Identity and Recognition: A Conversation with Daniel Mendelsohn

By Rajat SinghSeptember 14, 2017

Identity and Recognition: A Conversation with Daniel Mendelsohn
DANIEL MENDELSOHN — exacting critic, award-winning memoirist, aesthete — has written the book he says he “always had to end up writing.” An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic, out this week from Knopf, is a heartfelt account of the reaches to which Mendelsohn goes, through text and time, to know his father. A contributor to The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books, Mendelsohn has already published two notable memoirs, The Elusive Embrace and The Lost. Indeed, his entire oeuvre may seem to circle the same themes, but with each new foray, Mendelsohn discovers deeper truths about those we think we know, including ourselves. Each new finding is more unsettling, but ultimately more interesting. 

When his father enrolled in Mendelsohn’s undergraduate Odyssey seminar at Bard College, where he teaches literature, Mendelsohn didn’t know that this would provide him with the makings of a book — nor did he know that his father would only have a year to live. The course, and the cruise retracing Odysseus’ voyage to Ithaca a few months later, set in motion an emotional journey neither man could have anticipated. The book that grew out of those weeks in the classroom and on the road is a dazzlingly rich story of identity and recognition.

On a summer day, punctuated by thunderstorms, Mendelsohn invited me to his home in Rhinecliff, New York, to discuss An Odyssey, the Odyssey, and our mutual admiration for the classics. Mendelsohn’s intelligence glitters not only on the page but also in conversation.


RAJAT SINGH: Thank you for making the time to speak with me. I loved An Odyssey. It was beautiful and breathtaking, opening up many questions about knowledge and ways of knowing the world. But before delving into that, can you describe the process of figuring out the structure of the book? There are multiple story arcs happening simultaneously. You’re moving in and out of multiple stories, scales, and temporalities. You’re digressing constantly. Yet you handle everything deftly.

DANIEL MENDELSOHN: That’s a relief to hear, because it took a very long time to write this book. When I started, I had this idea that I wanted to use the structure of the Odyssey as a kind of framework, but it took more figuring out than I had realized. I remember, once, I reviewed for Bob Silvers the movie Troy. I started the review by quoting Aristotle on why the other, now-lost Trojan War epics were not great poems. Aristotle says those are just a concatenation of events, whereas the Iliad and the Odyssey have these structures. Even though they’re epics, they’re quite narrow in their focus. One of the things that allows them to do that is ring composition and flashbacks and flash-forwards and digressions. When I first started writing this book, I was making the very mistake that I had cited: my criticism of Troy was that it starts at the beginning and it ends at the end. It wasn’t until I started thinking Homerically that I saw how to write the thing.

What does it mean to think Homerically?

I’ve always been fascinated by ring composition. This idea of circles of narratives coming back is a structural device that’s also thematically connected to memory. It’s all about spirals of memory going deeper and deeper. That was more structural than anything else. Hollywood people think “epic,” and they think “size.” But in fact, epic is very narrowly focused. I started thinking about how to tell a story that has larger implications about fathers and sons, marriage, life and death — the big questions — while keeping the narrative intimate. The trick was figuring out the focus. The largest part is the classroom. As we all know, teaching is like parenting. That was overdetermined, because my father was also my student for that semester. And then I had to figure out a way to get this other stuff in. And the way to do it is Homerically, by using flash-forwards and flashbacks. Then it all came together very suddenly.

An Odyssey deals with the lessons your father taught you, but also those that the ancients have taught us. Have we forgotten the lessons embedded in these ancient texts?

That’s a great question. I think there are two kinds of forgetting. The first is that the literature that has survived to us represents a tiny fraction of the literature that was. We don’t know whether the literature that we have is representative of the civilization that we’re studying. Obviously, we have a pretty good idea of what the ancients thought of their own literature, but we don’t have a lot of the literature itself. There’s always the danger of making claims for the ancients that may not stand on firm ground. That’s a methodological problem — it’s not that we’re forgetting. We never even knew 90 percent of what there was.

And then, of the 10 percent that we do have, we’re always in danger of forgetting how essentially different the civilization that produced it was. So many of our institutions and our vocabulary of aesthetics and civics come from the Greeks and the Romans. And yet, in many ways, we’re just profoundly different. The Iliad and the Odyssey have standards of behavior and expectations, both ethical and moral, which strike us as very strange. Every time I teach the Odyssey, my students rebel against the vengeance against the suitors, which is so violent and terrible — it’s total wholesale slaughter. And then the hanging of the maids — no one can understand that, but it makes perfect sense if you think like a Greek. The suitors are not just dissing Odysseus. They are in violation of very strong religious and moral codes. They deserve to die. That’s hard for us to understand. Of course, this is a strange thing for me to say because I’ve spent my entire career, as both a critic and memoirist, making an implicit argument for the ongoing relevance of classical models, but one has to do this very gingerly. They are not us. There are just certain family resemblances.

