Weinstein (Comparative Literature/Brown Univ.; Northern Arts: The Breakthrough of Scandinavian Literature and Art, from Ibsen to Bergman, 2008, etc.) eloquently mines the literary canon for rites-of-passage stories.
In this beautifully, tenderly conceived work, the author employs these seminal texts from Shakespeare to J.M. Coetzee to illuminate both the experience of his young students facing the beginning of their life’s journey and also his own, as a man well into his sunset years and looking back at the journey’s end. He uses as point of departure (and title) Oedipus’s answer to the Sphinx’s riddle—“What is the creature that is on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, three legs at night?”—to delve into these stories as excellent depictions of man at various stages of life. With marvelous clarity gained from three decades of teaching, Weinstein addresses the trajectory of growing up to growing old, moving from Oedipus’s own blindness and lack of agency in perpetrating his tragedy, to William Blake’s vision of a cruel collusion in acculturation gained in the breathtaking “Chimney Sweeper” poems, to the hard-knock lessons of the picaresque Lazarillo de Tormes and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. The author also finds protagonists embittered by the illusory “final harvest,” forsaken and disempowered in their old age—from King Lear to Jean Racine’s Phèdre and Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. Throughout this astute, elegant text, Weinstein reminds us why we read (“Art makes life visible”) and why these stories are still especially relevant—“as that special mirror that shows up both how others have come through and how we might learn from them.” Chapters treating the theme of love as a “basic motor force” prove particularly incandescent, and with certain texts in particular—e.g., Tarjei Vesaas’s The Ice Palace, Faulkner novels, King Lear—the author attains a pitch of passionate rhapsody.
From familiar works to those not so well-known, Weinstein expertly extracts their timeless lessons.