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Triumph of a Moral Critic

Dominique Nabokov
Daniel Mendelsohn, New York City, 2005


Daniel Mendelsohn’s Waiting for the Barbarians collects twenty-four of his essays on subjects that range from Homer and Sappho through Stendhal and Rimbaud to Spider-Man and Mad Men. Even more than his earlier books about literature and culture, it displays his characteristic strengths of style and judgment and his distinctive and engaging voice. As always, he is surprising yet convincing when he praises what practically everyone else condemns, or sees through the pretensions and confusions of books and dramas that everyone else admires.

Mendelsohn portrays himself as a critic with no concealed agenda and no overarching or ideological purpose. His breezy foreword, among copious waves and hat-tips to editors and friends, claims that the book is held together by loose anodyne themes such as the “meeting of the ancient and the contemporary worlds.” The selection of subjects seems miscellaneous; the arrangement seems random. The first essay, on James Cameron’s sci-fi blockbuster Avatar, is followed by one about a completely unrelated spectacle, Philip Glass’s opera Satyagraha. But Mendelsohn systematically understates his own unity of purpose. He seems to go out of his way to deflect attention from the forceful and coherent vision of literature and culture that drives each individual essay and shapes the book as a whole.

Few books of criticism claim so little and achieve so much. Instead of making a general statement of purpose in his foreword, Mendelsohn waits until the final essay. He reports there that Susan Sontag believed that photographs can faithfully transcribe reality while simultaneously interpreting it—“a feat,” she wrote, that “literature has long aspired to, but could never attain in this literal sense.” Mendelsohn interjects:

But of course literature does possess a genre that strives to be both objective and personal, an accurate record and a subjective testimony, a representation and an interpretation at the same time, and it’s the genre at which Sontag really excelled: criticism.

Mendelsohn’s essays, at their best, describe a book or writer with exact, passionate, and generous attention to detail and structure, and they do so as a “subjective testimony,” a personal and, in words he uses often, “moral” and “ethical” commitment to see and understand the unique subjective reality of the book or writer he describes.

In Mendelsohn’s criticism, recent writers and critics can go wrong in two essential ways, each a distorted form of subjective testimony, each a mirror image of the other. One kind of error is an excess of subjectivity, in which writers testify only about themselves and find their own reflection in other people’s books. The other is a failure of subjectivity, in which writers make no commitments to themselves or to anything else unique or individual, but obey instead the faceless imperatives of mass culture or intellectual, academic, and artistic fashion. Both errors leave reality ignored.

Contemporary culture, as Mendelsohn sees it, has rushed to abandon truth in favor of artifice. “I’ve been preoccupied,” he writes,

with what I think of as the “reality problem”: how the extraordinary blurring between reality and artifice that has been made possible by new technologies makes itself felt not only in our entertainments…but in the way we think about, and conduct, our lives…. The reality problem is, I think, the preeminent cultural event of our day….

This understates the complexity and depth of both the “reality problem” and Mendelsohn’s own essays about it. The problem has deeper sources than the technology he points to, and its latest manifestation is only one of its many protean forms. In the psychedelic 1960s, chemistry, not technology, promised a decisive escape from everything that was drearily real. (“Help stamp out reality,” urged buttons and graffiti.) Among the ancient Greeks and the Latin Middle Ages, thinkers as various as Plotinus, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Augustine knew the temptations of the regio dissimilitudinis, the land of unlikeness.

Mendelsohn himself focuses on many long-established escapes from reality that have nothing to do with technology. One is the temptation to think of oneself not as a sharply delineated person but as the blurred image of a category member, for example, gay men, Jews, women, or English people. Category-thinking, he writes, “allows us too easily to draw a solid line between ‘them’ and ‘us.’” Another such temptation, and a constant theme of this book, is the wish to see in books and writers from the past a reflection of oneself in the present, with present-day preoccupations.

In Mendelsohn’s ethical and literary vision, a generosity of spirit that recognizes others for what they really are, not for what one imagines they can supply, is one way of being committed to reality. Generosity, in any form, so excites him that he interrupts himself to exclaim about it when he finds it. Offered immortality by the “amorous nymph Calypso,” Odysseus

rejects her in favor of returning home to the aging Penelope—surely the greatest and most moving tribute that any marriage has ever received in literature.

In Stendhal’s Charterhouse of Parma Balzac saw “perfection in everything”; this, Mendelsohn writes, was “surely one of the world’s great acts of literary generosity.” Mendelsohn’s essay on Noël Coward focuses more on his private generosity than on his public career.

