Daniel Mendelsohn is of two minds about most things.
“All criticism, I think, is ultimately an ethical or moral undertaking,” said Mendelsohn, an award-winning author and part-time professor at Bard College. “But I want to push back against that inevitable normativity by keeping an open mind, trying to take the long view. I always like to stand back and, using my classicist’s eye, remember that all these things fade away, all these things become less heated.”
This double-pronged approach came through in Mendelsohn’s lecture, “Too Clever By Half,” which was presented by Trinity’s Humanities Collective on Tuesday, Nov. 28. Addressing an audience of roughly 200, Mendelsohn shared stories from Homer’s epic poem “The Odyssey,” noting the instructive blunders of the titular Odysseus and his son, Telemachus.
Mendelsohn regularly contributes to such publications as “The New Yorker” and “The New York Review of Books,” offering analyses of current events and popular culture with reference to the motifs and themes of classical literature. Mendelsohn joined the Trinitonian for an extended interview. The following has been edited for clarity, length and style.
You’ve taken your love for the classics and become a popular essayist, memoirist — a cultural critic. How did you end up becoming a public intellectual? Was there a marked switch in your career, emerging from the academy and into magazines?
I did classics at the University of Virginia, and then I was working in the so-called ‘real-world’ for four years, from 1982 to 1986, as the assistant to an opera impresario in New York City, and then I decided to go to grad school. I was never an academic until much later, when I was offered a part-time position at Bard in 2006. I was 46.
When I finished my Ph.D. in the spring of 1994, I had already been freelancing for three years. A public intellectual is generally a full-time academic scholar who strays into the mainstream media as a cultural critic; I have always been there.
I’m not a full-time academic scholar. That said, my whole career basically shows that a classical training gives you amazing equipment for thinking about the contemporary world. It trains you to think deeply about texts and the way that form and content are connected; I don’t see why you shouldn’t use that on contemporary culture.
Much interpretive scholarly work ranges over familiar media: film, drama, novels. What of the ‘new’ art forms? Do you think that, say, comics, TV and videogames will rank alongside the more traditional genres?
Why not? Everyone with a brain is now in agreement that we are living in a new gold age of television drama, since cable liberated television from the network. Some of these dramas are as good as anything I’ve ever seen; “Breaking Bad” has as much to say about power and morality as any supposedly great work of Western civilization. These are serious undertakings and I think they should be taken seriously.
I’ve always wanted to write about the golden era of music videos. When MTV was a hot new thing, they developed this new genre, music videos. Some of them were extraordinarily beautiful and interesting — they were texts, they had something serious to say.
Do you have a favorite?
I remember that great REM “Losing My Religion” video. I’m not sure I could explain what it’s about — if I were writing about it, I’d have to figure it out — but Madonna was brilliant, too.
You describe the role of the cultural critic as one who offers insightful observations about our shifting cultural landscape, as opposed to writing prescriptively. How do you tow the line between showing us something new about the world and keeping away from, say, preachiness?
All criticism, I think, is ultimately an ethical or moral undertaking. It is prescriptive; it is normative. You can’t avoid it. But I want to push back against that inevitable normativity by keeping an open mind, trying to take the long view. I always like to stand back and, using my classicist’s eye, remember that all these things fade away, all these things become less heated.
You have to say what’s what — this is good, this is not good — so you’re in the thick of it. Then, using what I know about classics and how works become understood differently as centuries pass, I try to stand back, take the long view. You want someone who has a stance and a wider perspective. That’s why you read critics. They are able to contextualize.
In a “New Yorker” interview, you said that it’s easy to see a cultural change and take it as the end of the world. You note, though, that it’s only the end of a world. Do you see any worlds appearing and disappearing before us?
I’ve been listening to Edward Gibbon’s “History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” on tape for the past four years, for an hour every day on the elliptical machine. It’s taken a long time.
I’ve learned that, before the actual fall, there was a long period of internal disintegration, like a fruit ripening and falling from the tree. Politically, I think we’re watching a major moment in the unraveling of American culture.
One of your most famous books is “The Lost,” which documents your search for the truth about your family’s relationship to the Holocaust. When you published this in 2006, I can’t imagine that you could have foreseen the rise of anti-Semitic, white nationalist movements in the U.S. that we are witnessing today. What’s going through your mind as you see this happening?
In the moment, I’m angry and outraged. I went to school in Charlottesville. My mentor, Jenny Clay, tells me there were bands of these white supremacists roving through neighborhoods in Charlottesville, screaming “Out with the Jews!”
Look, it’s not going to come as a surprise that I’m outraged and I’m sickened by the fact that our commander-in-chief is the person who has very deliberately allowed this outpouring to take place. That’s very sinister.
Then again, parenthetically: These people have always been in America. It’s just that they used to slink around in the dark. But the combination of political events and technologies have allowed them to show themselves.
The interesting thing about Hitler, Mussolini and Trump is this: The thing that enables the bad stuff to happen is when someone flips the switch and says, “It’s OK to be shameless. Attitudes you used to be ashamed of are now OK to express publicly.” After that, anything can happen. That’s when you start shooting grandmothers in ditches. That’s what I’m worried about.
I have this new book out, “An Odyssey,” about me and my dad. I’m almost happy my father is not alive to see this because I think it would just destroy him. He was an incredibly patriotic American, and I just can’t believe we have to watch Nazi marches in the home of Thomas Jefferson.
To take the long view, what does this really represent? I do think we’re in for a bad period, and that’s because the memory of World War II is the living memory of World War II. Everything that happened from 1945 until now was, in some way, a reaction by people who had seen this happen, to make sure it never happens again.
You know what? They’re all dying. Very few people are alive now who were victims of the Holocaust or, for that matter, perpetrators of the Holocaust.
As soon as the living memory is over, people forget. That’s the thing. Time passes and people die. We’re always saying “Never forget,” but everyone forgets.