On the cover of Daniel Mendelsohn’s new book, the lower part of a broken portrait bust from ancient Egypt confronts the reader with still smoldering intensity. The bust belongs to the Metropolitan Museum and is all that is left of a glamorous queen who reigned in the fourteenth century BC. Her lips, which survive intact, would do credit to the Botox industry. From the lower part of her cheeks and jaw it is clear that her face was carved in precious yellow jasper, but Harper’s jacket designer has dramatically wiped out the royal color by bathing the entire object in a cool blue light. At the bottom of this arresting image is the long title of the book, which is taken from the stage directions of Tennessee Williams’s play The Glass Menagerie: “How beautiful it is and how easily it can be broken.”
The cover subtly evokes the range of criticism that Mendelsohn has gathered together in this volume. The world of classical antiquity that he studied throughout his undergraduate and doctoral career informs every essay in this collection, whether the subject is overtly classical, as in his pieces on movies about Troy and Thermopylae and stagings of Euripides’ plays, or wholly modern, as in his sensitive appreciation of Noël Coward or his fiercely gay interpretation of Brokeback Mountain. If Egypt in the second millennium does not exactly count as classical antiquity, it was nonetheless a fundamental part of the past for the ancient Greeks and Romans, and it shaped, in ways that are still discussed today, their thought, religion, and art. It serves here to suggest the antiquity that Mendelsohn knows so well.
The quotation from Tennessee Williams that stands underneath the mysterious fragment of that antique face proclaims at once Mendelsohn’s commitment to contemporary culture across a wide spectrum of books, theater, film, and opera. As he says in his introduction, Williams’s line
acknowledges, with perfect simplicity, the inevitable entwining of beauty and tragedy that is the hallmark of the Greek theater, and is a consistent element in the works that have always moved me the most.
But Williams also represents the complexities of gender and sexuality, which are recurrent themes in Mendelsohn’s critical writing. His revised doctoral dissertation, published a few years ago, was on women in the political plays of Euripides, and he turns here to some of Euripides’ most memorable women with illuminating comments on modern interpretations of Medea, Iphigeneia, Clytemnestra, and others.
As for the blue light on the queen’s originally yellow flesh, that tells us something too. Just as no visitor to the Met will ever see that Egyptian fragment as it appears on the cover, Mendelsohn is never content to see what the world sees when he reads a book or goes to a movie, opera, or play. When other critics were writing raves, he uncovered the weaknesses in Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex, and Colm Tóibín’s The Master. Although he appreciated Natalie Dessay as Lucia di Lammermoor, he could not admire Mary Zimmerman’s production in which she starred. He stood up courageously to Tom Stoppard over The Invention of Love. His convincing interpretation of Brokeback Mountain angered the producers, who had cynically tried to promote the film’s homosexual love story as essentially the same as a heterosexual one. Mendelsohn showed that
the real achievement of Brokeback Mountain is not that it tells a universal love story that happens to have gay characters in it, but that it tells a distinctively gay story that happens to be so well told that any feeling person can be moved by it.
Such comments suggest the intensity and laser-like probing with which Mendelsohn does his work. His analyses expose hidden fractures with the clarity of an X-ray, and his rhetorical skill, though modulated in a journalistic style, owes much to the give and take of Euripides’ crisp dialogue. He apparently prepares his reviews by doing so much homework that he would put an earnest graduate student to shame. This means that when he writes about Mel Brooks and The Producers he has examined Brooks’s entire oeuvre, or when he digs into the special talent (“just to amuse”) of Noël Coward he can summon up comparisons that give the lie to popular representations of Coward’s frivolity. Mendelsohn knows that Coward worked very hard, and that is because Mendelsohn works very hard too.
