Thursday, August 1, 2013

Waiting for the Barbarians by Daniel Mendelsohn

J.W. Godward : In the days of Sappho

I have always enjoyed reading book reviews, critical introductions or literary essays. The better ones give the interested reader a shortcut to a book’s essentials, wet his appetite for more books and new authors, they bring new insights or just simply entertain.

It is then no surprise that after hearing an interview with Daniel Mendelsohn on the radio and a positive appraisal of his works, that I ordered his “Waiting for the Barbarians”, a collection of essays and reviews of books, movies, theater and even tv-series. All of these texts appeared earlier in the New Yorker, the New York review of books and the New York Times book review, magazines and newspapers to which Mendelsohn is a regular contributor.

“Waiting for the Barbarians” contains 24 texts, neatly arranged under 4 headings: Spectacles, Classica, Creative writings and Private lives. The topics are quite diverse and range from a commentary on Cameron’s “Avatar” to an apology of Herodotus’ Histories and from Stendhal’s “Chartreuse”- novel all the way to Susan Sontag’s “memoirs”.

Mendelsohn explains in the introduction that there are two underlying themes that somehow connect these different essays, link the diversity of topics:

1° The meeting of the ancient and the contemporary worlds: or how classical texts, literary myths survive through an iterative flow of adaptations, manipulations and inspirations.


2° The “Reality problem” or how reality and non-reality tend to blur in the general media of today.

Waiting for the Barbarians

The first theme explains the title. Mendelsohn, who has translated the poems of the Greek Constantine Cavafy, reminds us that the famous title is more often than not misquoted.  In the poem, representatives of an old but decadent civilization that has grinded down to a lethal stasis are waiting at the gates of their palaces for the Barbarians who have been announced.  They have assembled at the city gates, not to fight the newcomers off, but to greet them, for they hope they can save their world from its stupor.

“Perhaps these people were a solution of a sort” they sigh, when the barbarians finally do not appear at the gates…

The Barbarians which Mendelsohn presents “tongue in cheek” are the exponents of popular and commercial culture: the movie blockbusters, the hyped experimental theater and the winners of Booker prize novels. Mendelsohn in his books shows how they are indebted to the Classics and why the fusion of “Pop” and classics, sometimes works and why it sometimes utterly fails. 

A chapter treats Julie Taymor’s failed adaptation of the Arachnaea myth in the Spiderman musical. Another one pinpoints and explains Jonathan Litell’s debt to Aeschylus’ Oresteia in his infamous “The kindly ones”.  Mendelsohn lauds the Strassler “Landmark” Herodotus, the ultimate edition if not for the drab translation by Andrea Purvis and warns us of why we should beware of Stephen Mitchell’s new translation of the Illiad, a new text excluding the whole chapter of the Doloneia !

Avatar versus The Wizard of Oz

The second theme, the “reality problem” is introduced in the first essay in the book, the one discussing James Cameron’s visual fantasy “Avatar”.

Mendelsohn shows in his essay that James Cameron’s “Avatar” was influenced or inspired by the 1939 Musical “The wizard of Oz”. Like Avatar, Oz was epoch making in technological innovation.  Not only did Technicolor burst onto the screen after the black and white first half hour of the movie but it featured also the most elaborate use of character makeups and special effects in a film up to that time.

But “Avatar” also differs in an important way from the older movie. The big difference is that while Dorothy in the end goes back to her dreadful Kansas, - she has to, the world of Oz is a Fantasy and Kansas is the “real” world, Jake Sully in Avatar, can leave his paralyzed legs behind and remain in his Pandora - Fantasy.

Not surprising according to Mendelsohn, in a world where “the extraordinary blurring between reality and the artifice has been made possible by new technologies. These new tools and gimmicks, make themselves felt, not only in our entertainment but in the way we think about, and conduct, our lives.

There is “an ongoing erosion of the boundary between the inner and the outer self, made possible by the new technologies and media allowing us to be private in public. [ ]

In his essays on the Titanic, the cult-series “Madman, post-modernist novels and what he calls “the memoir-craze,” Mendelsohn exposes a profound alteration in our sense of what is truth and what is fiction and the way we think about , and re-create , the historical past in our various entertainments.


So, was I redirected to new titles? Well, yes, Stendhall’s Chartreuse will most certainly be added to my TBR lists and I was totally unaware of the Russian cinematographer Sokurov’s brilliant works.

Clever insights? Yes, why not?  And indeed, it is a sign of our time that what “is” or “was” is blurred into the fictional. The pseudo –reality is not only overshadowing reality, but it is chasing it away, deep under the bushes. Why mind life, when there is “second life”?

Finally, it is on the entertaining level that Mendelsohn lets me down a bit.  “The Barbarians” was not a book that amused or baffled me. Somehow, I missed the witticisms, “les bon mots”, the winks and nudges, the twinkle in the eyes which makes you finally “like” the book. As it is now, the reviews remain on the “newspaper level”, to be read with a coffee in your hand, at times jotting down a few titles and names and then to be dropped on the old paper stack.

Sam Sacks in his comment on another critic expresses maybe better what I missed in Mendelsohn: “Frank Kermode’s writing was always challenging, but it was leavened by a spirit of shared entertainment, a tacit acknowledgment that interpretation is a kind of game…

but still “the most serious thing in the world...”