Daniel Mendelsohn Holds Down the Fort

“Don’t worry,” Daniel Mendelsohn writes in the foreword to his latest collection of essays, Waiting for the Barbarians (New York Review of Books). “Although the title of the book may seem alarmist, there’s nothing to be anxious about.” And yet, since the advent of literary and cultural criticism, the state of the critic has always been one of anxiety.

Once the critic was a cultural monastic, set apart from the masses to judge its most glorified products. Today’s crisis in criticism stems from a deeper confusion about what real criticism is—what does it do? Why do we need it? In an age in which every reader, watcher, or purveyor of the next Doritos commercial has the opportunity to voice his or her own opinions alongside the experts (and often underneath in comments sections), why privilege certain voices with a special status that qualifies them above the rest (especially in an age when so many critics with that special status seem interested in low “mass” cultural artifacts that require scant years of post-doctoral study to comprehend)? Do they need Ph.Ds or have a history publishing at The New Yorker or The New York Review of Books to be taken seriously? Isn’t the artist allowed to attack the critic for attacking the artist? And on and on.

The debate spurred Mendelsohn to publish a response in the form of “A Critic’s Manifesto: The Intersection of Expertise and Taste” on the New Yorker‘s book blog (a fitting riposte to those who believe real critics are basically those who only write for print). In the piece, Mendelsohn not only recalls his adolescent dreams on suburban Long Island of becoming a critic (not a novelist, a critic; not Hemingway, Kael), but he also outlines a definition of what it means to be a critic that doesn’t sound as mystical as calling oneself “psychic” or “a reader of animals’ minds.” One quality is expertise—developed knowledge of the subject beyond “feelings” or “impressions”—and the second is passion that grips the argument, holds it to light, and leads it toward conclusion. In a sense, expertise and interest, the sensible way to think.

Waiting for the Barbarians is a demonstration of Mendelsohn’s stunning ability to think—not for us but a step ahead of us as readers, pulling out figments, fragments, and philosophies that we might not catch—from his expertise as a Greek scholar as well as from his passion for a gorgeously executed scene, whether it be in Greek epic poetry or on cable television. Reading Mendelsohn is a bit like lucid dreaming; one is allowed the command of an extraordinary education and can also just enjoy the ride through Herodotus, the Titanic, and Oz.

The reader may not always agree with Mendelsohn’s ultimate take (I continue to disagree with him on the merits of Edmund White), but after reading his essays, the case has been made for the essential survival of a certain endangered species of critic: one that finds the subject not above him or below him but worth looking at directly, eye to eye.

CHRISTOPHER BOLLEN: I have no doubt that although you just put out this collection of 24 essays, you’re already working on more books to follow. Before we discuss Waiting for the Barbarians, are there any projects you’re midway through?

DANIEL MENDELSOHN: I have two books lined up with my publisher. The first one is about my dad and me. We spent 2011 reading The Odyssey together, and then we went on this cruise that recreated the voyage of Odysseus. It goes from Troy to Ithaca and all the stops in between.

BOLLEN: Obviously you’re a Greek scholar, but was your father acquainted with The Odyssey?

MENDELSOHN: No. He was a scientist. But he wanted to read the classics in his old age, and see what it was that I had spent all this time involved in. So he read it, and he came to my class where I was teaching a seminar at Bard, and that summer we went on this cruise together. It was just before he got sick.

BOLLEN: I can’t imagine the families that would sign up for an Odyssey-themed cruise.

MENDELSOHN: It was a small boat of about 75 people. And it was actually a really interesting mix. Of course, there were some families with precocious nerdy kids. They had four academics on board talking about Bronze Age archaeology, and stuff like that. Every day we visited a different place and we were taken around sightseeing. I’ve done similar trips as a lecturer, but never as a private citizen. The book is going to be called An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic. Then my book after that is going to be something like, How to Read the Classics.

