Daniel Mendelsohn, Examining The 'Beautiful' A classical scholar with a voracious appetite for high and low culture alike, he's dauntingly smart — but far too interested in why we love what we love to be a snob. Jacki Lyden talks to Mendelsohn about his new essay collection.
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Daniel Mendelsohn, Examining The 'Beautiful'

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Daniel Mendelsohn, Examining The 'Beautiful'

Daniel Mendelsohn, Examining The 'Beautiful'

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The playwright Tennessee Williams once wrote his stage direction about one of his fragile female characters, Laura, in "The Glass Menagerie." Williams wanted the music to suggest the quality of looking at a piece of delicately spun glass. He wrote, you think of two things, how beautiful it is and how easily it can be broken. That's the critic's dilemma, says Daniel Mendelsohn. They worry about beautiful things and fret that they may be broken.

Mr. DANIEL MENDELSOHN (Author, "How Beautiful It is And How Easily It Can Be Broken"): This interconnection between this stuff that you find beautiful and also how easily it's damaged is a sort of a core theme of so much of Greek tragedy and, obviously, of all kinds of literature.

And it just seemed to me, since a lot of what I do in my criticism is to sort of look at how great works of literature, not only classical, but you know, everything, from Homer to Virginia Woolf, are reinterpreted and adapted and sometimes highjacked by contemporary culture, it seems that so much of what I write about, it just seemed like a good title.

LYDEN: And so, "How Beautiful It Is And How Easily It Can Be Broken" became the title of Daniel Mendelsohn's new book of critical essays. Mendelsohn is a classicist. He reads Latin and ancient Greek. But he uses the classics to look at popular culture, books, movies, or plays. For instance, he calls Tennessee Williams the 20th century descendant of Euripides because they both loved doomed women like Blanche DuBois in "Streetcar Named Desire." And I asked if Williams' characters were tragic in the Greek sense.

Mr. MENDELSOHN: No. I mean, I don't think so. I think that, you know, in a Greek tragedy, you see somebody screwing up in some terrible way and how that plays out. And in a certain way, you know, what Williams is interested in is looking at the way it plays out when the mistakes are already made. You know, Blanche has already screwed up. She's already lied. She's already slept with the local boys before she gets to New Orleans. She's already done it.

And the play is about watching how that all plays out as a result of her coming into contact with this sort of reagent who is her brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski. So it's a slightly different emphasis. But, of course, as you know, something else in common with Greek tragedians is he loves to see crazy women fall apart on stage.

LYDEN: Most of the 30 essays in Mendelsohn's book were published in the New York Review of Books, and they range from "Medea" on Broadway to a novel about Henry James, to the film "Brokeback Mountain."

Mr. MENDELSOHN: One of the things I was trying to do is to read not only the movie, which I loved, but to read the reactions to the movie and to read the culture as a whole. I mean, that's what we do as classicists. We're not just reading "The Iliad" or just reading "Euripides." We're looking at what Bronze Age culture was like, what are the tools, what are the other poems being written, and who were the people, what are the politics? The same thing for Athens, which produced Greek tragedy.

So I'm, you know - one of the things I do in my reviews is to look not only at the work, but to look at the reception. And in the case of "Brokeback Mountain," what fascinated me was that the surround of the movie, the cultural surround, was, I thought, deeply false. You were constantly being told that it was a love story like any other, which, you know, one can see the appeal of that line to the producers of the movie because they're trying to get everyone to see it.

But, you know, my point is, read this movie carefully. It's not a love story like any other. These people have different problems even from other star-crossed lovers like - and the example I used was "Romeo and Juliet." You know, these people not only have to deal with social condemnation or whatever, they have to deal with themselves. They grew up being taught to hate themselves...

LYDEN: Because they're gay.

Mr. MENDELSOHN: Not just because they're gay, right. And so, to deny the specificity of that to the movie, struck me as a wrong and a move that diminished the movie because this movie was wonderful, in at least one sense, because it does what all serious art does, which is to take something very specific and to treat it. And this is just the alchemy of good art in a way that makes it accessible to everybody else.

LYDEN: You know, I always think of good criticism, Daniel Mendelsohn. And certainly, what you've got here in this book is something that challenges us to think more acutely or to re-visit old conceptions or somehow a new way to more fully experience the experience. And for all those reasons, I might have thought that you would avoid, quote,unquote, "reality films" like "United 93," which re-creates, if you will, the doomed flight that crashed in Pennsylvania on September 11th.

Mr. MENDELSOHN: It's not necessarily something I would have chosen to write about, all other things being equal. But, you know, here again, the classics connection comes in because one of the very few remaining plays that we have by Escalus is actually the only extent play in Greek tragedy that treats an actual historical event, which is the invasion of Greece by the Persians.

And so my training as a classicist, and specifically as somebody who writes about tragedy, made me interested to see how a contemporary mass entertainer - because you have to remember Greek tragedy was a mass entertainment. It was not something reserved for the upper elite - how our mass entertainment would treat our own recent historical drama.

And so I was very interested, in fact, to see "United 93" and the Oliver Stone movie called "World Trade Center," and I was dismayed to a certain extent by how small and parochial and safe these movies were in treating this event and their refusal to sort of think of the larger ramifications.

And as somebody who's fascinated by reality TV, I was very interested in the claims made by the "United 93" movie to be a sort of a straight representation of reality with no Hollywood garnish because, of course, there was garnish. You know, there was music, right? There was music.

LYDEN: But when Escalus writes about the Persians' defeat, how do you think he's being more emotionally honest than, say, the filmmakers of "United 93"?

Mr. MENDELSOHN: Well, I, you know, I think, in a way, I would even say emotionally honest, yes, but even intellectually and ethically and morally honest because what Escalus does, he makes a remarkable gesture. He is an Athenian writing eight years after the enormous Persian hordes invaded his hometown, Athens, and, you know, they burned the temples to the ground. I mean, they destroyed a lot of the city of Athens. Then the Greeks win. And then eight years later, Escalus writes a play called "The Persians."

And, you know, he would have been within his rights as a person writing an entertainment for the Athenian people to gloat over this amazing victory. And what he does instead is he writes a play about what it must have been to be a Persian, to be the King of Persia returning home in defeat. And to my mind, that's a remarkable, really ethical gesture. And you know, of course, what one got out of "United 93" and "World Trade Center," if you got anything out of it, was, you know, Americans are heroic.

And I'm not saying for a moment that Americans weren't heroic. That's not my point. But I think that, in the first major popular culture comment on 9/11, one wanted a wider imagination of what this event meant.

LYDEN: Daniel Mendelsohn's new book of criticism is "How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken." He's also the author of "The Lost: The Search for Six of Six Million." Daniel Mendelsohn, thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. MENDELSOHN: Thanks for having me.

LYDEN: You can find an excerpt from Daniel Mendelsohn's new book and some of my own critical writing on our website, npr.org. This is NPR news.

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