Interview with Daniel Mendelsohn (III): The USA, Europe and the Jews

Interview with Daniel Mendelsohn – Part III


We see in the books of Daniel Mendelsohn how the  convulsions of geopolitics forever intrude on the intimate lives of his characters. How does Mendelsohn feel about the tumult of our own times? He comments on topics ranging from the Trump presidency to the current war in Ukraine to the state of Israel, in this last installment of our interview focusing on the author’s political vision.


“Target”, Jasper Johns, 1955, Wikiart.


Adrien Zirah: The Jewish identity in your work belongs to the narrative, to the past, whereas the gay identity in The Elusive Embrace belongs to the present. But I would like to come back to the formula that you used: “Europe is both the problem and the solution”. There is a very striking point that you come back to very often in your books, which is the fact that Shmiel, your great-uncle who was exterminated by the Nazis and who is at the heart of the search of The Lost, came to the United States, but decided to return to Europe. So this issue of going back to Europe seems to question you, and I was wondering what your view of Jewish life in Europe is now. And perhaps more precisely if the fact that France is the last country in Europe with a significant Jewish population still living there might have played a role in the particular attachment you have to French culture and language.

Daniel Mendelsohn: Before I get to that, I want to add one consideration, which your question inspires me to think about. Obviously, I’ve been thinking about this a lot because of the rising neofascism everywhere, including this country. We all know what happens when that gets started. I want to come back to this double identity as Jewish and gay as being extremely central to my work and what you might call its politics. Your question is obviously about current political events. To me, as someone who thinks about history a great deal, what we are seeing now is just a recurrence: the incredible rise of antisemitism in the U.S., and I know from my reading of the newspapers in France and other European countries that this is going on there as well. So, this is a cycle, and we recognize it as being part of a cycle. So how does this connect to my work and my ongoing thinking about mixed identities, about gay culture and Jewish culture? I would say that the Jew is to European civilization what the gay is to patriarchal civilization: The irreducible problem that is dangerous because it exposes the deep anxieties in the system. And that’s why the only way to get rid of the problem is either to expel it or to annihilate it. Christian Europe is fundamentally incompatible with Judaism, in the sense that Judaism cannot be reduced or incorporated into the Christian European historical model. The Jew, even today in our supposedly more enlightened era, the Jew always represents the “other” that cannot be assimilated. That’s why antisemitism exists. And in the very same way, patriarchal society cannot assimilate the gay, because the mere idea of the gay person, the gay man in particular, a man who desires other men, is the great threat to patriarchal absolutism. I remember very clearly during the 1990’s, when the American military was having this debate about whether gay people should be allowed to serve openly as soldiers. All of the testimony from the anti-gay generals, all these military people, was along the lines of, “Well, but if we let gays serve with straight men, what happens in the showers? There you are, taking your shower, and what if some guy is looking at you?” And I laughed, because it so clearly was an expression of the core fear, which is being objectified. I remember thinking, “What if some guy is looking at you? Women deal with it all the time!” The primal, unthinking, reflexive quality of the anxiety expressed in the generals’ testimony, the fears about “the showers,” the anxiety of being objectified—all this reminds one of why the gay male is the great threat to the patriarchal culture. The idea of a man being objectified in the way the men are always objectifying women is intolerable. So, when you asked this question, it made me understand the parallels between my two identities, the Jewish and the gay, with respect to politics, and why they are unassimilable. And it also accounts, by the way, for the traditional sensibility of both gay and Jewish culture, which is ironic and subversive.

For the other part of your question, about France, I would answer the following way: Europe is a big continent, so there’s different parts of Europe. Obviously, in France, there was a much greater ability to come back from the Second World War than there was in other places. I always say— and it’s hard particularly to Americans to assimilate this thought, because we are a country in love with “happy endings”—that even though the Germans lost the war, the project of the Final Solution was a largely successful one. It did in fact eradicate Jewish life in Europe very successfully, and in some parts of Europe, totally – France being the exception, in an interesting way. I will say that right now I’m extremely pessimistic. I think we’re entering another cycle of authoritarian proto-fascistic politics in the West overall—certainly, in the United States, we’re heading in that direction in a way that is unprecedented here, but obviously is not unprecedented in Europe. I like to joke that we are all going to end up in Israel, because at the end of the day, that’s going to be the only safe place. I honestly believe that. I think we are in for a very bad period right now, since whenever these kinds of authoritarian right-wing people get power, you always know who’s first on the list. The Jews. So, I’m not very hopeful right now, I have to say. I was talking to my mother yesterday, who is 91. And she said, “I was born in the 1930’s and I never thought the 1930’s would come back”. I wish I had a happier way to end this interesting conversation, but I don’t.

