Author: James Livingston

On Translation

I’m reading Daniel Mendelsohn’s poignant memoir, An Odyssey: A Father, a Son and an Epic (2017), treating it as a kind of coda to Emily Wilson’s new translation of Homer. Now Mendelsohn is a classical philologist, just like Wilson, so of course he did his own translations for the book. They read nothing like Wilson’s. The framing story of the memoir is how the father, Jay, a hard-headed mathematician not ordinarily drawn to literary texts, asked his son if he could take the course on The Odyssey that Daniel was scheduled to teach at Bard College. Father and son...

Read More

A Tale of Too Many Cities: The Trial of Black Nationalism in the Debate between Coates and West

How often does something you read change your mind, or unsettle your beliefs? It happens to me every six months or so, when I venture into a field—ancient history, say—where I have no skills, only curiosity and anger, and I find myself in the midst of strangers who dazzle me with their confidence and erudition. This is different. I have been defending Ta-Nehesi Coates against his critics on the grounds I thought were afforded by Harold Cruse, in The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (1967)—a book that was renovating the tradition of black nationalism on grounds, Cruse believed, afforded...

Read More

Scott Frank’s “Godless”

This article contains spoilers. Proceed at your own risk. The title of this series from Netflix might as well have been “Manless.” But I guess it’s all in the translation. Emily Wilson’s new Odyssey sounds as if Walt Whitman learned ancient Greek and had finally decided on a rhyme scheme. Scott Frank’s new Godless, a grimy, even filthy epic set in the metal mining towns of the 1880s, makes Deadwood—a disgusting place by any measure—look like the preferred destination of western civilization. All bets are off, and no rules apply, because the men have disappeared. The western genre, the filmic laboratory...

Read More

Auerbach and Me

I teach Mimesis, Erich Auerbach’s improbable masterpiece—he wrote it in Istanbul in the 1940s, on the run from the Nazis—whenever I get the chance, even when it seems extraneous to the content of the course. To be honest, I drag him into every classroom, saying, “This is the most important book of the 20th century, so you owe it to yourself to read it, sooner or later.” Why would anyone make such a preposterous claim, which might well scare undergraduates into thinking the professor is a lunatic? Good question. More important, than, say, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit...

Read More

Reluctant Heroes

“Now goddess, child of Zeus, tell the old story for our modern times. Find the beginning.” That’s how the first stanza ends in Emily Wilson’s brilliant new translation of The Odyssey. It reads as if Walt Whitman wrote it, with the rhythms of our modern times, so it sounds contemporary—Odysseus comes alive. That first stanza begins by addressing another figure: “Tell me about a complicated man. Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost When he had wrecked the holy town of Troy, and where he went, and who he met, the pain he suffered in the storms...

Read More