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  • Sagar Castleman

Edward Mendelson

Don’t cross the intersection. 

By Sagar Castleman

Illustration by Hart Hallos

Edward Mendelson is the literary executor of W. H. Auden’s estate, the Lionel Trilling Professor of the Humanities, and a contributor to The New York Review of Books. He’s been a heavyweight of the Columbia English department for over forty years, and those who have taken a class with him are familiar with both his passion for literature and his idiosyncrasies. Every Mendelson syllabus ends with a lengthy list of items forbidden in his classroom, including baseball caps, televisions, passive-aggressive questions, and “internet-connected eyewear.” In the Review, Mendelson writes mainly about Auden and Virginia Woolf, his two favorite writers. But since 1988 Mendelson has also been an editor at PC Magazine, where he writes technology articles like “Function Over Flash: The Top 10 New Features of MacOS Sonoma.” 

Mendelson probably won’t like the previous paragraph very much: He agreed to talk to me on the condition that I not ask him “anything at all about myself—nothing about my career, nothing about how I came to be interested in this or that, nothing about anything that focuses on myself.” I tried my best to comply. Instead of his life, we talked about why John Williams’s Stoner is an evil novel, what it means to treat a book like a person, the problem with interviews, and whether a good professor needs to be a little bit of a clown.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The Blue and White: I wanted to start with something that's been getting a lot of attention in the press recently, which is this idea of the death of the humanities. Just a few days ago there was an article in The New York Times that said, “For years economists and more than a few worried parents have argued over whether a liberal arts degree is worth the price. The debate now seems to be over, and the answer is no.” One commonly cited statistic is that from 2011 to 2021, the number of English majors in the country dropped by a third. Why do you think this is happening? And is it something you are worried about?

Edward Mendelson: I'm not worried about it because it seems to me that people taking courses doesn't mean anything. It's persons teaching other persons that means something. I continue teaching my courses and students seem to be moderately interested in them. One can't rule one's life by statistics. You can't change anything that you do because a statistic says it's not popular anymore. 

B&W: That makes sense. But wouldn’t it be possible for you to continue teaching what you're teaching and still be concerned?

EM: If I were worried about it, I couldn't do it. Teaching is an intense one-to-one activity, even if there are 80 people in the room. The fact that 10 million people are not doing it makes no difference to the one-to-one activity in the room. Should mathematicians be really worried that there are only six people who can do advanced mathematics in the entire world? I don't think so. They're just going to go ahead and continue doing their math. 

B&W: You've been at Columbia for a long time. Have you observed a change in how the humanities are taught?

EM: I think everybody gets nostalgic about the past and thinks that everything was better and made sense then. That's always false. Academic emptiness, tedium, status seeking, have remained constant forever. And the fact that no one remembers what it was like in the 1970s doesn't mean that it was better in the 1970s. To the extent that there is a change, some of it is caused—and I'm not saying anything of the slightest interest—by the economy. When people have to worry about whether they're going to be able to feed themselves and their children, they're probably going to think twice before going into a field that they won't get paid for pursuing. Everyone knows that.

B&W: But that in itself is a recent change, because it implies that there was a time when people could go into the field confident in their prospects and now they no longer can. 

EM: Right. That's certainly the case. Forty or fifty years ago, no one who went into graduate school worried about getting a job.

B&W: What would you say to someone who’s passionate about the subject and is considering going into it, but is unsure about the prospects?

EM: The more passionate you are, the more of a chance you have to get a job.  One of my colleagues in the department said, “When I was teaching at some other university, we interviewed a candidate who was so passionate about his dissertation topic—the poet he was writing about—that he recited one of that poet’s poems by heart in the interview.” And someone said, “What did you do?” And he said, “What could we do? We hired him.” 

B&W: Do you think that's still true? 

EM: I think it's extremely true. It's one reason I think medievalists have an easier time getting a job. Because you would not become a medievalist if you were not passionate about it. No one ever thought, “I’m going to become a medievalist and get rich or have power in the university.” 

B&W: So do you think that as we get closer to the literature of the present, the chance that people are pursuing less out of passion and more out of some other reason becomes more likely?

EM: It's possible. Certainly the people who study the fields where they're never going to be asked to write a column online about the subject matter or give a TED Talk, they're more likely to be passionate about the subject.

