Against the Mush
Daniel Mendelsohn, How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken (HarperCollins, 2008)
The title of author and critic Daniel Mendelsohn’s latest book of essays, How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken, is taken from a line of stage direction for The Glass Menagerie—“when you look at a piece of delicately spun glass, you think of two things: how beautiful it is and how easily it can be broken.” Williams wrote this line to describe a musical leitmotif that recurs throughout his play, and it captures several of the major themes that resonate throughout Mendelsohn’s own writing. It invokes the fragile tension between beauty and brokenness, the critic’s anxiety and instinct to protect it, and finally, the profound interconnectedness between aesthetics and tragedy, a relationship that constitutes what Mendelsohn calls “the hallmark of Greek theater.” Beauty, brokenness, theater, and tragedy all animate the pages of How Beautiful It Is, a collection of essays culled mostly from Mendelsohn’s writing for the New York Review of Books that tackle subjects from Oscar Wilde to the film 300 with the lucid elegance and casual erudition that characterize his style.
When I heard Mendelsohn read at a Barnes & Noble in early August, he described the responsibility of the critic as that of separating quality from hype, a sentiment echoed in the early pages of How Beautiful It Is, in which Mendelsohn casts the critic as a kind of watchdog, defending against the “mush” and “melodrama” of contemporary culture. If this sounds like an old-school approach to criticism, that’s because it is. Informed by the Classics, Mendelsohn’s criticism is motivated by a “taste for a certain kind of rigor”—an allegiance to seriousness of vision and skill of execution—and the parameters of his judgment tend to reflect those of Greek drama. But unlike contemporary-minded critics, Mendelsohn’s skill lies in evaluating new work within the context of literary and historical traditions, uncovering what they can inadvertently reveal about culture, and very often, about their creators.
In “Not an Ideal Husband,” an essay on Ted Hughes’ adaptation of Euripedes’ Alcestis, Mendelsohn reads Hughes’ narrative omissions and thematic shifts as reflective of Hughes’ troubled relationship with his late wife, Sylvia Plath. Unlike Euripedes’ Alcestis, in which a husband’s actions lead to his wife’s death, in Hughes’ version, “there are no guilty husbands—no profound delving into the emotional (if not moral) squalor that often goes with being the survivor. There are just guilty abstractions.” Unfeeling gods replace guilty husbands as deserving of blame, and as a result, the drama collapses. But, Mendelsohn argues, this is not where the story ends. Through rewriting Alcestis, Hughes subverted his own personal history in a way that exposed it more tellingly than anything he ever directly wrote on the subject; and so, the true drama of the narrative, which falls flat onstage, actually takes place behind the scenes.
Rather than dismissing Hughes for appropriating Euripedes as a vehicle for his own story, Mendelsohn takes this move seriously, appraising both the damage it inflicts on the original and also how it fits into Hughes’ life and oeuvre. Hughes is not criticized simply for revising Euripedes, but rather for permitting his personal demons to silence the ones that make Alcestis so haunting—for sapping the eerie potency of the play and replacing it with his own, lesser designs. It is in recognizing this and going further, in investigating what’s happening behind the curtains that Mendelsohn shines as a critic. Through exploring what a writer leaves unsaid or how a director fails to fully grasp the material they’re working with, Mendelsohn finds meaning in unexpected places, using it as fodder to construct thoughtful and provocative reviews that more often than not, blossom into incisive observations on contemporary art and culture.
Because Mendelsohn’s reviews tend to gravitate towards certain classical and historical themes—How Beautiful It Is is divided into five sections: heroines, heroics, closets, theater and war—his debt to the twin roles of scholar and critic reverberate throughout his writing. The resulting effect is that in addition to judging a work on the basis of its artistic merit and popular reception, Mendelsohn also holds the work accountable to its intellectual premises. In some cases, this means celebrating a film’s effective use of history to up its dramatic ante—for example in Gladiator—while in other cases, it means considering why a work succeeds on one level while failing on another.
One instance of what Mendelsohn reads as a conflict between artistic style and historical context—or, form and content—occurs in Marie Antoinette, Sofia Coppola’s 2006 biopic of the “hapless last queen of the ancient régime.” Writing about Marie Antoinette for The New York Review of Books, Mendelsohn critiques the film for its lopsidedness, rebuking Coppola for privileging the private life of the teenaged queen over the historical moment that produced it:
Coppola’s apparent lack of interest in anything outside of the cocooned and photogenic private world of the doomed queen is evident in the desultory quality of the many stilted moments designed to convey what’s going on in the world beyond Versailles—the kind of clanking scene in which someone says to the king at a meeting of his council, ‘The Americans are asking for help with their revolution,’ or, worse, ‘when we see someone rush up to the king and announce, ‘The Bastille has been stormed!’
While Mendelsohn admires Coppola’s ability to create “cocooned and photogenic private world[s]”—a tact that plays to Coppola’s strengths as a director and is no doubt faithful to Marie Antoinette’s own worldview — the issue at stake is not Coppola’s capacity as an artist, but rather her responsibility to the story she is telling. Taking the film on its own terms, Mendelsohn asks whether one “should make a film about Marie Antoinette… as if she were the private person she apparently wished, at times, she’d been.” The answer, he says, is no.
To be so unreflective, to want to make a film about Marie Antoinette that ignores who she was in history, seems shockingly naïve, intellectually; it’s like wanting to make a film about what it’s like to be a starving artist and deciding to have your hero be the young Adolf Hitler.
Critiques such as this one reveal the unity of intellect and aesthetic that Mendelsohn demands of his art. Through holding new works to the standards of great literature and drama, Mendelsohn separates the quality from the hype, and likewise, distinguishes himself as a critic of the highest order. How Beautiful It Is represents not only an ode to the art that Mendelsohn loves, but something more: a fierce willingness to defend it, and to set himself apart in the process.