Waiting for the Barbarians: Essays from the Classics to Pop Culture - Daniel Mendelsohn Daniel Mendelsohn’s choice of title in this collection of essays is not meant to convey a sense of impending doom as is usually associated with the phrase “waiting for the barbarians.” Rather, he wants to suggest its meaning in C.P. Cavafy’s original: The barbarians are awaited with a sense of hope; they offer welcome change and the possibility of renewal.

“Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly, everyone going home so lost in thought?

- Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.
And some who have just returned from the border say there are no barbarians any longer.

And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.”

(You can read the full text here.)

Thus, the essays in this collection “consider the ways in which the present, and especially popular culture, has wrestled … with the past.” (p. xi)

The second theme found in these essays is what Mendelsohn calls the “reality problem”: The extraordinary blurring between reality and artifice, made all too possible by the latest technology, has bled beyond just our entertainments to affect how we think about and conduct our lives.

He divides the book into four sections: “Spectacles,” which reprints the type of reviews that initially endeared me to him – looking at popular culture through the lens of our past; “Classica,” which focuses on reinterpretations of the Classical canon; “Creative Writing,” which deals with more modern works of fiction; and “Private Lives,” which considers how a private life ends up represented on the printed page.

As with Mendelsohn’s other critical volume, How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken: Essays, I was entranced by the author’s erudition and insights. Even stuff that I would not normally be interested in, Mendelsohn makes so interesting and relevant that I feel compelled to – at the very least – look at the source material to see what he’s talking about. (The compulsion sometimes passes – despite the reviews here, I feel no need to watch Avatar or rewatch Titanic (more about both below); on the other hand, his interpretation of Achilles’ character in his piece on Stephen Mitchell’s Iliad does have me itching to reread the poem.)

Below, I want to give an abstract of the reviews collected here. I cannot recommend this book too highly, and would encourage any interested reader to hunt a copy down and read it for themselves so they can get the full force of Mendelsohn’s arguments.

“The Wizard” – Mendelsohn begins with a review of James Cameron’s Avatar. His title refers to the movies’ similarities to The Wizard of Oz (which Cameron has alluded to). But where the latter film ended with a reaffirmation of reality, “by contrast, the message of the new movie … is – like the message of so much else in mass culture just now – 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.’ Whatever its futuristic setting, and whatever its debt to the past, Avatar is very much a movie of our time.” (p. 17)

“Truth Force at the Met” – This is a laudatory review of Philip Glass’s Satyagraha, an opera about the life of Gandhi. Mendelsohn concludes by writing, there is no plot but there is a structure which “achiev[ed] 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?” (p. 35)

Not a fan of opera, this was one of those essays that moved me while reading it but afterward my disinclination for the genre reasserted itself. I’m not sure I could feel what Mendelsohn does were I to see it (at the conclusion of the performance he saw, the author writes that he burst into tears), but the general point quoted above is a valid measure of what makes a book, a film or a play significant.

“Why She Fell” – “Why She Fell” is Mendelsohn’s thoughts on why Julie Taymor’s Spider-Man was such a disaster. Taymor attempted to combine the classical transformation myth with the modern American version. Her failure was two-fold. First, the two conceptions are incompatible. Where, in ancient tales, metamorphosis is a punishment and a humiliation, in the American version, transformation is empowering. And she tried to make a blockbuster movie rather than stage a play: “Like a character in some Attic play, she was led by a single-minded passion to betray her truest self and abandon her greatest virtues. These … lie not in elaborate Hollywood special effects … [that] make the fantastical seem real and persuasive, but in a very old-fashioned kind of magic that doesn’t pretend to be ‘real’ at all.” (p. 49)

“The Dream Director” – “The Dream Director” is a review of Russian director Alexander Sokurov’s The Sun, a film about the final days of Hirohito’s reign as god-emperor of Japan. Mendelsohn also discusses Sokurov’s other works – Russian Ark and Moloch. The underlying theme of all three being the gap between “human realities and what [Sokurov] calls the ‘theater’ of ideological performances.” (p. 55)

“The Mad Men Account” – In this New York Review of Books piece from 2011, Mendelsohn rips into the TV show Mad Men, about which he writes: “The writing is extremely weak, the plotting haphazard and often preposterous, the characterizations shallow and sometimes incoherent; its attitude toward the past is glib and its self-positioning in the present is unattractively smug; the direction is unimaginative. Worst of all … the show is melodramatic rather than dramatic …. [I]t proceeds … like a soap opera.” (p. 67)

The show commits a surfeit of sins but they can be condensed down to four chief ones: (1) The show raises serious themes without giving them serious thought or textured characterization. (2) The direction is static and unimaginative. (3) The acting is unexceptional “and occasionally downright amateurish.” (p. 73) And (4) there’s an ad hoc quality to the writing.

