Interview with Daniel Mendelsohn (II): Philology, identity and exile

Interview with Daniel Mendelsohn – Part I

Daniel Mendelsohn’s writing style is a skilful blend of personal narratives and evocations of classical literary works; of the intimate and the intellectual. What is the origin of Daniel Mendelsohn’s attraction to philology? What does it have to do with his family background made of tragedies and exiles, with the fact of being Jewish and gay? These are the questions that Daniel Mendelsohn explores with us in this second episode of our interview.


> Read the part 1 of the interview: “In Search of the ‘Genre Called Mendelsohn’”


Greek papyrus, reproducing Euripides’ “The Bound Melanippe” © Wikimedia Commons.


Adrien Zirah: There is a sentence that intrigued me in your latest book, Three Rings. One of the main characters and the first one you focus on is Erich Auerbach, a German-Jewish philologist, who has to go into exile in Turkey at the time of the Second World War, and who writes his great work Mimesis in exile. You return more particularly to the first chapter where Auerbach compares and contrasts the two narrative styles that are the basis of Western literature, the Hebrew, biblical style, which you describe as “pessimistic”, and the Greek, Homeric style, which you describe as “optimistic”. While Auerbach contrasts these two styles, you say that it is the Hebrew way that makes the Greek way possible. Why Is that so? Is this to be understood only on a stylistic level, or more broadly on a cultural, historical, or even personal level as far as you are concerned?

D.M.: I was referring there to an implication of Auerbach’s argument. Auerbach contrasts the narrative style of Homer—the « ring composition » I discuss, in which a given story—let’s call it « Story A » —will interrupt itself to incorporate a secondary story, « Story B », which explains some element in Story A. And then Story B might itself digress to another story, Story C, which explains some element in Story B. And so and so forth. This series of interlocked « rings » is the subject of Auerbach’s opening essay in Mimesis, where he contrasts this ring composition—which, potentially, could keep expanding infinitely to add more and more information somehow relevant to the original narrative, Story A—with the Biblical mode of composition as exemplified in Genesis. For Auerbach, who is interested in the narrative strategies that make literature feel « real » (the subtitle of his book is, « The Representation of Reality in Western Literature »), the Biblical narrative, unlike Homeric ring composition, is not interested in explaining and accounting for every element of the story—it is, by contrast, filled with opacities, omissions. For him, those very gaps are what make the narrative feel more « real », because of course in real life we do not, in fact, know the history of every single element in a story, even in our own story. So, the point I was making, which arises out of something Auerbach says about the style of the Biblical narrative, is that it is those very blanks, the gaps, the lack of information in a given story, that give rise to interpretation. The lack of information, the inconsistencies and discontinuities and omissions, stimulate the reader’s desire to interpret. And so, in that sense, one could say that it is the Hebrew style that gives birth to exegesis — to commentary.

Erich Auerbach (1892-1957), Wikipedia commons

Apropos « optimism » and « pessimism »: those are my own characterizations of Auerbach’s contrasting narrative styles, the Hellenic and the Hebrew. I call ring composition « optimistic » because presumably if one created more and more narrative rings, tales within tales, ad infinitum, one could account for the whole of Creation; whereas the « Hebrew style », as Auerbach himself noted, reflects the nature of the Deity: there are things one can never see, never know. So that’s why I called this the « pessimistic » style because it assumes from the outset that there are certain things that cannot be narrated. I might add, in concluding, that soon after Three Rings was published, I received a very stimulating email from a reader, who asked, « Why do you think that being able to tell everything is ‘optimistic’ ?! » I haven’t been able to get that out of my mind.  I suppose my assumption says a lot about my own narrative orientation.

A.Z.: Beyond the intellectual aspects, some authors have pointed out that classic philology in Europe may have been an issue of integration for Jews, especially from the 19th century onwards: it was a question of participating in the “great European culture” without giving up Jewish studies, and some therefore saw it as a form of substitute for Jewish studies. Do you think that a question of this order is also at stake for American Jewish philologists, especially from the second half of the twentieth century onwards, or does the question arise differently? And if it has indeed been an issue of integration, do you think that this path is still open, still relevant, when classical studies are undergoing major challenges?

