old Type: When did the idea for this book first come to you? Were there any specific events in your life at that time that gave rise to this quest for the meaning of identity?
Daniel Mendelsohn: That's actually a question that has a two-part answer. I suppose the idea for doing the book first came up when I first started writing--was doing a culture column for a short-lived weekly called QW, and I found that no matter what I was reviewing--books, film, theater, even (yikes) art--I ended up writing about the issue that was really preoccupying me as a critic, which was culture and identity, and how identity, a sense of who you are and what culture you belong to, influences your responses to art and culture in general.
The second part of the answer has more to do with the specific turn this book took as I began writing it--by which I mean its personal slant and emphasis on family and family history as essential elements (both literal and symbolic) in thinking about identity. When I decided to write the book about gay culture and identity, I began by trying to write a more or less straight (no pun intended) critical book, a polemic of sorts, very culture-critical and impersonal and very much something making a tendentious argument about what it "meant" to be gay, etc., and how we should all be and live, and so forth. But I found that I couldn't write that book--it seemed to me that there wasn't a single "stance" one could take about all this--either intellectually or, as a writer, rhetorically. Once I was in the writing process, I had to confront what I suppose I knew all along and had been trying in some sense to "bury" because it complicated things, which is that our personal experience tends to be far more complex and conflicted than polemics can admit. So I started to feel that any really useful and interesting book I could write about this subject would have to be more personal. I remember that when I showed a friend my original proposal, she said to me "Well, that's all fine, but where are YOU in all this?" And that's what got me reevaluating my whole approach, and folding into the book my own experience, and my family history, and certain elements of classical culture that, I thought, illuminated my attempt to make sense of the concept of identity itself. And so in a quite good way, I think [hope] my re-imagining of what this book could be made it much more broad than the original "gay culture" book would have ever been.
BT: Where does your title, The Elusive Embrace, come from?
DM: A lot of my thinking about the themes of my book--identity, how you know who you are in the nexus of your personal and family and intellectual history--is based on classical models; I'm trained as a classicist, and as I thought about this ostensibly "contemporary" problem, I kept going back in my mind to the models from Greek and Roman myth and literature that have influenced my thought on a great many subjects. The title alludes to the myth of Narcissus, as retold by the Latin poet Ovid. Most of us know the main outlines of Narcissus's story, that he fell in love with his own reflection, and kept trying to embrace what he thought was a beautiful stranger that he saw reflected in still water, but of course he could never grasp this beautiful stranger and died pining away for him. It's a myth that was used in a certain psychological model of male homosexual desire, and certainly my book has a lot to say on that subject, but that's not really what the title is about. The title, in the end, sums up my view of what "identity" is in contemporary society: An "identity" is something we all yearn for but which is bound to elude us, because it is a creation of our desire and fantasy about who we want to be, and the reality is inevitably more messy, complicated and difficult to pin down. Which, of course, I think is a good thing.
BT: What drew you to study--and now teach--Classics? Was it the same impulse that drew you to explore the concept of desire and identity?
DM: Well, I probably shouldn't admit this in a public forum, but I was one of these geeky kids who, when all my other age-mates were outside spray-painting football yardlines onto the street pavement so they could play ball, was holed up inside the basement, building a model of the Parthenon. As far back as I can remember, I was really fascinated by ancient history and artifacts, which I actually don't think in itself is too way-out. When you think about it, Ancient Egypt, which I was actually interested in before I moved on to Greece, has the same appeal for a lot of kids that dinosaurs do--it's about impressive monumentality, and it's totally, reassuringly extinct. In my case that fascination just segued into an interest in Greek stuff, which is far more subtle and complex, and which was a quite consuming passion for me--when I was in high school I tried to finagle my way into Classical Greek classes at the local Catholic seminary; I can only imagine what my Orthodox Jewish grandfather would have said if I'd succeeded. And also, there's inevitably something seductive about Greek culture for a nice Jewish boy from Long Island--you look at all those sinuous and unabashedly naked statues and think, "Hmm, what could THEY have been thinking?"
