Waiting for the Barbarians: Essays from the Classics to Pop Culture

Waiting for the Barbarians: Essays from the Classics to Pop Culture

by Daniel Mendelsohn
Waiting for the Barbarians: Essays from the Classics to Pop Culture

Waiting for the Barbarians: Essays from the Classics to Pop Culture

by Daniel Mendelsohn



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Over the past decade and a half, Daniel Mendelsohn’s reviews for The New York Review of BooksThe New Yorker, and The New York Times Book Review have earned him a reputation as “one of the greatest critics of our time” (Poets & Writers). In Waiting for the Barbarians, he brings together twenty-four of his recent essays—each one glinting with “verve and sparkle,” “acumen and passion”—on a wide range of subjects, from Avatar to the poems of Arthur Rimbaud, from our inexhaustible fascination with the Titanic to Susan Sontag’s Journals. Trained as a classicist, author of two internationally best-selling memoirs, Mendelsohn moves easily from penetrating considerations of the ways in which the classics continue to make themselves felt in contemporary life and letters (Greek myth in the Spider-Man musical, Anne Carson’s translations of Sappho) to trenchant takes on pop spectacles—none more explosively controversial than his dissection of Mad Men.

Also gathered here are essays devoted to the art of fiction, from Jonathan Littell’s Holocaust blockbuster The Kindly Ones to forgotten gems like the novels of Theodor Fontane. In a final section, “Private Lives,” prefaced by Mendelsohn’sNew Yorker essay on fake memoirs, he considers the lives and work of writers as disparate as Leo Lerman, Noël Coward, and Jonathan Franzen. Waiting for the Barbarians once again demonstrates that Mendelsohn’s “sweep as a cultural critic is as impressive as his depth.”

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781590176092
Publisher: New York Review Books
Publication date: 10/16/2012
Sold by: Penguin Random House Publisher Services
Format: eBook
Pages: 440
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

About The Author
Daniel Mendelsohn is the author of a memoir, The Elusive Embrace; the international best seller The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million; a translation of the works of C. P. Cavafy; and a previous collection of essays, How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken. He teaches at Bard College.


New York, New York

Date of Birth:

April 16, 1960

Place of Birth:

New York, New York


B.A., Classics, University of Virginia, 1982; M.A., Classics, Princeton University, 1989; Ph.D., 1994

Read an Excerpt

Waiting for the Barbarians

Essays from the Classics to Pop Culture
By Daniel Mendelsohn


Copyright © 2012 The New York Review of Books
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-59017-607-8

Chapter One



TWO HUGELY POPULAR mashups—homemade videos that humorously juxtapose material from different sources—currently making the rounds on the Internet seek to ridicule James Cameron's visually ravishing and ideologically awkward new blockbuster, Avatar. In one, the portentous voice-over from the trailer for Disney's Oscar-winning animated feature Pocahontas (1995) has been seamlessly laid over footage from Avatar, in which, as in Pocahontas, a confrontation between dark-skinned native peoples and white-skinned invaders intent on commercial exploitation is leavened by an intercultural love story. "But though their worlds were very different ... their destinies were one," the plummy voice of the narrator intones, interrupted by the sound of a Powhatan saying, "These pale visitors are strange to us!"

The other mashup reverses the joke. Here, dialogue from Avatar—a futuristic fantasy in which a crippled ex-Marine is given a second chance at life on a strange new world called Pandora, and there falls in love with a native girl, a complication that confuses his allegiances—has been just as seamlessly laid over bits of Pocahontas. In one, we see an animated image of Captain John Smith's ship after it makes its fateful landing at Jamestown, while we hear the voice of a character in Avatar—a tough Marine colonel as he welcomes some new recruits to Pandora—sardonically quoting a bit of movie dialogue that has become an iconic expression of all kinds of cultural displacement. "Ladies and gentlemen," he bellows, "you are not in Kansas anymore!"