All but four of the reviews in this book appeared in the pages of The New York Review, and all but one of them were published in or after 2000. They were therefore written during the years in which he was assembling material for his epic journey into the dark and tragic past of his family, as told in his prize-winning memoir The Lost. The reviews collected here constitute a chronicle of contemporary culture in New York and America that could hardly be more remote from the horrifying and moving drama that emerged from Mendelsohn’s interviews and documents about wartime Bolechow in Ukraine. But what these occasional pieces and that memoir have in common is a scrupulous attention to sources (both documentary and oral), a deep compassion, a sharp wit, and a prose style of many registers. Mendelsohn says in the preface to his new book that his reviews can be read in any order. But he has chosen to arrange them by themes—Heroines, Heroics, Closets, Theater, and War.
It is in the section on Closets that we find the one essay that antedates the year 2000 as well as Mendelsohn’s association with The New York Review. For a writer and critic of such authority—arguably the best at work today—this early paper affords a fascinating glimpse into the shaping of Mendelsohn’s intellectual universe. It also antedates his first book, an autobiographical memoir called The Elusive Embrace, which appeared in 1999. It is important to remember that this book had brought together for the first time his characteristic blend of classical erudition, gay sensibility, and personal history, a blend that has informed much of his subsequent work. The last chapter of The Elusive Embrace was nothing less than a prelude to The Lost, although the deep research on the Mendelsohn family was yet to come. The explicitness of the sexual episodes in his first book was mitigated by repeated invocations of Greek literature, but as Mendelsohn broadened his vision through the immense variety of topics he went on to address in these pages, the erotic aspect of his writing largely disappeared, without any loss of a distinctly gay perspective.
It was in 1995 that Mendelsohn published, in the classical literary journal Arion, a very long review that takes us back to a period before he was well known. It was a wise decision to include it in the present volume. It amply demonstrates the critical gifts of a formidable scholar who could already write with the clarity and ease of a good journalist. The book under review, by John Boswell, had been widely praised at the time, but just as Mendelsohn was later to do with Sebold, Eugenides, and others, he exposed a shallowness and dishonesty that almost everyone else had missed or, perhaps, deliberately chosen to overlook.
Boswell had been chair of the Yale History Department; in his Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, which had just been published posthumously, his principal claim was that there had been a medieval ecclesiastical ceremony, built on classical antecedents, for the marriage of persons of the same sex (usually male). The ceremony was called adelphopoiêsis (making of brothers). While the rite came as no surprise to scholars, Boswell’s sensational interpretation of it certainly did. The book drew on a formidable arsenal of sources in many languages, of which Greek and Latin were only the most obvious. Mendelsohn had great fun in mocking the awe with which reviewers treated Boswell’s invocation of Old Church Slavonic. But his demolition of Boswell’s argument was deadly serious—devastating and unanswerable.
Deploying his own excellent knowledge of Greek and Latin, Mendelsohn was able to prove the misrepresentation and sleight-of-hand that lay behind Boswell’s claims, and he did this with a drumbeat of insistence upon scholarly integrity. There is more than a whiff of academic polemic in this paper, but it is enlivened by a keen observation of the contemporary world. Only Daniel Mendelsohn could have written of Boswell’s work:
It’s like relying on Town and Country ‘s coverage of Truman Capote’s 1966 Black and White Ball as the basis for generalizations about the lives of gay white men before Stonewall. This stuff wouldn’t pass in an undergraduate paper, and it shouldn’t have passed here.
For a gay classicist to write this way about a book that gays were generally embracing as a triumph for the gay movement took a rare combination of erudition, intelligence, and courage. Mendelsohn was among the first to declare that being gay mustn’t mean lowering one’s standards to promote the cause of gays. Sadly, of course, Boswell was no longer alive to offer whatever reply he might have been able to muster. He had already died of AIDS.
It is hardly surprising that Mendelsohn moved from his incisive and witty polemic of 1995 to serious reflections on two of the most famous homosexual classicists of modern times, A.E. Housman and Oscar Wilde. His review from August 2000 of the Philadelphia production of Stoppard’s The Invention of Love is entitled “The Tale of Two Housmans,” and his review two years later of a new film of The Importance of Being Earnest is entitled “The Two Oscar Wildes.” These titles correctly indicate that both these pieces addressed the apparent paradox of scholar and artist in a single personality.
