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.
The Greek dramatists and historians were the first to understand the structural, moral quality of myth, but others who understand myth in the same way are no more copying the Greeks than a mathematician who uses the calculus imitates the northern Europeans who discovered it. Mendelsohn praises The Sopranos and The Wire for their “almost Aeschylean moral textures,” and values one episode—only one—of Mad Men for its “elegantly Sophoclean geometry.”
Mendelsohn also takes pleasure in myths in a more common sense of the word, meaning stories about unchosen and inevitable destinies, but he does so less here than he did in his earlier books. The myth of doomed beauty gave him the title of his first essay collection, How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken (2008), and he writes again in Waiting for the Barbarians about the “profound theatrical pleasure…in watching something beautiful fall apart.” But he acknowledges now that this pleasure is “not totally free of Schadenfreude,” that it is subject to moral and psychological judgment.
The same attention to structure and logic that drives Mendelsohn’s aesthetic judgment also drives his moral judgment. As he observes, other reviewers of Antonio Muñoz Molina’s novel Sepharad found mere incoherence in its mixture of disconnected cultures and histories. Mendelsohn, in contrast, sees the “unifying experience” of the book, its “large moral vision,” in “mankind’s impulse to exclude and oppress that goes beyond the particularities of this or that ideology.” Other reviewers of the book looked for a clear statement about Nazism or AIDS or some other specific theme and complained when they didn’t find it. In the novel’s structural understanding of a single impulse present in apparently different ideologies, Mendelsohn finds “a profound grappling with a very fundamental moral issue indeed”—the “impulse to exclude” that ignores other people’s choices but instead stigmatizes them for being Jewish or diseased or any other “invisible trait for which they can bear no responsibility.”
Where some modern books and dramas go extravagantly wrong, in Mendelsohn’s view, is in choosing to update the local particularities of this or that myth instead of its fundamental structural meaning. Julie Taymor’s updating of the Arachne myth in the Broadway musical Spider-Man provokes him to appalled fascination. In place of the mythical exemplar of pride and punishment found, say, in Ovid,
The poor girl appears in this version as a kind of artiste-vamp…assisted by a troupe of spider-maidens who, in one of the most vulgar numbers staged in recent years, shoe all eight of their mistress’s feet with an array of what seem to be Jimmy Choos and Manolo Blahniks.
One of Mendelsohn’s talents is his ability to see the same kind of vul- garity in high-literary books written by edgy postmodern sophisticates. Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey suggests that Homer’s poem is “just one reflecting surface in a giant literary hall of mirrors”; this “contemporary conceit,” as Mendelsohn calls it, “has won the book extravagant praise.” Mendelsohn’s moral understanding of literary form leads him to make, in different words, the same objection he made to Mad Men—that its “self-positioning in the present is unattractively smug”:
The newness that interests [Mason] has to do with what academics call “narrativity.”…The problem is that the narrative conjuring tricks that Mason attempts pale…beside the ones that Homer mastered three millennia ago…. The clever games that the Odyssey plays are, in the end, games worth playing. Mason’s book is merely jokey—too clever by half.
Postmodern kitsch is no better than Broadway’s.
The other quality that Mendelsohn admires in a book or drama is its sense of the particularity of individual lives—not the generalized characteristic lives of, say, gay men, Jews, Nazis, or English people, but the ways in which unique individual lives take shape in shared historical settings. The difference between particular and generalized lives has been Mendelsohn’s deepest theme since his first book, The Elusive Embrace (1999).
In Waiting for the Barbarians, this sense of personal uniqueness in a television series prompts him to write: “I cared more about what happened to the people in Friday Night Lights after one episode than I did for anyone in Mad Men after four seasons.” Its absence prompts him to complain that a sophisticated novel goes wrong by muddling individual persons with the details—not the structure—of ancient myth. Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones, for example, starts admirably in its commitment to the unique individual life of even its Nazi narrator, the homosexual SS officer Maximilien Aue:
While some will denounce Littell’s cool-eyed authorial sympathy for Aue as “obscene”—and by “sympathy” I mean simply his attempt to comprehend the character—his project seems infinitely more valuable than the reflexive gesture of writing off all those millions of killers as “monsters” or “inhuman,” which allows us too easily to draw a solid line between “them” and “us.” The first line of the novel takes the form of Aue’s unsettling salutation to his “human brothers.”
