The Classical Trouble With Daniel Mendelsohn
Ecstasy and Terror
By Daniel Mendelsohn
New York Review Books, 378 pp, $18.95
With Daniel Mendelsohn, there’s always a classics analogy. Magazine editors, let us say, then, are like Roman emperors: the longer their reigns, the more frantic the reshuffling of power that follows. Robert B. Silvers edited The New York Review of Books from 1963, when he co-founded the magazine, to his death in 2017. His successor, Ian Buruma, lasted from May 2017 to September of the next year. Strangulation ended Commodus’s reign and daggers ended Caligula’s; Buruma’s resignation from the Review was prompted by the publication of a sloppy, misleading article by the Canadian radio broadcaster Jian Ghomeshi, who was accused of sexually assaulting more than twenty women. When Buruma was asked, in a Slate interview, about allowing this mound of self-serving nonsense to appear in the pages of the magazine, he came off alternately clueless and cavalier. Five days later, he was out.
The incident reinforced many of the complaints people had been making of the New York Review for years: the magazine was too out of touch, too insular, too much of an old boys’ club. A 2017 study conducted by the nonprofit organization VIDA found that fewer than a quarter of recent contributors were women, the lowest figure for any of the major publications surveyed. Then came this sudden, flailing stab at topicality, closer in spirit to an episode of The Joe Rogan Experience or a New York Times op-ed than to any of the lettered, nuanced pieces on which the magazine had built its reputation.
There are currently two co-editors of The New York Review of Books, Gabriel Winslow-Yost and Emily Greenhouse, both in their early thirties and both more or less unknown outside the New York publishing world. Joining them at the helm of the new Review (and, one suspects, adding a touch of gravitas and mainstream recognizability) is Daniel Mendelsohn: inaugural Editor-at-Large distinguished classics scholar, professor at Bard College, international best-selling author, National Book Critics Circle Award winner, and author of a new essay collection, “Ecstasy And Terror: From the Greeks to Game of Thrones.” .
The release of “Ecstasy and Terror” by the New York Review’s publishing arm, arriving as it does on the heels of l’affaire Buruma and Mendelsohn’s appointment to the magazine’s staff, suggests a kind of State of the Union Address. Many of the pieces included here first appeared in the pages of the Review, and, taken together, they inevitably make some claim about the kind of writing the Review has celebrated in recent years and—one would think—the kind it will continue publishing. If we’re to judge from Mendelsohn’s book, the magazine’s future is as elegant and learned as ever. It also seems colder and narrower, deprived of a certain essential spark.
Before we try to define that spark, we should give credit where credit is due. Mendelsohn, who received his Ph.D. in classics from Princeton in 1994, is colossally knowledgeable about his field. He has read every text from the ancient world and all the adjacent scholarship. He has translated every fragment, visited every ruin and dig site; he can gloss every theory about Sappho or the Parthenon or the origins of tragedy, and he jumps from one to another with an agility that comes from years of intensive study. Unlike the vast majority of people about whom this can be said, he also writes extraordinarily clear, windowpane-like prose, the kind that seems simple until you try it yourself.
When Mendelsohn takes classics as his subject, he has a gift for rendering the ancient world vividly on a human scale. Most of the essays in “Ecstasy and Terror,” however, are indirectly about classics, which is to say they study contemporary culture through an overtly or implicitly classical lens. Even when he writes an essay on “Game of Thrones,” he’s still writing about the Greeks (picking up where his dissertation on Euripides left off, to be exact). Analyzing pop culture in this way lets Mendelsohn defamiliarize things we take for granted, finding surprising links and unorthodox points of entry. He’s especially good at doing this in a snappy opening paragraph. A 2014 essay on the Parthenon begins:
What will archeologists twenty-five centuries from now make of the ruins of One World Trade Center, currently nearing completion in downtown Manhattan? Some scholars in the year 4514, familiar with ancient accounts describing the diminutive structure as a “skyscraper,” will no doubt speculate about the significance of its height—although they will be forced to admit that 1,368, the number of ‘feet” from base to roof, was a figure with no known significance in the culture of the ancient builders. Others … will propose an ingenious theory that the original height of the building was 1,776 of those antique units of measure.
For Mendelsohn, studying classics is all but inseparable from teaching classics and, indeed, from living them. “An Odyssey,” his account of the semester during which his 81-year-old father audited his course on “The Odyssey” at Bard, marries memoir with literary criticism. Its best scenes take place in the classroom, with the elder Mendelsohn challenging his son’s interpretations of Homer, until it’s hard to tell if the lesson has curdled into a family quarrel or if classics was really about family quarrels all along. The loveliest essay in “Ecstasy and Terror,” a portrait of the author Mary Renault, with whom Mendelsohn began corresponding when he was 15 and she 70, is also a homosexual coming-of-age tale and a paean to classics — reading it, you appreciate why he takes the lessons of ancient Greece so personally, and why he’s so enthusiastic about passing them on.
