“The Lesson Will Live”: Daniel Mendelsohn, An Odyssey

One of the strange things about teaching is that you can never know what your effect will be on others; can never know, if you have something to teach, who your real students will be, the ones who will take what you have to give and make it their own . . . can never really  know which of the young people clustered around the seminar table is someone whom the teacher or the text has touched so deeply, for whatever reason, that the lesson will live beyond the classroom, beyond you.

The subtitle of Daniel Mendelsohn’s new book is “A Father, a Son, and an Epic.” The book is, or does, many things at once: it is an accessible introduction to the Odyssey, recounting its main stories as well as explicating its structure and major themes; it is an inquiry into the relationship between Mendelsohn and his father, Jay, as well as into parts of Jay’s individual history previously unknown or misunderstood by his son; it is also a reflection on teaching and learning, prompted by Jay’s attendance at Mendelsohn’s Bard College seminar on the Odyssey but extending far beyond that occasion to broader questions about the purpose, value, and methods of education; it is a travel narrative about the Mediterranean cruise Jay and Daniel take after the seminar called “Retracing the Odyssey“; it is an exposé, too, though a quiet one, of the conflicting feelings a grown man can have towards the man who raised him–mingled love and anger, resentment and gratitude–and the story of his effort to move beyond those fraught and immediate emotions to a different kind of recognition.

I loved An Odyssey. I have had my doubts about the genre to which it belongs–the “bibliomemoir”–because I worry that we are too prone these days to subordinate literature to our own personalities. Although I ended up appreciating Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch a lot more than the earlier essay that began the project, still, I ended it feeling I had not learned anything about Middlemarch, or seen any great insight about the novel on display, and also that Mead had been disappointingly reticent about her own life, reserving her privacy, smoothing the rough edges, making both life and reading sound easier than Middlemarch itself ever does. An Odyssey struck me as a riskier book, in its treatment of both the Odyssey and the father-son relationship that motivates it. Perhaps because Mendelsohn projects such assurance as a critic and an intellectual, I was surprised and impressed at the vulnerability that comes across here–at his ready admissions of fault, of uncertainty, of occasional lapses of generosity, and of neediness, especially for his father’s approval. “Let me finish,” Jay says one day in seminar, cutting Daniel off

in a tone I recognized from many years earlier . . . the dismissive rhythm of his argument, the jackhammer emphasis on certain words, familiar from other, much-older arguments, arguments whose climactic, clinching phrases I could remember years later, Oh, what do you know, that’s just a college-boy argument or Trust me, I know what I’m talking about, numbers aren’t your strong point. And now: It’s really just the gods.

You can tell how much young Daniel hated being overruled in this way, and how that old grievance infects the present moment as Jay puts his authority ahead of his son the teacher’s. But interlaced with that lingering anger is something more wistful that comes out when Mendelsohn, looking at his father lying very ill in the hospital, thinks about “him saying to me, after the lecture about [Cavafy’s] ‘Ithaca,’ something I’d yearned so often to hear from him when I was a boy, and didn’t: You did good, Dan.”

Theirs is not an easy relationship, and the more I learned about it the more the idea of bringing it into the classroom struck me as brave, on both sides but especially–perhaps because I too am a teacher–on Mendelsohn’s. He tells the students in advance that his father will be sitting in, “so his presence on the first day of class wouldn’t be a distraction.” Jay has promised, however, that he’s just going to observe, not participate: “I’m just gonna sit there and listen.” Mendelsohn never explicitly says as much, but it’s easy to imagine that, to him, this seemed a bit like payback: this would be his class, his room, his rules, his authority. On the very first day, however, his father puts his hand up and makes both his presence and his rather contrarian opinions felt: “‘Hero’? I don’t think he’s a hero at all,” he says about Odysseus, and from then on he is a regular contributor who not only engages vigorously with the Odyssey but changes the whole classroom dynamic, because Jay’s parental claims can sideline Mendelsohn’s professional role.