B&W: That reminds me of one of the most moving portraits of a professor that I’ve read. I'm sure you’ve read Stoner, and it seems like—

EM: It's an evil book.

B&W: Oh, you don't like it? 

EM: I think it’s an evil book. 

B&W: Why?

EM: Everybody thinks it’s such a wonderful book. But it’s a book that encourages the reader to identify with Stoner and say, “All I do is love Renaissance poetry, but everybody hates me and everybody is out to get me. And I am being defeated by this, that, or the other person, and everything that goes wrong in my life is somebody else's fault.” Stoner is entirely passive in that book. He does no wrong. He’s a perfect human being, but he's got evil enemies. And I think the invitation is for everyone, every failed academic or everyone who feels they're not appreciated, to say, “Yes, I am like him. I just love the truth. And look at all those evil people getting in my way and destroying me.” I realize I'm the only person who has this reaction to Stoner. But I think it is a temptation to narcissism and wounded vanity.

B&W: If it brings people comfort, is that such a bad thing?

EM: It's a bad thing to think that what goes wrong with you is somebody else’s fault. By the way, successful academics love it too, because what they want is world domination and they’re not getting world domination. I’m being extravagant. But I think giving comfort can be pernicious. Say, for example, you broke your arm and you went to the doctor and he said, “Let me give you a painkiller. You’re fine now. Go away.” Stoner is a painkiller. And Williams’s other novels have the same quality. A passive victim of evil people. And I realize that it's a book that is universally loved, which I think is a sign of how deep people's sense of “Nobody understands me” is.

Also, Stoner likes literature for the beauty of it, which is basically the same as saying about other human beings, “I love you for your looks” and not caring about all kinds of other moral and ethical issues.

B&W:  But isn’t that what Wilde and Pater thought? Isn't there a whole school of thought that says—

EM: Yes, there is, but I think in Wilde it's much more interesting because he connects it to things like social movements and socialism, the equality of human beings. If you look at Wilde's political writings, you see that he takes [literature] extremely seriously as a means of personal liberation and social justice rather than admiring beauty. He’s not simply sitting there and saying, “I'm above all those terrible, messy things and am just interested in beauty.” He’s saying, “I’m interested in making what I delight in, which is self-making, available to everyone in the world.”

B&W: And what is self-making for him? 

EM: It’s the ability to make connections with other human beings. Wilde is very much interested in human relations. Auden has a line somewhere saying, “It’s always the gourmet or the art collector of the detective novel who is the murderer.” And there's a moral point there. The person who simply loves beauty is indifferent to the reality of other human beings. All great artists despise aesthetes by the way, because all great artists know that art is not enough, that there's much more going on than art in the world. The aesthete says, “I just care about the beauty of the thing.” And what that means is that their response is so deeply limited, but they persuade themselves that it is superior to anyone else’s.

B&W: Do you think—

EM: The questions that say “do you think” are always a trap. Because if I agree, then I’m always agreeing to something that somebody else wants. I advise young faculty that if someone says, “Would you agree that…” the answer is always no, because the question is a trap. If I agree to this then I’m going to have to agree to something else.

B&W: I’ll rephrase. It seems like the way that you're proposing we look at literature—connecting it to human relationships and to social relationships and even political relationships—is the beginning of the path to the politicization of—

EM: Every time you walk down the street, there are beginnings of paths going in different directions. It doesn't mean you have to follow them.

B&W: Right.

EM: Acknowledging that human beings have psychology and inner lives doesn't mean that you're turning into an obsessive Freudian. Acknowledging that a work of literature can talk about social subjects doesn’t mean that you’re about to suddenly start talking about how the only reality is political.

B&W: Yeah. And is there a spectrum that goes from—

EM: No, there’s no such thing as a spectrum. Just individual persons doing different things.

B&W: Would you say that they’re opposites? Sorry, is “would you say—”

EM: [Laughs] No. To any question that you say, “would I say,” the answer is no.

B&W: Okay. Let’s switch gears. I wanted to ask you about technology. You’re very anti-technology in the classroom. And I don't want to get too biographical, but I know that you're an editor at PC Magazine, where you write reviews and how-tos. What do you think the role of technology should be in the classroom? 