BOLLEN: One of the things that I found really absorbing about Waiting for the Barbarians is simultaneously how much I could draw upon my study of the classics in college and also how insufficient—how horribly 101—those studies were. I don’t think when you’re reading the standard Richmond Lattimore copy of the Iliad or the Odyssey at age 18 that you really even consider whether Lattimore is doing a just translation of Homer. But many of your essays hinge on this question of translation. When you read the classics, are you acutely aware of the transgressions that authors are making in the translation of every line?

MENDELSOHN: Well, it often depends what the agenda of the essay is. Take, for example, my essay on Anne Carson’s translation of Sappho [“In Search of Sappho”]. There’s a great question among classicists about whether Sappho was writing erotic personal poetry, as we understand it to be, or whether these were publically commissioned for public performance by choruses of girls, in which case, your understanding of what looked like intensely private, erotic expressions is totally different. It was less about translation than the way that Carson presented it. I think you need to inform people that this is an issue in the way you read Sappho.

We read poets the way we need to read them. And if you want to think Sappho was a lesbian love lyricist, be my guest. But at least in the introduction to a new translation of a major poet from antiquity, you need to alert your audience who isn’t expected to have this historical knowledge. The translations of the poems themselves are wonderful. There is no better translation of Sappho. So it depends on the agenda. In the case of the essay I wrote about Herodotus [“Arms and the Man”], very little of the essay is taken up with translation. You could argue that in a long prose work, translation isn’t as vital a factor as it is in a work of poetry. So my piece for the New Yorker on Herodotus is to explain what’s so fun about Herodotus.

BOLLEN: You saw Herodotus and his blitz of factoids as perfectly suited to our Internet age.

MENDELSOHN: Yes. The reason Herodotus is often perceived as amateurish is that he was constantly digressing—telling the whole history of every little thing that he comes across. My sense is that he’s a kind of Internet-era thinker. If he could do hyperlinks, he would have done hyperlinks, but there was no way to do hyperlinks in 425 BCE. So you’ve got to spiral out into these other digressions. That has nothing to do with the translation. But I find that readers are very interested in how things are translated. I just turned in the first part of this father-son Odyssey, and there is a part when I digress and explain that the name Odysseus is related to the word for pain. Like “-odyne” in the word “anodyne,” pain. It’s the same, “-odyne” as in Odysseus. He’s the man who both suffers endlessly, in trying to get home, but also inflicts a lot of suffering on everyone he visits.

BOLLEN: In the essay “Epic Endeavors,” you discuss how Odysseus is a great liar.

MENDELSOHN: This is why we love Odysseus. He’s the great bullshitter. That essay was on Zachary Mason’s novel The Lost Books of the Odyssey, which is a riff on The Odyssey. But already in The Odyssey, there is a post-modern impulse. What if The Odyssey itself is just one of the many lies that Odysseus tells? You see him bullshitting people all the time. If you’re already in this universe of the poem, where somebody is constantly retelling his own story to shape it to what his audiences will like, what about the poem itself? What if that’s just another one of these stories? What if it has no more validity or authenticity than one of the other stories that you hear him telling? Whoever created The Odyssey was incredibly hip to stuff that we think, in our post-modernist, post-structuralist era, we’re uncovering for the first time; but we aren’t.

BOLLEN: Earlier this year, you wrote a piece for The New Yorker called “A Critic’s Manifesto,” where you defended the role of the critic after a number of arguments on all sides about the merit of nasty reviews in a troubled book industry. I was taken by your childhood dream of actually becoming a critic the way other young people want to be poets or astronauts. Was studying Greek a stepping-stone for you to becoming the critic you hoped to be?

MENDELSOHN: I think it was a separate interest. I was not your average teenager, and I remember the old New Yorker, in the ’70s, came in a brown wrapper.

BOLLEN: Like pornography.

MENDELSOHN: It was labeled as a newspaper. And I learned so much from those New Yorker critics. I lived in the suburbs, and they were writing about Julie Wilson singing cabaret songs at the Algonquin. It was all terribly glamorous, and it gave me this sense of the world. Arlene Croce was writing Balanchine reviews as these works were premiering in the ’70s. I remember the “Arts and Leisure” section of the Sunday New York Times. When you read it in the suburbs, you spent the whole day reading it, because it was the Bible of culture. But then I always had the sort of thing for the classical, for Greek mythology. It was also a sexuality thing. Here were these boys, always naked. How could it not be appealing? I remember there was a famous classicist named Jack Winkler who died of AIDS in his 40s. When I was first in graduate school, I came across one of his articles, which began with something like, “Who could resist the allure of a culture of naked statues and bad behavior?”

