The Book of Daniel

10.12.2012

By Mike Albo

Why this iconoclastic writer thinks the past belongs in the past.

Now Mendelsohn divides his time between this apartment in New York, Bard College (where he is the Charles Ranlett Flint Professor of Humanities), and the Princeton area, where he is a father figure to the two children of a female friend. He is single.

“I will never marry. I am a single fellow,” he says. “I think I’ve been in a relationship for a total of two years. It’s not what I’m good at. I have these kids. Part of my week is with them. I have my work, and that’s very important. And I have my friends. I think I am a very happy person. There was a point when I was thinking, What am I doing wrong? Then I thought, This is what I am. I should do what I am good at, [rather] than something that fits some mold that’s created on sitcoms.”

If there’s a common thread in Mendelsohn’s work, it’s this kind of sexual honesty fused with scholarly training. In his first book, the lyrical memoir The Elusive Embrace, published in 1999, this candor was directed inward. He described the pleasures and pains of gay life -- his first sexual experience in college, moving to New York during the height of the AIDS crisis, cruising Chelsea, dating, even early online hookups via AOL’s m4m chat rooms -- and folded his experience into the myth of Narcissus, describing how gay men “seem always to be restlessly seeking something, something that eludes them at the moment they possess it... A sense of the beautiful hovering just beyond your reach, to be reflected upon and considered. The reflection becomes, in its own way, another kind of possessing.”

In Waiting for the Barbarians, as well as in recent articles, that rigorous honesty is directed outward. He wryly commented on the way Sal, the one gay character on Mad Men, is conveniently redacted from the show by giving another character “sudden onset homosexuality,” and he lamented how, no matter how brilliant, Sontag and her work suffered as she suppressed her sexuality in favor of her hungry ambition to be canonized.

Recent New York Times op-ed pieces by Mendelsohn are even more pointed. In one about the Sandusky scandal and trial, he noticed that the graduate student assistant, Mike McQueery, who walked in on Sandusky raping a boy in the locker room, testified that he was “distraught” and left immediately without rescuing the boy: “Does anyone believe that if a burly graduate student had walked in on a 58-year-old man raping a naked little girl in the shower, he would have left without calling the police?”

In another, a response to Anderson Cooper’s recent coming out, Mendelsohn critiqued the style and caution of the TV personality’s revelation: “It’s unfortunate that, even today, gay figures as serious, intelligent, well-intentioned, and progressive as Mr. Cooper seems to be can be so conflicted.”

Both op-eds were provocative, entirely from a strong gay perspective, and unlike anything anyone else was saying.

“I am always writing as a gay person,” he says. “We know bullshit when we smell it because we are so used to having it dumped on us.”

Mendelsohn’s apartment is spotless. It looks like an upscale hotel room in Rome that may double as a museum. The walls and furniture are in cream colors, with displays of artifacts and flea market finds that look like artifacts, including an early Wedgwood Portland vase, a 19th-century cast of a frieze from the Parthenon, and, over the fireplace, a mysteriously ambisexual portrait. “Half my friends think it’s a boy and the other think it’s a girl, so it’s named Bruno or Bruna, depending on the person.”

It’s no surprise to learn that the writer’s creative process is as orderly and methodical as his living space. “He thinks and thinks and thinks, and then he writes from the beginning to end,” says Ariel Kaminer, a reporter and editor for The New York Times and a longtime friend and colleague of Mendelsohn’s. “I was teaching a class at NYU [two years ago] and invited him to speak. We brought up how other writers may go back and forth with their work, writing the conclusion before the beginning. He couldn’t comprehend that. ‘Who are these people who can do that?’ he said. He is ordered. It is deep, deep, deep into the fiber of his mind. Everything is in place.”

Nearly all of the essays in Barbarians were written for exalted publications like the New York Review of Books and The New Yorker (he is a frequent contributor to both) over the past five years, a time in which, Mendelsohn explains in the preface to the collection, he became preoccupied with our culture’s “reality problem.” New technologies and media, he argues, “allow us to be private in public” and have caused a “profound alteration in our sense of what is truth and what is fiction,” leaving us in a blurred state where one can float outside a common reality.

“We live in an era in which it’s possible to have a personal reality,” he says. One of his main goals in his work is to “reassert values of precision and accuracy and authority and authenticity. That’s how I was trained as a scholar. That’s my reality.”

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