Serious Fun

The Critical Range of Daniel Mendelsohn

Waiting for the Barbarians
Essays from the Classics
to Pop Culture
Daniel Mendelsohn
New York Review Books, $24.95, 423 pp.

In his play The Frogs, Aristophanes imagines Aeschylus and Euripides meeting in Hades and arguing about which of them is the greater poet. Aeschylus claims to present noble ideals to which his audience can aspire; Euripides, to present a democratic view of his audience as they really are. The two settle their dispute by weighing their collected works. Aeschylus wins because his plays are physically heavier, not because they are more beautiful. His reward is to return to the land of the living.

Here Aristophanes treats literary comparisons—and perhaps all criticism—as little more than a joke. But his contemporary Aristotle thought criticism very serious indeed. In his Poetics, he carefully defines literary genres and methods and compares poets and their works on the basis of their themes and technical skill. Aristotle is more exacting, Aristophanes more fun. Good criticism needs to be both.

Daniel Mendelsohn, who is both a classical scholar and a critic, is no stranger to either Aristophanes or Aristotle. And there is a hint of both in a piece called “A Critic’s Manifesto,” which he wrote for the New Yorker’s website. “All criticism,” he writes, “is based on the equation: knowledge + taste = meaningful judgment.” For a critic to be knowledgeable, he must be able to place the work he’s discussing in its proper context, and this context...

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About the Author

Scott D. Moringiello is the Lawrence C. Gallen Fellow in the Humanities at Villanova University where he teaches the Augustine and Culture Seminar and courses in the theology department. He blogs at dotCommonweal.