:: Article

The barbarian invasions

By Alex Estes.

Waiting for the Barbarians: Essays from the Classics to Pop Culture, Daniel Mendelsohn, New York Review of Books 2012

The opening paragraph of Daniel Mendelsohn’s essay ‘Arms and the Man’, a review of The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories, closes with an odd comment about the “single man” who invented the “methodical study of the human past,” saying that when Mendelsohn was younger he and some of his classmates in graduate school “could be pretty condescending about the man…and ([they] would joke) his penchant for flowered Hawaiian shirts.” Cicero was the one who gave Herodotus the title “Father of History” and, Mendelsohn explains, for these young graduate students a little over two millennia later, “the word ‘father’ seemed to reflect something hopelessly parental and passé about Herodotus” that Herodotus “always seemed a bit of a sucker.” Mendelsohn goes on to say that due to Herodotus’s “first person intrusions,” “his notorious tendency to digress for the sake of the most abstruse detail,” and “his seemingly infinite susceptibility to the imaginative flights of tour guides…reading him was like — well, like having an embarrassing parent along on a family vacation.”

What may strike the careless reader (of which we can hope there will be few) of Waiting for the Barbarians, his latest collection of essays published this month by New York Review Books and where this essay on Herodotus appears, as a bit funny is that the essays within could very easily be charged with the same qualities he uses to poke fun at Herodotus. The more careful reader (of which we can hope will be the majority) will find instead that Mendelsohn keeps these tendencies in check. And by occasionally fleshing out an abstruse detail and every now and again intruding in the first-person, Mendelsohn is able to bring a depth to his work that one scarcely finds anymore in today’s widely circulated criticism.

In ‘But Enough About Me (The Memoir Craze)’, Mendelsohn trains his critical gaze on Ben Yagoda’s Memoir: A History. As the piece slowly grows into an essay on our age’s affinity for the memoir as well as what exactly a memoir is, Mendelsohn parenthetically interjects that when a reviewer in the New York Observer speaks of a memoirist who has published a book in a time where memoirs are tumbling out in ‘unprecedented abundance’ that “(The memoirist in question was me; more on that later.)” That “later” comes after Mendelsohn spends a few thousand words taking on the multifaceted debate of the memoir; from the truth argument to the self-centered argument to aesthetic argument, Mendelsohn covers almost all the issues that arise when reading, writing, or discussing memoirs, saving what he thinks is one of the more interesting ones for last. At the close of the essay, he focuses for a moment on the problematic nature of memory. He does this by bringing himself into the text and telling a very short story about his own memoir writing experience. He and his brother, Matt, are on a plane returning home from Australia where he has ‘been interviewing Holocaust survivors for a book’ when at the rear of the aircraft a high school choir group begins to sing a pop song from the Seventies. He writes,

Matt turned to me with an amused expression. “Remember we sang that in choir?” he asked.

I looked at him in astonishment. “Choir? You weren’t even in the choir,” I said to him. I’d been president of the choir, and I knew what I was talking about.

Now it was his turn to be astonished. “Daniel,” he said. “I stood next to you on the risers during concerts!”

Matt was talking about a shared history from 1978 – a comparatively recent past. The people we’d just spent ten days with, struggling to find the keys that would spring the locks of their rusted recollections, had been talking about things that had happened sixty, seventy, even eighty years before. I thought about this, and burst out laughing. Then I went home and wrote the book.

What makes Mendelsohn’s choice to bring himself into the text in such a personal way so powerful is that not only does it serve to strengthen his argument but it reveals more of the man whose criticism we are reading. Criticism should not, as many people tend to argue, be about authority. It should be about trust, and today, with the proliferation of outlets allowing everyone an opportunity to voice exactly the way they feel about whatever it is they’ve watched or read or eaten in the past fifteen minutes, it’s never been more important to find a person whose opinion one can trust. Frankly, it’s Mendelsohn’s vulnerability (which may actually be the opposite of authoritative posturing) that creates the trust between him and his readers.

Rarely does Mendelsohn ‘digress for the sake of the most abstruse detail,’ although, those unaccustomed to reading such fluent criticism, as opposed to the book reportage that seems to crowd the pages of so many of the critical outlets these days, might not realise this at first. In the opening paragraphs of his piece on J. D. McClatchy’s Horace, The Odes, Mendelsohn tells the story of the Centennial Games of 17BC, “a celebration of Rome as the capital of the world, meant to commemorate the beginning of a new era, a new saeculum, in the affairs of humankind.” The opening ceremony of the games, Mendelsohn tells us, takes place fourteen years after Augustus “defeated Cleopatra and Antony at Actium, thereby establishing, for once and for all, Rome as the single great Mediterranean power,” and it features a group of 54 children singing “a most unusual hymn,” containing the lyrics of the poet Sappho and invoking the gods Apollo and Diana. The hymn was written by Q. Horatius Flaccus. “We know him simply as Horace.”