BOLLEN: I often wonder how the abundance and availability of pornography on the Internet will effect a whole generation of young people—especially young gay men—who moved toward the arts because it provided that kind of erotic charge and liberation. If you don’t need culture to merge with your sexuality anymore, if it’s as easy as turning on your laptop, do you need to be grabbing Greek mythology books in libraries?

MENDELSOHN: Right. Repression is good for cultural achievement. Let’s face it. What are these boys going to be like? I always like to say the 19th-century gay boy was Oscar Wilde, the 20th-century gay boy was Stonewall and ACT UP. And in the 21st century, we have blocking people on Grindr. That’s what we’ve accomplished. Without some kind of traction…

BOLLEN: We were young in the pre-Internet age.

MENDELSOHN: Yeah, you had to find gay things—or things that were slightly radioactive with erotic interest. You had to go to the library, you had to find the books; you had to find the coded things. When everything’s available and everything’s okay, what does it become? It becomes shopping. We’re shopping all the time, basically, whether for objects, or people. On Manhunt or Grindr, or whatever. It’s click to buy.

BOLLEN: Is shopping a homosexual condition? Has heterosexuality found its way out of shopping as lifestyle?

MENDELSOHN: It’s really a sub-cultural problem. When the strictures that set you apart or oppressed you, disappear, is there a way, legitimately, to maintain your sense of specialness and difference? And how do you express that? Does it just become a kind of kitsch? You can say this of gay people, but it’s true for Jewish people, Italian Americans, everyone who deals with it. It’s a question of assimilation. How can you be assimilated and special at the same time?

BOLLEN: You still want to be a rebel after you’ve broken down all the doors.

MENDELSOHN: This is also an aesthetic consideration, a critical consideration. For example, that’s my argument for what happens in Alan Hollinghurst [“In Gay and Crumbling England”]. You come out of the gate, you’ve got something new, you’re subversive, nobody’s ever done it before. But by your fifth novel and your fourth literary prize and your house in the country, can you really claim to be subversive?

BOLLEN: I know I’ve told you this before, but the one essay where I disagree with you is your critique of Edmund White [“Boys Will Be Boys”]. I’m a big fan of White’s, and I love precisely what you fault him for—his willing to go to these places that are still subversive and others don’t reach, which are very gay, but you think are ultimately too limited and not universal enough. But I noticed that the essay included in the collection is different than the one published in The New York Review of Books. To me, there was less to disagree with this time around. It didn’t seem as abrasive toward him.

MENDELSOHN: I switched the first half and the second half. When I had originally written the piece, I’d written it ABC and then, at the last minute, I made it CBA in terms of the works I discussed. And that had a lot to do with the toughness of the tone.  When I was re-reading the essays, to collect them into the book, I thought it made more sense and it was less ferocious to put it back in the original order.

BOLLEN: I found its sequencing in the collection interesting as well. It comes right before your essay on Susan Sontag [“The Collector”], and there is a parallel between them. In one case, you are analyzing a woman who refuses to mention sufficiently that she’s a lesbian and take her to task for this failure. And then there is this man whose writings on gayness you find too limited in its scope.

MENDELSOHN: Well, that’s why I put these two essays next to each other. I do stand by my own phrase, “Why does Sontag care so much about Bosnians and not lesbians?” I’ve always avoided pitching a camp anywhere and I think the most fruitful thing for me is, both as a person and a writer, is always moving back and forth. There is something appealing and valid and authentic about the queer way of looking at things, right? But I would say, you can’t only be this. You have to acknowledge some kind of commonality with people who are other to yourself. I’m not claiming to have resolved this, but that’s why you get both of these angles, in these adjacent essays.