It’s not that Mendelsohn expects total control over his students, though often reading his accounts of the seminar meetings–his leading questions, his attempts to steer the students, delicately or directly, to see what he sees in the text, his occasional frustration when they don’t get it, or go in a different direction–I was struck by how subtly coercive the process of teaching literature inevitably is, for all of us, in spite of our best intentions. It’s not as simply dictatorial as insisting on one finite interpretation, or it shouldn’t be; it’s more like coaching, using your experience and expertise to model and guide and illustrate, so that your students can join you in a common understanding, a shared and hopefully a mutual experience of insight. Still, we’ve all been reading the texts we teach (and reading about them) for a long time, and our interpretations do and should carry some weight: there’s a reason we’ve settled on them, even if we don’t imagine they are absolutely definitive. I admired Mendelsohn’s honesty about the difficult balance required in teaching between open-mindedness and certitude, and about how hard it can be to deal fairly with a new idea from a student that you aren’t prepared for or initially convinced by. In that situation, it is easy to come across as either dogmatic or defensive or both, as one of his students clearly finds Mendelsohn at one point:

Then Jack blurted, I’m sorry, Professor, I don’t mean to offend you. I don’t. But sometimes–right now I have the impression that you have some interpretation in your head that you think is the right one, and you want to lead us to see things your way, and you just sort of squash anything that doesn’t fit that interpretation. I think this idea is pretty cool actually.

Much later in the book, Mendelsohn connects this moment to something one of his own professors said to him: “You’re so fixated on your own ideas that you don’t see what’s right in front of your face.” He connects this to his seminar experience:

Suddenly I thought, I’ve done it again–I’ve been doing it all semester. Again and again, I’d been so intent on having the kids see things my way, so fixated on making sure that the interpretations I had absorbed as a student would be the ones that they took away, too, that I’d seen their resistances, their failures to notice what I wanted them to notice, as a problem, rather than as a solution–as a way to see something I’d never noticed myself.

At that point, he’s also thinking about the different ways he has interpreted his father over the years, about the difficulty he still has integrating the varied and conflicting versions of this man he has known for so long but realizes he may never really know. This, he concludes (though we can also infer this is where the book began, as an idea) is also one of the lessons of the Odyssey:

A father makes his son out of his flesh and out of his mind and then shapes him with his ambitions and dreams, with his cruelties and failures, too. But a son, although he is of his father, cannot know his father totally, because the father precedes him; his father has always already lived so much more than the son has, so that the son can never catch up, can never know everything. No wonder the Greeks thought that few sons are the equals of their fathers; that most fall short, all too few surpass them. It’s not about value; it’s about knowledge. The father knows the son whole, but the son can never know the father.

I thought, No wonder Odysseus can’t lie to Laertes at the end of the poem.

But the quest for knowledge itself is a learning experience; that’s one of the lessons of An Odyssey, and the book shows that one of the rewards will be self-knowledge.

I wondered as I read if I enjoyed An Odyssey partly because I have never read the Odyssey, so in contrast to my reading of My Life in Middlemarch, in my reading of Mendelsohn’s book I was in a student-like position myself. I have always enjoyed hearing passionate experts, and Mendelsohn’s love for his subject makes the discussions of the Odyssey positively hum with energy. I worried that my own ignorance would be an impediment to my pleasure, but while I might have enjoyed the book even more if I had read Homer, it’s possible that the opposite is true: the book is clearly written with people like me in mind, and I don’t know if someone familiar with the Odyssey would find much of interest in the analysis, or perhaps would take issue with some of the interpretations. I thought at first the book might inspire me to read Homer for myself at long last–but in the end both the quotations and Mendelsohn’s commentary made me think I might not like it very much, or be very good at it. The idea of its “ring composition,” for instance, is compelling in theory, but must be quite baffling, even frustrating, in practice, at first. (The irony is not lost on me that I am saying this and yet in just a couple of weeks I will be waxing eloquent to my own students about the web-like narrative structure of Middlemarch!) Perhaps, like Jay, I need to sit in on a seminar, both for motivation and for elucidation.