Already in the first paragraph of his review of Boswell, Mendelsohn had contrasted Wilde’s flawless command of Greek and Latin with a remark he is alleged to have made at the age of twenty-four:
I won’t be a dried-up Oxford don, anyhow. I’ll be a poet, a writer, a dramatist. Somehow or other I’ll be famous, and if not famous, I’ll be notorious.
Mendelsohn reprised this quotation in his review of the Wilde film, and he clearly considered it a sign of the self-destructive streak that ultimately brought Wilde down even as he courted fame. To find Wilde’s reckless claim invoked both before and after Mendelsohn achieved some public recognition of his own implies a self-awareness that has enhanced his understanding of Housman no less than of Wilde.
Housman, whom the general public is more likely to know as the somber and sentimental poet of A Shropshire Lad, did his best to avoid fame for most of his life. He nevertheless achieved great fame, largely through scholarly publications of unabashed austerity and rigor. Those who know Housman’s icy prose have always found it difficult to reconcile the superb textual critic, comparable only to Richard Bentley and Richard Porson in the eighteenth century, with the sentimental poet who was obsessed with the death of young men. In his play The Invention of Love Tom Stoppard dramatized this paradox. At the beginning Charon confesses that he supposed he might have to ferry two different people across the Styx on the occasion of Housman’s death in 1936.
Mendelsohn’s review of the play, which had been respectfully received in England and went on to a successful run in New York, faulted Stoppard for failing to understand Housman’s true nature:
For all their intellectual trimmings, indeed, you wonder whether Stoppard’s plays aren’t, ultimately, anti-intellectual; he loves to show—and audiences love to watch—brilliant, analytical minds humbled by messy, everyday emotions…. You’d never guess from Stoppard’s presentation of Housman that the mind can be a passionate organ, too.
In other words, a Latin critical edition was as emotionally exciting for Housman as a beautiful poem, and just as easily broken as any other object of beauty. Housman was venomous in rebuking the editors of incompetent texts because he cared so deeply about his classical authors. A very eminent Latinist of my acquaintance once told me that reading through Housman’s edition of the long, obscure, and very difficult Latin poem of Manilius on astronomy was the single most thrilling experience in his entire life. Obviously not everyone would react that way, but it is to Mendelsohn’s tremendous credit that he understands that this really can happen. Poetry and scholarship are not incompatible.
Stoppard brought his play to an end with what might, in good Greek fashion, be called an epiphany of Oscar Wilde. As Mendelsohn observes, “Stoppard’s Wilde is clearly intended as a foil to his Housman,” and Wilde’s miserable end is somehow made grandiose because he blazed brilliantly before he crashed. Mendelsohn will have none of this. Instead of launching the culture of the twentieth century, as Stoppard’s ruined but defiant Wilde claims to have done, Housman, for Mendelsohn, “was unsentimental about the Greeks and Romans—and therefore more modern by far, when all is said and done, than ‘Hyacinth’-loving Wilde.” A craving for fame and notoriety had undone Wilde, and his ready wit led to an indiscretion on the witness stand that doomed him for the rest of his life. Perhaps this suicidal urge had its own justification: by then Wilde’s talent was pretty well spent. Anyone who has read through De Profundis, the long missive he wrote in prison, would not wish for more from his pen. I think that Mendelsohn correctly sized up both Housman and Wilde when he awarded the palm to Housman.