In the first half of the novel Littell succeeds in comprehending his narrator’s character. For Mendelsohn, everything goes wrong in the second half, where
this success is disastrously diminished by…the overlaying of the Oresteia parallel…. As the novel progresses and the Aeschylean parallels…become unmistakable… what gets lost is precisely any sense of Aue as a human brother.
Whenever Mendelsohn finds in an artist or critic a strong sense of individuality combined with craftsmanship that gives complex, coherent order to a myth or a plot or a line of verse, he responds with grateful praise. After glumly criticizing a selection from Horace, in which the introduction cites Horace’s “mercurial shifts in mood and response” and claims that the translators found in Horace flattering self-portraits of their own “identities” (southern, female, gay, American, and so forth), Mendelsohn writes the following about a different Horace, one whose focused, coherent individuality is inseparable from his formal and evocative powers:
Horace’s poetic identity lies precisely in the meticulous and masterly way he uses form, form above all, to solve both stylistic and intellectual problems: if he writes a poem in a stanzaic meter, it’s because he wants you to feel the delicate rhythm of pausing and moving, pausing and moving, en route to the heart-stopping climax…. Whatever his mercurial mood shifts, his absolute control and forceful personality give the poems a profound and unmistakable unity.
For all his reputation as an iconoclast, Mendelsohn seems to have no impulse to write destructively. For the most part, he limits his complaints to specific works or tendencies of artists whom he otherwise admires. Appalled as he is by Spider-Man, he values almost everything that Julie Taymor did earlier. Avatar, despite the “great and disturbing failure” of its moral vision, displays “overwhelming successes as a work of cinema.”
Mendelsohn greatly admires Alan Hollinghurst, but when (somewhat unfairly, I think) he finds Hollinghurst presenting as unprepossessing some minor characters who seem to be Jews, he objects not only to what he sees as a stereotype but to the sentimentality about Englishness that goes with it. He also admires Edmund White, but protests against White’s celebratory view of gays as strongly as he does against Hollinghurst’s use of Jews. The “very fundamental moral issue” raised by both kinds of categorizing is that individual lives may get blurred into a generalized inhuman unreality.
The essay in which Mendelsohn is most divided between admiration and disappointment is his bracing review of Anne Carson’s translations of Sappho, If Not, Winter. Carson, Mendelsohn writes,
is not only a serious scholar of Greek poetry but also a serious poet whose oeuvre thus far represents, to my mind, the most distinguished, original, and successful adaptation and reconfiguration of classical models produced in the past generation.
Sappho’s poems survive only in fragments, but Carson, more than anyone, has the skill and knowledge required to represent her as clearly and completely as the fragments permit. Instead, Mendelsohn writes, she joins lesser scholars in yielding to “the desire to make Sappho reflect our own preoccupations,” especially our postmodern “preoccupation with the beauty and ‘excitement’ of fragments and the fragmentary.” For Carson, as for many others driven by the sentimentalities of intellectual fashion, “the absence, the gaps—the lack of what Sappho actually wrote—have become an ‘exciting’ presence.”
And yet as alluring and provocative to us today as the notion of “the fragmentary” may be, it must be said that it has no meaningful relation to the presumed object of serious scholarship and translation, which, you would think, ought to be some kind of responsible representation of Sappho herself to the wider world—even if that representation must remain partial and unsatisfying to the world (which, as we know, is often eager to see in her its own reflection). We may not know a great deal about Sappho, but we do know that she wrote whole poems, not fragments.
