Art & Books
The Book of Daniel
Why this iconoclastic writer thinks the past belongs in the past.
October 12 2012 10:42 AM EST
February 05 2015 9:27 PM EST
Photography by Elizabeth Weinberg
My plan for interviewing Daniel Mendelsohn was to start off easy-breezy. I would ask the award-winning author, essayist, and classics scholar fun things at first ("Which Greek god do you think Matt Bomer most resembles?") just so I didn't get in over my head.
This did not happen. Almost immediately after entering his apartment in the classy London Terrace complex in New York City's Chelsea neighborhood, we were talking intensely about big subjects and personal matters -- how culture warps history to suit itself, why Susan Sontag was so closety, and the increasing complications of gay sex and the Internet.
"Look, I hook up online; I'm not superior. But it does dehumanize," Mendelsohn says, sitting down and folding his leg under him in his chair. He is tanned, dressed casually in cargo shorts and a black polo. He sits down across from me, facing the windows. He has icy blue eyes, and the sunlight is reflected in them. "What you are doing is turning yourself into a product, and then you get treated like a product. This cannot be good for the human fabric of the so-called gay community."
This Internetting of our sexual lives is, to Mendelsohn, just another symptom of our strange contemporary culture that wants to access, eat, or have sex with everything -- even the past. "All this Facebooky Googling stuff is part of this weird psychosis that doesn't let the past rest. Now we have the technology of proliferation and we can maintain the past. I think the past should be in the past," he explains.
Talking to Mendelsohn is like reading his work -- it flows easily and is always engaging. You would think such a brilliant scholar would be impenetrable, but you coast along in Mendelsohn's work, reading about Sappho or The Iliad or Phillip Glass's operas, and think: Why isn't this boring to me like it was freshman year?
Mendelsohn is the author of six books, including the National Book Award-winning Holocaust memoir The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million; a translation of the Greek poet C.P. Cavafy; and, out this month, Waiting for the Barbarians, a collection of his razor-sharp essays. In them, you feel the author has hit his stride. Mendelsohn calls upon the entire breadth of human civilization to investigate every subject, even if it's Spider-Man. He goes deep. It's almost as if he can't stop himself.
"I think it's because it's alive in him," says his sister, Jennifer Mendelsohn, also a writer. "He knows the classics intimately. It's so inexorably linked in his DNA -- he lives and breathes those things."
Mendelsohn has been living in New York City most of his adult life. He moved to London Terrace in 2010 from the Upper West Side, where he had been living since 1997. He lived in Chelsea before that, in the mid-'90s, when the area had only a handful of restaurants and there was no little app called Grindr. "If you wanted to pick up cute boys, you had to actually go to a specific geographical place," he says. "Coming back here as a middle-aged person is kind of amazing. I can barely stay up till 9:30."
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."
But you sense in his work (and in his apartment) not only a demand for order but a longing for visceral, blood-filled experience, the kind found in classical literature, when people didn't shy away from pain or grief but rather let it inhabit them fully.
"He's relentless in seeking and drawing himself to authenticity...to genuine emotion of all kinds," says the writer Michael Joseph Gross, a friend. "He's looking for the strongest thoughts and feelings that have been articulated -- in all times, in all kinds of places, even if it's anger or abject sadness."
Mendelsohn grew up in Old Bethpage, Long Island, one of five children by a mathemetician-scientist father and schoolteacher mother. His siblings include a photographer, a writer, and a physicist, as if the family was a Jewish version of a Wes Anderson film. In a profile in LA Weekly, his brother Eric Mendelsohn, a filmmaker, playfully described their upbringing this way: "We weren't allowed to listen to rock music. I remember having 'Free Bird' playing on my clock radio, and when I heard people coming down the hall I shut the radio off, because we would get in trouble for listening to something other than Bruckner or 'The Rite of Spring.' "
Mendelsohn remembers being obsessed with Ancient Egypt when he was a child, but by 12 he had turned his attention to the Greeks: "The Greeks are much sexier than the Egyptians. They make art out of Eros. Their mythology is full of stories about someone turning into an animal to seduce some girl." From the age of 12 until he graduated high school, Mendelsohn was "building models of the Parthenon and trying to teach [himself] classical Greek." Then he discovered the novels of Mary Renault, the author of The Persian Boy, The King Must Die, and other historical novels set in ancient Greece. Her books "had specifically gay stuff and gay boys loving each other, and that was electrifying." (Mendelsohn recounts his long correspondence with the late author in a "Personal History" piece in The New Yorker, also out this month.)
At the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, where he enrolled as a freshman in 1978, Mendelsohn finally mastered Greek (other languages, including Latin, French, Italian, German, and Spanish, have followed) and -- just as critically -- began to explore his sexuality. "I was so clueless when I went to college," he recalls. "I had never been kissed. I didn't know how to make contact." His first relationship, with a fellow student named Greg, was both a revelation -- "Suddenly I got it; everything was Technicolor" -- and a disappointment. "He wasn't particularly nice," says Mendelsohn. "He was so mean and so unpleasant." He remembers one party they attended where he felt he was being shown off as a conquest. This was before 1982, before AIDS had been codified. "I had sex once," he recalls. "And I hate to say it, but it probably saved my life. All the guys that were at the party are now dead" -- including Greg, who died in 1988. He described this first encounter in The Elusive Embrace. The passage is affecting, and still resonates as a defining moment for him:
"There is no gay man of my generation whose first experience of desire was not a kind of affliction, that did not teach us to associate longing with shame. No matter how long ago, how many times superseded by other, more successful loves, that primal experience brands us."
When he writes a review or piece of criticism of his contemporaries, Mendelsohn explained to me, he tries to write "as if [the author] were dead for 2,000 years." In conversation that day, and in his work, he often uses this bracket of time. It seems to be the minimum number of years that need to elapse for history to achieve permanence and transmute to myth.
"When I was touring with The Lost, I would often have people come up to me and ask, 'How do we keep it alive?' " he says with a note of exhaustion. "The Holocaust will be kept alive. Two thousand years from now, it will be a holiday, like Passover, and people will pretend to remember it. But that's fine. That's how culture does its work. It digests the past and uses it for the present."
Still, Mendelsohn spent four years tracking down how and where his great-uncle Schmiel and his family were murdered by the Nazis in Eastern Europe. You get the sense that the writer wants to get things right. He wants to point out our failures in this particular moment in history, knowing that in 2,000 years, there's a chance the events will become holidays or, worse, forgotten. And it's that tenacity that makes him one of our most important thinkers.
"The driving impulse behind what I write is to peel back the immediacy, the in-the-momentness," he says, his eyes looking out the window behind me. "Because you don't know; you're in the now."