The satirical bite of the mashups is directed at what has been seen as the highly derivative, if not outright plagiaristic, nature of Avatar's plot, characters, and themes; themes that do, in many ways, seem like sci-fi updatings of the ones you find in Pocahontas. In the film, the ex-Marine, Jake Sully—wounded in a war in Venezuela and now a paraplegic—begins as the confused servant of two masters. On the one hand, he is ostensibly assisting in a high-tech experiment in which human subjects, laid out in sarcophagus-like pods loaded with wires that monitor their brain waves, remotely operate laboratory-grown "avatars" of the indigenous anthropoids, nine-foot-tall, cyan-colored, nature-loving forest-dwellers called Na'vi. All this technology is meant to help the well-intentioned scientists to integrate and, ultimately, negotiate with the Na'vi in order to achieve a diplomatic solution to a pesky colonial problem: their local habitation, which takes the form of an enormous tree-hive, happens to sit on top of a rich deposit of a valuable mineral that the humans have come to Pandora to mine.

The problem is that Jake's other master—for whom he is, at first, secretly working, infiltrating the Na'vi with an eye to gathering strategic reconnaissance—is the mercenary army of Marines employed by the mysterious "Company" that's mining the precious mineral. (Anonymous, exploitive corporations are a leitmotif in the movies of this director.) It's clear from the start that both the Company and the Marines are itching to eschew diplomacy for a more violent and permanent solution to the Na'vi problem. The dramatic arc of the movie traces Jake's shift in consciousness as he gradually comes to appreciate Na'vi culture, with its deep, organic connection to nature (and—the inevitable romantic subplot—as he comes to adore a lovely Na'vi princess bearing the Egyptian-sounding name of Neytiri). Eventually, Jake goes over to their side, leading the native people in a climactic, extremely violent uprising against their thuggish oppressors.

So far, it would seem, so politically correct. And yet most of the criticisms that have been leveled at the film since its premiere are, in fact, aimed at the nature of its politics rather than at the originality (or lack thereof) of its vision. Many critics have lambasted Cameron's film for what they see as the patronizing, if not racist, overtones of its representation of the "primitive" Na'vi; the underlying hypocrisy of a celebration of nature on the part of a special-effects-laden Hollywood blockbuster (to say nothing of the film's polemic against technology and corporate greed); and the way it betrays what David Brooks, in a New York Times Op-Ed column, derided as the movie's "White Messiah" complex:

It rests on the stereotype that white people are rationalist and technocratic while colonial victims are spiritual and athletic. It rests on the assumption that nonwhites need the White Messiah to lead their crusades. It rests on the assumption that illiteracy is the path to grace. It also creates a sort of two-edged cultural imperialism. Natives can either have their history shaped by cruel imperialists or benevolent ones, but either way, they are going to be supporting actors in our journey to self-admiration.

Criticisms such as Brooks's are not to be dismissed—not least because the ugly complex he identifies is one that has consistently marred Hollywood representations of cultural confrontation from the earliest westerns to the more recent products of a supposedly more enlightened age. (One of the many earnest movies to which Avatar has been derisively compared by its detractors is the 1990 Kevin Costner epic Dances with Wolves, in which a Civil War hero similarly goes native, leading the Indian tribes against his former compatriots.) What's striking is that so many critiques of Avatar's political shortcomings often go out of their way to elide or belittle the movie's overwhelming successes as a work of cinema—its enormous visual power, the thrilling imaginative originality, the excitingly effective use of the 3-D technology that seems bound to change permanently the nature of cinematic experience henceforth—as if to acknowledge how dazzling it is would be an admission of critical weakness.

An extreme example of this is to be found in a searching critique posted by the critic Caleb Crain on his blog:

Of course you don't really believe it. You know objectively that you're watching a series of highly skilled, highly labor-intensive computer simulations. But if you agree to suspend disbelief, then you agree to try to feel that Pandora is a second, improved nature, and that the Na'vi are "digital natives," to repurpose in a literal way a phrase that depends on the same piece of ideological deception.

But our "objective knowledge" about the mechanisms that produce theatrical illusion is beside the point. To witness a critic working so hard not to surrender disbelief—the aim, after all, of drama since its inception—is, in a way, to realize how powerful the mechanisms that seek to produce that surrender really are. (A notable exception to the trend of critical resistance was the New Yorker review by David Denby, which began, "Avatar is the most beautiful film I've seen in years.")