Mendelsohn recalls the evidence that Sappho wrote her poems for choral or ritual performances, not as the expressions of personal feeling that later centuries have found in them. He is dismayed to find in Carson’s translations that she has “chosen to sacrifice what the words actually say in order to pro- ject an image of Sappho as we want her: the private voice of individual erotic yearning.” And he is dismayed to find her “playing to the prejudices of her likely audience.”
An essay in this book about the “memoir craze” is titled “But Enough About Me.” This, in effect, is what Mendelsohn imagines Anne Carson saying to Sappho, Zachary Mason to Homer, Jonathan Littell to Aeschylus, Julie Taymor to Ovid.
Most of the essays in this book were written for these pages. Of the rest, one appeared in The New Republic, two in The New York Times Book Review, and seven in The New Yorker. Everything in the book is rewarding, but some essays probe notably less deeply than others, or pass up opportunities that Mendelsohn typically seizes elsewhere.
Through his attention to logic and detail, he repeatedly finds social and ethical implications that other critics miss; but in a review of Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Iliad, he blunts one of the poem’s sharpest edges by reporting that Patroclus “has dreamed up a clever plan” to go into battle wearing Achilles’ armor, a plan that results in his death. In fact, Patroclus merely repeats word for word a plan dreamed up for him a few thousand lines earlier by Nestor, the long-winded counselor to kings who, like his many real-world successors, lives to a revered old age giving advice that, although no one around him ever notices, gets other people killed.
Mendelsohn usually has no patience with critics who insist on interpreting writers of the past as prophets of our present age, but in an essay on Rimbaud he treats as “startling in its time” Rimbaud’s famous sentence “Je est un autre,” and quotes a critic who calls it the “poetic E=mc2.” In fact—and this is the sort of thing that Mendelsohn points out when other critics ignore sobering reality—the rest of Rimbaud’s paragraph makes it clear that he was not inventing something new but making an aphorism out of an ancient truth: the self that says “I” always stands slightly to the side of the self that observes itself speaking. This was a truth known to Homer, whose Odysseus never opens his mouth without constructing a speaking self slightly different from what Homer portrays as his inner self.
Some of the variations in force and intensity in Mendelsohn’s book seem to result from his increasing sense of his own authority and his growing indifference to conventional opinion. The publication dates appended to each of the essays tell a story.* In the earliest, from 1999, he mentions the “modern, even postmodern, way” that the hero perceives himself in The Charterhouse of Parma. This advertises—to readers who can’t be trusted to see past their own preoccupations—that a pre- modern book is worth reading because it’s really postmodern. By 2010, Mendelsohn dismisses a novel’s “modishly postmodern theme.”
Even in his latest essays, Mendelsohn seems to conceal the depths of his intelligence and the ways it isolates him not only from mass culture but from the smaller world of literary and artistic sophistication. He sometimes makes demotic gestures such as the formula “X is—well, Y.” (“On the other hand, he [Horace] is—well, the august Augustan”; “the best a reviewer can say about a personal narrative is—well, that it’s not like a memoir.”) Like any writer who tries to avoid saying “one” or “we,” he tends to use “you” when he means “I” (he does it so often it begins to annoy you); but what is most striking about his second-person style is that he uses it when he feels something deeply or when he responds to something with his firmest moral and intellectual convictions. When he is most himself, when he is least submerged into a collective popular or coterie mentality, he writes as if he were someone else he calls “you.”
What makes this book moving as well as enlightening is its inner drama, the sense it gives that Mendelsohn knows the price in isolation that he must pay for his convictions, that he doesn’t want to pay that price, but that he pays it anyway. In all such choices—as in Odysseus’ preference for Penelope over Calypso—what looks like a sacrifice proves to be an immeasurable gain. By isolating himself from the faceless anonymity of both mass culture and intellectual fashion, he frees himself to make the intimate connections with individual writers and books that animate everything he writes.
His book demonstrates, among many other things, how much can be gained when a critic commits himself to the unique reality of other writers rather than seeking in them a flattering reflection of himself. I would admire it equally, I hope, if its author had a different last name.