But for all its lucid intelligence, most of “Ecstasy and Terror” reads — as the critic Frank Guan recently wrote in The Point about The New York Review of Books in general — like a lesson plan without a central lesson to impart. One not inconsiderable reason why Mendelsohn’s essays are works of journalism, as opposed to works of scholarship, is that they’re occasioned by contemporary events — the release of new books, TV shows, or films; political upheaval; deaths of old friends, etc. Yet in these essays, the contemporary world comes across as a leaky, hollow shell into which a bottomless supply of classical scholarship must be poured. Mendelsohn seems to believe that pointing out the Greek framework undergirding some recent book or political event is the same as saying something of substance about it:
And so the present keeps replaying the past, repeating those old stories, the narratives that lurk behind the plays and myths, tales and characters so hardwired into our cultural circuitry that we can forget why we knew them in the first place … The question isn’t why we keep going back, after so many years, but how we could do anything else.
This passage comes at the end of an essay on the Kennedy family, but it wouldn’t be out of place on any other page of “Ecstasy and Terror.” Mendelsohn sees books and films, fundamentally, as vessels in which Greco-Roman archetypes are sealed forever; to analyze them is to peel away everything unique or particular until the archetypes lie naked for all to see. Reading these essays back to back, one is struck by how little interest this renowned essayist shows in the unique aesthetic dimensions of the works he’s analyzing — the marmoreal glow of flesh and plastic in “Ex Machina,” say, or the acidic aftertaste of an Evelyn Waugh sentence. Nothing is allowed to interfere with his chilly autopsies of Western culture.
It is a testament to Mendelsohn’s talents that he gets as far as he does with this approach. Whether he’s talking about “Her” or the Boston Marathon bombing, he always manages to find a link with Homer or Socrates or Euripides, who are, indeed, hardwired into our cultural circuitry. There are times, however, when you’re unsure if invoking ancient Greece is Mendelsohn’s greatest strength or his defining weakness. If you accept that classical tropes simply repeat again and again, then there is nothing urgent or unique about Mendelsohn’s occasions for writing about them and, sometimes, not enough that is compelling about the results.
Take the Kennedys essay. Mendelsohn’s points feel slack and oddly interchangeable; you sense that he could have made more or less the same argument about Princess Diana or 9/11 or the sinking of the Titanic. (He practically says so in the passage quoted above.) “When we have tried to make sense of the Kennedys and their story,” he insists, “we have turned to the Greeks; to Greek tragedy in particular.” He means, or seems to mean, that we think of the Kennedys in terms unconsciously cribbed from myths: we’re haunted by “the ramifications of family curses, of ‘original sins’ committed by a patriarch that come back to haunt later, innocent generations.” The myth most famously associated with JFK, that of Camelot, isn’t Greek in the slightest, and “original sins” sounds downright Christian, but never mind — when people think about a Kennedy curse, we’re assured, “they are thinking ‘tragically’: thinking the way Aeschylus thought, assuming that there is a dark pattern in the way things happen, a connection between the sins of the fathers and the sufferings of the children.”
This is a rather loose definition of tragedy, you might think, not unique to Aeschylus and certainly not originated by him. The question becomes: What is illuminated by bringing in the Greeks, what do they reveal about the Kennedys that we didn’t already know? Mendelsohn, perhaps sensing that he needs to turn up the heat, argues that, while “the temptation to identify JFK as an Achilles figure has been powerful … [he] was very much a Hector figure.” Maybe, though to some he sounds suspiciously like Paris (born with obscene privilege and good genes, addicted to sex). Even if you accept Mendelsohn’s characterization, it’s hard to see what unique insight into the Kennedys it uncovers. The whole performance is so slick, the analogies so smartly drawn, that you don’t realize until you’ve finished reading that these analogies prove little more than themselves.
Mendelsohn’s limitations become plainer when he turns to pop culture. His “Game of Thrones” essay begins by showing the HBO hit in adjectivized Greeks — “the high Aeschylean sheen of political parable,” “a tart Thucydidean appreciation,” etc. He waves aside the possibility that viewers are being invited to ogle the hot, naked women (“these demeaning scenes … also function as a constant reminder of what the main female characters are escaping from) and ends by calling the show “a remarkable feminist epic.” Beneath the chiseled prose and fancy allusions, this is the kind of article published ten times a day on websites like Indiewire and The Ringer by writers who have decided that the sole purpose of cultural criticism is to determine whether X is feminist, racist, subversive, or not, with no in-between position permitted.
An essay on depictions of robots, prompted by the release of “Her” and “Ex Machina,” begins — but of course — with “The Iliad” and the “Odyssey,” and then trots out the usual examples (Karel Capek, “2001,” “Blade Runner,” Spielberg). Perplexingly, Mendelsohn ends with the rhetorical suggestion that recent films about robots show “we are the ones who have undergone an evolutionary change; that in our lives and, more and more, in our art, we’re in danger of losing our humanity, of becoming indistinguishable from our gadgets,” as if the paradox of the creator who is less human than the creation hasn’t been one of science fiction’s most common tropes, if not clichés, for eons.
