Daniel Mendelsohn, Examining The 'Beautiful'

Daniel Mendelsohn

Daniel Mendelsohn writes about books, movies and the stage for The New York Review of Books, where his essays on theater earned him the George Jean Nathan Award for distinguished drama criticism. Matt Mendelsohn hide caption

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How Beautiful It Is, and How Easily It Can Be Broken is the title of Daniel Mendelsohn's new volume of critical essays.

But it could easily be a phrase a gardener utters as a rare flower is held up to the light — or something a reporter mumbles to herself, admiring her script and waiting to see if it makes any sense upon being read aloud.

The phrase is a stage instruction Tennessee Williams wrote in the margins of The Glass Menagerie, about the sort of tune he wanted to be playing in the background for his doomed heroine, Laura. Williams wanted music that would

"express the surface vivacity of life with underlying strains of immutable and inexpressible sorrow. When you look at a piece of delicate spun glass, you think of two things: how beautiful it is and how easily it can be broken."

It's telling that Mendelsohn rescued this observation from Williams' stage directions and applied it as a mantra to his own ground of critical inquiry.

He has such an engaging mind, and he's so erudite in his application of classical scholarship — he brings a knowledge of Latin and ancient Greek to his response to modern works, whether it be films like Brokeback Mountain or a new production of Medea on Broadway — that to read him is to see something afresh.

"It is the critic," Mendelsohn says, "who is a person in love with beautiful things, and who worries that those things will be broken."

Or ignored altogether. Or trampled with affection.

Daniel Mendelsohn is smart — very, very smart. But he's far too interested in why we love what we love to be a snob. Nor is he dismissive, though undoubtedly he likes to argue for what he loves, or debate what he finds wanting.

I've read Mendelsohn for years in The New York Review of Books, the journal from which these essays are collected, and he's not trying to tell us what to go see, or which book or record to buy.

Rather, Mendelsohn's classicist passion is to interpret our perceptions, to find out why they have ricocheted as they have. He often waits to see what other critics or the general public is saying about a particular cultural phenomenon — then he begins his work. That he can then bring Euripides or Herodotus back to life — and take them to the movies as well — is such a pleasure.

The rigorousness of his classics-rooted approach likewise makes him — in a world of bloggers and insta-opinions — thoughtful and nuanced. He notices, for instance, that while the Greek tragedies are about great figures whose character flaws lead to bad choices and to their downfall, the bad choices in Tennessee Williams' plays tend to happen long before the curtain rises. Williams' tragedies, Mendelsohn argues, are about "the drama of pathos" — what happens as we see "an already doomed, ruined person struggling to hang on to something beautiful."

Mendelsohn can be contrary: To him Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones is soothing, not scary, and little more than Hallmark-card stuff; the film 300 is so cartoonish and hyperbolic in a world of video games that the offense it gave to critics who attacked it as anti-Islamic missed the point.

And if he's a fine writer, he's also a wonderful talker. Reading Mendelsohn is good; talking to him is like a dance.

When I'm on the air, I often say "go to our Web site if you want to know more." In this case, you're already at the site, so I'd encourage you — the Web reader — to go back to the top of the page and click that big red audio button.

Because Daniel Mendelsohn ripples. My stage note would be: Listen — don't just look.

Excerpt: 'How Beautiful It Is And How Easily It Can Be Broken'

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Introduction

The words critic and critical, which tend to leave a slightly sour taste in the mouth of contemporary American culture ("Don't be so critical!"; "Everyone's a critic!"), are derived, indirectly, from the Classical Greek word krinô, "to judge." The noun that comes from that verb, kritês, simply denotes a person who makes judgments — this being another word that provokes a certain anxiety today. ("Who am I to judge?"; "Don't be so judgmental!") For the Greeks, a kritês could be any number of things: an arbitrator in a dispute; a historian (who, according to one Greek author writing in the second century A.D.., must approach his raw data in the manner of an interrogating judge in a legal proceeding); an interpreter of dreams; or one of the aesthetic referees who judged the fiercely competitive theatrical competitions held each spring in Athens. The playwright Aristophanes liked to interrupt the action of his comedies in order to make flattering appeals to this or that kritês watching the show. Not infrequently, he won.