And yet these texts wouldn’t be classics unless there was something in these works that transcended the circumstances and values of their original creation and seem to speak in some larger way about the human condition. But it’s a balancing act between universality and accounting for cultural specificity. It’s possible. You just have to be tactful and careful. We have to recognize their difference even as we respond to the sameness, where it glimmers through the thickets of difference.

Your interest in the classics piqued at a young age. Growing up, you read Mary Renault’s novels of gay love, set in the ancient world. A personal essay of yours in The New Yorker details your own writing of short stories about relationships between men.

The last fiction I ever wrote.

What were you looking for in the stories you were writing, and what did you discover?

I was a huge reader when I was a kid. We went to the public library and took out our week’s worth of books. I discovered my sexuality through books — I had no real-life experience. I was just this dreamy kid who was alone most of the time. But it was through reading Mary Renault’s books that I finally had an external correlative with what was inchoate within me. There was something eroticized about reading, because it was the conduit through which I connected to my own sexuality. It just seemed so miraculous to discover in a book the picture of the thing that you were trying to formulate on your own.

Actually, my first great love was not Greece, but Egypt. It was the thrill of archaeology and uncovering tombs. I read every book in our public library about archaeology. It was thrilling, this idea of digging something up from the past. The joke, of course, is that that’s what I’ve been doing ever since, although not literally: I became a memoirist and a family historian.

And then I segued to Greece. By the age of 12, I was already reading as extensively as I could have. I read every book in our public library about Greece and Rome probably three times. I was teaching myself Greek by my senior year of high school. Looking back, I was very linguistically oriented. I always wanted to know grammar, too.

What about grammar fascinates you?

The architecture of language is fascinating to me. Some people just insert themselves, but I can’t. I have to know the grammar. If I know the grammar, then I can fill in the blanks with vocabulary. I go mad if I don’t know the grammar. When I was growing up, there was this family across the street who was Greek American. The father’s mother used to come to visit — she was this old woman from Crete. I would shyly approach her and say, “I want to know how to say ‘the,’ ‘of,’ ‘which.’” I was already trying to do grammar instead of say “souvlaki.”

That’s why Greek was such a great fit for me. There’s a passage in An Odyssey where I’m trying to describe the excitement of seeing these paradigms of verbs. Greek just lines up. It was so thrilling.

The Greek verb you conjugate isn’t just any word. You show us how your mind works. You give us the rules for the book. You show us how to read An Odyssey.

I thought there should be one moment where you see what Greek looks like and how it unfolds. The verb I use is paideuo, meaning “to educate,” which it really was in this book — that was the practice verb. It’s very regular. It couldn’t have been better for my purposes.

Grammar is elegant. It solves problems. I tweeted once about some egregious error of grammar in The New York Times, and a writer tweeted back, “Who cares?” And I said, “You’re a writer — you should care.” These are elegant tools. We should know how to use all of them. It’s much more fun.

Knowing precisely how to say something is pleasurable.

For me, it was about asking: How am I going to work out the problem through writing? That’s why I wrote all these terrible stories. At that age, it was therapeutic to produce fantasies in which it was possible for a boy like me to meet some other boy and fall in love — even if the stories always ended tragically. That’s the story I showed my father in An Odyssey.

Is that some aspect of a queer aesthetic?

One discovers melodrama early on. When I was a teenager, I was always looking for an external correlative to explore this hidden anguished state. I think the taste for melodrama arises from that early life experience of closeted gay children. You are experiencing a lot of drama, but it can’t express itself without endangering your safety. You can’t reveal yourself.

How does your response to melodrama influence your work as a critic?

I was attracted to criticism at a young age because it seemed like armor against sentimentality, a kind of melodramatic turmoil that I felt within myself. But there was also something appealing about the idea of being a critic, because it was, as I naïvely thought, a way of being empowered — the joke being that, especially as I’ve gotten older, I’m perfectly willing to be emotional in my criticism. That was the appeal of criticism: it seemed armored and safe, because you couldn’t give yourself away.