As it happens, the movie that haunts Avatar—one that Cameron has often acknowledged as his favorite film—is one that takes the form of a fable about the difference (and sometimes traffic) between fantasy and reality; a movie whose dramatic climax centers on the moment when the protagonist understands that visually overwhelming and indeed politically manipulative illusions can be the product of "highly skilled, highly labor-intensive simulations" (a fact that does not, however, detract from the characters', and from our, appreciation of the aesthetic and moral uses and benefits of fantasy, of illusion). That movie is, in fact, the one the Marine colonel quotes: The Wizard of Oz. Consideration of it is, to my mind, crucial to an understanding not only of the aesthetic aims and dramatic structure of Avatar but of a great and disturbing failure that has not been discussed as fervently or as often as its overtly political blind spots have been. This failure is, in certain ways, the culmination of a process that began with the first of Cameron's films, all of which can be seen as avatars of his beloved model, whose themes they continually rework: the scary and often violent confrontation between human and alien civilizations, the dreadful allure of the monstrous, the yearning, by us humans, for transcendence: of the places, the cultures, the very bodies that define us.

* * *

Humanity and human life have never held much attraction for Cameron; if anything, you can say that in all his movies there is a yearning to leave the flesh of Homo sapiens behind for something stronger and tougher. The movie that made his name and established him as a major writer-director of blockbuster successes, The Terminator (1984), is ostensibly about the poignant conflict between the human race and a race of sentient, human-hating machines that create a lethal new weapon: a cyborg,—"part man, part machine ... fully armored, very tough. But outside it's living human tissue. Flesh, hair, blood...." The plot, which essentially consists of a number of elaborately staged chase sequences, concerns the attempts by one of these, famously played by Arnold Schwarzenegger—an actor notorious for his fleshly armor as well as for his rather mechanical acting—who returns to the present from a post-apocalyptic future in order to assassinate a woman called Sarah Connor: we are told that she will one day give birth to the boy who, when he grows up, is destined to lead a successful human uprising against the machine overlords.

But whatever lip service it pays to the resilience of the human spirit, etc., the film cannot hide its more profound admiration for the resilience of the apparently indestructible cyborg. As the story evolves, this creature loses ever-increasing amounts of its human envelope in various encounters with the woman and her protectors—an eye here, a limb there—and is stripped, eventually, of all human characteristics. By the end, it emerges out of an explosion as a titanium skeleton, hell-bent on pure destruction. In an interview with The New Yorker that appeared just before the release of Avatar, Cameron recalled that the inspiration for the movie, which he says came to him in a dream, was this sole image: "a chrome skeleton emerging out of a fire." Everything else came later.

It would be hard to claim that Cameron—who has managed to wring clanking and false performances from fine actors like Kate Winslet, Leonardo DiCaprio, Billy Zane (Titanic), and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (The Abyss)—is an actor's director; his films' emotional energy, and certainly their visual interest, lie in their awed appreciation of what machines (and inhuman creatures) can do, from the seemingly unkillable cyborgs of the Terminator movies to the unstoppable alien monster queen of Aliens to the deep-sea diving capsules and remote-controlled robots featured in Titanic and The Abyss. The performances that work in his films, significantly, are either those of mediocre actors like Schwarzenegger who actually play machines or good actors playing tight-lipped, emotionally shut-down characters, like Sigourhey Weaver in Aliens (1986), which Cameron wrote and directed.

The Terminator had a dark sense of humor about our relationship to technology, an issue that is at the core, in its way, of Avatar. In one memorably disturbing scene, a woman can't hear her boyfriend being beaten to death by the Terminator because she's listening to loud pop music with her headphones on; in another, we—and the Terminator-overhear a crucial message on Sarah Connor's answering machine, which greets callers with the sly announcement: "Ha ha, I fooled you, you're talking to a machine. But that's OK, machines need love too." The joke is that they don't—and that's their advantage. It's no accident that by the end of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Cameron's hit 1991 sequel to the original, Sarah Connor has become rather machinelike herself—pointedly, even cruelly suppressing maternal feelings for the child she has borne, strenuously working out, hardening her body, arming herself to the teeth with an eye-popping arsenal of handguns and automatic weapons.