D.M.: I cannot say for sure, because I’m not terribly intimate with the minute history of American philology. But my suspicion is that the situation here in America was quite different, because here everybody starts out at a remove from « la grande culture européenne » [“The High European Culture”. In French during the conversation]. So it may be true that, in the 19th century, classical philology was first of all, a vehicle for any American to lay claim to the great European cultural heritage; and only secondarily, within that, might philology be a vehicle for Jewish scholars to claim that, too. But to be honest I suspect that the overall cultural conditions here were quite different, so I’m not sure the situation was very parallel. Among other things, intellectuals and academics do not at all have the same status in America as they have had in Europe and the U.K. over the course of many centuries, so the stakes are anyway entirely different. I certainly don’t think that in the second half of the twentieth century any American considered Classical philology as a means of attaining status. Quite the opposite, if anything. Here, if you study Classics, people look at your as if you’re crazy. « What are you going to do with that? » they’ll ask.

A. Z.: I would like to ask you a question that has more to do with the relationship between your Jewish identity and American identity. I’ll ask about an element that struck me a lot when I read your works, which is the importance you give to names. This begins in the first pages of The Elusive Embrace: you talk about the streets in New York and the fact that Americans, or New Yorkers in any case, don’t like street names and prefer numbers (5th Avenue, West 65th Street, etc.), because it’s more efficient and faster. We can also think of an element that you often come back to: the name of your great-aunt Ray, who used to be called Rachel, and the name of your maternal family Jäger, which lost its umlaut and J when they immigrated to the United States to become Yaegers or Yagers. It is as if immigration to the United States was experienced as a moment of fundamental loss of identity, of exile, and not as it was experienced by some European Jews as a liberation from an oppressive Europe, with the enthusiastic idea of a Jewish-American symbiosis.

D. M.: The importance of names is also very Proustian, of course. As an amusing aside—because it speaks to a favorite theme of mine, which is the space that opens up between the stories we like to tell and the truth of things—let me say a brief word about this business of having many names. My sister is a quite well-known genealogist who has a huge following here in the United States, mostly because she uses Twitter to expose the immigrant histories of Trump’s anti-immigrant advisors—ha! One of her main subjects of study is this myth, which is very prevalent in America, that when all immigrants came, and they were all processed at Ellis Island, the names were changed by the immigration officials, because the European names were too complicated and difficult to pronounce or understand, and so they changed them. This turns out to be a complete myth. In fact, it never happened—nobody’s name was changed by an immigration official. As you point out, a part of the American process was that subsequently people would change their own names, but no one’s name was changed for them by the bureaucracy. She gives lectures about this, because so many American Jews have this idea that their names became what they were because of the officials at Ellis Island. Not true!

European emigrants arriving at Ellis Island, 1915, Wikipedia commons.

In light of what you just said, I had an insight into The Elusive Embrace which is new. The experience of being aware that the name was different, that it was spelled or pronounced differently, the realization that the way that we pronounce in America is different from the way it was pronounced in the past in Europe—all that is very much connected, in The Elusive Embrace, with what I now recognize as a story about the beginnings of philology. What is this problem with spelling? What is the “real” name? What does the inscription say? Why is the inscription on a family tombstone different in English from what it is in Hebrew? I now realize that this is a sort of origin story, one that is important to me for the reasons that I discuss in The Elusive Embrace: partly because of its content – the bride of death, the drama of dying just before your wedding, and all of that – and partly because this is also a story of how I acquired a taste for philology. There’s a passage in The Elusive Embrace where I talk about how, when you go to the space in the cemetery where my family is buried, the family name is spelt differently on every different tombstone: Jäger, Jager, Yager, Jaeger, etc. I would stare at these, when I was a child, and wonder why there were all these spellings. We know it’s a problem of transcription: they knew, of course, what their name was, they know their name was “Jäger”, but if you spell “Jäger” correctly in German, an American is going to pronounce it wrong — “Jager” with a hard J. That’s a philological dilemma. If those tombstones were 3000 years old, I would be writing a paper about them for the Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik[1].

I would also say that the “mystery” of the family name also connects to the subject we were talking about earlier— the search narrative. My narratives are often triggered by a mystery or puzzle that has to be solved. In The Elusive Embrace, it’s the mystery of Aunt Ray’s gravestone – the difference between what the Hebrew inscription says and what the English inscription says. In The Lost, it’s the uncanny physical resemblance between myself and Uncle Shmiel. Why do I resemble this dead relative, and who was he, and how, precisely did he die?

Cover of the new English edition of The Lost, combining a photograph of Daniel Mendelsohn with one of his uncle Shmiel.

