • Sheer concentration of vision.
Portraits of Private Psyche and Public Setting

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."

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64 Lectures
  • 1
    Why Literature—Civilization and Its Discontents
    This introductory lecture explains how literature offers us a unique record of culture and crisis. x
  • 2
    Oedipus the King and the Nature of Greek Tragedy
    What are the religious, philosophical, and theatrical elements of Greek tragedy? x
  • 3
    Fate and Free Will—Reading the Signs in Oedipus
    Did Oedipus really have a choice? Do the Greek oracles still exist in other forms? x
  • 4
    Self-making vs. Self-discovery in Oedipus
    How much power did Oedipus really have in his decisions/actions? What kind of knowledge is achieved? x
  • 5
    The Interpretive Afterlife of Oedipus
    Whose analysis is correct? From Nietzschean to Freudian, is there one particular criticism that stands alone? Does the play illuminate us today? x
  • 6
    Shakespeare's Othello—Tragedy of Marriage and State
    Othello is usually seen as a domestic tragedy; the focus is on marital rather than state interests. Is there a problem with this view? x
  • 7
    Poison in the Ear, or the Dismantling of Othello
    What events led to the collapse of the character of Othello? What role did Iago play? x
  • 8
    Rethinking Othello—Race, Gender and Subjectivity
    Was Shakespeare making a conscious statement about race and gender in Othello, or are contemporary audiences merely reading into the play? x
  • 9
    French Theater and Moliere's Comedy of Vices
    Why is Molière considered the "French Shakespeare"? x
  • 10
    Tartuffe and Varieties of Imposture
    Does Tartuffe follow the traditional comic principle? x
  • 11
    Religious Hypocrisy—Beyond Comedy
    What happens when the sacred is used as a cover for the profane? x
  • 12
    Georg Büchner—Physician, Revolutionary, Playwright
    What effect did Buchner's medical background have on his writing? x
  • 13
    Woyzeck the Proletarian Murderer—"Unaccommodated Man"
    Is society the creator of murder and violence? x
  • 14
    Woyzeck and Visionary Theater
    Does Buchner's "epic theater" do away with classical structures? x
  • 15
    Strindberg's Father—Patriarchy in Trouble
    The Father is presented as an Oedipal meditation about identity. Why does Strindberg feel the patriarchy is in jeopardy? x
  • 16
    Marriage—Theatrical Agon or Darwinian Struggle?
    What happens to married people? We'll take a look at Strindberg's ideas. x
  • 17
    The Father—From Theater of Power to Power of Theater
    How are illusion and role-playing central to The Father? x
  • 18
    Beckett's Godot—Chaplinesque or Post-nuclear?
    What do vaudeville and the search for God have in common? x
  • 19
    Beckett and the Comedy of Undoing
    What exactly makes Beckett's work amusing? Are you laughing? x
  • 20
    Godot Absent—Didi and Gogo Present
    Two clowns on an empty stage: humanist or absurd? x
  • 21
    Study of Literature—Approaches, Encounters, Departures
    This introductory lecture offers an analysis of the methods used to study literature, as well as a discussion of what constitutes poetry. x
  • 22
    Shakespeare's Sonnets—The Glory of Poetry
    Dr. Weinstein discusses the theme of poetry as bestower of immortality. x
  • 23
    The Shape of Love and Death in Shakespeare's Sonnets
    Was Shakespeare considered a Christian poet? Can love survive time? x
  • 24
    Innocence and Experience in William Blake
    Do you think it is possible to read and write innocently? x
  • 25
    Blakean Fables of Desire
    Is Blake the first counter-cultural poet? x
  • 26
    Blake—Visionary Poet
    What happens when a visionary looks at our ordinary world? x
  • 27
    Whitman and the Making of an American Bard
    What is explosively new and American about Whitman? x
  • 28
    "Myself" as Whitman's Nineteenth-Century American Hero
    Is there a special American view of self? x
  • 29
    Form and Flux, Openness and Anxiety in Whitman's Poetry
    How does Whitman reconcile his positive program with the insistent reality of doubt and death? x
  • 30
    Emily Dickinson—The Prophetic Voice from the Margins
    Dickinson's poetry is exceptionally powerful. She herself was a recluse. Is there a connection? x
  • 31
    Dickinson and the Poetry of Consciousness
    What did consciousness mean for Emily Dickinson's portrayal of nature? x
  • 32
    Dickinson—Death and Beyond
    How could you write from the vantage point of death? x
  • 33
    Baudelaire—The Setting of the Romantic Sun
    Is the voyage of life the greatest theme in Baudelaire? x
  • 34
    Baudelaire's Poetry of Modernism and Metropolis
    What kind of poetry emerges from the experience of the city? x
  • 35
    Robert Frost—The Wisdom of the People
    Is Frost too glib for his own good? x
  • 36
    Frost—The Darker View
    Is Robert Frost less sweet than we think? x
  • 37
    Wallace Stevens and the Modernist Movement
    Why is Wallace Stevens dubbed the "priest of the imagination"? x
  • 38
    Stevens and the Post-Romantic Imagination
    What does Stevens think about metaphor and nature? x
  • 39
    Adrienne Rich and the Poetry of Protest
    Can you make poetry out of social protest? x
  • 40
    Rich's Project—Diving into the Wreck of Western Culture
    How does Rich make us rethink the nature of Western culture? x
  • 41
    The Lives of the Word—Reading Today
    Is reading a form of mind travel? x
  • 42
    Chretien de Troyes' Yvain—Growing Up in the Middle Ages
    What was the status of knighthood in the 12th century? What does a good knight do? x
  • 43
    Yvain's Theme—Ignorant Armies Clash By Night
    Why is blindness a central condition of Yvain? x
  • 44
    The Picaresque Novel—Satire, Filth and Hustling
    Why narrate from the margins? Can beauty be found in filth? x
  • 45
    Francisco Quevedo's Swindler—The Word on the Street
    What kind of rivalry is there between words and matter? x
  • 46
    Daniel Defoe's Plain Style and the New World Order
    Is there a relation between Defoe's style and the "Protestant work ethic"? x
  • 47
    Moll Flanders and the Self-made Woman
    What is the significance of a woman hustler? x
  • 48
    Matter and Spirit in Defoe
    Do you find anything spiritual in this story of a courtesan thief? x
  • 49
    Dickens—The Novel as Moral Institution
    What could the novel teach in the 19th century? What today? x
  • 50
    Pip's Progress—From Blacksmith to Snob and Back
    What are the lectures of Pip's life? x
  • 51
    Riddles of Identity in Great Expectations
    Is there something nasty under the surface in Dickens? x
  • 52
    Charlotte Brontë and the Bildungsroman
    What is the Bildungsroman? Can it tell the story of girls as well as boys? x
  • 53
    Jane Eyre—Victorian Bad Girl Makes Good
    What was the Victorian establishment's response to Jane Eyre? x
  • 54
    The Madwoman in the Attic—19th Century Bills Coming Due
    Is patriarchy responsible for the madwoman? x
  • 55
    Melville's "Bartleby" and the Genesis of Character
    Who is the "real" Bartleby? Are characters real? x
  • 56
    "Bartleby"—Christ on Wall Street?
    What is Melville trying to say about society and its notions of "business as usual"? x
  • 57
    Franz Kafka's "Metamorphosis"—Sacrifice or Power Game?
    What is the bug symbolic of? Is the story a sacrificial parable? x
  • 58
    Kafka's "In the Penal Colony"—The Writing Machine
    Is Kafka's machine designed to open the self? Is that bad or good? x
  • 59
    Faulkner's "The Bear"—Stories of White and Black
    Is Faulkner able to narrate white and black relations equally well? x
  • 60
    "The Bear"—American Myth or American History?
    What does the reality of death and time have to do with Faulkner's writing? x
  • 61
    Tracking the Bear, or Learning to Read
    What parallels are there between bear tracking and reading? x
  • 62
    Alice Walker's Celie—The Untold Story
    How is Walker different from Faulkner? What changes here in the depiction of sexism and racism? x
  • 63
    Ideology as Vision in The Color Purple
    What are the different ways we can see God? Are we free agents here? x
  • 64
    Reconceiving Center and Margin
    How does The Color Purple challenge or invert much of what we've read in this course? x