The fascination with the seeming invincibility of sophisticated mechanical objects, and an accompanying desire to slough off human flesh and replace it with metal (and a celebration of flesh so taut it may as well be metal: Cameron's camera loves to linger on the tightly muscled bodies, male and female, of the soldiers so often featured in his violent films), is a recurrent theme in the techno-blockbusters that cemented the director's reputation in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s. Aliens famously ends with Weaver's character, Ellen Ripley, battling the dragonish alien monster queen after strapping herself into a giant forklift-like machine whose enormous pincers she mechanically controls by maneuvering her own slender arms—a technology that puts the puny human, finally, on a par with her gigantic, razor-toothed, acid-bleeding adversary.

This kind of exaggerated mechanical body gear, which endows people with machinelike strength and power, is a recurrent prop in Cameron's films. It's crucial in Aliens and it pops up again in his 1989 submarine fantasy The Abyss, which imagines an encounter between a deep-sea oil-drilling team and an ethereally beautiful, bioluminescent species of marine aliens. Even in Titanic (1997), the clunky "human interest" subplot, about a doomed romance between a feisty Main Line nymphet and a free-spirited artist in third class, cannot compete with the swooning representation of machines—the ship itself, the whirring turbines and purring hydraulics—and, later, with the awful, methodical disintegration of those mechanical elements. There are a lot of glittering modern-day gadgets, too: the famous disaster story is intercut with scenes of present-day dives to the great wreck, during which human operators remotely manipulate treasure-hunting drones by means of sympathetic arm movements.

A violent variation on the same mechanical bodysuits reappears, memorably, in Avatar, which culminates in a scene of bloody single combat between a Na'vi warrior and the evil Marine colonel, who has strapped himself into one such machine. If anything, the recurrent motif of humans inserting themselves into mechanical contraptions in order to enjoy superhuman powers reaches its fullest, most sophisticated expression in the new movie, whose characters can literally become other, superhuman beings by hooking themselves up to elaborate machines. All this seems to bear out the underlying truth of a joke that Linda Hamilton, the actress who played Sarah Connor in the Terminator movies, told about her first, unhappy interactions with the director (whom she later married and divorced): "That man is definitely on the side of the machines."

* * *

The awed appreciation for superhuman powers—and an understandable desire by human weaklings to lay claim to them, in times of great duress—that recur in Cameron's work before Avatar surely betrays a lingering trace of his formative encounter with The Wizard of Oz. That movie famously shows us a helpless twelve-year-old, set loose in a strange world inhabited by scary monsters and powerful aliens, discovering her own hitherto unknown powers—and learning, in the end, that certain supposedly supernatural powers are produced by knowing how to maneuver the right gears and levers.

Another inheritance from that visually revolutionary work, of course, is Cameron's taste for plots that have to do with encounters between humans and aliens of one sort or another. Avatar would seem to be the most obvious manifestation of this particular debt by Cameron to his favorite film. Apart from a number of explicit allusions to Oz—the line about not being in Kansas anymore, a corporate stooge's sneering reference to the Na'vi as "blue monkeys," which recalls the blue-tinged flying monkeys of the 1939 movie—the encounter between the human world and the world of the Na'vi is imbued with a sense of thrilled visual amazement that deliberately evokes a similar experience provided by the Hollywood classic. In the latter, Dorothy's life in Kansas was filmed in black and white; only when she awakes in Oz does the film move into dazzling three-strip Technicolor. In Avatar, Cameron quotes this famous gesture. Jake Sully's world, the world of the humans—the interior of the marine transports and fighters, the hangars and meeting rooms, the labs of the scientists and the offices of the nameless corporation—is filmed in a drably monotonous palette of grays and blues (the latter being a favorite color of this director, who uses it often to represent a bleak future); the world of the Na'vi, in contrast, is one of staggering color and ravishing light.

The colors, apart from the opulent greens of the Na'vis' jungle homeland, tend to be lusciously "feminine" on the flora: violet, mauve, delicate peaches and yellows. They grow stronger on the fauna, a series of brilliantly imagined creatures among which, persuasively, certain morphologies recur. (Crests, say, and hammerheads.) All, the plants and animals both, share one trait that clearly owes much to Cameron's lifelong passion for marine exploration, and that provides Avatar with much of its visual delight: bioluminescence. As the characters tread on plants or trees, the latter light up delicately, for a moment; the ritually important Tree of Souls looks like a weeping willow made of fiber-optic cables. It's a wonderful conceit that had me literally gasping with pleasure the first time I saw the movie.