Critic, then, is a word with a rich and suggestive pedigree. As, indeed, are other words derived from krinô, words like criterion (a means for judging or trying, a standard) and — a word that you might not have suspected is even remotely related to "critic" — crisis, which in Greek means a separating, a power of distinguishing; a judgment, a means of judging; a trial. For what is a crisis, if not an event that forces us to distinguish between the crucial and the trivial, forces us to reveal our priorities, to apply the most rigorous criteria and judge things?

This book is a collection of judgments: which is to say, a collection of essays by a critic. As might be guessed from the foregoing excursion into etymologies, the critic in question has a background in Classics. In the late 1980s and early 1990s I did my graduate work in Greek and Latin, with an eye to a career in academia; instead I became a journalist. This fact will help to explain two important features of this collection.

The first, and less important, is its content. The subjects of many of the pieces collected here, which span a number of genres — books, theater, films, and translations —

and represent most of the fifteen years I've been writing as a professional critic, have some connection with Greek or Roman culture. There are essays about a movie version of the Trojan War and a steroidal biopic about Alexander the Great; about an updated feminist spin on Euripides' Medea and a romanticized drama about the Classics scholar and poet A. E. Housman; about a contemporary verse adaptation, by Sylvia Plath's widower, of a Greek tragedy about a man who treats his wife badly, and a tendentious popular account of the Peloponnesian War. As this list suggests, 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. (The Athenians may well have thought that Medea was about language and politics; we think it's about desperate housewives.) Only one of the essays here, in fact, is about a book that is scholarly in nature, and that book caught my interest precisely because it attempted to use the Classics as a weapon in a contemporary political battle. Such attempts to use, and abuse, the classical heritage in order to influence mainstream political and cultural discussions, from the conduct of the war in Iraq to the legal status of gay marriage, are the object of more than one judgment in these pages.

A background in the Classics accounts for another, more important and I hope more consistent feature of this collection (which, after all, consists mostly of pieces that have no connection at all to the classical world). When you are exposed for a long time to the astringent beauties of the classical languages — the hard and unyielding grammars, the uncompromising demands of syntax and exigencies of meter, none of which admit of either shoddiness or approximation — you can develop a taste for a certain kind of rigor; you may begin to seek it elsewhere. To my mind, that rigor serves as a kind of template not only for the method that the critic necessarily applies to his subject (art, theater, film, dance, literature, whatever) but also for the qualities to be sought in the works themselves. Those qualities are: a meaningful coherence of form and content; the subtle but precise deployment of detail in the service of that meaning; vigor and clarity of expression; and seriousness of purpose. Since I see no reason why those standards shouldn't be imposed on (and those qualities sought in) the products of mainstream culture — at least those with aspirations to seriousness — as much as on those of high culture, I've attempted to seek, and to impose, accordingly in my own critical writing.

Those conjugations, declensions, and meters can take you away from texts altogether; can give you a taste for what you might call the infinite interpretability of things — not of this or that book or play (with their hidden coherences, turns of phrase, and elegances of poetic diction, which, armed with your paradigms and dictionaries, you eventually learn to decipher) but of whole cultures. These, too, can in their way be reduced to their essential components — to their grammars and vocabularies, so to speak. Civilizations, too, can be "read." (And judged.) It says something significant, for instance, about the Greek conception of the mind and its activities that hidden in the very old verb oida, "to know," is a fragment of an even more ancient word, Fid-, "to see." (It's the vid-in video.) And it might well say something meaningful about the Greeks and their understanding of the complicated and perhaps inevitably tragic relationship between art, which gives meaning to life, and death (which gives meaning to life in a different way) that the name of that shining god of Art, Apollo, is so closely linked to the verb apollumi, "to destroy."

This brings me to my title — which, as it happens, has nothing whatsoever to do with the ancient world, although the words in question belong to a writer whom you could certainly characterize as the twentieth century's answer to Euripides: a modern playwright who, like his ancient antecedent, had a particular genius for creating memorable heroines as mouthpieces for universal human emotions.

"How beautiful it is and how easily it can be broken" is a quote from the stage directions to a play by Tennessee Willliams, a great American drama about the victimization of a fragile girl who is tragically in love with beautiful, breakable things: the famous glass menagerie that gives the play its title, and which of course provides a richly useful symbol for the themes of delicacy and brittleness, of the lovely illusions that can give purpose to our lives and the hard necessities that can shatter them. Interestingly, Williams's phrase occurs in a stage direction not about the play's set design but about a certain musical leitmotif he has in mind, one that (he writes, in his typically meticulous directions)

expresses the surface vivacity of life with the underlying strain of immutable and inexpressible sorrow. . . . When you look at a piece of delicately spun glass you think of two things: how beautiful it is and how easily it can be broken. Both of those ideas should be woven into the recurring tune.