But Stoppard was not at all happy and sent a long letter of protest to The New York Review. It was not a very civil letter. “Mr. Mendelsohn’s obtuseness at times,” he wrote, “suggests that he is in the grip of a predisposition struggling against disabuse.” I am not altogether sure what that is supposed to mean, but I doubt that it was meant sympathetically. Clearly Mendelsohn had scored a very palpable hit, and his own response to Stoppard—much too long to quote here—drew from his training in classical rhetoric both to defend himself and to turn Stoppard’s objections upside down. In answer to Stoppard’s assertion that Housman “failed to live his own personality,” Mendelsohn could retort with epigrammatic bravura: “The only personality that Housman ‘failed’ to live was, of course, Wilde’s.” Just a few lines after this, Mendelsohn could conclude by asking:
Am I being “obtuse” in taking [Stoppard’s] comments to mean that I can now count myself that luckiest of creatures: the critic who has the rare satisfaction of finding his interpretation supported by none other than the author himself?
I doubt that any sophist of ancient Greece, from Gorgias to Herodes Atticus, could have done better than that.
Mendelsohn’s dialectical skill is precisely what raises his treatment of popular work, which might on the face of it seem beneath the attention of so sophisticated a critic, to the level of his analysis of The Invention of Love. Why should a discerning writer concern himself with such movies as Troy, Alexander, or 300 ? The answer is that he is uniquely qualified to transmute such trash into illuminating visions of the culturally confused age in which we live.
By an argument that would be the envy of any twenty-first-century Gorgias, he is able to compare the plot of Troy with the lost epic known as the Little Iliad, and thereby to invoke Aristotle himself to condemn the movie. In his Iliad Homer had avoided a plot that was, according to Aristotle, “too extensive and impossible to grasp all at once” or “far too knotty in its complexity.” Taking account of the weaknesses of the Little Iliad, Mendelsohn can demonstrate, with a rhetorical flourish, that its modern avatar, the movie Troy, fails on just these grounds.
He supplements this point with Horace’s famous comparison of the lost Homeric epics with the parturition of mountains—from which a mouse emerged. This takes him directly into our own time when we, unlike the ancients, tend “to confuse size with import” and are unaware that “an epic without a focus—without a single action, a coherent plot, a single terrible point to make—was just a very long poem.” Hence he delivers a serious indictment of modern gigantism from this miserable film: “You could say, indeed, that mountains of money, time, and talent have labored and brought forth a $170 million mouse.”
When he takes up Oliver Stone’s much-touted movie about Alexander the Great, Mendelsohn uses the occasion to tell us why Alexander is still important today, and why Stone failed to convey this. He suggests that a better title for the film would have been Lots of Things That Happened to Alexander. It shows no trace of the romanticism of this great conqueror, but this is not likely to be because the director was striving for historical verisimilitude. Almost immediately after his death Alexander took on a romantic quality, which may be unhistorical for his lifetime but was certainly unmistakable afterward. We can see this, as Mendelsohn might well have signaled, in the dramatic portraits of him on coins and in sculpture from the so-called Hellenistic Age. Mendelsohn is surely right to claim Alexander as “the West’s first Romantic hero.” (One might demur, however, at his claim that he was “possibly its first celebrity,” since that distinction probably belongs to Socrates.) With typical blending of personal autobiography and criticism, Mendelsohn recalls his adolescent enthusiasm for Mary Renault’s novels about Alexander, and his subsequent ten-year correspondence with her. His regret that Stone’s movie will never inspire a young boy in the same way is as much a commendation of the written word as it is a condemnation of a misguided movie.
When Mendelsohn turned to 300, which was perhaps the worst of these three films about ancient Greece and the least deserving of any critical assessment, he was confronted with a commercial success that neither Troy nor Alexander had enjoyed. His explanation of this phenomenon is as surprising as it is convincing. This truly dreadful film about the Greek battle at Thermopylae had on the most obvious level seemed to some to reflect a denigration of the Persian enemy and therefore to endorse the West’s current suspicion of the Middle East, and of Iranians in particular.
But with his well-honed diagnostic tools Mendelsohn rules out such an interpretation as flawed. The film could not be taken any more seriously than the comic-book presentation of Thermopylae on which it was based. But what he shows, again on the basis of an autobiographical detail (watching video games with his children), is that 300 engaged its audiences in the same way as Star Wars Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast, “a favorite of mine,” says Mendelsohn. He is right to observe that the success of 300 derived from its deliberate repudiation of a long tradition of classical history and drama as sources for popular entertainments across several millennia. Fantasist stereotypes of warriors and warfare, based on comic books and video games, seem now to be the driving force of such entertainment.
