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Daniel Mendelsohn, Examining The 'Beautiful'

by Jacki Lyden
Sep 14, 2008 (All Things Considered)

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How Beautiful It Is, and How Easily It Can Be Broken is the title of Daniel Mendelsohn's new volume of critical essays.

But it could easily be a phrase a gardener utters as a rare flower is held up to the light — or something a reporter mumbles to herself, admiring her script and waiting to see if it makes any sense upon being read aloud.

The phrase is a stage instruction Tennessee Williams wrote in the margins of The Glass Menagerie, about the sort of tune he wanted to be playing in the background for his doomed heroine, Laura. Williams wanted music that would

"express the surface vivacity of life with underlying strains of immutable and inexpressible sorrow. When you look at a piece of delicate spun glass, you think of two things: how beautiful it is and how easily it can be broken."

It's telling that Mendelsohn rescued this observation from Williams' stage directions and applied it as a mantra to his own ground of critical inquiry.

He has such an engaging mind, and he's so erudite in his application of classical scholarship — he brings a knowledge of Latin and ancient Greek to his response to modern works, whether it be films like Brokeback Mountain or a new production of Medea on Broadway — that to read him is to see something afresh.

"It is the critic," Mendelsohn says, "who is a person in love with beautiful things, and who worries that those things will be broken."

Or ignored altogether. Or trampled with affection.

Daniel Mendelsohn is smart — very, very smart. But he's far too interested in why we love what we love to be a snob. Nor is he dismissive, though undoubtedly he likes to argue for what he loves, or debate what he finds wanting.

I've read Mendelsohn for years in The New York Review of Books, the journal from which these essays are collected, and he's not trying to tell us what to go see, or which book or record to buy.

Rather, Mendelsohn's classicist passion is to interpret our perceptions, to find out why they have ricocheted as they have. He often waits to see what other critics or the general public is saying about a particular cultural phenomenon — then he begins his work. That he can then bring Euripides or Herodotus back to life — and take them to the movies as well — is such a pleasure.

The rigorousness of his classics-rooted approach likewise makes him — in a world of bloggers and insta-opinions — thoughtful and nuanced. He notices, for instance, that while the Greek tragedies are about great figures whose character flaws lead to bad choices and to their downfall, the bad choices in Tennessee Williams' plays tend to happen long before the curtain rises. Williams' tragedies, Mendelsohn argues, are about "the drama of pathos" — what happens as we see "an already doomed, ruined person struggling to hang on to something beautiful."

Mendelsohn can be contrary: To him Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones is soothing, not scary, and little more than Hallmark-card stuff; the film 300 is so cartoonish and hyperbolic in a world of video games that the offense it gave to critics who attacked it as anti-Islamic missed the point.

And if he's a fine writer, he's also a wonderful talker. Reading Mendelsohn is good; talking to him is like a dance.

When I'm on the air, I often say "go to our Web site if you want to know more." In this case, you're already at the site, so I'd encourage you — the Web reader — to go back to the top of the page and click that big red audio button.

Because Daniel Mendelsohn ripples. My stage note would be: Listen — don't just look.

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