A Journey Through the Classics with Daniel Mendelsohn

October 26, 2012

Author Daniel Mendelsohn took his Stonehill audience on a journey through the Classics when he gave the 12th annual Chet Raymo Literary Series lecture on Oct. 26 in the Martin Institute.

His personal narrative entwined a reading of the Odyssey with an account of a journey he made with his late father recreating the voyages of Odysseus in 2009. His presentation was a preview of his yet-to-be-published book, "An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, An Epic."

Scientist and Writer
"My father saw the journey from the point of view of a scientist; I looked at it from the point of view of a writer," said Menhelsohn.

Born on Long Island in 1960, Mendelsohn earned his Ph.D. in Classics from Princeton in 1994. In his reading, he got a laugh from the audience in recalling his father telling him: "You did good. You studied what you studied even though everyone else said it was impractical."

But that impracticality is the thrust of Mendelsohn's latest work. He recalled telling his grandparents that he was going to study the Classics, and his "grandfather's fourth wife" exclaiming: "I have been to Greece! I have been to Athens! And I can tell you there are all dead!"

Towards the end of Mendelsohn's father's life, he became interested in what his son studied, and sat in on Mendelsohn's classes at Bard-often wise-cracking and commenting in the back, to the amusement of his students, Mendelsohn said.

"Hero? Odysseus was no hero!" his father called out during his son's lecture The Odyssey. "I was in the Army and I've met heroes, and they don't cry." Or, "Where I come from, heroes don't lie and cheat on their wives!"

Intellectual Crisis
Using these examples-of what his father's and grandfather's generations thought of the Classics-brought about an intellectual crisis for Mendelsohn, as he wondered what the point of studying ancient literature was at all, and how many "classics" are only included in history by accident.

In his book, and in his talk, he ruminated on the often haphazard processes by which the great literature of the past has been preserved for the present. He reflected in part on how many past classics have not survived, including the 70 lost plays of Euripides and 115 lost works of Sophocles.

Bleached Bones
"The thought of what gets lost is overwhelming," he read. "So much of what we think is history is nothing more than bleached bones" of a carcass that has been "stripped clean" of meat.

Pebbles Under Your Feet
"When we study the Classics, we study the copies of copies of copies of copies" that "some Byzantine monk" wrote out a thousand years ago. "The monk copied by hand from the only existing copy of a Euripides play that was already a thousand year old... What of the monk? His name? His life?... When we study the Classics, we are, in the end, studying human lives. And yet the span of a single human life is a pebble under your foot."

In the end, Mendelsohn came to the happy conclusion that "What has endured from ancient (civilizations) is more or less by accident. But I believe some have (survived) because they have solid, real, value for human beings."

Back to Normal with Antigone
He then recalled his grandmother telling him that "when the Germans invaded in '41, the first thing they did was close the theaters." And when the war ended, and things were getting "back to normal," one of the first things that happened was the local actors got back together and put on "Antigone."

He ended his reading with a quote from his father, who, after hearing the "Antigone" anecdote, told his son, "A lot of things disappear. You lose a lot in life. So it's good if someone remembers it a little."

Waiting for the Barbarians
Mendelsohn's latest book, "Waiting for the Barbarians: Essays from the Classics to Pop Culture," hit shelves this month. A member of both the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Association, he lives in New York City.

Raymo Lecture
The Chet Raymo Literary Series was established in 2001. The annual event brings significant writers of poetry, fiction or non-fiction to Stonehill to share their work and to speak about the art of writing. Past speakers have included Junot Díaz, best-selling author and NPR contributor Sarah Vowell, then-U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky and Irish poet Seamus Heaney.


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