Lecture Titles

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Arnold Weinstein
Ph.D. Arnold Weinstein
Brown University
Dr. Arnold Weinstein is the Edna and Richard Salomon Distinguished Professor at Brown University, where he has been teaching for over 35 years. He earned his undergraduate degree in Romance Languages from Princeton University and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Harvard University. Among his many academic honors, research grants, and fellowships is the Younger Humanist Award from the National Endowment for the Humanities, a Fulbright Senior Lecturer Award as a visiting professor at Stockholm University, Brown University's award as best teacher in the humanities, Professeur InvitÈ in American Literature at the Ecole Normale SupÈrieure in Paris, and a Fellowship for University Professors from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Professor Weinstein is the author of many books, including Fictions of the Self: 1550ñ1800 (1981); Nobody's Home: Speech, Self, and Place in American Fiction from Hawthorne to DeLillo (1993); and A Scream Goes Through The House: What Literature Teaches Us About Life (2003). Northern Arts: The Breakthrough of Scandinavian Literature and Art from Ibsen to Bergman (Princeton University Press, 2008), was named one of the 25 Best Books of 2009 by The Atlantic. Professor Weinstein chaired the Advisory Council on Comparative Literature at Princeton University, is the sponsor of Swedish Studies at Brown, and is actively involved in the American Comparative Literature Association.
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Reviews