In Greek, the root of the word “criticism” suggests a turning point, which is closer to our word “crisis.”

You’re right — it’s a decisive moment. And it’s political, because you’re making choices about the real world. It’s important to maintain healthy critical writing because that’s what hones one’s ability to distinguish — which is another translation for krisis — between the false and the true, the quality and the schlock. If we have a vigorous critical culture, then readers think that much more about this process of distinguishing. They can distinguish between what’s mushy and bullshit, and what’s authentic and tough. One can certainly argue that a lot of the disasters that we are currently experiencing, as a republic, derive from the failure of a good portion of the electorate to make important distinctions between what is worthy and what is not worthy.

In a touching moment near the end of An Odyssey, your father is lying in a hospital bed, and we’re not entirely sure he knows it’s you he’s seeing. I held this scene in my mind against the Aristotelian understanding that the best story is one in which the recognition of the other coincides with a plot reversal.

One of the most wonderful things about the Odyssey is its constant, rich, and complex play with identity and recognition. These two ongoing themes of the poem are inextricable, because if you can recognize somebody, it means they have an identity that is recognizable. That’s the great problem of the Odyssey: you come home after 20 years; you’re completely changed by time and struggle and pain; you may look totally different. So how do you establish your identity?

There are so many ways in which Homer rings the changes on the theme of identity throughout the Odyssey. There’s the stuff about how you look, but that’s problematized by the fact that the gods keep giving people makeovers when they need them. The famous scene where Odysseus’ dog recognizes him suggests that there’s some inner quality to the man. There’s the famous question: does Penelope recognize Odysseus when he gets back to the palace? He’s disguised as a beggar; he’s totally physically unrecognizable as himself. But many people think that she knows it’s Odysseus all along, and she is subtly trying to help him, even though she can’t acknowledge that she knows. In the first four books of the Odyssey, Telemachus is looking for his father, whom he’s never known. He says in Book One, “People say that Odysseus is my father, but how would I know?” There’s that primal anxiety of the child to establish identity.

This is all complicated by the fact that we have more than one identity. Even looking for identity may be a fool’s errand, because we are different things to different people. The Odyssey recognizes that the whole idea of identity is a red herring. In some sense, I always had to end up writing this book, because it is the great classical text, along with the Oedipus cycle, about identity. And both are inevitably about parenting.

But it’s never resolved. My father could be very cruel and rough and say these terrible things, and then he could be tender and wonderful and magnanimous. What I’ve always resisted, however, is a kind of too-easy closure. People are not necessarily that coherent. I am much more interested in ambiguity because it seems more real to me. I didn’t want there to be a moment where everything was pulled together. Everything does not turn out okay. I had a great relationship with my father. But he was himself, irreducibly himself, and his self was more things than I had imagined.

There is pain and pleasure in the journey of discovery, in learning about a person.

Well, here we come back to archaeology. It’s about excavating your own or, in this case, someone else’s past. You started out this conversation by talking about ways of knowing and knowledge. That’s really my subject: how much you can know. That was the theme of my first book, The Elusive Embrace: how much you can know about yourself. The theme of The Lost was how much you can know about the past. And An Odyssey is about how much you actually know another person, with whom you’re very intimate. The traces that we leave behind and the evidence that we present are not, of course, equal to a person. It’s always partial, because you can never be in somebody else’s head. And that’s really my subject.

I must be very frustrating, because I seem to have a lot of subjects, but I don’t really have a lot of subjects. I just think each subject is a vehicle for asking the same question. I’m interested in knowledge: what is knowledge, how you get it, how much is knowable. It’s all a kind of archaeology. The Odyssey is obsessed with knowing. And when you’re thinking about queer theory, so much of the Odyssey is also about self-revelation and concealment. So many of Odysseus’ ploys operate around the question of how much he’s willing to reveal about his secret identity and how much he needs to conceal it. This text is the perfect vehicle for my own exploration of the question.

When you take your Greek cruise, you never make it to Ithaca. This becomes an opportunity for you to reflect on how reaching a destination can feel disappointing. What did the process, or the journey, of writing this book feel like, and what did the ending feel like?

Every book has a different shape and a different process. In fact, I didn’t know this was going to be a book. But I had to think of a way to deliver the Odyssey to readers who may not know the poem very intimately, in a way that would allow them to appreciate the parallels I was creating. That was a very hard thing to do. And I didn’t know when my father took the class and when we went on the cruise that he had six months to live.

What were you feeling as you wrote about your father?

