Triumph of a Moral Critic

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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 …

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