I suppose that one reason that this haunting line struck me with such force when I first came across it is that it acknowledges, with perfect simplicity, the inevitable entwining of beauty and tragedy that is the hallmark of the Greek theater, and is a consistent element in the works that have always moved me the most, from the plays of Euripides to the History of Thucydides, from the light comedies of Noël Coward to the films of Pedro Almodóvar. As the Greeks knew well, it's the potential for being broken — which boils down to the knowledge that we all must die — that gives resonance and meaning to the small part of the universe that is our life. The necessity, in the end, of yielding to hard and inexplicable realities that are beyond our control is a tragic truth; without that, all you've got is mush — melodrama, and Hallmark sentimentality. That so much of contemporary culture is characterized by this kind of sentimentality, by a seeming preference for false "closures" over a strong and meaningful confrontation with real and inalterable pain, is a cultural crisis. That crisis is another theme that runs through many of the essays here.

But to my mind Williams's haunting phrase illuminates not only the nature of certain works that have preoccupied me, but also something about the nature of the critics who judge those works. For (strange as it may sound to many people, who tend to think of critics as being motivated by the lower emotions: envy, disdain, contempt even) critics are, above all, people who are in love with beautiful things, and who worry that those things will get broken. What motivates so many of us to write in the first place is, to begin with, a great passion for a subject (Tennessee Williams, Balanchine, jazz, the twentieth-century novel, whatever) that we find beautiful; and, then, a kind of corresponding anxiety about the fragility of that beauty.

Many of the reviews here are, in fact, judgments about the success of contemporary attempts to interpret, or adapt, or reexamine subjects about which I have deep feelings: the grand and glittering Homeric epics and Virginia Woolf 's gossamer Mrs. Dalloway; the comedies of Mel Brooks or the tragedies of Euripides; the Classics as a symbol, now being used and abused by this or that faction (the gays, the neocons) to score points in the Culture Wars. And those pieces that are about new work for which there is no original still seek to make use of standards, of criteria, that like so much of contemporary culture are, in fact, rooted in certain ancient traditions which are themselves beautiful — and fragile. If I mention Aristotle's or Horace's theories of poetry in my review of Troy, it's not out of some kind of loyalty to my subject — product placement for the Classics — but because no one has ever stated as crisply and usefully just what it is that epic is supposed to do for its audience.

Respect for the integrity of the original stems, indeed, not from some blind curatorial reflex (hence my conclusion, in one of these pieces, that Aeschylean tragedy is better served by productions that put, say, a bathtub and some circular saw blades onstage than by "authentic" stagings complete with ancient-looking muslin cloaks and sandals), but instead precisely from a sense that the classics of any genre are classic in the first place precisely because they have always been, and will always be, deeply relevant to, and incomparably illuminating of, human experience. That relevance, that ability to enlighten, are themselves rather beautiful; they're the ultimate standards, kriteria, by which any work is judged.

Rather than organizing the pieces collected here chronologically or by genre, I've grouped them according to some broad categories. When you first start writing as a freelancer, you're happy to take whatever work you can get; over time, though, it becomes clear both to your editors and to yourself that there are certain subjects you're attracted to, certain motifs you keep finding no matter what you're writing about. Another way of saying this is that however random the assignments you accept, you always end up writing your own intellectual autobiography. As I read over the past fifteen years' worth of my articles and reviews, I was struck by the way in which, however diverse the subjects under review — The Lovely Bones and Brokeback Mountain, Henry James and United 93 — I've kept returning to certain general themes. These themes, perhaps not surprisingly, are the same ones that interested me when I was a graduate student in Classics working on a dissertation about heroines in Greek tragedy and the heroes they often compete with, and sometimes displace, in times of civic crisis or war: the representation of women and men, of femininity and masculinity, in popular culture; gender and sexuality — particularly, since I'm gay, homosexuality; the techniques of tragedy and comedy; the translation and adaptation of classics for general audiences; and the often fraught intersection of literature and war. So I've organized my essays accordingly here, although they can of course be read in any order at all.

Excerpted from How Beautiful It Is And How Easily It Can Be Broken by Daniel Mendelson. Copyright © 2008 by Daniel Mendelson. Published in August 2008 by HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved.

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