Douglas C. Macleod

Daniel Mendelsohn got it somewhat wrong. Although an award-winning writer, critic, and translator who has been a powerful presence in publishing and culture for over fifteen years, Mendelsohn slipped up. In an article written for The New Yorker last year, “A Critic’s Manifesto" he speaks about the two components of serious criticism: knowledge/expertise and taste. Without the two, one would not have “the impulse to analyze, to explain, to teach, to judge meaningfully.” This Manifesto, combined with his enlightening preface to How Beautiful It Is, and How Easily It Can Be Broken (2008) where he writes, “I’ve generally been less interested in writing about classical texts or culture per se than in taking a look at the ways in which popular culture interprets and adapts the classics - not least because of what those interpretations and adaptations tell us about the present, about us,” should have prefaced his newest anthology Waiting for the Barbarians: Essays from the Classics to Popular Culture. 

Instead, Mendelsohn, in his foreword, is forced to explain to his readers why he chose the fairly ambiguous title to his latest collection of masterful and erudite essays ranging from works on such subjects as James Cameron’s The Wizard of Oz rip-off Avatar to Stephen Mitchell’s contemporarily sterile translation of Iliad. The title stems from Constantine P. Cavafy’s poem “Waiting for the Barbarians” which is “a parable about artistic growth - the unexpectedly complex and even, potentially, fruitful interaction between old cultures and new, between (we might say) high and low; about the way that what’s established and classic is always being refreshed by new energies that, at the time they make themselves felt, probably seem barbaric to some.” It is this same theme that links the essays in Mendelsohn’s text together, as well as how the present and the past come together successfully (and sometimes not successfully) to create what is considered pop culture. Equating his newest text to Cavafy’s work also helps connect Waiting for the Barbarians to his 2009 translations of the poet’s unfinished work. However, I wished he had also provided his readers, whether or not they have read his prior works, with a more lucid understanding of how it is one could “judge meaningfully.”

This brings us to the next question, one that he asks of Anne Carson’s translations of Sappho’s fragments, If Not, Winter: “For whom is this book intended?” Mendelsohn’s first section, “Spectacles,” (mis)leads one to believe that he caters to popular culture aficionados. This section contains essays on Avatar (“The Wizard”), Philip Glass’s Satyagraha (”Truth Force at the Met”), Julie Taymor’s bound-for-disaster Broadway version of Spider-Man (“Why She Fell”), Aleksandr Sokurov’s cinematic work, particularly his 2005 film The Sun (“The Dream Director”), our fascination with the Titanic’s sinking (“Unsinkable”), and finally his limpid, eloquent review of Mad Men (“The Mad Men Account”). This last essay perfectly embodies Mendelsohn’s understanding of the present-day, post-modern, American cultural milieu, which is more apt to be in awe of what is aesthetically pleasing, even if “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.”  

As part of what Mendelsohn calls “our present postmodern imagination,” the general viewing and reading public has also become obsessed “with fragmentation, allusiveness, quotation, and reconfiguration of elements of the past.” His second section entitled “Classica” shows us how this problematic preoccupation has now found itself in translations of classical texts. “Battle Lines” discusses Stephen Mitchell’s need to rapidly strip away Iliad’s impure Book 10 (“Dolon”) for the sheer sake of brevity, but which Mendelsohn feels is an important portion of the text based on how it shows a range of human emotion and the extremism of war. When writing about Sappho’s work, scholars (and, in a subtle way, Carson as her translator) are more interested in the sexual components embedded in her fragmented writing, and her sexuality, as opposed to looking at her work “at face value,” or as an extension of her voice. Andrea L. Purvis’s translation The Landmark Herodotus is “naked and pedestrian,” because she does not leave in Herodotus’ “infamous, looping digressions,” which, in turn, enhances our understanding of the differences between nature and customs/law, and the natural ebb and flow (rise and fall) of cities, states, and nations. He does provide a good deal of praise to Oscar Wilde, in his ill-placed “Oscar Wilde, Classics Scholar,” a gay writer who (much like Mendelsohn) academically argues about “aesthetics and society;” and, to David Malouf’s novel Ransom, one of three novels he discusses in “Epic Endeavors” (John Banville’s The Infinities and Zack Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey are the other two), which takes the epic genre and re-invents it in novel form. Although takeing issue with some of the adaptations, he does aptly recognize “the inexhaustible, indeed seemingly infinite potential of the classics themselves.”

