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.”
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 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.