Friday, February 28, 7:30 p.m.
Equally at home analyzing the connections between Avatar and The Wizard of Oz or the controversy among classicists over the best text for Homer's Iliad, Daniel Mendelsohn has been called "our most irresistible critic" by the New York Times Book Review and "arguably the best writer and critic at work today" by The New York Book Review. In addition to the acclaim earned by his remarkable collections of critical essays, Mendelsohn's international bestseller The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, relating his efforts to uncover the fates of six members of his family who went missing during the Holocaust, won the National Book Critics Circle Award in the U. S. and the Prix Médicis in France and has been translated into fifteen languages.
Born on Long Island, Mendelsohn trained in the classics at the University of Virginia and at Princeton. His essays and reviews are widely published, frequently appearing in The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and The New York Times Book Review. He has served as the weekly book critic for New York magazine and is currently a Contributing Editor at Travel + Leisure.
His most recent book, Waiting for the Barbarians: Essays from the Classics to Pop Culture, was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism. An earlier collection of his critical essays, How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken, and his translation of the poetry of C. P. Cavafy were named Publishers Weekly Best Books of the Year. Daniel Mendelsohn is the recipient of numerous other awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, the National Book Critics Circle Citation for Excellence in Book Reviewing, and the George Jean Nathan Prize for Drama Criticism. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Association.
Excerpt from "The Wizard," Waiting for the Barbarians
...even as it looks like it's celebrating nature, Avatar is really a valentine to the digital technology that makes so many of its effects possible. Here the film, for all its richly imagined and dazzlingly depicted beauties, runs into deep and revealing trouble. As we know by now, Cameron's real attraction, as a writer and a director, has always been to the technologies that turn humans into superhumans. However "primitive" they have seemed to some critics, the Na'vi--with their uniformly superb, sleekly blue-gleaming physiques, their weirdly infallible surefootedness, their organic connector cables, their ability to upload and download consciousness itself--are the ultimate expression of his career-long striving to make flesh mechanical. The problem here is not a patronizingly clichéd representation of an ostensibly primitive people; the problem is the movie's intellectually incoherent portrayal of its tribal heroes as both admirably pre-civilized and admirably hypercivilized, as atechnological and highly technologized.
Excerpt from "Battle Lines," Waiting for the Barbarians
The Iliad ends as it began, with a desperate parent pleading to get his child back. In the last book of the poem, Priam comes in secret to Achilles' tent to beg for the body of Hector, whom by this point Achilles has slain. The two enemies share a moment of unexpected tenderness, one that suggests that Achilles' capacity for recognizable human emotions has been enlarged: moved by the sight of the courageous old man, he weeps, thinking of his own father back home--the father and the home he'll never see again, because, as we know, he has chosen a short, glorious life. This connection to his already lost past breaks something loose in Achilles....In a culminating oscillation between private and public, the closeup and the sweeping pan, the finale of the poem is divided between the moment of breathtaking intimacy between Achilles and Priam and the grand funeral the Trojans give Hector. Together, the two scenes represent the final, most distant, unimaginable yet inevitable consequences of the wrath of Achilles.
And so, paradoxically, by maintaining its tight Aristotelian grip on its single theme, the Iliad manages to suggest the whole range of human action and emotion--of an existence that, unlike that of the gods, has meaning precisely because we, like Achilles, know it will end.