As for my interest in Classics being connected to the impulse to explore the concept of desire and identity: well, absolutely. Fundamental to every aspect of Greek culture is the idea that you have to (as the Delphic oracle enjoins) "Know yourself." I think the discovery of the "self," and the idea that it was something you could endlessly speculate and theorize about, in art and philosophy and (especially for me) tragedy, is the very greatest of the Greeks' many great contributions to world culture. And of course desire--Eros--is another thing that fascinated the Greeks, a fascination that was expressed in all the same realms: art, philosophy, literature. Even more, there's the kind of structural analogy between self-knowledge, which in a way we achieve by "digging down" into ourselves, and the science of archaeology, which I was very much fascinated by as a kid, and which also seeks ultimate truths by hunkering down and uncovering buried things.
BT: Woven throughout your own personal experiences are explorations of Greek literature and language, stories of myths and tragedies, the works of Catullus, Sappho, and Ovid, to name a few. Why is it that these stories, plays, poems, etc., have such relevance in understanding our lives today?
DM: Well, I think it's fair to say that, beyond my personal interest in these myths and tragedies and so forth, the classical myths, as expressed in high classical literature--Greek, but also Roman-- continue to have an absolute authority as archetypes in Western culture. So one reason they have relevance is the status of the classics themselves within the culture--when we tell stories, we want them to be authoritative, to be the oldest and most fundamental.
But beyond that, and I think more importantly, there are the myths and stories and plays and poems themselves, which seem to express, at some essential, core level, absolute truths about the human condition. And this is really what makes them irresistible--what has given them "legs," so to speak. Sophocles' "Oedipus," which pretty much everyone is familiar with at some level, is a great play, of course, on any number of levels; but beyond its literary merits, "Oedipus" tells us something utterly essential about the basic human need for self-knowledge, about the nature of the parent/child relationship (and I'm not talking about the incest theme here, which is a whole other ball game), and indeed about the nature and purpose of knowledge itself--about how we often know the things we want to know, and don't know, or refuse to know, crucial things that are often right in front of our eyes. And the same goes for so many other myths: the Antigone myth, which has been updated and adapted a zillion times, says something basic about how we struggle with authority, about the conflict between the individual and the state, about self-sacrifice (which is the theme I draw into my book), and so forth. So too the myth of Narcissus. If that myth has given its name to a certain kind of psychological mode, believe me, it's not because Narcissus had a better agent than some other mythological character, but because the myth expresses something true about the human condition--about the way we love and how we choose our objects and how love eludes us--in the simplest, most elegant possible form. Which is the form that inevitably survives and lends itself to adaptation and interpretation.
BT: So much of your book, and especially the section titled "Geographies," is about how place defines us, down to the specifics of what block we live on. As someone who lives in two very different places, you have written, "Wherever I am is the wrong place for half of me." How have you come to terms with that feeling?
DM: I think everyone--and this has nothing whatsoever to do with one's sexuality, or family background, or even character--is enormously complicated and, often, conflicted, self-contradictory, in the way one's life is lived: we want x--families, monogamy, partners, stability--but we also may want y, which logic dictates is mutually exclusive of x; and y may be, say, excitement, and the sense of being 'free,' or unlimited sexual or "romantic" opportunities, or whatever. But that's only a problem if you think you need to be one single thing--to have a monolithic "identity." Which is something I've grown suspicious of, human nature being what it is. I began thinking about this in a quite different context (writing my dissertation about masculinity and femininity in Euripides) when my adviser, Froma Zeitlin at Princeton University, told me--and it was a revelation--"Your problem is that you keep treating complexity and conflict as the problem, something that has to be explained away or solved, instead of the solution--the interesting part." And that sort of changed my thinking and, in a lot of ways, my life. Because instead of trying to "solve" the complexities of my own life--being gay, and enjoying a lot of what that means, personally and culturally; and yet being the product of straight culture, and wanting to be involved in the life of a child, and having a sort of "family" situation--instead of trying to somehow reconcile all this, I ended up just acknowledging them as components of a complicated life, and as a result living both lives--not in some tortured, melodramatic, way, but merely in a way that acknowledges the integrity of two kinds of living--what I call in the book "the rich conflictedness of things." So I've come to terms with it by realizing it's not something that needs "coming to terms" with, in a way.
