A shield for your thoughts … and Daniel Mendelsohn

Shameless advertising: This post has absolutely nothing to do with Captain America. Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/41441905@N05/5816817231

Shameless advertising: This post has absolutely nothing to do with Captain America. Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/41441905@N05/5816817231

Though I’m not in the newspaper trade anymore, where interesting people and topics flow constantly through the door,  I’m at the next best thing, a powerhouse liberal arts college. The  flow continues as brilliant minds visit — not in the hopes of getting good attention on the front page — but simply in order to stretch their legs and show just why they deserve to be called brilliant.

I sat down today with Daniel Mendelsohn, one of a handful of writers who keep a shine on that venerable old plaque embossed with the word “critic.” He’s at Claremont McKenna College as a visiting fellow, and I was looking forward to meeting him. I never had while I was at the Times,  though I’d often hoped back then that we could bank up enough of our little book review budget to snag a freelance piece from him (him and also Neil Gaiman … with Gaiman, I tried and tried to get him. Lord how I tried). I mentioned that to him and he smiled.

He lamented the deflation of book coverage in newspapers, and he sounded an optimistic note about Pamela Paul and the New York Times. (While others decline, the Gray Lady, like the Dude, abides.)

In keeping with our surroundings, the conversation focused on the notion of the humanities in our tweet-afflicted, Facebook-smitten, tumblr-besodden era. (I’m sure that litany rings corny, but hey this is my blog. I’ll do what I want.)

When we were done, and I went happily on my way, I realized that I truly was happy after we’d finished.

That’s been a hard thing to achieve in the past several months, especially now as my family licks its wounds after a painful loss. (See the previous post.) That doesn’t mean I’ve dressed in sackcloth and sat in ashes since December, that I haven’t  laughed with my friends or broken into a weird tribal dance while my younger boy is practicing on his drums. I have, even as I feel the pangs of my mother’s absence.

But as I left that interview, I was thinking of myth and Mendelsohn. He made a point that myths continue to appeal to us because we’re hard-wired to appreciate them — and because myth addresses those human needs that aren’t sated by a fat paycheck or a career that causes a roomful of people to genuflect as you enter. Those human needs have to do with the milestones — births, deaths, love, weddings, anniversaries, heartbreaks, and all forms of loss.

When we’re mindful of them, myths prepare us in a special way for these things. They equip us in a way that Mendelsohn explains with a lovely lovely riff from an essay on the Iliad. He writes about the epic and ordinary scenes Hephaestus inscribes on Achilles’ shield. That mixture of the high and low, the common and uncommon, leads to this reflection:

[T]he shield presents images of a city at peace and a city at war, of weddings and a lawsuit, of people dancing and people arming for ambush….. All of which is to say that when Achilles returns to battle—returns to deal out death—he is armed with a vision of life, at once expansive and movingly intimate, enormously rich but necessarily confined within a boundary that shapes it and gives it coherence.

Isn’t that what the best stories — myths — do for us? Isn’t that why, at the deepest and most vital level, reading and writing are as crucial to our daily life as food? (At least they should be.)

I returned to my office with this thought in mind — feeling a little more secure, comfortable, shielded.

Related:

  • Home page for Daniel Mendelsohn: http://www.danielmendelsohn.com
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11 responses

  1. It’s nice to see you here, especially with such a lovely and interesting post.

    I was particularly taken with your reflection that “myth addresses those human needs that aren’t sated by a fat paycheck or a career that causes a roomful of people to genuflect as you enter. Those human needs have to do with the milestones — births, deaths, love, weddings, anniversaries, heartbreaks, and all forms of loss.”

    The words resonate with the same spirit I find in two pieces I’ve been concerned with recently — Tennessee Williams’ essay titled “The Catastrophe of Success” and Faulkner’s Nobel Prize Speech.
    When I fantasize about what I would do if I were Queen of the World, one of my first acts would be to require every writer in every realm to read both of those weekly.

    I have a feeling Mr. Mendelsohn might qualify for an exception. Thanks for the introduction to someone whose work I’ve missed.

  2. It’s good to hear from you Shoreacres, and good to be back. I don’t know the Williams’ essay, and I’ll look for it now. I revere the Faulkner Nobel speech. I agree with you. If we could just remember these ideas in our daily lives, it would help all of us keep focused on what’s the most worthy goals in our lives, whether just playing with one’s children or reaching out to a friend you haven’t talked to in a while.

    Mendelsohn has a couple of books of essays. Both are a treat: they don’t require a lot of time, and you can just dip in when you want

  3. It’s good to hear you talking! I love the quote about Achilles’ shield. It brings back memories of the professor who helped me appreciate The Iliad. She was fabulous! And so was the shield. I love the idea that the contour of the shield shapes and gives coherence to all those things that make up a life. Thanks for a thoughtful post!

  4. YOU ARE BACK, YOU ARE BACK, YOU ARE BACK AND…roll of drums…YOU ARE BACK!!! Great to read your posts again, Nick, and glad that the myths receive a wonderfully respectful treatment on your patch. I have had to endure the fast and formidable attack on anything Latin and Greek (ancient) recently as my son revised for his school work and tests. I didn’t think it was physically possible to roll your eyes and yawn and pretend to be sick all at once. Just as well he reveres Percy Jackson – some myths are best told in contemporary tones, for the sanity of parents!
    On the twitter/FB/social media pervasion (excluding our classy blogs, of course) I would wholeheartedly recommend The Circle by Dave Eggers. What a genius. I didn’t touch my phone and checked my emails for a whole week after reading it!
    All the best, as always, OG&Bs

  5. There’s nothing so nice as being welcomed back. Thank you OG&B. I’m still stumbling around feeling a bit disoriented, but talking to Mendelsohn was so special that I wanted to share it with you. I felt like I woke up a little.

    Your comments made me smile. And I appreciate the recommendation of Eggers, whom I respect though have never felt pulled to read. I’ve heard about his latest in a negative way — there was some “controversy” by a writer who claimed he ripped off her idea — and I’m glad to have your feedback. If anything can move me to take a look at him, it’s your nod of approval. thanks for that my friend!

  6. Ooooh, controversy! Plagiarism! how exciting! I’ve heard nothing of the sort and hence my reading was unbiased, or naive, I’m not too sure now. As always I read it in parallel with other books (I can never pick one single book out of the many on offer and taking chapters in turn works well for me). I find that if the other books are also good, all books get extra review brownies. It happens with people too. If you hang around with the cool guys, you are cool by association…but I digress. Anyhow, thanks for posting again. How is your novel coming along?

  7. Sometimes I wish I knew less about the “book biz” side since it flattens out all the wonderful insights you’re receiving. Hence I’m relieved to be free of the newspaper, and that has helped immeasurably in recasting sections of my book. I was on some good momentum until the personal issues of the fall took over. I hope to regain it soon and finish the draft. And hopefully then I can bribe you with brownies to take a look

  8. I’d love to. Bribe me with recommended reading from the US non mainstream market. Jilanne introduced me to MKF Fisher over Christmas. Can you believe it that I had never heard of her? Not to mention our bookstores. I had to order one of her books online and it came from a remote bookseller in Scotland. Wonderful stuff. I’m one third into my novel, and I’m wrestling with the right tone. It will be a while before I’m ready to bribe with any kind of cakes, sweets or books!

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