This question of names, it occurs to me, is yet another sign of the difference between Europe and America. In both The Elusive Embrace and in The Lost, I recall that, among my grandfather’s generation of immigrants, everyone had two names: you had your American name, and your Jewish name. To take as an example my grandfather’s sister, Aunt Ray, the one who died a week before her wedding: she was Ray when she came to America but her given name was Ruchele, which as I mentioned earlier was also the name of her niece, Shmiel’s daughter, who was killed in  Bolechów. And there was my grandfather’s unhappy sister, who was born Sosia but we knew as Aunt Sylvia, because everybody had to have an American, anglophone, name. So, this idea of a double identity, a European identity that belongs to the past, and then the new, American name you took after emigrating, this business of double identity is saturated with motifs that I’m interested in: the past versus the present, the American identity versus the European identity. The idea that the history of the true self is buried in the past, and you have to take on a new name for a new country, is irresistible. And to give it one further turn, I would say this is also connected to le côté gay [The gay side. In French during the conversation], which also is haunted by double identities—the idea that you have a secret self and a public self that is acceptable. So, I think you’re right to focus on this theme of names, is a perfect subject for me, given what my interests are across all my identities: classicist, Jew, gay. I think if we want to, we can get very Saussurian here, and very Derridean; the name is the signifier, right? And I’d say that all this, furthermore—the interrelation among naming and identity and signification—is resonant for me as a classicist. I’ve just completed a new translation of the Odyssey, which will be published next year. And a crucial word in the text of the Odyssey is sèma, a word that literally means “sign”—it is, in fact, where we get the word “semiotics” from—but it is also the word for “tomb,” and is even used to refer to the marriage-bed of Odysseus and Penelope, which is a “sign” of the marriage itself. It’s perfect for my interests. In The Elusive Embrace there is this obsession with the tomb and the name, and I will point out that a key element in the text of An Odyssey is the bed that my father built for me when I was a child, which, like the bed that Odysseus made for his marriage to Penelope, is characterized by a secret concerning how it was made. (The bed in the Odyssey is made out of a living tree; my father made my bed out of a door.) So, this sèma is – sorry for the pun – polysemous, it has many applications in Homer, and it has many applications for me as well. And so it’s infinitely interpretable. This is something I go into in Three Rings: every conclusion, every definition, every interpretation – and here we come back to the issue of commentary – only opens up more questions. The sèma is always allusive. It’s never definite. Every time you think you have the perfect interpretation; it turns out there is more to be interpreted.

Déborah Bucchi: This double name, this double identity, could make us think of Euripides’ Helen, where Helen is divided between her real appearance and her double, her eidos and her eidôlon in Greek, between her real body and the concept of pure beauty that she represents. The figure of Helen evokes the double identity embodied more widely by the female figure in tragedy: Aeschylus’ Suppliants also have a double identity. The daughters of Danaos leave the land of Egypt for Argos and tell the king of the city the story of their ancestor Iô to justify their request for asylum. They thus represent their arrival as a return to the city from which they actually come. Like Les Suppliants, your writing re-creates a myth to express the complexity of the relationships created by emigration, exile and violence.

D. M.: I would begin my response by coming back to this idea of the Suppliants of Aeschylus. It seems to me, as with all the suppliant dramas, that Aeschylus’ play poses an essential question about identity, one which relates to all these other things we are talking about and particularly Three Rings, which is explicitly about exiles. The posture of the suppliant, the posture of the exile, can be thought of as a complete inversion of identity. You who were the royal family in Egypt are now nothing in Greece: powerless, helpless. You who were Erich Auerbach, the distinguish professor of Romance philology in Germany, are now a beggar in Constantinople. That’s why the suppliant dramas are of particular interest right now. With good reason, classicists—myself included, as I’ve written a book on the subject[2]— have typically focused on the politics of those Greek tragedies that are about supplication, in which some group of people, usually refugees of one kind or another, enter a foreign land and formally appeal to the king to protect them. But this is not only a crisis for the suppliant – “I’m powerless and I need help” – but is a crisis for the supplicant, the person who is being supplicated, since these plays are constructed such that a decision to help the suppliants entails taking political risks at home—risking a war with whoever is persecuting the supplicants and angering the citizens at home, who don’t want to get involved. It’s very popular here now to be putting on these supplicant dramas because of the obvious political resonance with the present-day refugee crisis.

Greek theatrical mask, Wikipedia commons

But to my mind, because I’m interested in identity, a further interesting question posed by these tragedies concerns inversion of status and inversion of identity. You who were so powerful and great in your own country are nothing in this new country. And that inversion has an irresistible historical and biographical resonance for me, because this is also the immigrant dilemma. Hence, it’s connected to my writing, particularly to The Elusive Embrace with its stories about my immigrant relatives, and indeed its reflections about gay identity and the gentrifying movement of gay people into exclusively gay neighborhoods which, I might add, we call “gay ghettos.”