BT: In the section "Multiplicities," you explore the concepts of narcissism and repetition in gay relationships. How have these ideas taken shape in your own life?
DM: Those ideas are taken as much from my own life as they are from observation of a lot of the gay men I know. It's hard to talk about this without coming across as judgmental, which I want to avoid at all costs because I'm not in the judging business, which I happily leave to politicians, who seem to enjoy it very much indeed. But I do think that the quality of love that you experience when you love other men is substantively different from the quality of the love you have when you are a man in love with women. And that has a lot to do with the idea of difference--of having the object of your love and desire be substantively, essentially different from you. To put it in gross terms, for which I am sure I will get in huge trouble in numerous quarters, I basically believe that male desire, for reasons both psychological and cultural, is more free-floating and less constrained, and hence in male-male relationships tends to express itself more readily in what I call "multiplicity" than it might in male-female relationships, where there are huge psychological and cultural incentives to keep things limited to monogamy. (Clearly, this isn't always the case. See above under "politicians".) I think this has a lot to do with the fact that, for a variety of complicated reasons, same-sex relationships tend to admit--with impunity--more (as it were) extramarital sex than do heterosexual relationships. I was interested in exploring "multiplicity" both as a source of pleasure and, I have to say, in many ways as a limitation.
In any event--and this is a subject I think it's crucial to get on the table, rather than wishing away or being embarrassed by--I think that, as with a great many gay men, my own life has been characterized by a struggle to strike some kind of balance between "multiplicity"--the culture of desire and seemingly endless opportunities for pleasure--and some kind of stability or monogamy or something resembling "family," which is of course a concept (however culturally determined it may be) we all absorb quite early and indelibly, for better or for worse, and which shapes our life expectations about love and relationships.
BT: What is it like to discover secrets about your own family--to find that the stories that have become, in essence, part of your own identity are false?
DM: The narrative climax of the book is, in a way, a recounting of my discovery that a great family legend--the source, in a lot of ways, of my family's sense of who it is and how it fits into the world--was, in a sense, a lie (though not quite in the way I thought it was). It was a very melodramatic and romantic story that has, I realized, much in common with the Greek myths I was writing about in my scholarly work: evil old kings and virgins who sacrifice themselves for their families, that kind of thing. Because this story was so fundamental to my family's self-image, it's hard to describe how shocking it was to (accidentally) come across documents that indicated that it wasn't really true. I remember my mother (whose aunt and father this family myth involved) simply refusing to believe me when I told her about my discovery. But that's precisely what I was writing about, in the end--the way in which the 'beautiful lies' you tell become instrumental in your own thinking about who you are, to the extent that even when you know they're lies, you can't live as yourself without them. So that ties in to the book's interest in the idea of identity and how we construct it.
BT: The term "personal mythology" has gained popularity in recent years. What does that term actually mean to you?
DM: I think that we are, above all, creatures of meaning--we need our lives, and what happens in them, to mean something, and we create certain narratives as ways of conferring that meaning. Certainly the idea of "personal mythology" is connected to this--we have to see our lives as being "about" something, as tying into some larger story of how the world works. This is something I write a great deal about, both as it applies to me and my own attempt to choose between the "narratives of selfhood" that were available to me--for instance, those I learned from my father, a rather taciturn mathematician, and my mother's father, an Orthodox Jew who was a great storyteller (and fibber)--and as it applies to larger segments of the culture in general. For instance, the stories that are important in gay culture (about being "fabulous" or "artistic," and "gifted" or "special," that sort of thing), which are, in a way, the cultural versions of "personal mythologies."
