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Waiting for the Barbarians

by Daniel Mendelsohn
New York Review of Books, 2012

The New York Review of Books recently published the second collection of criticism and reviews by Daniel Mendelsohn, Waiting for the Barbarians. Open Letters Monthly‘s Executive Editor John Cotter and its Managing Editor Steve Donoghue both eagerly devoured the book and then settled in for some post-prandial discussion.

John Cotter: We’ve lost too many critics this year, as you know (Gore Vidal, Robert Hughes), which makes it even more pleasurable to read and talk about a collection of essays every bit its progenitors’ equal. Daniel Mendelsohn writes with the kind of patience and authority that calm his readers even while waking them up.

As you know, two months ago, Mendelsohn magisterially put a stop to a web-wide outbreak of hand-wringing about what the role of a critic ought to be. On the New Yorker‘s Page-Turner blog he wrote of his own early love of critical reviews (Pauline Kael, Helen Vendler) and how “I thought of these writers above all as teachers, and like all good teachers they taught by example; the example that they set, week after week, was to recreate on the page the drama of how they had arrived at their judgments.”

The drama of his own judgments is always there on the page, and I find that I do read Mendelsohn as though I were a student. But Steve, I wonder what you specifically enjoy in an essay like, for instance, his on a new translation of Homer. You know the Iliad much better than I do, you know the scholarly debate, and you reviewed Mitchell’s translation yourself (and came to many of the same conclusions that Mendelsohn does). So if you’re not reading Mendelsohn to learn (which I am), then where for you lies the pleasure of a text like this? What do you like about the way Mendelsohn takes these things on?

Steve Donoghue: Don’t forget the mighty Judith Crist in your roll-call of the newly dead! A past master at the seamless blending of pop and traditional, if ever there was one! Still, it’s oddly comforting to watch you characterize Daniel Mendelsohn as master of this sub-genre we practice, this literary journalism that can so often seem to be landscaped with far more shrubs than trees. It’s always comforting to have working critics we can without irony call ‘great’ (although my God, not even Edmund Wilson on a four-martini roll would have merited the golden shower of accolades poured on Waiting for the Barbarians last month in The New York Review of Books by Edward Mendelsohn! Did you read that? At the end of a long piece crediting Daniel with perfect pitch, X-ray vision, and the invention of penicillin, Edward makes a point of saying they aren’t related; reading it, I kept thinking good: then it won’t be incest if he accepts this long and obvious marriage-proposal).This is indeed a great literary journalist, I agree—I read Waiting for the Barbarians with joy, even though I’d read all of its individual pieces as they were published.

I was just as happy when Mendelsohn and I disagreed as when we agreed. I’m an unapologetic fan of James Cameron’s Titanic, and I worked very closely with Panagiotis Polichronakis on his Open Letters review of The Landmark Herodotus. But a full sled-team of basset hounds couldn’t drag me to an evening of Philip Glass desecrating 4000 years of musical theater, and I’ve never even seen Avatar. Yes, I’ve read and reviewed Stephen Mitchell’s Iliad, and David Malouf’s Ransom, but I try to steer clear of Susan Sontag, and I’ve never understood what all the Mad Men fuss was about.

Still, I think the easiest answer to your question about what I get out of a typically soup-to-nuts review of a new Iliad is the one implied by your opening characterization: I get to find out what a great critic thought of it. There’s an enormous interest in that regardless of how well you know the subject at hand, right? I couldn’t help but notice that there isn’t one single subject in the length of Waiting for the Barbarians on which you yourself are an expert (what I wouldn’t give to listen to you and Mendelsohn talk over wine, working toward your common ground! I’m guessing you’d start with comparatively modern poetry, right? He writes here about Rimbaud, whose work you know well – and of course he’s the new go-to translator of Cavafy, whose work I’d wager you know better than well), but what if there were? When the inevitable new studies of figures like Anthony Burgess or Gore Vidal (or the generally baffling Enlightenment, God help us) trundle off the presses and literary journalists write about them, won’t you read those pieces, even though, factually speaking, they won’t be teaching you anything? Surely it’s all about the writer and the writer’s conviction, yes?

Along those lines, here’s a question for you: were there any points in Waiting for the Barbarians where that conviction failed to convince you? When the teaching you rightly ascribe to him didn’t seem to work on you?

JC: He never fails to teach, no, though his big theses do sometimes come up a bit short. But before I talk about how they come up short I’d like to talk in detail about why they do work…

See what I just did there? that’s how they work. He teases us with a verdict, but then makes us wait for while he builds up evidence (but its more graceful than lawyerly … could this be the elusive erotics of art?). When it works, his self-confidence proves itself. He casually notes that Susan Sontag conceived of herself as having been born in the wrong century, but then makes us wait thousands of words before revealing which he had in mind. He has solved the mystery of Rimbaud’s silence, and the promise of that revelation keeps us turning the pages even faster than we already might.