Rated 4.6 out of 5 by 23 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by The Course, Learning a Literary Strategy The course is a joy. Professor Weinstein's knowledge of the topic, teaching skill, and love for the material make it a work of art in its own right. His sophisticated, non-pretentious manner gives the viewer the impression that this is not a course to sit through, but is simply a friendly conversation with a learned friend. The course makes me envy the students who, more mature than I, filled their college days with drama, poetry and literature while I slogged through the technical stuff that I thought I'd need to make my living. I could have been reading this all my life instead of just learning about it after retirement. I chose the course for the material on narrative, and found the lessons on drama and poetry to be more exciting than those on straight narrative. His choice of plays included Othello, among others, and this one play surpassed the value I thought I'd get from the whole course. In my opinion, a fine teacher, a good course, leaves you with an experience or a learning tool that is more that the knowledge of the topic, and Weinstein's lectures on Othello did that for me. Having had the standard American' high school student's introduction to Shakespeare, in which a bored, overworked teacher has the job of beating thirty students through a topic called “Shakespeare Requirement for District 2A”, I was left with a soured outlook on the Bard and his body of work. But Weinstein's analysis of the work, probably something he's done hundreds of time, gave me the want, the desire to go through the story, to pick up on the characters, the motivation, the social mileiu (and can there really be people who don't see the social racism in Iago's behavior?) and the action and resolution of the plot. I've been through Othello twice since I completed this course and found overlooked parts both times. Iago is no stranger in our lives, but I've never been able to put a face on him until now. The strategy Weinstein brought forward, start with a reasoned analysis by a knowledgeable expert before you read the first page, has also served me well in my current reading of Macbeth. I still have much of literature to learn to enjoy. Not even Dr. Weinstein could make me look forward to “Waiting for Godot,” but at least I now know where it fits in the world of current literature and how some people, more knowledgeable and worldlier than I, can enjoy it and keep it alive. In America, in the 20th century, we began to picture everything as an evolutionary scheme we call progress. True or not, this image serves as a hook on which we can hang sequences of occurences while we try to integrate their being into some coherent arrangement. Professor Weinstein's sequence of narrative examples from Defoe to Walker formed a striking picture of the last few centuries of exposition expressing the authors' experiences and viewpoints. His timelines, his glossaries, and his biographies at the end of each section are small examples of the excellence of the course. The course is now on my shelf, and I will review the lectures as my reading continues. After all these years, I'm coming to appreciate the fact that this course is available to me, for review, for refreshment,and to pick up what I missed the first times through. The only drawback to the course is that Dr. Weinstein has added to my reading list. I'm old. The list is supposed to be getting shorter. July 6, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Great Speaker and brilliant lecturer! Dr. Weinstein keeps his topics interesting, insightful, and engaging throughout. I was pleasantly surprised with this series, and am hoping he will be offering more in future categories. February 12, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Breathtakingly Brilliant [Audio Version] Because I enjoyed this course so much, I spread my listening over a month, and occasionally played certain lectures several times. I wanted ‘Literature and Life’ to go on forever. Professor Weinstein’s voice is clear and mellifluous. I could easily hear every word, including ‘demiurgic’ (which had me reaching for the dictionary). The course is well organized, comprehensive, and sublime. With 64 lectures to choose from, it’s tempting to list favorites: Beckett’s ‘Godot’ is tough going and uncomfortable, but necessary, insightful, and true. Faulkner’s ‘The Bear’ is brilliantly analyzed and sets up the awesome final three lectures on Walker’s ‘The Color Purple.’ The lecture on the late poet Adrienne Rich is probably at the top of my list. Bottom line: Every lecture in ‘Literature and Life’ is insightful, exciting, and profound. I finished this course feeling I had come away with fresh understanding, more clarity, and a deeper appreciation of many of the masters of poetry, drama, and narrative. ‘Literature and Life’ is another Weinstein masterpiece. Mission accomplished! February 23, 2013
Rated 4 out of 5 by Uneven, But with Gems Professor Weinstein loves literature, and he generally teaches it brilliantly. I gave his course on Classic Novels 5 stars but found his occasional selection of less than "classic" novels irritating. Here, in this course, I found his unevenness troubling enough actually to lower my rating. Make no mistake - if you disagree with me or if you are adroit enough to pick out the gems for study, you will find his teaching to be of a very high order. In such case, I heartily recommend the course. But, for reasons I'll explain in greater detail, I simply couldn't overlook its flaws. The course divides into three parts: drama, poetry, and narrative. So, let's look at each. In drama, we are blessed with extraordinary treatments of Oedipus and Waiting for Godot.The lectures on Othello, Tartuffe and the Father are good, but not memorable. And then there's Buchner's Woyzeck - a real fall off, in my opinion, in merit of material and quality of treatment. In the segment on poetry,the course reached real peaks with Shakespeare and especially the remarkable Emily Dickinson. There are good moments in the teaching of many of the others. But I found the lectures on Wallace Stevens and Adrienne Rich subpar and frankly unworthy next to their counterparts. In the narrative segment, there was fine teaching on Dickens, Bronte, and Faulkner. But I was not impressed with the choices or teaching of Yvain, The Swindler, and The Color Purple. It may be that the good professor thought some of these selections would give the course needed breadth and diversity. It may be that he was politically motivated to make some of these choices. Whatever his motive, sadly in my view, he has created a course uneven in quality and not up to the brilliance he's capable of showing consistently in his teaching. Weinstein is at his best when he teaches the very best material from the very best authors regardless of gender or period or politics. This course lost value when he strayed from that standard. February 18, 2013
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