It was never painful for me to write about him. It was nice thinking about him every day, having him around. Talk about endings — it was very sad when I finished the book and I handed it in, because the haunting was over. He wasn’t in my study every day. It was hard to let go. In fact, a friend of mine said to me, “Maybe you’re having so much trouble finishing this book because you don’t want to let go of your father. While you’re writing the book, he’s present.” I thought, “When I finish writing this book, then he’s really dead.”

The stakes were bigger — emotionally, and also technically. I wanted the rhythm between the personal narrative and the literary exegeses to be very fluid, like the ebb and flow of the surf. I wanted it to keep flowing back and forth between the text and the story. That took some doing.

There’s a lot of “doing” in An Odyssey, which in Greek we might call techne (art or skill). But nothing feels overly wrought. It is, indeed, surf-like.

Well, it’s like weaving, which is a very Odyssean word, and a very Greek idea. That’s what the word “text” means — it’s a woven production. In a narrative that’s allusive, especially, you have to let your allusions do their work and not put neon signs everywhere. One hopefully gets better at the craft, but partly it’s just trusting your reader. In this book, just like in the Odyssey, there are revelations that come around in the end, or blossomings of seeds that are planted 250 pages earlier, and you just have to trust your reader.

You keep saying this book is about your father. But I would argue that, coming back to archaeology, this is also a work of self-excavation: a deep, sustained effort at seeing what’s below the bedrock. How did you force yourself to look unflinchingly at the self?

The hardest part about memoir is not heroizing yourself. But when you’re telling your story, everyone else is a secondary character. It’s just an unfair fact of life. It becomes your story, even if you’re telling someone else’s story. And you get things wrong — just because you are you, and you can’t be anybody else, and so you see things your way. It’s never nice to realize you’ve been wrong, or acted wrongly. But we all do it. As a memoirist, part of the bargain is being willing to be hard on yourself.

The Odyssey teaches us how we transform through trial, but so does memoir in general.

It’s about suffering. That’s what Odysseus’ name means: “pain.” This is the thing about the Greeks that I always admire: the willingness with which they stare pain, suffering, and death in the face. That’s what brings me back to closure. We like comfort, and I think it damages us as a culture. We don’t like to think about death and suffering. The Greeks invented a whole genre that does nothing but hold up a magnifying glass to great suffering, which is tragedy. I always admired the Greeks’ realism about consequences. All of tragedy is about actions having consequences. That’s just the calculus of Greek tragedy. It’s like an equation. It never fails.

The most difficult tragedies to watch are the ones where people are told in advance what the consequences are going to be and they try to run away from them. In the act of running away, they’re running toward the thing. That’s genius. It’s a quality of my father’s character that I always found admirable: he was realistic.

What did your father think of your writing?

I’m pretty hard on him in The Elusive Embrace. When he read it, I was anxious about what he would think. He called me up, and, in his gruff way, he said, “It’s good. Things are in direct proportion to their complexity.” I said, “You didn’t mind the parts about you?” And he said, “No, if it’s true, you can’t mind.”

While I was writing this book, he was dead. But I’m pretty convinced, because of what he told me about that first book, that he would not have minded at all. The things about the ways he behaved are truthful. I think he did have a great respect for reality. That, for him, was the most important thing: to get it accurately, rather than just flatter his vanity — which, to his credit, he had much less of than I do.

I want to end with what’s to come, since closure isn’t something you strive for. In an interview you did years ago, you mentioned you were working on a book on how to read the classics. Can we still expect that?

Oh, yes — it’s just a big, friendly series of essays. They’re expanded versions of the pieces I’ve done for The New Yorker, about Sappho, or the Iliad, or Thucydides, or Herodotus: presenting the authors to the nonspecialist reader. I think people are interested in the classics. I enjoy explaining these texts to people. It just seemed like a good idea to have a big omnibus book. Just the greatest hits — nothing recherché, nothing arcane. It sounds like something that would be useful. So that’s the next book.

And then I’m doing a tiny little book before that. I’ve been invited to give the endowed humanities lecture at UVA, my alma mater. It will be three lectures on three successive nights, and then it will be published. The subject, which I’ve long wanted to tackle, is digression.


Rajat Singh is a writer living in New York, and he has studied Classics for 10 years. His work has appeared in The Gay & Lesbian Review, Catapult, and LitHub, among other places.

LARB Contributor

Rajat Singh is a writer living in New York, and he has studied Classics for 10 years. His work has appeared in The Gay & Lesbian Review, Catapult, and LitHub, among other places.


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