The essays where the method doesn’t work (as the one on Rimbaud almost doesn’t) are those where the climax feels like less than we’d been promised. He’s wrong about Mad Men, for example—the secret of its success isn’t a desire to know how one’s parents lived (or my own friends a generation younger than Mendelsohn wouldn’t be as fanatical about it as they are). The secret to Mad Men’s success is the outlet it provides for fantasy. We live in a society of ostensible equality and there are sexist men and sexist women who quietly chafe against it. Mad Men gives them what True Blood gives them, the chance to imagine themselves as predator and prey.

But you clearly disagree with some of his conclusions too. He routinely asks, of a new adaptation of the classics, say, “You wonder, indeed, just who it is this collection is meant to serve,” or “For whom is this book intended?” (about McClatchy’s Horace and Carson’s Sappho, respectively). You reviewed Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey—what does Mendelsohn get wrong about those adaptations that don’t get their originals exactly right? Is he too possessive? Too worried about his students being led astray (I notice that his worst fears were confirmed when the Carson Sappho made its way into the new Norton Anthology of World Literature, as though it were word-for-word).

SD: “Possessive” was one of the very words that came to mind, yes! That particular, reflexive rearguard action that classicists tend to perform whenever anybody mentions the word “Callimachus”—the conviction that most non-specialists will usually turn to the classics in order to desecrate them. How else would you explain the fact that one of his main complaints about Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey is that, well, it isn’t as good as Homer? Actually, he and I agree on that one—”too clever by half” (although he’s a bit prone to it himself, as when he gamely points out “It is no coincidence that both bards and archers—Odysseus is a renowned bowman, too—need a stringed instrument to perform” … when it is, in fact, in context, exactly a coincidence)—and hoo boy, do we disagree about David Malouf’s Ransom! And I wonder if that isn’t part of the same reflex: Malouf’s book is conventional narrative (soporifically conventional, I thought), whereas Mason’s was experimental, after all; maybe only the risky one set off the gatekeeper reflex. That reflex is valuable; we want it foremost in our critics, right? (but I suspect we’ll come back to the whole question of ‘real’ critics, won’t we?)

I like that trait in Mendelsohn probably more than any other. He’s got a genuinely open mind, but admission isn’t free. I like that it makes him fearless.

Of course, fearlessness and a certain recklessness go hand-in-hand. As you point out, he’s not exactly spot-on when writing about Mad Men—and as you’re too courteous to say but maybe were thinking, what’s a critic who can read Socrates in Greek doing trying to bring the dramatic dialectics of the Athenian stage to a cheeseball TV show (or worse, trying to find them there)? What’s next? The mythopoetics of NCIS: Miami? I’m certainly not one to knock a wide plurality of aesthetic interests (as you’ve probably suffered through enough of my disquisitions on Star Trek to know), but there’s such a thing as showing off.

So naturally I cringed at the thought of Mendelsohn assaying Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark—not just because of the classical overreaching, but because of the milord-does-the-dishes gaffes that inevitably attend this kind of slumming. And sure enough, we’re told that the Hulk was the result of a “laboratory accident,” that Wolverine “sports lupine traits” after his “transformations,” and that Spider-Man has the ability to shoot weblike material out of his wrists. Little slips like these are easily prevented—and you can bet your prized copy of Larousse Mendelsohn WOULD have prevented them, if the subject matter had been more elevated. The implications of that can be a little dismaying.

And speaking of dismaying implications – are we going to talk about Alan Hollinghurst, or just quietly tip-toe past it?

JC: God help me for wading into this but are you telling me the Incredible Hulk wasn’t caused by an accident (exposure to radiation, right)? But anyway, I like Mendelsohn’s pop essays. I think you’re particularly sensitive when you see a highbrow stooping down—you keep a cold eye on his balance. I loved his one-line explanation for why Julie Taymor’s Tempest was so dry (she’s too used to the stage and couldn’t handle the natural world). There’s gems like that just everywhere.

Remember how shortly after we both read Christopher Hitchens’ Arguably, we lamented that he had only two or three ‘grooves’ he fell into (funny old Brits, one must have Courage, behold no Jehovah, etc.). That’s a danger for everyone who writes frequently on a variety of subjects and I think the pop essays help keep Mendelsohn from falling into that trap. They’re also quite good!