But he goes on to argue that despite these manifest flaws (I don’t watch the show so I can’t attest to their veracity), Mad Men appeals to a viewing demographic who were children during the show’s time period and watched their parents living their lives – “the watching, hopeful, and so often disillusioned children who would grow up to be this program’s audience, watching their younger selves watch their parents screw up.” (p. 78)

“Unsinkable” – Back in the day, my ex dragged me to see Titanic when it came out. In her defense, she went only because we were double-dating with her best friend, who was a fan. The film is really rather awful, an opinion shared by Mendelsohn. But he takes this piece of schlock as an opportunity to examine why the Titanic has become a modern myth. It comes down to two things. The story’s ability to be a canvas on which we paint our anxieties about modernity, technology, class, race and all the other problems we face. Mendelsohn compares Cameron’s vision of the myth to two Greek tales: Iphigenia, where two maidens are sacrificed to male egos, and Oedipus, where two heroes – symbols of achievement and overweening pride – are brought down by their own flaws. The second need the Titanic can fill is our perverse desire to see something beautiful destroyed.

“Battle Lines” – As I’ve mentioned, Mendelsohn has a genius for making the reader see a work in a whole new light. Such is the case in his review of Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Iliad. Here, Mendelsohn argues that Achilles’ capacity to be human expands over the course of the poem but only at the cost of his closest friend – pathei mathos, we suffer into knowledge – and that Homer suggests “the whole range of human action and emotion – of an existence that … has meaning precisely because we, like Achilles, know it will end.” (p. 112) (He treats of a similar theme in the last essay from this section.)

Strictly in terms of Mitchell’s translation, the author is positive, and makes me want to get a copy to see the rest of Mitchell’s work. Compare this excerpt from the Lattimore edition to Mitchell:

LATTIMORE: “You wine sack, with a dog’s eyes, with a deer’s heart. Never once have you taken courage in your heart to arm with your people.”

MITCHELL: “Drunkard, dog-face, quivering deer-hearted coward, you have never dared to arm with your soldiers for battle.”

“In Search of Sappho” – In his review of Anne Carson’s If Not, Winter, Mendelsohn’s primary focus is on Sappho’s role in modern imagination. Of the (reputed) nine volumes of Sapphic verse that reposed in Alexandria’s library, we retain one complete poem, one nearly complete lyric (recovered only in 2004), and a bunch of fragments (sometimes no more than a few words). And they’re found in the oddest places, such as Apollonius Dyscolus’ On Pronouns, or a quote from Herodian’s On Anomalous Words, included because it contained a curious spelling of the word “sky.”

Under such circumstances, “Sappho” is often not much more than a reflection of her translator or biographer. While the author praises Carson’s translations generally (e.g., eptoaisen = “put the heart in my chest on wings”), he criticizes choices such as rendering Fragment 108 as “O beautiful O graceful one” when the Greek clearly uses the word kore, “maiden.” Or translating optais amme (Fragment 38) as “you burn me,” even though the pronoun is plural and more correctly translated “you burn us.” “[S]he’s chosen to sacrifice what the words actually say in order to project an image of Sappho as we want her: the private voice of individual erotic yearning.” (pp. 135-6)

“Arms and the Man” – Mendelsohn argues that Herodotus was the first serious prose writer in Greek. Prior to his Histories, there wasn’t even a word for prose it was considered such a debased form of writing. While the Landmark edition reviewed here has some admirable qualities (particularly the plethora of maps and illustrations), it fails to capture Herodotus’s charm as a writer, and it fails to understand Herodotus’s purpose in writing: To make the actions of ordinary men as important as the deeds of the heroes in the Iliad and other myths. “Herodotus may not always give us the facts, but he unfailingly supplies something that is just as important in the study of what he calls … ‘things that result from human action’: he gives us the truth about the way things tend to work as a whole, in history, civics, personality, and … psychology.” (p. 156)

“The Strange Music of Horace” – This is another review that takes a translator to task for failing to grasp the meaning or importance of the works he’s translating – in this case J.W. McClatchy, who fails to reflect Horace’s meticulous use of form.

“Oscar Wilde, Classics Scholar” – I don’t have any notes from this essay, which posits: What would Oscar Wilde have produced if he had become an Oxford don?

“Epic Endeavors”* – “Epic Endeavors” is a composite review of three recent novels based on classical Greek myths “that, to varying degrees, not only ‘do’ the Greeks … but … do the Greek thing: play with the texts of the past in order to create … a literature that is thoroughly of the present.” (p. 197)

David Malouf’s Ransom builds upon the scene where Priam and Achilles meet to discuss a truce so Hector’s father can bury his son. This is Mendelsohn’s favorite of the three books as (he argues) it successfully expands “the possibilities of Homer’s story.” (p. 202)

Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey is not as successful. Some of Mason’s imaginings are clever but Mason’s tricks “pale, in both scale and complexity, 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.” (p. 206)

The third book is John Banville’s The Infinities, which reimagines the Amphitryon myth in the story of a modern-day mathematician and his family. Not as good as Ransom but better than The Lost Books of the Odyssey.