War comes appropriately, therefore, as the theme of the last section of Mendelsohn’s collection. The first essay in this section is a long piece, published originally in The New Yorker, on Thucydides, the supreme master of Greek historiography. More than any other classical historian, Thucydides has always seemed to have a contemporary relevance. His account of the Peloponnesian War in the fifth century BC—a war that brought Athens, in just under thirty years, from the glorious epoch of the Parthenon and Pericles to a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Spartans—has always seemed fraught with lessons for the present, and it was no accident that so deep and gritty a philosopher as Thomas Hobbes was drawn to Thucydides and translated him. I know what Mendelsohn has in mind when he writes, “It used to be easy to teach the Peloponnesian War: all you had to do was think of the Cold War.”
But this is really too facile a judgment. It was never easy to teach the Peloponnesian War, although it was always exhilarating. After all, in American universities in the days of the cold war, it was by no means easy to explain the genesis and nature of an oppressive empire that was ruled by a democratic state; nor was it easy, during the Vietnam War, to explain why it was the young men of Athens who were the most ardent advocates of war.
Everyone who has ever taught Thucydides will have his own story of an unforgettable moment, but mine was the final day of the Cuban missile crisis, when I had to analyze Pericles’ astonishing first speech at the end of Book I. In encouraging the Athenians to go to war rather than to revoke a decree to which the Spartans had objected, Pericles says:
I hope that none of you will think that we shall be going to war over a trifle if we refuse to revoke the Megarian decree…or let any feeling of self-reproach linger in your mind, as if you went to war for a slight cause…. If you give way, you will instantly have to meet some greater demand.
These words were chilling in October 1962, and they remain chilling today, although in a different way, since they are not far removed from the notorious Bush Doctrine.
Thucydides’ thought is dense. His language, which reflected the philosophical and medical diction that was evolving around him, is often very difficult. The speeches that he created to illustrate the arguments of political leaders at the time were meant, by his own testimony, to approximate what was actually said, but I suspect that this is more true of the ideas than of the ways in which they are expressed. Some of the great confrontations are represented by two opposing speeches, but by no means all. The brutal exchange over the extermination of the Melians appears as a roundtable discussion between the Athenians and the Melians, and the three speeches of Pericles all stand alone. The first congress at Sparta in Book I includes no fewer than four speeches. And all this is spliced into a chronological narrative of the historical action that proceeds year by year.
It is easy to see why a critic who is steeped in Greek tragedy would want to find a drama in the tragic events that Thucydides so scrupulously chronicled. The historian lived in the great days of Greek drama, and he certainly absorbed some of the coloration of tragedy. But the format of his speeches does not warrant, as Mendelsohn suggests, that to some extent “we are to read his book as a play, his history as a tragedy.” No tragedy is a year-by-year narrative. The influence of contemporary Greek theater is palpable in Thucydides, but certainly no more so than the influence of contemporary Greek philosophy and Hippocratic medicine. Thucydides moved beyond all these influences to compose his masterpiece. In his accounts of the Athenian plague and the civil strife on Corcyra he worked out, making use of the most advanced technical language of his time, psychological connections between human health, motivation, and action that have never been equaled to this day.
As Mendelsohn indicates in his introduction with reference to Tennessee Williams, Greek theater, with what he calls its “entwining of beauty and tragedy,” is something that always moves him, and we should be grateful that it is by this standard that he consistently judges works of exceptional diversity. He moves comfortably and decisively between what is on the printed page and what he sees (and hears) in performance. There is nothing to which he does not bring a fresh perspective. Although classical antiquity is dominant throughout, he has put his profound knowledge of the classics in the service of explaining and, more importantly, elevating the culture of the new millennium.