EM: I’ll talk about this in another way. I know someone who was dating, and said that when his date over dinner took a photograph of the main dish and posted it on Instagram, that was a deal breaker. Personal relations do not use technology. Simple as that. And the classroom is a personal relation.

B&W: In what context do you think technology is valuable?

EM: I think it’s wonderful for research. If I want to find out how many times George Eliot uses the word “should,” I can find it out in seconds and learn things that would take years of research otherwise. For research, what could be better? There's a kind of literary study that uses technology in extremely interesting ways. Franco Moretti's Distant Reading, on shapes of novels over the course of the centuries, used the Google Books archive to figure out what's going on. This seems to be really fascinating. But he's also someone who can read in detail a single author and write the best thing anyone's ever written about that author. In other words, the way in which he knows what to do when he uses large statistical data sets is informed by his knowledge of how to actually read books, rather than the sense that one thing is superior to another.

B&W: Adjacent to the story of the death of humanities from lack of interest or enrollment, there's another one about the death of humanities from AI. As someone who’s both in the humanities and in technology, are you worried about AI?

EM: No. I was working out my syllabus for the course I'm teaching next term, and I wrote “Any paper that in my judgment sounds as if it had been written by ChatGPT will receive a grade of D-, even if you wrote every word yourself.” I have a subscription to ChatGPT 4.0, and you can just see how unbelievably awful the writing is. It would get an A in high school. If the teacher wants a high school paper, you might as well give them ChatGPT because they're not asking you to be engaged personally. It's like using a calculator to solve a difficult problem. But if you actually want to write like a human being, then you're going to sound very, very different. 

B&W: Do you think in the future ChatGPT might sound like a human being?

EM: Anybody who starts saying what might be possible in the future always ends up looking like a fool. Artificial intelligence was always what was going to happen next year. Look up people you know on ChapGPT and see how much they invent and make up. I’ve asked ChatGPT about myself. Apparently I was born on three different days in the same year, I attended colleges I never attended, and graduated in years I never graduated.

B&W: But these are all knots that can be ironed out, right? 

EM: Yes, it may be. I'm not going to try to predict the future.

B&W: You seem to really dislike the intersection of multiple disciplines.

EM: What I dislike is people being interested in the status of what they do rather than the content of what they do. Like saying, “I do innovative work. I work at the intersection of so-and-so.” Well, so what? Tell me some subject matter. What I'm talking about is the status declaration. Saying, “I want to work in an intersection,” rather than “I'm really interested in the semicolon in 18th century pamphlets.”

B&W: Could someone who works at an intersection produce content at that intersection?

EM: I have no idea what working in an intersection means. Every time you write, you bring in all human knowledge. When you talk to your friends, do you say, “Let's talk at the intersection of so-and-so?” No. It's very useful to say, “How would this sound if I were talking about my relation with other human beings?” “I want you to meet my friend So-and-so.” “Well, what method are you going to use? Whose theory are you going to use in figuring out So-and-so?”

B&W: It sounds like you’re comparing how you approach literature to how you approach relationships.

EM: The most intelligent way to think about a book is to think about it as if it were a human being, with the same rights that a human being has, with the same knowledge, self-knowledge and lack of self-knowledge that a human being has, and with the same resistance to being treated merely as a member of a category. Do you want to be loved for yourself, or do you want to be valued as a member of a category? When you read a book, you are simultaneously aware of what it has in common with other books and at the same time you're aware of what makes it uniquely worth reading in itself, which is the way you approach other human beings. You look at someone and they're this age or this hair color. And then you gradually move into figuring out who they are as a person.

B&W: You made that point about romantic relationships as well. That in some ways they satisfy something that anyone can satisfy, but in some ways it's completely unique.

EM: To me it just seems clear.

B&W: During your first lecture, you mentioned a passage of the Iliad that you said moves you to tears when you read it. And since then, you've come back to this idea of being moved by literature again and again.

EM: If you're not moved by it, you’re not reading it.

B&W: I think this is something that resonates with a lot of English majors because it's often why we chose to study the subject. But it’s not something that gets talked about a lot. Why do you think that is?

EM: I don't know. I can't possibly talk about what goes on in other people’s classrooms. 

B&W: Okay.

EM: This is why interviews are tricky. They always involve prompting the other person to say something and the other person might not want to say that thing.

