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.
- Home page for Daniel Mendelsohn: http://www.danielmendelsohn.com