Natural-born teacher

Philip Weinstein shares his own story this time in ‘Soul-Error.’

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A good teacher gets you thinking as soon as possible, whether in a lecture, seminar, or in person. Good teachers also challenge students, rather than spoon-feed them a smorgasbord of information, then wait for it to be echoed. So it’s no surprise that Philip Weinstein poses a question that’s part riddle at the start of his just-published collection of essays, “Soul-Error” (The Humble Essayist Press). An Aquinnah resident, Weinstein was a fixture in the English department at Swarthmore College for more than four decades. (Disclosure: Phil is also a personal friend.)

Begin with the book’s title — crisp, catchy, and enigmatic. If our soul is our essence, our “animating and vital principle … our spiritual nature,” according to my worn, handy American Heritage Dictionary, how can it be in error? Are we getting played by an overlearned academic out to impress us with his vast catalog of sources and resources?

Fortunately, Weinstein untangles this intellectual snarl at the outset. “Soul-error” was coined almost 500 years ago by the French philosopher Montaigne, to “characterize an incorrigible human proclivity: We overvalue what we do not have and undervalue what we already have,” according to the author. “This tendency to assess others and objects differently, according to whether they are here or far away — ours or not (yet) ours — is only more pronounced when it comes to assessing them over time.” As elemental as it is, the soul is also flexible, adaptable. 

In the second chapter, Weinstein addresses another balancing act, this one between living and telling our lives. Given the inevitable surprises and uncertainties throughout our lives, it’s impossible to tell it coherently, completely — that is, as a story — while we’re living it. Yet we are inexorably drawn to stories, to make sense of the world around us, of our interior world. Some of us even make a living telling stories. Weinstein writes, “The seductiveness of telling is surely the core appeal of that vocational choice that has shaped my life — to become a professor of literature … to be paid for teaching, writing about — retelling — the tales that literature tells. The art of telling can be so much more appealing than the shock of living!” After getting his feet wet teaching at Harvard, where he earned a Ph.D. in philosophy, Weinstein found his comfort zone at Swarthmore.

While “Soul-Error” can be mind-bending and philosophical, it also has a more conventional and relatable narrative, although one with a fair number of literary references.

Weinstein was born in Memphis within minutes of his identical twin, Arthur, who also became a professor of literature. Building a somewhat private world of their own, as twins will do, they were slow to develop relationships with others, leaving Philip, at least, to conclude, “A certain incapacity for the game of friendship as such may, I think, plague us both.” Twinship had its benefits, though, one of which may have predisposed him to his calling: “Identical twins may have recognized … that identity is a construct waiting for deconstruction,” Weinstein writes. Deconstruction: the bread and butter of modernist literary criticism.  

As a boy, Weinstein was largely unaffected by another discriminator, his Judaism. At the top of Memphis society, and influence, were Baptists, Presbyterians, and Methodists, followed by Catholics and Holy Rollers, and “further away, politely but firmly beyond the pale — Jews.” In eighth grade, when young Memphians joined fraternities and sororities, Weinstein first felt the full power, and limits, of the city’s social hierarchy. Because he and his brother were top-notch students, high school wasn’t as painful as it might have been, but early on, he sensed the social constraints of his home city. Which left him not only wanting to leave town, but also influenced his choice to become a college professor. 

“I was refusing one likely (Memphis) way of being Jewish in order to pursue a different (more cosmopolitan) way of being Jewish.” Not so fast, he found out shortly as an undergraduate at Princeton, where “bickering” for prestigious eating clubs was as discriminatory as fraternity bidding had been at home. As much as his Judaism constricted him, though, it also steered him somewhere he was happy to land, as an expert on William Faulkner, whose “great work resonated with my own sense of belonging to a marginalized group.”

When he was 28, a junior member of the Harvard faculty, a couple of puffs on a hookah loaded with marijuana flipped the script dramatically for Weinstein. To that point, his goal as a critic, through the power of his intellect, was to “refine my sensibilities into [a] highly wrought instrument.” Going forward, he saw life as “a thing of savage surprises — the springing of outrage, moments when space and time go gamey, ejection from everything familiar.”

Thought-provoking and intellectually demanding as Weinstein is — plenty — he’s also disarmingly honest, both in self-appraisal and when he reflects on his profession: “I do not underestimate the role of love in the critical enterprise — love for the literature we spend our lives teaching and writing about, love for the spiritual and intellectual growth we seek to foster in our students as they engage this literature — but competitive spite plays its part as well.”

In the end, Weinstein is ever the teacher: “For the past half-century I have sought professionally to shed light on the strategies writers deploy to shape their acts of telling.” While at times flirting with the kind of intellectual fussiness that some academics can’t resist, he ultimately boils things down to their essence, often in terms so simple you find yourself thinking, “Of course, no mystery there.” Still, it’s exciting to be in the same book with someone who’s conversant with the likes of Sartre, Nietzsche, Shakespeare, Freud, Einstein — even Groucho Marx. 

And someone who just won’t quit. For the past several winters, Weinstein has taught courses on the Island, sponsored by the Vineyard Haven library. From college kids over the decades to their grandparents more recently, legions of students have been challenged, excited, and rewarded by this generous, devoted teacher.

Philip Weinstein will be speaking about “Soul-Error” at Bunch of Grapes bookstore on Wednesday, July 6, at 7 pm, and will be part of a panel discussion on the nontraditional memoir at Islanders Write.

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