So: the Hollinghurst. It’s placed in the book right before Mendelsohn’s review of Littell’s The Kindly Ones and reading the two together is an useful way determining what, for Mendelsohn, separates a mostly positive from a mostly negative review. As it turns out, not all that much. Mendelsohn acknowledges that The Kindly Ones is poorly written, tedious to read, and (typically) that its classical parallels are ill-conceived. Yet he ends by recommending the book, and his reasons for doing so are mostly ethical ones. In this I think his method differs from your own, in that ethics matter to you, but your first allegiance is aesthetic. We see the same thing in his Avatar review—the film was ravishing, the best thing he’s looked at in a long time, but it was ethically ambiguous, and that matters. I imagine he prides himself on ruthless compartmentalization and an ability to isolate the respective flaws and strengths of a given work and lay them out impartially.

Even so, the Hollinghurst review was a strange piece. He talks at length about how much he loves the author’s work, but identifies also a sense of social striving, “ephebophilia,” cold characterization, and finally, yes, in that long footnote (the only one in the book even close to that long), he describes the characterization of Jews in Hollinghurst’s oeuvre as … well, how does he characterize it? “A hidden strain of regressiveness.” In the letters page of the New York Review he seemed to imply that if we paraphrased him at all we were getting it wrong, but surely a mind as good as Mendelsohn’s comprehends that you can’t really fuss with the question of antisemitism at such close range without doing a bit more than simply raising the question? Or that to raise the question at all implies an answer. It’s just too incendiary. I’m not one of those people who think an accusation of anti-Semitism or racism is worse than actual racism, anti-Semitism, etc, but why bother playing with fire if the stakes aren’t high? Were the stakes that high? It just seemed uncharacteristically rash. How do you read it?

SD: “Laboratory accident” suggests overturned tables and broken test tubes—the Hulk wasn’t born in a laboratory: he was born when Bruce Banner got caught out in the desert and was hit with a gamma ray NUCLEAR BOMB. A nerdy difference, I grudgingly admit—but if you’re going to bring up the character’s long history, it behooves you to get the details right.

Speaking of which: Hollinghurst. Yes, by all means, let’s pin down the details of the charge leveled in that review of The Stranger’s Child. Here’s what Mendelsohn writes in that long footnote:

It is dismaying, indeed, to see an author of Hollinghurst’s sophistication and culture lapsing into the old British literary habit of using Jewish names, and their owners, to mark a falling away from pristine Britishness … While the encounter between Dudley and Goldblatt may be intended to underscore the former’s distasteful prejudices, what I see as the hidden strain of regressiveness in the author’s own nostalgia for Old England makes these small details come off badly.

Then, astonishingly, Mendelsohn, still in the footnote, adds: “These points, when I made them, in slightly different form, in my original article and then in two letters, provoked a strong reaction, first from Galen Strawson, a philosopher and a friend of Hollinghurst’s, and then from the author himself. The full exchanges may be found at …” – and a link. That’s it. No further comment, no elaboration, and certainly no apology—and no omission: the footnote itself is still here, with its artful phrasings—”old British literary habit” and “hidden strain of regressiveness”—standing in for what Mendelsohn is really doing: accusing Alan Hollinghurst of anti-Semitism. No artful phrasing, no sequestering to a footnote, and no implication that it’s all somehow involuntary on Hollinghurst’s part (we can just guess what Mendelsohn’s reaction would be if somebody suggested there was anything going on in his own writing of which he was innocently unaware) can remove the stain of that accusation. Hollinghurst held off from responding to it himself initially, because he assumed (hoped?) that when confronted by others, Mendelsohn would soften the accusation, or retract it, or apologize for it. Likewise, I opened this book assuming that at the very least, Mendelsohn would have removed the footnote—or now, at last, admit that it was an utterly unjustified low blow. I’m amazed to find the whole mess just blandly reprinted. You call it “uncharacteristically rash.” God bless your diplomacy.

The ironic thing is how fantastic the Hollinghurst review itself is: comprehensive, masterfully eloquent, just a beautiful exhibition of the book critic’s art. I don’t agree with some of it—especially the main point that some element of the author’s earlier satirical bite has been replaced by a whiff of sycophancy (and what’s that business about Tennyson’s In Memoriam making “everything unrecognizable—our landscapes, our houses, ourselves”?)—but it’s a positive joy to read, as are all the pieces in this collection. The writing here is so rich and textured and thoughtful that it’s easy to see it surviving the books it reviews—the way the best book-criticism does, right? Certainly Mendelsohn’s first such collection, the one with the dippy title How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken, makes for really stimulating reading regardless of whether or not you’ve read the books its chapters are ostensibly ‘about.’