BOLLEN: The case against Edmund White actually reminded me of this rather strange moment in A Room of One’s Own, where Virginia Woolf attacks—or at least mourns—Charlotte Brontë for imbuing Jane Eyre with problems of being a woman in a male-dominated world. Woolf imagines a better novel where the dreams mentioned weren’t thwarted. That’s all very well, but to take those parts out would be to destroy Jane Eyre. Brontë was writing from her place in the world at the time. I don’t think it’s bad to write from that place. And I think White was writing bravely from his own specific moment, writing what hadn’t been said, from the cultural margin.

MENDELSOHN: White was very specific to a moment, right, where you needed to be the violet quill. But you don’t anymore. You have to say the same thing about literature, being a literary critic. You have to take into account that times change, and they affect the way we read things. But I would argue, for perspective’s sake, that the arc of a really literary work is precisely that it both intensely reflects, and simultaneously transcends the conditions of its making. I would say that is the difference between literature and other kinds of writing. That is what the literary is—it ultimately doesn’t matter what his circumstances were. And the thing that you were just saying about being sympathetic to Brontë and the fact that she could only write what she wrote when she wrote it… that’s true. But look at that novel, which means so much to so many people. It’s so much greater than a marriage plot.

I, you know, it’s funny because my now discontinued career as a real, classic scholar—I was trained as a classicist. But I’m not an academic classicist anymore, although I did publish a book about Euripides [Gender and the City in Euripides’ Political Plays], which was the final version of my dissertation, and this was precisely the point I was making with Euripides. There was a great debate, in classics, about Euripides as a subversive. You know, he’s the one who put these wild women on stage, Medea, Phaedra, Hecuba—destructive women, who tore up men’s agendas. For years, that was the view, that he was a feminist. Then there was a later generation of feminists who said, “Yes, but all the women who break the rules in such a dramatic fashion end up punished, so it’s really patriarchy re-inscribing itself.” In my book I said, well, you can only work in your own universe. I would rather admire him breaking out of the patriarch mode, even if he ended up re-inscribing it because there was no other alternative. He tried. He tried to shake it up. I think that what the critic has to do is think both in the time and outside of the time, as much as you can.

BOLLEN: Going back to Sontag, she so famously wanted to be perceived as a novelist, as a fiction writer, even though her best work was in criticism. Why do you think that she—and a few others we could name—valued fiction above nonfiction? Is it a fear that criticism somehow doesn’t transcend the way that literature does?

MENDELSOHN: I think that is a really interesting question. That criticism, because it is parasitic on works created in its own time, has a shelf life, right? Whereas the novel, quote unquote, will transcend time. Every word of criticism that Sontag wrote—when you go back and read Against Interpretation—is so dazzling. And every piece of fiction she ever wrote sank like a piece of lead to the bottom of the ocean. It’s a lack of full acknowledgement of who one really is. In her case, she didn’t recognize her own self, both as a sexual person and as a literary person. Which, as a person with such extraordinary acumen for recognizing other objects, works of literature, cinema, whatever, is kind of dazzling.

And also Sontag and others were products of an era in which to be thought of as literary person meant one thing, which is that you wrote a great novel. I think we are well past this era. We are living in an era of such interesting new forms, and certainly narrative non-fiction has emerged as a major form. People who are great writers don’t have to write novels. But Sontag clearly believed that to be literata, she had to write fiction, which is loony because hers was terrible. Her criticism was actually literature.

BOLLEN: Just as A Room of One’s Own is literature. Sontag’s criticism has transcended its subjects.

MENDELSOHN: Yes, even if the things wrote about are no longer current, it’s the force of her imagination. And nobody else was doing what she was doing. I would say her willingness to look at any echelon of culture—high, low, middle, science fiction movies, camp—and take it seriously, to use the full force of her analytical, analytical rigor and her intellectual tools, and look at pop culture, is what everyone does now. Now everyone’s doing a Ph.D seminar on Madonna. But that a serious person would want to write about this was not such an obvious choice 50 years ago.

BOLLEN: Did you make a conscious decision not to follow a purely academic university path? There is a clear distinction today between a public intellectual and an academic scholar. For one, you aren’t bound by a conversation that fetishizes “theory.”

