Martha’s Vineyard readers consider colonialism

Philip Weinstein, half-time professor, full-time teacher. — Photo by Lucille Nawara

Philip Weinstein has been teaching English at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania for 40 years. Regular vacationers on the Island since 1982, he and his wife, Penny, bought a house off Lighthouse Road in Aquinnah in 1997. They are here as much as possible, in season and out, including this fall. Mr. Weinstein is now at Swarthmore half time.

Starting next week, he is offering a four-part “course” to Island readers. Four books will be examined in “Fictions of Colonial Encounter,” as he calls it, one each to be discussed at town libraries in Aquinnah, Chilmark, Vineyard Haven, and Oak Bluffs.

The four books are “Heart of Darkness,” (1899) by Joseph Conrad; “A Passage to India,” (1924) by E.M. Forster; “Things Fall Apart,” (1966) by Chinua Achebe; and “The Joys of Motherhood,” (1979) by Buchi Emecheta. Conrad and Forster are white British writers, writing from the vantage point of colonialists; Achebe and Emecheta are black Nigerian writers who write from the perspective of being colonized. The causes and effects of colonialism are central to all four books.

“The basic premise of the course is this: what does it look and feel like from ‘the other side’ as well as from ‘your side’?” Mr. Weinstein wrote in an email over the weekend. “I’m committed more to exploring the different realities at play than to judging one stance by way of another. This doesn’t mean that judgment is not involved, but that judgment needs to pass through the experiential optic of the other; otherwise, it is mere pre-judgment.”

“I want to emphasize that these meetings are envisaged as discussions as well as lectures,” Mr. Weinstein said. “I will do my best to introduce each of the works by laying out something of its context, its narrative procedures, and its significance. Thereafter I want to help the audience develop its own conversation about each of the books, so that our 90 minutes together becomes a learning and sharing experience. For this to happen, folks need to read the books in advance of the meetings.”

“Heart of Darkness” will be discussed at the first meeting, coming up next Thursday, September 15, at 4 pm at the Aquinnah library. It’s a short novel, a bit more than 100 pages in most editions, so interested Islanders should be able to complete the assignment in a week’s time. Then again, it’s hardly easy reading, perhaps because there’s a 19th-century precision to the writing, even as it deals with murky concerns where nothing is black or white.

“‘Heart of Darkness’ has become a classic less because of what Conrad knows about Africa in the 1890s than because of his success in getting into his story so much of what he does not know,” Mr. Weinstein said. “The confusions and disorientations makes the story devilishly slippery. It was through the writing of confusion — of nonmastery, of immovable bias, of the absence of shared values — that Conrad departed from the certitudes of Victorian fictional practice and became one of the first modernists.”

“Heart of Darkness” may be a classic in western eyes, but not so to some others, according to Mr. Weinstein. Chinua Achebe, for example, hates the book, which, he wrote, “parades in the most vulgar fashion prejudices and insults from which a section of mankind has suffered untold agonies and atrocities.”

To one sensibility, then, the book is an insight into behavior that is driven by inexorable, almost natural, impulses, given the history, the values, and the morality of that sensibility. To another, it is a blind rationalization of abhorrent, absolutely unacceptable behavior. No wonder Mr. Weinstein uses it to lead off a course that focuses on different interpretations of the same events.

While the course is designed to unravel some of the confusions of colonial encounter, Mr. Weinstein’s motive for teaching it suggests another conundrum. After all, isn’t the idea of a sabbatical to get out of the ivory tower, away from the classroom? At least in Mr. Weinstein’s case, it turns out that you can take the teacher out of the classroom, but you can’t take the teacher out of the teacher.

“I offer this course on the Island because… I want to refashion my teacherly profile in ways suitable to this place, so that — without being paid or published — I can continue to share with others my sense of how literature shapes and conveys the stresses and possibilities of life,” he said. “There’s only so much about life that we garner through our own experiences: we need the broadening lenses that literature provides about life in other places and times, as well as in our own place and time. Helping to stage an encounter between readers and literary works is what I’ve learned to do over the years. It’s as pertinent here as in the Swarthmore College classroom.”

Fictions of Colonial Encounter, Philip Weinstein

Sept. 15, 4 pm, Aquinnah Library, “Heart of Darkness”

Nov. 3, 4 pm, Chilmark Library, “A Passage to India”

Nov. 16, 7 pm, Vineyard Haven Library, “Things Fall Apart”

Dec. 15, 4 pm, Oak Bluffs Library, “The Joys of Motherhood”