the contextual life

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Who to Read: Daniel Mendelsohn on Classical Literature

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Last year culture critic and essayist Daniel Mendelsohn, a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books and The New Yorker, participated in a talk on practice. As a trained classicist you wouldn’t expect him to critique Mad Men or praise Battlestar Galactica. But he does, and he does so from a wholly unique point of view.

Whether he’s reviewing a Greek play or a popular television show, Mendelsohn says that what makes writing an essay interesting is when he’s conflicted. While some writers keep themselves out of their criticism, Mendelsohn unabashedly injects himself into the response. “It’s not always about the thing, it’s also about you”. The friction that drives him begins with a battle inside his head; mixed feelings prove fruitful.

Most people will agree with Mendelsohn when he says it’s a great time to be a television critic, that “We are currently living in a new golden age of television, a medium that has been liberated by cable broadcasting to explore both fantasy and reality with greater frankness and originality than ever before.”

To him, The Wire, OZ, Six Feet Under, and The Sopranos are evidence. He continues, “as witness shows as different as the now-iconic crime dramas The Sopranos and The Wire, with their darkly glinting, almost Aeschylean moral textures; the philosophically provocative, unexpectedly moving sci-fi hit Battlestar Galactica, a kind of futuristic retelling of the Aeneid; and the perennially underappreciated small-town drama Friday Night Lights, which offers, among other things, the finest representation of middle-class marriage in popular culture of which I’m aware.”

It’s in this realm that Mendelsohn is the thinking pop culture junkie’s dream, applying his classical training to the seemingly brainless media we tune out to at the end of a long day. Reading his criticism reassures us that there’s an education in that hour before bed.

Mendelsohn says his classical training gives him certain tools: “classicists look at everything . . . they connect the dots. . . . After all,” he continues, “Greek tragedy was popular culture in its time.”

In a recent interview with The Browser, Mendelsohn argues that classics are the ultimate source: “Our kinds of plots, concerns, genres – all of them begin with the Greeks and the Romans. So anyone who has an interest in the history of literature in general would do well to study the classics.” I’d add that anyone aspiring to write smart criticism would be wise to study them as well.

Regarding what they hold for us now, Mendelsohn says, “Good literature always illuminates human nature and human action.” Then, echoing his father, he continues, “as long as people are the same, the classics are always relevant.”

There have been a few reissues and adaptations of the classics lately. Mendelsohn offers an insightful and informed take: “the Greeks were already playing with them, and that’s one of the reasons why I’m all for adaptation – it’s part of the classical heritage.”

After you read How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken, Daniel Mendelsohn’s collection of essays on modern novels, film, and what the classics can tell us about war, here are some classics he suggests:

The Iliad by Homer
“As I get older, I increasingly think The Iliad is one of the first works to wrestle with the existential problem: If you’re going to die, what do you want the space between now and when you’re going to die look like? Does it matter? Does anyone care? On what value system do you base your actions? That’s what The Iliad is really about – a guy confronted by the possibility that the entire structure of his values is not being honoured. So why fight? And that is a question about war that never goes away, either as an individual or a nation.” Of Homer he says, “if you look carefully at Homer, everything that happens is also a function of the personality of the characters.”

Ulysses by James Joyce
Ulysses is the 800 pound gorilla in the room. It’s the one that naturally we all think of, and it’s the ultimate recasting of the classic – in a very self-conscious way.” UPDATE: As Daniel kindly mentions below, his thoughts on James Joyce’s Ulysses is can be read at Slate.

The Infinites by John Banville
“It’s an adaptation of a play called Amphitryon . . . Banville takes the plot of this ancient play – about how Zeus seduces in disguise the wife of Amphitryon, a woman called Alcmene, and begets Heracles from her, his divine child – and updates this to the present. The hero is a famous mathematician called Adam Godley (a significant name, obviously) who has come up with an equation to connect all the parallel worlds that could exist in the Einsteinian universe.”

Three plays by Euripides
“I’m a great advocate for three plays by Euripides that to my mind are never sufficiently adapted. They are what we call Euripides’s romances – the Ion, the Iphigenia in Tauris and the Helen. These plays remind you almost of the Shakespearean romances. People are left on a desert island or a strange shore, their mates are far away trying to find them and are also eventually shipwrecked, there are misrecognitions and mistaken identities, and eventually it all comes together in a happy ending.”

::[Links]::
Pre-order Daniel’s forthcoming essay collection, Waiting for the Barbarians: Essays on the Classics and Pop Culture (Aug. 2012)
Daniel Mendelsohn’s archive at The New Yorker
Daniel Mendelsohn on Mad Men at The New York Review of Books 
On Stephen Mitchell’s new translation of Homer’s Iliad (New Yorker podcast)

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4 Responses

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  1. Will definitely be checking out, Three Plays and possibly the Iliad as well. Thanks for sharing!

    LuckyPorcupine

    April 24, 2012 at 10:44 am

  2. This is such a generous piece–thank you! However, one couldn’t really say that I “suggest” Joyce’s *Ulysses* (it was merely mentioned in the interview): for my thoughts on the novel, this might be fun: http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2011/08/overrated.3.html
    Again, thanks very much,
    DM

    Daniel Mendelsohn

    April 24, 2012 at 10:55 am

  3. WHOM. wow.

    BTW ‘Ulysses’ is a great read – once you get past Stephen sulking on the beach with streams of consciousness in Latin. v funny, esp Bloom, and stuff like this: ‘Moored under the trees of Charleville Mall Father Conmee saw a turfbarge, a towhorse with pendent head, a bargeman with a hat of dirty straw seated amidships, smoking and staring at a branch of poplar above him. It was idyllic: and Father Conmee reflected on the providence of the Creator who had made turf to be in bogs whence men might dig it out and bring it to town and hamlet to make fires in the houses of poor people.’ GOLD

  4. oh and a +1 for Banville: possibly the best prose stylist of his generation, and darkly funny. i highly recommend ‘The Untouchable’


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