“Indistinguishable from our gadgets” — mentions of life in the early 21st century are scant in Mendelsohn’s book, but together they paint a remarkably nasty picture:
In our garrulous age, “concentred all in self” …
A world so topsy-turvy … .
The age of the blog … .
The culture of reflexive “liking” … .
A culture where victimhood has become a claim to status …
And so on, an ABC of millennial clichés of the kind some of us are already dreading having to hear from our Republican uncles this Thanksgiving. Most of these phrases appear on their essay’s final page, bringing the discussion to an abrupt, whimpering end. It’s easily the most distasteful aspect of “Ecstasy and Terror,” and it explains a lot. The Greeks cannot help but tower over an era as puny as our own — and how could we the living do more than cower in their shadow? Mendelsohn never tangles with the 21st century long enough to let it complicate his opinions of the ancients; instead, the highest compliment he can pay a contemporary work is to drag it backwards in time. No wonder his essays read like lectures he’s been delivering verbatim for decades.
The final essay in “Ecstasy and Terror,” “A Critic’s Manifesto,” was written for The New Yorker in 2012. Its tone wavers between modest, cautiously optimistic, and apocalyptic. “At no point since the invention of the printing press,” Mendelsohn writes,
has the nature of literary culture, and the activities of its practitioners — authors, critics, publishers — been in such a state of flux. The flux is both fascinating and destabilizing for those of us who grew up in the waning days of “old” literary culture, and the changes resulting from are it [sic] likely to be permanent and far-ranging.
The changes Mendelsohn is referring to are, at heart, technological, but they have massive and — he implies — almost entirely negative consequences for the quantity and quality of criticism. The Internet has turned any John or Jane Doe with a WiFi connection into a reviewer; it has also polarized criticism in ways that mirror the structures of social media: everything is either a “like” or a “dislike”; the mixed review is quickly becoming an endangered species.
What to do about it? Mendelsohn recommends that today’s critics follow the example of the great New York staffers of his teens — Pauline Kael, Arlene Croce, and Helen Vendler in The New Yorker, Arthur Danto in The Nation, etc. One of the things he values most in these writers is, predictably, their “expertise,” which he sees as a kind of professorial thoroughness: “To read a review by Croce … was to get a history of the work itself, a mini-tutorial.” Hence, the role of the critic is “to mediate intelligently and stylishly between a work and its audience; to educate in an engaging and, preferably, entertaining way.”
It is revealing that Mendelsohn praises Croce for giving readers a history of the work itself — as “Ecstasy and Terror” proves, he’s partial to such displays himself. But critics can be experts on a work’s history without including much, or any, of that information in the article. Pauline Kael knew film as well as Mendelsohn knows ancient Greek, but her reviews never feel like mini-tutorials. Her awareness of film history sharpens her gaze; it allows her to opine confidently about a film’s relationship to society and about society itself. The famous piece she wrote on Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde” is still worth reading, not only for what she says about the film or the gangster sagas that inspired Penn, but for what she is able to suggest about America in 1967 — its sexual politics, its thirst for violence, its baleful, rumbling boredom. She makes “Bonnie and Clyde” seem inextricably tied to America at large.
Flourishes of this kind, whereby the work of art uncovers something of interest about the society that produced it, mostly elude Mendelsohn. Studying the work of his ideal critics makes his definition of criticism seem correct but ruinously incomplete: all critics mediate between the work and the audience, but the greatest go beyond their minimum requirements and mediate between the work, the audience, and the world.
The manifesto ends with another sour slur: “Criticism, in ways unimaginable even twenty years ago, has been taken out of the hands of the people who should be practicing it.” Let’s ignore, for a moment, the handwringing, ancien régime snobbishness wafting from that sentence, and consider if it offers any redeeming truth. It seems more accurate to say that there are just more hands than there have ever been: more websites that publish criticism, much of which is, of course, garbage and some of which is brilliant and innovative and probably wouldn’t have seen the light of day twenty years ago.
Mendelsohn’s claim seems particularly dubious because it’s laughably untrue of Mendelsohn himself (assuming he thinks he’s the kind of person who should be practicing criticism, anyway). In the last twenty years, he has risen from an obscure Euripides specialist to one of the most powerful writer-editors in the Anglophone world, whose tastes guide what tens of thousands of the smartest people in the world are reading and pondering. Over the same period, The New York Review of Books has cultivated too many brilliant writers to count. But if they all wrote like the new Editor-At-Large, the magazine would go stale in a month.
Pick a popular subject. Link it to the ancients. From time to time, spice things up by dissing those pesky youths who are ruining everything by reviewing books on Amazon. It’s a sexy formula, and there’s no reason Mendelsohn couldn’t run it ad nauseum for the rest of his tenure at the magazine. But the more topsy-turvy our world gets, the more peripheral his mediations will become. What was it the Greek philosopher said about stepping in the same river twice?
Jackson Arn was a 2019 first-place Rockower Award winner for criticism and analysis.