Excerpted from Waiting for the Barbarians by Daniel Mendelsohn Copyright © 2012 by The New York Review of Books. Excerpted by permission of NEW YORK REVIEW BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


The Wizard (James Cameron's Avatar)....................3
Truth Force at the Met (Philip Glass's Satyagraha)....................19
Why She Fell (Julie Taymor's Spider-Man)....................37
The Dream Director (Aleksandr Sokurov's The Sun)....................51
The Mad Men Account (Mad Men)....................65
Unsinkable (Why We Can't Let Go of the Titanic)....................81
Battle Lines (Stephen Mitchell's Iliad)....................103
In Search of Sappho (Anne Carson's If Not, Winter)....................121
Arms and the Man (The Landmark Herodotus)....................139
The Strange Music of Horace (J. D. McClatchy's Horace, The Odes)....................159
Oscar Wilde, Classics Scholar....................179
Epic Endeavors (Three Novels on the Classics)....................195
After Waterloo (Stendhal's Charterhouse of Parma)....................213
Heroine Addict (The Novels of Theodor Fontane)....................223
Rebel Rebel (The Poems of Arthur Rimhaud)....................241
The Spanish Tragedy (Antonio Muñoz Molina's Sepharad)....................259
In Gay and Crumbling England (Alan Hollinghurst's The Stranger's Child)....................275
Transgression (Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones)....................291
But Enough About Me (The Memoir Craze)....................311
His Design for Living (Noël Coward's Letters)....................333
On the Town (Leo Lerman's Diaries)....................349
Zoned Out (Jonathan Franzen's The Discomfort Zone)....................365
Boys Will Be Boys (Edmund White's City Boy)....................381
The Collector (Susan Sontag's Reborn)....................399

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Mendelsohn is a deep thinking with insightful charm.  All fans of intelligent thought on popular culture will appreciate his commentary." —Library Journal

"Mendelsohn’s work is absolutely vital in both senses of the word—it breaths with an exciting intelligence often absent in similar but stodgier writing, and it should be required reading for anyone interested in dissecting culture, or who simply find themselves thinking about the complex flaws of an almost-good movie a week after leaving the cinema. In the book, his scope includes both the high- and middlebrow….Taken together, the collection offers a sort of defense of the modern age of culture. If a true-blue classicist can engage with the current zeitgeist using the full weight of his intellect and without an iota of demoralization, than the rest of us have no excuse." —Nicholas Mancusi, The Daily Beast

"Even more than his earlier books about literature and culture, it displays his characteristic strengths of style and judgment and his distinctive and engaging voice. As always, he is surprising yet convincing when he praises what practically everyone else condemns, or sees through the pretensions and confusions of books and dramas that everyone else admires." —Edward Mendelson, The New York Review of Books

"Waiting for the Barbarians adds up to more than the sum of its parts, evidencing an impressive range, depth and nobility of mind…. Mendelsohn is a trained classics scholar, from which much of his intellectual authority still derives: witness his brilliantly illuminating, lucid essays on Homer, Sappho, Herodotus and Horace. He writes about pop culture with equal enthusiasm." —Phillip Lopate, San Francisco Chronicle

"Waiting for the Barbarians, his latest collection of essays and reviews, is full of prose in praise of Horace, of Sappho, of Homer, and of the ghosts of all the above across all of popular culture. It makes it clear he is now, and has been for some time, the finest critic alive." —John Freeman, Toronto Star

“Another top-notch collection of previously published criticism from Mendelsohn." —Kirkus Reviews

"[Mendelsohn] is a brilliant storyteller, influenced by the Greek masters he so admires…" —The Times of London

"A joy from start to finish…a wonderfully eclectic set of musings on the state of contemporary culture and the enduring richness of classical literature." —Publishers Weekly

"A classicist by training and a critic by trade, he begins with a challenging subject and gloriously complicates it by drawing on his erudition, acumen, and passion for precision and bedrock truth….These are works of brilliant and soulful criticism." —Booklist

"Mendelsohn…is a gifted and entertaining writer. His prose is gorgeous and lyrical and his subjects are smartly considered and freshly revealed." —Vanity Fair

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