I might never get around to that, but at least I take away from An Odyssey a much richer sense than I had before of the Odyssey, an appreciation for it in itself as well as for what it is like to immerse oneself in its questions, stories, and ideas–about heroism, about fathers and sons, about life and death and traveling and loving and grieving. An Odyssey is a probing and often touching memoir, but the pedagogical impulse runs through all of it. “You never do know, really,” Mendelsohn rightly observes, “where education will lead; who will be listening and, in certain cases, who will be doing the teaching.” That’s the fundamental uncertainty that teaches us, as teachers, humility. If one of his hopes, in writing this book, is that “the lesson will live beyond the classroom,” it seems to me that he has surely succeeded.

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8 Responses to “The Lesson Will Live”: Daniel Mendelsohn, An Odyssey

  1. Fascinating review. I teach 7th grade English which has much more in common with college level teaching than one might expect. I found out when I spent a few years teaching at San Francisco State University in the evenings. For me the most exciting moments are those when a student finds an interpretation that I did not expect that excites me as very good. This can happen with S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders nearly as often as it can with Homer.

    I do recommend Homer by the way. I read it for a very over-crowded undergraduate classics class back in the 1980’s. We all loved it. Enough to sit on the floor sometimes.

  2. Mary Lu Redden says:

    The Odyssey is a book that is worth a 1000 readings. I am now on my 15th time through, discovering things I had never noticed and being now retired, I am in Ontario staying with a friend who is a “foodie” and who helped me understand The Cyclop’s cheese making activities. There is a lifetime’s worth of reflection in the epic.

    • Rohan Maitzen says:

      I don’t doubt at all that it is worth reading and rereading, I promise! I’m just not sure it would go well reading it on my own — though maybe it’s just a question of getting the right translation and being ready to give it a try. Right now the only version I have is Pope’s! That’s a lot of heroic couplets…

      • Bill from PA says:

        As a non-academic, I have a hard time understanding your fear that The Odyssey would not “go well reading it on my own”. It seems as if you feel you need to understand everything about the book before you’ve read it, or perhaps have extensive knowledge of ancient Greece to get anything out of it. I read The Iliad last year and The Odyssey this year (both in Richmond Lattimore translations, which I thought very good – Hayden Pelliccia called Lattimore “the standard” in the latest NYRB) in the same way I would pick up and read almost any book, though of course I understand I am reading something that was written almost 3000 years ago. I had no preconceptions – I might be bored or hate them or find them incomprehensible, but I wanted to try them at least. I though them wonderful and thought-provoking; they’re classics for a reason – I think any sensitive reader will find depth and resonance in these poems, and find reading them a profound experience, whatever the level to which they plumb.

        • Rohan Maitzen says:

          That’s an interesting point, Bill. It’s true that in my own work I often do what I can to demystify famous “classics” (including Middlemarch) because the intimidating aura their reputation gives them gets in the way of people simply reading and enjoying them. It’s ironic, then, to find myself struggling with the same “I’m not worthy!” reaction. I’ve also read and reported on plenty of classics here (including Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina) without that same concern that I won’t be able to “get” what they are about–though I admit, I have sometimes felt nervous pressing “publish” in case my post reveals some fundamental confusion or stupidity! It’s not as if I have to immediately grasp all the nuances of the Odyssey‘s ring composition myself, on a first read or ever. OK, fine: I’ll try it! But not right now, only because I’m reading a lot of other things at the moment as it is.

          (As a quick update, I realize I have a nice copy of the Lattimore translation of the Iliad, so maybe I will start with that and then move on to the Odyssey.)

  3. Kathleen Pearson says:

    I had always wanted to read the Odyssey and the Iliad but was also afraid of them on my own. In 2006 the Robert Fagles translation was published and touted by the NYT as one of the best translations ever. I bought the book. Then in 2112 i became familiar with MOOCs and Coursera offered a class called Greek and Roman Mythology taught by Peter Struck of Penn. I signed up to get the help that I needed to read the Odyssey. One of the best classes ever. He truly made Homer so accessible to an average person and I loved reading the book and am proud of myself for finally doing so. You can put as much or as little effort into the class as you like and will be rewarded commensurately.
    I went on to read the Iliad and enjoyed it even more.

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