This second section leads the reader to a better understanding of who Mendelsohn’s intended reader is: the critic, professional or aspiring. For Mendelsohn, “criticism is its own genre,” one that extenuates the positive and the negative for the love of doing so; thus, those who have an interest in the art-form are more apt to want to read Waiting for the Barbarians. Enthusiasts of a critic’s work, specifically of Mendelsohn’s, will want to read because he or she analyzes, explains, teaches, and meaningfully judges; because, as Mendelsohn states in “The Critic’s Manifesto,” a critic “ultimately loves his subject more than he loves his reader.” This is certainly recognizable in his third section “Creative Writing” where we see Mendelsohn’s uncanny ability to deconstruct text while analyzing the author, as well as making his readers (other critics) feel comfortable with the content and his biographical assessments (even if and when we are not remotely familiar with the subjects at hand). His essays on Charterhouse of Parma, the novels of Theodore Fontane, the poems of Arthur Rimbaud (“Rebel Rebel”), Antonio Muñoz Molina’s Sepharad, Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child, and Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones are not only deftly written, but also extremely informative. Most impressive his work on Molina, a textual analysis that oozes with reachable prose: “But it seems to me that Muñoz Molina’s multiplex, honeycombed attempt to depict the very root of evil, to create a picture of mankind’s impulse to exclude and oppress that goes beyond the particularities of this or that ideology, should be seen as a profound grappling with a very fundamental moral issue indeed.”     

Mendelsohn’s textual/authorial analysis extends into his studies on “Private Lives,” or memoirs. Being no stranger to writing memoir having written one entitled The Lost: a Search for Six of Six Million, Mendelsohn presents the reader with meaningful judgment. His extremely well-placed essay “But Enough About Me” specifically discusses the history behind what is now memoir overload, and ultimately becomes a remarkable commentary on the human condition and technology: our need to tell the world about everything that we do (and I mean everything). As Mendelsohn claims, we are now inundated with personal narratives, most of which are not “found in bookstores. If anything, it’s hard not to think that a lot of the outrage directed at writers and publishers lately represents a displacement of a large and genuinely new anxiety, about our ability to filter or control the plethora of unreliable narratives coming at us from all directions.” In essence, it is not only the bulk, but the reliability of the bulk that he is skeptical about; writers feel obligated to tell their stories, even if they are half-truths, or not true at all, which obscures terms like fiction and nonfiction, experience, memory, truth and reality. It is because of this Mendelsohn claims that novelists have a better sense as to what reality is, that they have “a vivid internal reality that wants expressing.” That is why he chooses the subjects he does for this section: “His Design for Living” speaks about Noël Coward’s Letters; “On the Town” is a study of Leo Lerman’s Diaries; “Zoned Out” rabidly scrutinizes Jonathan Franzen’s The Discomfort Zone; “Boys Will Be Boys” discusses the triumph and tribulation of Edmund White’s City Boy; and “The Collector” critiques Susan Sontag’s Reborn. These writers represent what is essentially right and wrong with memoir writing, and the ones who write them.

Even with its incomplete introduction, Waiting for the Barbarians is certainly an impressive work on many levels, most especially in its ability to “mediate intelligently and stylishly between a work and its audience; to educate and edify in an engaging and, preferably, entertaining way.” Mendelsohn, throughout his remarkable career as one of the nation’s leading cultural critics, has shown an admirable level of truth and honesty in all of his work; and, Waiting for the Barbarians is tangible proof of that. In essence, because of this text, we are further made privy to the fact that he is a confident scribe who has a profound respect for the arts of reading, of writing, and of frank critical analysis.  

Dr. Douglas C. MacLeod, Jr. is currently a full-time Visiting Instructor of Liberal Arts at SUNY Cobleskill, where he teaches film, mass media, and composition courses. Over the last four years he has published in such print and online journals as Film and History: an Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television, Scope, Southwest Journal of Cultures, and The Journal of American Studies of Turkey. He also has written essays and film reviews for C.K. Robertson’s book Religion and Sexuality: Passionate Debates (“The Oppressed Self: Desire, Sexuality, and Religious Cinema”), popular culture encyclopedias, and various film/literary websites.