All three books, however, in Mendelsohn’s estimation, whatever their flaws, are evidence of the “inexhaustible … potential of the classics themselves.” (p. 209)

“After Waterloo” – “After Waterloo” is another essay where I made no notes. It’s a rave about Richard Howard’s translation of Stendahl’s Charterhouse of Parma – both the translation and the novel in general.

“Heroine Addict” – I was excited to find this review in the collection. I discovered Theodor Fontane just this year (2012) and thoroughly enjoyed the two novels I’ve read so far – Irretrievable and Effi Briest. I became positively giddy to find that Mendelsohn shares my enthusiasm for Fontane, writing that the key to Fontane’s success as a novelist is his narrative style: “a gift for obliquity, for knowing what to leave out, and above all for letting the reader ‘overhear’ the speech of his characters …. It is this skill at delineating characters through dialogue … that creates the sense of intimacy that his novels have.” (p. 226)

I feel a sense of satisfaction when my own critical faculties are validated by a professional whose opinions I respect.

“Rebel Rebel” – This is a disquisition on the poems of Rimbaud. The most interesting thing I found in this piece was Mendelsohn’s observation that Rimbaud is a poet of adolescence. He stopped writing at the age of 20 because he grew up, and the urgency of rebellion died. (p. 256)

“The Spanish Tragedy” – “The Spanish Tragedy” introduced me to another author I’d never heard of – Antonio Muñoz Molina, and his novel Sepharad. It’s a glowing review of a book that Mendelsohn writes is “something of a masterpiece.” (p. 274)

“In Gay and Crumbling England” – In this essay, Mendelsohn reviews Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child. While the essay is interesting to read, it’s about an author and a subject I have no interest in, so – again – no notes and nothing to write.

“Transgression” – “Transgression” was another essay I was pleased to see as I’ve had Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones on my wish list for a while now. (There’s a copy at one of my libraries but I’ve never gotten around to taking advantage of its availability.) Mendelsohn argues that the book is working on two levels: One is a historical fiction that addresses the violence and inhumanity that lurks beneath the “kindly” exteriors of ordinary people. The second level is a mythic-sexual element that asks “What is justice?” and how does it appease the desire for vengeance. In his estimation, separately the two threads work. The difficulty comes when Littell attempts to combine them into one novel. In making Aue (the protagonist) a “brother,” the historic passages excel but they’re undercut by the mythic ones, where it becomes harder and harder to understand Aue as a fellow human being. He becomes “precisely the kind of cliché of depravity that so many of this novel’s strongest passages successfully resist.” (p. 303)

In his conclusion, Mendelsohn recommends the novel as it “can give us nightmares that will haunt us long after the show is over.” (p. 308)

The final section, “Private Lives,” was the least engaging for me. In it Mendelsohn focuses on memoirs, with the most interesting to me being the essays on Noël Coward and Susan Sontag. Among the general claims he makes, I found this observation the most intriguing: “Ideally, a memoirist’s revelation of himself should seduce readers into a comparable willingness to examine themselves and their lives without vanity, without props. In this way, a literary experience can lead to a profound life experience.” (p. 375)

Let me reiterate here that this is a remarkable collection of essays, and I strongly recommend it. However, if there’s one criticism I would level at Mendelsohn it’s that many of his sentences are too long (“discursive,” to use a more erudite word; or “prolix,” to use another one I have a fondness for). He starts out with a beautifully simple subject and verb but then goes off on a tangent that occupies a clause or two before getting to the predicate (many of the ellipses in the quotes above are reflections of this). It’s a tendency I don’t recall from How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken: Essays. This may diminish the reader’s enjoyment but not – I would hope – enough to dissuade him or her from reading these essays.

* Mendelsohn has an interesting digression at the beginning of this piece where he mentions the ancient Greeks’ penchant for revising and retelling their myths. In Euripides’ Phoenician Women, for example, Oedipus and Jocasta are still alive many years after the revelation of incest and parricide; in his fragmentary Oedipus, the king’s blindness is a result of injuries sustained when he killed Laius. And in his Helen, Euripides dramatized a popular myth that claimed the real Helen spent the Trojan War in Egypt, remaining faithful to Menelaus; Paris spirited away a phantom. Anyone who’s read Robert Graves’ The Greek Myths will have already encountered this.

The topic is of interest to me because – as anyone who’s browsed my bookshelves will know – I happen to take an interest in several modern mythologies. Namely, Star Trek, Star Wars and Tolkien’s Middle Earth. I’d like to see the owners of these properties relax their grips, ideally trashing the idea of “canon” entirely, and let us return to the days when authors like James Blish, Sondra Marshak, Diane Duane, John M. Ford (to name some ST authors) or Alan Dean Foster (to name a SW author) could write their own interpretations without being strait-jacketed. (I know there’s fan fiction out there that does this but its reach is very limited, even in the age of the internet. I want to see the phenomenon go mainstream, as they say.)