New Critics Confernece: Keynote Speech by Daniel Mendelsohn

Astrid Ressler, Staff Writer

Over the weekend, SUNY Oneonta had the pleasure of hosting the sixth annual New Critics Conference on campus. Those in attendance had the honor of hearing keynote speaker Daniel Mendelsohn read from his latest work, “Too Clever by Half: Smart Characters and Dumb Mistakes in The Odyssey.”

Mendelsohn is, among many other things, a literature professor at Bard College in downstate New York. According to the faculty website for Bard College, Mendelsohn is also a renowned author, essayist and critic, working primarily with The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books.

On Saturday, Professor Mendelsohn shared with his captivated audience a story of a time when he was in college at the University of Virginia and had finally decided what he wanted to declare as his major. He was on the phone with his Jewish grandmother back home on Long Island when he told her that he wanted to study Classic Literature–“The Greeks and Romans; Plato!” Her response was quite comical, telling him that there was no sense in studying Plato because Plato was dead. She told him that she had been to Greece, had seen Plato’s grave and that Plato was most certainly dead.

Throughout his address, Mendelsohn had many little quips. The entire reading was about his opinion on Homer’s The Odyssey and what the actions of certain characters really meant. Odysseus’ son Telemachus, for example, had grown up never knowing his father because Odysseus had been fighting the Trojan War and traveling back home to Ithaca after 20 years.

Mendelsohn explains that it speaks volumes that the first thing Telemachus does when his father returns is to join him in mercilessly slaughtering over 100 suitors at their house trying to marry his mother, Penelope. Before The Odyssey there were four books written about Telemachus, his childhood and his journey to learn more about Odysseus. One can only imagine how he could have felt to see his father for the first time, and then join him in a massacre within their own house.

Mendelsohn spoke beautifully about his thoughts on The Odyssey, its characters and its mistakes. Odysseus as a character has both good and bad qualities. Professor Mendelsohn mentioned that it was his arrogance after he and his men escaped from the Cyclops that got him into the troublesome 20-year journey at sea. Without telling the Cyclops who it was that had just defeated him, Poseidon, the God of the Sea,  would have never placed a curse upon Odysseus.

At the conclusion of the address, Professor Mendelsohn told his enthralled audience just how important art and literature are to society. Plato may be dead, but his work as a philosopher is still considered important today. Mendelsohn noted that when he was writing a book about Jewish people and the Holocaust, one particular woman had something quite profound to say after the war. The first thing the town did when everyone returned home was put on a play at the local theatre which was previously shut down by the Germans. Turning to the arts boosted everyone’s spirits, which was exactly what everyone really needed.

Mendelsohn took some time to speak proudly of everyone who had participated in the New Critics conference on Saturday, and he encouraged everyone who came out to take pride in their love of literature and the arts.

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