This leads us, in turn, to another great preoccupation of mine, which is narrative. For the lost identity of the immigrant family can only be recreated through a narrative. That’s why my grandfather was always telling stories about the old country, because in the old country you were somebody. Everyone knew who you were, you had status, even money, you were in a context, a social context, a political context, but now you’re just one of the 22 million people who have come to the United States and you have to start all over again. That’s a story I grew up with. It’s interesting for me because that immigrant crisis of identity becomes the source of narration [In French during the conversation]. The original identity has been lost, and the only way you can recreate your identity is through endless reinscribing of the original family identity through storytelling. Who are we? We are not these desperate immigrants living twelve people in one room on the Lower East Side of Manhattan — no, we were the most respected family in Bolechów! So, narration – to come back to another earlier point, about Susan Sontag and camp [see on this subject the first part of the interview]– narration becomes a form of resistance to the reality of historical circumstances. That’s what I learned, as a child listening to my grandfather.

Daniel Mendelsohn et son grand-père, 1964, Collection personnelle.

And this comes back to your point and connects to something I was trying to say before, perhaps not very well: the tension in my own work is generated by an awareness that the reinscription of the original narrative of identity is pleasurable, but the reason you have to reinscribe it in the first place is some historical suffering or horror. You only tell that story because something terrible has happened, because you lost everything. It all comes back to that issue we were talking about before: there’s this sort of idolatry of European culture, even though there is a simultaneous awareness that Europe is the site of annihilation. What you’re noticing, this sort of constant reinscription in my work of European models, even with the awareness that Europe is both the problem and the solution, is, I think, what generates a lot of the tension in my work. I’m always proposing these models: Bereishit, the Odyssey, Euripides, Racine, Proust, whoever. But there’s always a simultaneous awareness that these models didn’t work for my relatives, if you see what I’m saying. And it’s a discomfort. It’s a sense that I’m always trying to reconcile this awareness.

This discomfort about the European cultural inheritance, the awareness that the “greatness” is inflected always by horror, has surfaced quite a lot recently among classicists, who of course have to struggle with the fact that so much of classical civilization is foundational to European culture and yet was also marked by attitudes and institutions that we now find abhorrent—the slave economies, the misogyny and patriarchy, and so forth. I was happy to read on a discussion board recently that someone said, “the good thing about Mendelsohn is he’s always talking about the Classics as these models but he’s also aware of how problematic this culture was.” How can a society that has so many repellent aspects, which we would never tolerate today, create these incredibly great vehicles for very profound insights into human life? How do we accept the insights and achievements as valid although we cannot accept other elements of the cultures as valid? To me, that’s an interesting problem, and I think it’s the problem I’m always approaching from different angles in everything I write. You were talking about this sort of côté islamique in Three Rings. I think there’s a kind of a secret joke in that book, which is that the person who solves everything is the Muslim, Yousuf Kamil Pasha, the nineteenth-century Ottoman Turk who translated Fénelon’s Aventures de Télémaque [English: “The adventures of Telemachus, son of Ulysses” In French during the conversation]. He’s the one who brings everything together, he’s the true translator in my text, in every way, because he’s the one who connects Homer and Fénelon in the past to Istanbul and, therefore, to Auerbach in the present. And he is the one who, finally, reconciles this ongoing series of East-West tensions and collisions and migrations that have run through my book—the Spanish Jews running to Istanbul, the Byzantines running from Istanbul, and so forth.  So, there are actually four rings in that book: Auerbach, Fénelon, Sebald, and Kamil Pasha. And it’s the non-European, the Muslim, who connects all the dots in the end. There’s always some unexpected side that one has to account for, I think.

Déborah Bucchi and Adrien Zirah

Next week, part 3 of the interview with Daniel Mendelsohn: “The USA, Europe and the Jews”.

Déborah Bucchi is a professor of classics and a doctoral student at the ANHIMA and LIPO research centers. Her work focuses on ancient and contemporary experiences of the divine in theater.

Adrien Zirah is a professor of classics and a doctoral student in ancient history at the EHESS. His work focuses on the early linguistic reflections in classical Athens.


1 This is one of the main academic journals dedicated to classical papyrology and epigraphy.
2 Gender and the City in Euripides’ Political Plays, 2002.

Contact the author

    Support us!

    You can help us

    With the support of:

    Thanks to the Paris office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation for their cooperation in the design of the magazine’s website.