Mendelsohn begins the story of the ceremony with, “Daylight was fading on June 3, 17 BC…” and with that opening we are brought there to witness what was witnessed so long ago. This is where we find a bit of C.P. Cavafy in Mendelsohn’s criticism. In each piece of this collection, Mendelsohn does the same thing Cavafy did in his poetry (one is tempted call this a technique, but, in both men, it feels inherent rather than practiced). Mendelsohn brings the old world into the new. Mendelsohn took the title for this essay collection from Cavafy’s poem ‘Waiting for the Barbarians,’ a choice he explains in the short foreword to the book, but there is Cavafy poem that much better demonstrates what Mendelsohn does that is so much like what Cavafy did. The poem is titled ‘The Year 31 B.C. in Alexandria’. This is the year that Augustus dispatched the reign of Antony and Cleopatra. In the poem, a peddler of oil, gum, and incense has just arrived at Alexandria “from his little village near the city’s outskirts, / still dusted with his journey’s dirt.” He has come to the city to sell his wares in the streets and he calls out what he has on offer,

But the tremendous stir,
and the music, and parades, won’t let him be heard.

The mob shoves him, drags him, knocks him down.
And at the height of his confusion, when he asks “What on earth is going on?”

someone tosses him the palace’s gargantuan lie:
that victory in Greece belongs to Antony.

Cavafy wrote the first draft of that poem in 1917 (the final draft in 1924), almost two thousand years after the event described therein, and by taking the tack of telling the story of Antony and Cleopatra’s downfall through the eyes of a commoner, today’s reader gets a chance to experience the events on a level that feels personal. When Mendelsohn describes the ceremony that takes place fourteen years later when Augustus feels “secure enough to announce the beginning of what was clearly a New World Order,” he uses wonderful little details that give the reader a chance to feel as if history has been brought forward to the present. This isn’t so much an influence that Cavafy has had on Mendelsohn; it reads stronger than that, more like a kinship. Once Mendelsohn has situated Horace’s Odes in history, he begins his critique of the latest translation. That history reverberates through the piece giving Mendelsohn’s words an urgency rarely found in pieces about ancient writings.

The difference between having Daniel Mendelsohn as our tour guide through cultural history both ancient and recent as opposed to an embarrassing father-figure “loaded down…with his guidebooks, the old Brownie camera, the gimcrack souvenirs–and, of course, that flowered polyester shirt” is that with Mendelsohn it feels as if he’s been there before. We are able to go on a trip that is less a postcard-friendly journey and more an excursion given by a local who knows all the spots of interest and isn’t afraid to share with us not only his favorites but the reasons why each place is worthy of our time, even the places viewed by others as a dangerous locale full of grotesque scenery and offensive history, such as Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones. In Mendelsohn’s essay on Littell’s novel he reminds us that it’s important not to allow gut-reactions to make our critical decisions for us. Most of the time, if one takes a moment and level-headedly looks at a work of literature that an intelligent writer has obviously spent an enormous amount of time and energy on and yet everyone has found so contemptible, maybe, just maybe, there is some value that can be found there. Mendelsohn is able to find this value by locating where he thinks the novel has failed, and, once the reader arrives at that part of the essay, it’s difficult to disagree with him. What’s more, is that even if the reader disagrees with Mendelsohn, as some will, the conversation that’s been had about what’s at issue (in this case it’s how Littell attempted to humanise a Nazi’s inhuman behaviour, but in the end pushed the narrative too far, rendering the Nazi into a monster, thereby depriving the novel of the power it could have had) has brought up so many important ideas that one can’t help but be glad they’ve read the piece.

Today we live for the new. It seems there is always something right around the corner just waiting to be watched or read or looked at in ‘awe.’ And what makes this collection of essays that feels rooted in the past so refreshing to read is Mendelsohn’s skill at situating yesterday’s world in today’s, making the old new, reminding us that every day we are creating tomorrow. From Julie Taymor’s failing at bringing Spider-Man to Broadway to Homer’s odd tenth book of the Iliad, Mendelsohn covers a lot of ground. So much ground, in fact, that we readers of these essays are given a chance to learn not only about each work being criticised but maybe, through examining our own reaction to each piece, a bit more about ourselves.

Alex Estes is a literary critic living in Manhattan, a tiny borough just across the river from Brooklyn. His work has appeared in The Rumpus, The Brooklyn Rail, and Full Stop. He recently finished work on his second unpublishable novel and is now hard at work on his first publishable one. You can follow him on Twitter @deskofalex or visit his website Deskofalex.com.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, October 24th, 2012.