A.Z.: In a recent interview , you were joking, that if things went wrong you would take refuge in Paris. Now you are talking about Israel, even though it appears very little in your work, only in The Lost, I believe. What is your relationship with Israel?

D.M.: Well, as I was joking just now, there’s the idea that if you’re Jewish you’re going to have to end up in Israel at some point. But I think here again it’s a question of divided identity—or not divided, maybe, but double, let’s say. After Trump was elected, I started talking with my siblings, half-jokingly, about buying a property out of the United States, “just in case”, because I think things are going to get very ugly here. And even though Trump is gone, I still think that: I think the American experiment is over, and the forces of irrationality will triumph. So, the question is, where to go? Spiritually, I want to be in Paris, since French civilization has been so central to my intellectual and aesthetic life. But again, I really feel that the only safe place for Jews is, ultimately, Israel, because we know what happened everywhere else. And there’s nothing to tell me that it can’t happen again. The one thing you know – we know this as classicists – the one thing you know from learning about history is that it’s always the same. The gadgets get better but human nature is always the same. I’m seeing that right now in my own country. People are, basically, terrible. Every now and then they act well, but most of the time they’re terrible.

A.Z.: It seems, as you just reminded us, that the Trump years have unleashed some anti-Semitic sentiments in the United States: one could talk about the higher visibility of openly anti-Semitic organizations, attacks like at the Pittsburg synagogue, the mention of the 6MWE slogan in the January 6, 2021 capitol riot, etc. But is this also something you can feel on a more prosaic level, in your everyday life?

D.M.: Certainly, Trump deliberately unleashed these dark forces in American public; they are after all what brought him to power, the resentment, the irrationality, the loathing of intellectual life, of the élites, and so forth. They were always there, latent, no doubt, but in other times people were shamed into repressing them. The thing about leaders like Hitler and Trump that is so dangerous is precisely that, because they are effective demagogues, because they articulate and give expression to the feelings and thoughts that people were once ashamed of but which are now given legitimacy, these leaders have the power to (as I like to put it) « give people permission to be their worst selves. » You see this over and over again when you study the Holocaust: how could ordinary people commit these crimes, the torture, the humiliations, the rapes, the killing—often against their neighbors, against people whom they knew? And the answer is, someone gives them permission to be shameless. And once that switch has been switched on, people will do anything.

I myself have been lucky not to have had personal experience, in these recent years, of acts of anti-Semitism or homophobia. But I live in a rural area two hours north of New York City, in the country, and am surrounded by Trump supporters. So, there’s a sense of always having to be on one’s guard, which is strange. It’s not how I thought I would be living.

A.Z.: War has suddenly returned to Europe, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the Jewish question has returned in an unexpected form: on the one hand, Vladimir Putin claims to be ridding Ukraine of a neo-Nazi regime which, according to him, is in the process of committing genocide in the pro-Russian separatist regions; on the other hand, there is the symbol of Ukrainian resistance embodied by President Volodymyr Zelensky, a Jew whose family was murdered during the Shoah. Ukraine is of course at the center of your book The Missing, since your family was originally from Bolechów, in the present-day Ukraine. In fact, there is a phrase that often appears in your book about Ukrainians, about their behavior towards Jews during the Second World War and the fact that they were “worse” than the Germans or the Poles. How do you see this situation? Does the fact that a Jew could become president of Ukraine and then a national hero seem surprising to you?

D.M.: This question has arisen a lot lately; I was just interviewed by a reported for the New York Times who’s doing an entire article about how Jewish American writers feel about the war in Ukraine, given the very dark history of relations between Ukrainians and Jews. When I was a child, the refrain I always heard, with respect to the Holocaust, was, « The Germans were bad, the Poles were worse, the Ukrainians were the worst of all. » This was a reference, of course, to the enthusiasm with which local populations in Eastern Europe participated in the torture and murder of Jews; as we know, there were instances when the Nazis themselves had to restrain the ferocity of the locals. So yes, there is that—what you might call « historical awkwardness. » But you know what? That was nearly a century ago. The Ukrainians of today elected a Jewish president remarkable. I’m not sure that means there aren’t even today a lot of anti-Semitic Ukrainians; I’m sure there are. But right now, in 2022, what I see when I look at Ukraine, a country I have visited repeatedly and have a deep connection to for obvious reasons, I see a country that wants to be a modern, democratic, European nation. And I see, too, a country that has been invaded by a sociopathic demagogue intent on wiping out an entire people, people who are being tortured, raped, and murdered because of a mad ideological project. So, whose side am I going to be on? The Ukrainians. The past is the past, after all; if we’re going to make progress, we can’t be staring at the past all the time. I think it was in The Lost where I write about the Biblical story of the Wife of Lot, which to me symbolizes the dangers of being fixated on what was, rather than what is.

Déborah Bucchi and Adrien Zirah

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.

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