Which raises a question about collections like this: what are they really for? Surely most of the books reviewed by Gore Vidal or Katherine Anne Porter or Edmund Wilson or Anthony Burgess (to say nothing of such older figures as John Jay Chapman or Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve) have gone out of print or lapsed out of currency— and yet we still read reviews of those works—and enjoy them. I presume here that you’ve read fewer of the books Mendelsohn writes about than I have: what then interests you to read his reviews? Do we come back to the teaching element?

JC: As my friend Adam Golaski said, explaining why he used some of Mendelsohn’s essays in his classroom, “he does that wonderful important thing where he gives you all the information you need to put the thing he’s writing about into context.” Once you have an outline of the thing he’s taking on, reading his criticism (or any example of superior criticism) is structurally similar to reading fiction: the interaction between two characters, the fight (or the beautiful comedy) between two sets of ideas, between one mind and another. How is this passage from Sainte-Beuve about Montaigne any bit inferior to one of the darker passages of Poe (in his fiction, not his criticism):

Montaigne …. Is a kind of sorcerer, an evil genius who takes us by the hand, and who, guiding us through the labyrinth of opinion, tells us at every step, just when we think we know where we stand, “All this is false or at least dubious; don’t give your trust so readily; don’t pay too much attention to this or that in the hope it can serve as a landmark. All you can trust is the light I go by; nothing else matters. This light is enough.” And after he has led you far afield, got you thoroughly disoriented and exhausted from being led down so many garden paths—just then he blows out the light and leaves you utterly in the dark. You may hear a little snicker from your guide.

And how is this passage by Mendelsohn, on the poetry of Horace, not fit to stand anthologized along with the best examples of fiction and of poetry and of theater from our age:

The progressions and shifts of [Horace’s] thought, as it moves through his meticulously fitted verses, is as unpredictable as the progress of any human experience, or human life, and it is this uncertainty that gives the poems, like the lives, their evanescent tone and fragile beauty.

That we find it perfectly natural that a poet’s project might be to express, in a wide variety of personas, something at once weighty and delicate in simple-looking four-line stanzas—to be formally structured but intellectually and emotionally varied, to be discursive and deeply poetic at the same time about a wide variety of subjects, many of them ostensibly everyday rather than ecstatic—is Horace’s legacy to Western poetry.

Or take his justly praised Titanic essay from earlier this year: “If the indignant depictions of the class system in so many Titanic dramas coexist uneasily with their adoring depictions of upper-crust privilege, that, too, is part of the appeal: it allows us to demonstrate our liberalism even as we indulge our consumerism.” But it’s not enough to state the principle; he then applies it to a series of those movies, and so he can now measure why Julian Fellowes’ miniseries comes up short: the rich are too arrogant, the poor too discursive: “…the first-class dining room has the ad hoc fanciness of a high school cafeteria on prom night. This is a Titanic drama in which the class outrage feels synthetic and there’s no compensatory luxe.”

We don’t need to see the movie ourselves now; we weren’t going to anyway, and of course it doesn’t matter if Mendelsohn is “right.” Essayists describe the custom of a country and then describe a month in that country: it’s intellectual mirabilia. Desdemona fell for Othello because he told her stories of places she would never go, and made those stories harrowing. Critics read and watch and to things we may never see through their eyes and deliver us ocular proof. It’s one of the many things we love them for.

SD: I think you’re right here: we love our great critics as much for being explorers as for being teachers. After all, it’s in this same volume that Mendelsohn makes doomed, quixotic cases for both Theodor Fontane and Antonio Munoz Molina—and I’m constrained to recall that for many readers, Homer and Herodotus are likewise Ultima Thule (although I love how Mendelsohn’s prose comes alive when he’s in the presence of the ancients). He maintains that essential explorer’s trait: he stays limber. He might castigate Edmund White (unfairly, in my opinion) for a “reflexive tendency to reduce everything to the dimensions of his preexisting interests and predilections,” but he has very little of the tendency himself.

So how to sum up, then? Shall we pronounce Waiting for the Barbarians a success?

JC: Yes, it’s a great success. But we knew that when we were reading it piecemeal too, didn’t we? I don’t know if you’re like me, but when a new issue of the New York Review Of Books or Bookforum or London Review arrives at the door, the first thing I do is open to the Table of Contents and read the names—not of the books under review—but of the reviewers. When I see Daniel Mendelsohn’s name, his is the first piece to which I turn. I’m sure I’m not the only one. What could be higher praise?

John Cotter is Executive Editor and Steve Donoghue is Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly.