"The Elusive Embrace"

Reflecting on questions of love, lust and gay identity, a classical scholar turns up meaning in unexpected places.


Frank Browning
June 3, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Had he not come of age in the 1980s, Daniel Mendelsohn, like Gore Vidal (who matured 40 years earlier), would surely have looked down his long straight nose at the teeming, sweating masses of New York's gay gym bunnies and decamped for the sublime and rocky shores of the Mediterranean. He is, after all, a scholar of ancient Greek and Latin, a speaker of most of the Romance languages as well as German and Yiddish and an apparently dashing swain who, he tells us, has no trouble picking up comely bundles of muscle wherever they are. But Mendelsohn, a 39-year-old refugee from the suburbs, does like (or has liked) a pumped physique and has spent his young adulthood residing in the city's hottest gay ghetto (he prefers the term "colony"), Chelsea. He is a tormented -- deliciously tormented -- prisoner of his times. His debut book, on desire, love and identity, though at times needlessly repetitious, is also one of the smartest meditations on American homosexual life in many years.

Like most gay memoirists, Mendelsohn leads us through his sexual awakening (silently salivating over an unavailable Southern swimmer who transferred to his Long Island Jewish-intellectual high school) to his loss of homo-virginity (to a Virginia college classmate) to his eventual admittance to Chelsea boyland. Along the way he succumbs to ancient Greek, whose elusive linguistic images and structures become both intellectual and psychological guides to his own elusive sense of desire and identity. The key to understanding both the language and the author resides in a peculiar syntactic device of classical Greek: the use of the conjunctive men at the beginning of the first clause of a sentence in tandem with de at the beginning of the second clause.

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This syntax, which Mendelsohn renders as "on the one hand this" but "on the other hand that," epitomizes, he says, the Greek tendency to bipolar thinking. Yet the linguistic polarity of men and de is also key to Mendelsohn's story: the Jewish boy always chasing after fair-haired Southerners, the meditative intellectual in search of relentless play, the playboy dogged by the mysterious tombstone image of a beautiful immigrant ancestor 70 years dead, the hunk lover seduced by the infant child he is helping to raise. "If you spend a long enough time reading Greek literature, that rhythm begins to structure your thinking about other things, too," he writes. "The world men you were born into; the world de you choose to inhabit. Your Jewish men heritage, stern yet fertile, sexless (for you) because heterosexual, yet for the same reason procreative, proliferating, productive; your passion, de, for classical Greece, rich with fables that must always end the same way, the culture of perfected beauty and marmoreally self-sufficient bodies doomed always to repeat the same pleasures." It is a handsome device for intertwining the complexities of his own diverse passions and demolishing the simple-minded propaganda of the proliferating gay chambers of commerce bent on reducing homosexual desire to a marketing niche. It would be more effective still had he not lingered so long on the professorial platform, hectoring the reader with repetitious and often self-indulgent elaboration.

Mendelsohn's elusive embrace is nowhere stronger than in his brutal reflections on the difference between his love-lust for perfect young men and his simple love for his friend's child. He had never loved, truly loved, the boys he sought, he admits, because he stayed with them only "as long as they left me alone and whole and untouched." The love of those boys was like the narcissistic love of the dapper, oft-married grandfather who was his idol. "To be a lover -- to be a desirer, a collector -- is to be self-obsessed, for your desire is ultimately about yourself," he writes of both his grandfather and himself. "But to be a parent is, ultimately, to efface yourself -- your self In our different ways, my grandfather and I are great desirers."

Unlike the authors of the recent stream of soupy-minded diatribes against the exuberant sexuality of the gay demimonde, Mendelsohn does not repent his testosteronic chase. Yes, he has become a part-time suburbanite parent like his schlumpy mathematician father, but he still spends half his week in Manhattan, a few subway stops from the Chelsea corner he calls the Intersection of Desire. Daniel Mendelsohn remains, in this age of Monica moralizers, a "yes, but" seeker after the meaning of his own identity, a trickster of Gotham who understands well that simple nostrums are never adequate to complex passions.


Frank Browning

Frank Browning reported for nearly 30 years for NPR on sex, science and farming. He is the author of, among other books, "A Queer Geography" and "Apples."

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