B&W: Is that what makes it different from a conversation? 

EM: I think so. Also, it's unequal. You're interviewing me for a publication. I'm not going to publish what you say. 

B&W: Woolf and Auden are the writers who you talk most about, and it sometimes feels like you view the world through them. What's it like to know a writer so well that they have an impact on how you understand everything?

EM: What I know about persons comes largely from Virginia Woolf and from Auden. But also from Samuel Beckett, from Cervantes, from the Odyssey, from the Gospels, from all kinds of sources of people thinking about people, and that clearly is what interests me, partly because literature is written by persons, not by machines. There’s always a cultural element, but there are persons involved, and personal freedom. You don't see the world through other people's lenses, but they provide language for thinking about things. So I open up this thought, but somebody asks me a difficult question. I stumble around trying to find an answer, and then I hear a little click and a hidden microphone. I hear the voice of Virginia Woolf saying, “Don't be stupid, the answer to this question is A, B, and C.” And I say, “Oh, the answer to your question is A, B, and C.” And the person thinks you're really smart. 

Montaigne says, “I quote in order to make my meaning clear.” You put together your own personality by looking at other human beings and saying, “I'm gonna take a bit of this, and a bit of that, and a bit of that and a bit of that.” This is essentially what I think everyone does, and I'm just doing that fairly clearly, the way Montaigne does it. I quote in order to say more clearly what I mean than I could say in my own words.

And that's different from saying what you see in applications for graduate school: “Using the methods of Professor X, I will interrogate so and so.” I see that and I just toss it out the window because one, I don't want people to be interrogating books that I like. I want them to be reading them. And if I wanted to hear what Professor X thought about, I would ask Professor X. I want to hear what you think about it.

B&W: And the difference is that you're not using any system, you’re just using particular insights.

EM: Of course you use methods, but you don't use a single method for everything. You see what the subject matter is interested in. You look at a book and you say, “What are you interested in?” Well, different books are interested in different things. 

B&W: Are there any novels that you find yourself returning to again and again?

EM: I did a piece for the New York Review blog about The Crying of Lot 49, when I was rereading it for maybe the 20th or 30th time. The first day I read it, I read it twice. And I realized that its plot is basically the same as the other book that I've read 20 or 30 times, Mrs. Dalloway. These are books I keep going back to. If you turn it into a summary, you falsify it, but they both show someone going deeper and deeper into themselves to see what matters both to them and to the world that they have avoided confronting, because it would involve making difficult, painful choices. That kind of book really interests me very much.

B&W: You said in class that a professor always needs to be a bit of a clown, otherwise he'll be confused with his content. Could you talk more about this?

EM: To the extent that you can categorize, there are two kinds of teachers. There's one who pulls a rabbit out of the hat and the students are amazed: “I could never do that.” And the other kind of teacher is the one that says, “Now here's how you hide a rabbit in the bottom of a hat. You open this little flap down here and you hide it in here. You can do it too.” And that teacher is not the narcissistic performer of special status. I think there's a kind of clowning going on here in performing. But clowning does not mean that the subject matter is not serious. The class is divided between people who think you're an utter idiot and they have to sit there and listen to what you have to say, and people who are tempted, as I remember being as an undergraduate, by the authority figure standing in front of me. 

B&W: How do you think the clowning fits into the dichotomy of the people who are uninterested and the people who revere you?

EM: Maybe at least I'll entertain the ones who are uninterested. It never occurred to me to put those two together until you asked the question. There are many serious subjects that the only way to talk about intelligently is through jokes. And I'm not quite sure I can spell out why that’s the case, but it does seem to be true.

B&W: Like what sorts of subjects?

EM: I think intensely moral and ethical subjects often require jokes. There's a wonderful line by G. K. Chesterton: “The test of a religion is whether you can tell a joke about it.” There's always somebody inside you who is skeptical, who is cynical. I quoted the passage in Virginia Woolf’s The Waves: “At the outskirts of every tragedy is someone clever who points.” That is a psychological reality. 

B&W: So when you talk about serious things in the classroom, you try not to take yourself too seriously.

EM: Yeah. Basically. The subject matter is serious, but you thinking about it may not be serious. It doesn’t matter how you solemnly talk about some great subject matter, what matters is how you live your life.


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