Born Teacher – The Martha’s Vineyard Times


A good teacher gets you thinking whenever possible, whether at a lecture, seminar, or in person. Good teachers also challenge students, rather than spoon-feeding them an assortment of information and then waiting for it to be taken up. It’s no surprise, then, that Philip Weinstein poses a partly riddled question at the start of his just-released collection of essays, “Soul-Error” (The Humble Essayist Press). A resident of Aquinnah, Weinstein served in the English department at Swarthmore College for more than four decades. (Disclosure: Phil is also a personal friend.)

Start with the title of the book – neat, catchy and enigmatic. If our soul is our essence, our “animating and vital principle…our spiritual nature,” according to my well-worn and handy American Heritage Dictionary, how can it be wrong? Are we being played by an overeducated academic to impress us with his vast catalog of sources and resources?

Fortunately, Weinstein sorts out this intellectual grumbling straight away. “The error of the soul” was coined nearly 500 years ago by the French philosopher Montaigne, to “characterize an incorrigible human propensity: we overvalue what we don’t have and undervalue what we have already”, according to the author. “This tendency to evaluate others and objects differently, depending on whether they are here or far away – ours or not (yet) ours – is only more pronounced when it comes to evaluating them over time. ” As elementary as it is, the soul is also flexible, adaptable.

In the second chapter, Weinstein tackles another balancing act, this one between living and telling our lives. Given the inevitable surprises and uncertainties throughout our lives, it is impossible to tell it coherently, completely – that is, as a story – while we are living it. Yet we are inexorably drawn to stories, to make sense of the world around us, of our inner world. Some of us even make a living by telling stories. Weinstein writes: “The seduction of storytelling is surely the main attraction of this professional choice that has shaped my life – to become a professor of literature… to be paid to teach, to write about – to tell – the stories that literature tells. The art of storytelling can be so much more attractive 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 in Swarthmore.

Whereas “Soul-Error” can be mind-bending and philosophical, it also has a more conventional and relatable narrative, albeit with a good number of literary references.

Weinstein was born in Memphis just minutes from his identical twin, Arthur, who also became a literature professor. Building their own somewhat private world, 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 can, I think, torment us. both.” Twinness had its advantages, however, one of which may have predisposed him to his vocation: “Identical twins may have recognized…that identity is a construct awaiting deconstruction “, writes Weinstein. Deconstruction: the bread and butter of modernist literary criticism.

As a boy, Weinstein was largely unaffected by another discriminator, his Judaism. At the peak of Memphis society and influence were the Baptists, Presbyterians, and Methodists, followed by the Catholics and the Holy Rollers, and “farther, politely but firmly beyond the pallor – the Jews” . In eighth grade, when young Memphians joined fraternities and sororities, Weinstein first felt the full power and limitations of the city’s social hierarchy. Because he and his brother were top students, high school wasn’t as painful as it could have been, but early on he felt the social restraints of his hometown. Which not only made him want to leave town, but also influenced his choice to become a college professor.

“I was refusing a probable (Memphis) way of being Jewish in order to pursue a different (more cosmopolitan) way of being Jewish.” Not so soon, he discovered it soon after as an undergrad at Princeton, where “squabbling” for prestigious dining clubs was as discriminatory as fraternity bidding had been at home. Although his Judaism compelled him, it also led him somewhere he was happy to land, as an expert on William Faulkner, whose “excellent work resonated with my own sense of belonging to a marginalized group.

When he was 28, a junior Harvard faculty member, a few puffs on a marijuana-laden hookah drastically turned the script around for Weinstein. Until then, his objective of criticism, thanks to the power of his intellect, was “to refine my sensitivity for [a] very elaborate instrument. Going forward, he saw life as “a thing of wild surprises – the spurting of indignation, moments when space and time become game, the ejection of all that is familiar”.

Thought-provoking and intellectually demanding, Weinstein is – a lot – he is also disarmingly honest, both in self-evaluation and when reflecting 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, love for the spiritual and intellectual growth we seek to foster in our students as they engage in this literature – but competitive grudge also plays its part.

Ultimately, Weinstein is still the teacher: “For the past half-century, I have professionally sought to shed light on the strategies that writers deploy to shape their acts of storytelling. While occasionally flirting with the kind of intellectual restlessness 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, there’s no no mystery there. Still, it’s exciting to be in the same book with someone who knows people like Sartre, Nietzsche, Shakespeare, Freud, Einstein – even Groucho Marx.

And someone who just won’t give up. For the past few winters, Weinstein has been teaching classes on the island, sponsored by the Vineyard Haven library. From middle schoolers over the decades to their grandparents more recently, legions of students have been challenged, excited and rewarded by this generous and dedicated teacher.

Philip Weinstein will talk about “Soul-Error” at the Bunch of Grapes bookstore on Wednesday, July 6 at 7 p.m., and will be part of a panel discussion on non-traditional memories at Islanders Write.

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