BT: In "Paternities," you write about Nicholas, the child you're helping a friend to raise. How has this experience shaped your understanding of your own identity in relation to that of your father and grandfather?
DM: My experiences with Nicholas have completely reshaped my understanding about pretty much everything, from the Big Questions of Life to pretty tiny things. A big part of having a child in your life--and this is hardly a great revelation about the human condition--is that it forces you to think harder about your own parents, and their parents--I know it's corny to say this, but you start thinking of yourself as part of a great chain of human experience. For me that was slightly bizarre, since when you grow up gay your predominant world-view tends to be characterized, I think, by a feeling of total estrangement from most people's experience and the great river of human experience, etcetera. So on one level, Nicholas allowed me access to something I'm not sure I would otherwise have had. More to the point--and apart from the pure joy of Nicholas himself, which believe me is considerable--that experience that has allowed me a special vantage point, as a gay writer, for thinking about the crucial issues of identity and sexuality that I'm writing about: who you are and how you think of yourself in relation to your personal history and your family history, how you think about masculinity and what that means about your relationships.
BT: You write, "We go to tragedies because we are ashamed of our compromises, because in tragedy we find the pure beauty of absolutes, a beauty you cannot have if you choose to live. You can't make a tragedy out of survival." Why should compromise, which you conclude is at the very heart of identity and survival, be a cause for shame?
DM: There's a slight irony behind that formulation, actually. One of the things I write about is the tension between the life of "beautiful stories" and what, for lack of a better expression, I'll call "real life"--a life of compromise and complexity and accommodation that most people actually live. We all love beautiful stories, and want our lives to follow a coherent narrative in some sense; and this, I think, is at the heart of the appeal of literature and drama. One of the points of my bringing up the story of my family history and of the lie that turned out to be at the heart of that history was to point out the appeal of such narratives--how we create them because the truth may not be so great, and how even after we learn the truth, the messy part, we still often prefer the beautiful story, or even the beautiful lie. But what I've learned-and a lot of this has to do with Nicholas, and being forced to come to terms with the business of living in a way that I'm not sure I'd have otherwise had--is that while beautiful stories and lives are, well, beautiful, they can sometimes get in the way of real living, which is considerably messier and less tidy, narratively speaking. So that's the point of the remark about why we go to tragedies--but, hopefully, don't live them: most of us live real lives, messy incoherent lives--which I think is good, and necessary--and yet, to be sure, we're haunted by the appeal of beautiful stories, of dramatic and pointed narratives. So we compromise--which is to say we carry on with the business of living-- and meanwhile we put the stories on stage, or screen, where they belong, and where in a sense they serve the purpose of reminding us of the choice we normal adults have made, merely by "living"--which is of course something that the people in those beautiful dramas, and God knows in Greek dramas, often don't end up doing.
BT: What surprised you most in writing The Elusive Embrace?
DM: In the end, I was most surprised at the personal angle it took, because in general, and certainly as a critic, I'm pretty wary of "personal" writing and the recent spate of memoirs, which I think too often can be the literary equivalent of performance art, which I generally loathe--people standing up in front of a crowd and talking about their mean stepmoms or their appendectomies, or whatever. But in this case I found, paradoxically, that if I wanted to write about ideas, it had to be refracted through personal and family experience, because the ideas I want to write about--complexity, self-contradiction, human desire, stuff that won't fit into easy political or ideological models--resist meaningful expression in more straightforward, classically expository writing, which tends naturally to want to smooth out those things, to make sense of them, which I'm not sure can be done--or, come to think of it, "should" be done. And I wanted to write about all these things in a way that would bring everything together, intellectual and visceral. So yeah, that really shocked me--the way it became a personal rather than purely intellectual book. Without appendectomies, I hasten to add.
|Photo credit © Marion Ettlinger|