The first two essays in the book—seemingly unrelated on first reading—in fact set up a sharp contrast between, on the one hand, the impulse to escape the reality of individual human beings and, on the other, the impulse to comprehend and embrace it. Avatar, Mendelsohn writes in the first essay, is the latest episode of James Cameron’s “career-long striving to make flesh mechanical” (an ex-wife said, “That man is definitely on the side of the machines”), and the first of his films in which the hero escapes from the human condition into the vast powers of some imaginary species. Where other reviewers found patronizing racial clichés in the film, Mendelsohn sees “a larger flaw…one that is less political than ethical.” Avatar alludes to The Wizard of Oz, but its hero’s final awakening in the body of an alien species has implications that “are not only different from but opposite to the implications of Dorothy’s climactic awakening.” At the end of her story Dorothy wakes newly equipped

with all that she has learned from her remarkable odyssey, not the least of which is a strong new awareness of her own human abilities—she wakes to the realities, and the responsibilities, of the human world she’d temporarily escaped from.

The contrasting message of Avatar, “like the message of so much else in mass culture,”

is that “reality” is dispensable altogether; or, at the very least, is whatever you care to make of it…. In this fantasy of a lusciously colorful trip over the rainbow, you don’t have to wake up. “There’s no place like home” has become “there’s no need for home.”

Mendelsohn’s argument is confirmed by the widely reported cases of “Avatar depression” among viewers who wished it could all have been real.

Philip Glass’s Satyagraha, in the Metropolitan Opera production reviewed in the book’s second essay, looks and sounds stylized and unreal, but the whole point of the opera, as Mendelsohn understands it, is to affirm the reality not only of its hero, Gandhi, but of everyone who watches it. Satyagraha is the anti-Avatar. The word “real” is the emotional center of Mendelsohn’s ecstatic paragraph about the final scene of the opera, when Gandhi’s followers appear in the sky:

And then something wonderful happens. Raising their forearms in a formal yet warm gesture…they wave right at you as you sit in the audience. At that moment I burst into tears. Perhaps because it seemed so much like a gesture of benediction, I felt as if something real had actually happened in the auditorium—that I had been blessed, maybe. Made out of insignificant things and yet achieving a large effect that exceeded, finally, the boundaries of the theater, this marvelous work made you feel that it had done something. And what is that, if not drama?

Waiting for the Barbarians takes its title from a poem by C.P. Cavafy, whose Collected Poems and Unfinished Poems Mendelsohn translated with depth and aplomb. The poem describes a day in which an unspecified emperor and his officials await the arrival of the envoys of the barbarians—who never appear. The emperor’s “very grand and sophisticated culture” (as Mendelsohn describes it) is left almost disappointed. The surprise in the poem’s last line is that “perhaps these people were a solution of a sort.” And Cavafy himself said that the poem represented “an episode in the progress toward the good.” As Mendelsohn writes, “What’s established and classic is always being refreshed by new energies that, at the time they make themselves felt, probably seem barbaric to some.”

Much of Mendelsohn’s book is concerned with the ways in which “barbarian” popular culture seems to wrestle with a sophisticated high culture, but, characteristically, the book makes a more complex point than he says it does. Just as the barbarians in Cavafy’s poem never arrive to bring about a hoped-for transformation, so, Mendelsohn suggests, “barbarian” popular culture, pervasive as it is, is too intent on high-tech unreality to have any transforming emotional force in the real world.


Mendelsohn’s vision of literature and drama, which he never spells out in any systematic form, goes something like this.

The works that he admires combine two essential qualities. His name for one of these qualities is “myth,” by which he means the inner structure of a story, the way it portrays the inevitable consequences of a decisive action that someone chooses to make, especially those consequences that bring about the exact opposite of what the hero intended. Herodotus’ account of the downfall of the Persian kings is one of many examples. What makes it mythical is not the vivid miscellaneous detail that Herodotus provides, but his vision of the moral logic of all human experience, the way in which “he gives us the truth about the way things tend to work as a whole, in history, civics, personality, and, of course, psychology.”

A myth, as Mendelsohn uses the word, is not an exotic origin legend, or a way of celebrating a local or historical culture, or merely a story about gods and heroes. A myth describes inevitable events, not inevitable and involuntary events like the cycle of the seasons, but the inevitable consequences of voluntary choices. It is a “moral vision” that illuminates choices that anyone can make at any time in any culture. Herodotus celebrates Greek victories over Persia, but his “ethical point is much larger than the superiority of the West to the East,” and his moral vision operates on a “cosmic scale.”

When Mendelsohn refers to a modern writer’s “‘Greek’ morality” he means “his eagerness to acknowledge his responsibility for actions.” This is a very different meaning of “Greek” from either the serenely Apollonian or irrationally Dionysiac senses of the word common in the past two centuries, but Mendelsohn uses it with an authority earned by a lifetime of classical learning.

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