MENDELSOHN: I have nothing but great respect for great scholars. But I was in grad school in the ’80s and ’90s, at the height of the theory craziness. It had a big part in why I ended up becoming a writer rather than a scholar, because I thought, “I just can’t play these games.” I was interested in literature because I loved literature, and so much of the theoretical positioning, at that moment 25 years ago, was antagonistic to literature. You know, trying to show that Jane Austen is a terrible person because she wasn’t thinking about colonialism.

In graduate school, to the horror of my fellow graduate students, I used to get Interview, W, House & Garden, Architectural Digest. My thought was, beauty is beauty. If you’re interested in a beautiful Sophoclean drama, shouldn’t the same impulse make you want to appreciate a beautiful slipper chair? I was interested in all kinds of things, whether it be Avatar, Mad Men, Troy, 300, Battlestar Gallactica, or the poems of Horace and Sappho. I always joke about this to my students, who can’t quite wrap their mind around the fact that you can have a Ph.D in classics, but not do that full time. I never wanted to write anything with footnotes for the rest of my life. I always think of what I do as the kind of conversation you’d have with somebody, like a good friend, when you’ve gone and seen a movie together, and you come home and you start talking about it.

BOLLEN: There is a sense in your essays that you aren’t talking down to the reader from a position of learned exclusion. You’re using your training to open things up not close them off. I think that’s what separates academic from public writing.

MENDELSOHN: But that’s my job. I’m doing that for my reader. You know, Bob Gottlieb always says, “Criticism is a service industry.” I take that very seriously. I do the research so I can tell you interesting things. It’s not condescending, it’s educational.

BOLLEN: Many literary critics today like to name schools. They are founders of -isms or movements and try to bundle writers into this or that camp. But you’re rather anti-ideological on your criticism. You aren’t trying to champion a single point over any other.

MENDELSOHN: No, I’m very anti-ideology. That’s why I was never going to be a good theorist. I don’t want to commit to one way of looking at things. This has deep roots in my experience as a gay person. Gay people, certainly gay people of my generation, at least of a certain echelon—middle-class Americans—have binocular vision. We all are raised by straight people and grow up with straight people and in straight families, but we all have this totally other way of looking at things. Increasingly as I get deeper into middle age, that is why I resist plunking for any one camp. Because I have this delicious sort of experience of being able to see things in two ways.

BOLLEN: That’s what appeals to me about these essays. I’m not always sure where you will land.

MENDELSOHN: In general, I think I respond to things. Maybe the better way to put it is by saying, I respond to what I don’t like. I don’t like things that I find to be cheaply cynical, or have a kind of knowingness about them. I think it’s one of the things about Mad Men that I reacted very strongly against. It’s so easy to be disdainful or condescending, particularly now, in our culture, which is so ironic and so submerged in its own jadedness. That’s why I loved Friday Night Lights. It takes people so seriously, and it does honor to their lives, and it isn’t winking at naiveté of these Texas high-school football people. I critiqued Avatar, but there’s something so wonderful about this Oz-like place. I went to see Avatar with a friend who made the implication that he was working to resist the visual seduction of the film. I was like, “Why? It’s so wonderful.”

I love things that are brave enough to be nakedly about what our lives are actually built of, when you’re wild about someone, or you love something, or you’re a fool, or you embarrass yourself. And I don’t think the answer is cynicism. Cynicism is not the cure for sentimentality. Cynicism is its own form of sentimentality. For example, I tried to watch Breaking Bad. After three episodes, I thought, I don’t like this guy. I don’t care about him. But you can see why people tell themselves that they think this is real. But real doesn’t mean bad.

Life is not bad, and it doesn’t look more real if it’s ugly or it’s gritty. Think of your own life. Most of what’s in your own life, hopefully, is exactly that. Friendship and love and passion for movies and cartoons and comic books, whatever it is that you love. Most of the way we live our lives involves looking for pleasure and beauty and happiness and affection. Real artists don’t use reflexive clichés about things. It’s about honoring the reality of people’s lives, which defies conventions and clichés and expectations. People are interesting, period.