THE ELUSIVE EMBRACE by Daniel Mendelsohn


Desire and the Riddle of Identity
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Mendelsohn’s first book is a clever attempt to look at gay identity and family mythology through literary narratives of antiquity. A classics scholar who for years has been grappling with issues such as gay culture and the homosexual psyche, Mendelsohn finds a natural connection between the “pagan culture” and “pagan acts.” He discovers in the Greek mentality and Greek language a tendency to bipolar thinking, whereby any articulated idea invites its opposite. Such, claims Mendelsohn, is the gay identity, which hovers between the extremes of the straight world into which every gay man is born and the gay world that he eventually chooses to inhabit. In Ovid, the myth of the nymph Echo illustrates how difference can be mistaken for sameness; it is supplemented by the myth of Narcissus, who, on the contrary, mistook his own face (sameness) for a stranger’s (difference). This ancient paradigm is reflected in the gay male perception of men and women. While for gays the female world signifies difference, other men signal sameness. Tracing the etymology of the word “identity” to the Latin adverb identidem (“repeatedly”), Mendelsohn defines the gay identity as an infinitely repeated desire for other men. Analyzing Sappho’s love poem about the frustration of seeing the erotic object pursued by someone else, the author reflects on similar painful episodes in his own love life. Euripides’ fatherhood tragedy Ion provides for Mendelsohn a framework for his own experiences as the godfather of a friend’s child. Here two extremes coalesce again, as he is driven both by his inherent fear of commitment to family life and by his enjoyment of this pseudofatherhood and the accompanying routine. Finally, Sophocles’Antigone presents the author with an archetypal myth of beauty and loss, which he sees reflected in his family’s myth of a great-aunt’s death. Despite Mendelsohn’s disturbingly excessive descriptions of his numerous one-night stands, his insights into the mechanisms of gay culture are interesting.

Pub Date: June 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-375-40095-8
Page count: 240pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1st, 1999


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