Cover image for The elusive embrace : desire and the riddle of identity
The elusive embrace : desire and the riddle of identity
Mendelsohn, Daniel Adam, 1960-
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Knopf, 1999.
Physical Description:
205 pages ; 22 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
HQ75.8.M46 A3 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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A provocative, profoundly moving literary debut--part personal history, part cultural commentary--that announces a writer of dazzling originality. In an emotionally charged narrative that weaves together past and present, the personal and the scholarly, a young critic and classicist takes us on a search for the meaning of identity--while showing, through remarkably fresh and accessible readings of such classical Greek and Roman writers as Catullus and Sappho, Ovid and Sophocles, how ancient stories  continue to hold truths for us today. The landscapes through which Daniel Mendelsohn takes us: the deceptively quiet streets of the suburb where he grew up, torn between his mathematician father, who sought after scientific truth, and his Orthodox Jewish grandfather, who told "beautiful lies"; the Southern university, steeped in history and secret traditions, where he first experienced seductions both sexual and intellectual; Internet chat rooms and the streets of Chelsea, Manhattan's newest gay ghetto, where "desire for love" competes with "love of desire"; the quiet, moonlit house where a close friend's small son teaches him the meaning of fatherhood. And, in a narrative tour de force that marks the book's conclusion, Mendelsohn's themes--desire and sexuality, the hidden meanings of classical and Hebrew writings, the restless search for cultural and personal identity--come together in a final revelation. In a neglected Jewish cemetery, the author uncovers a family secret that demonstrates the universal need for storytelling, for inventing myths of the self.

Author Notes

Daniel Mendelsohn is an award-winning author. He received a B.A. in Classics from the University of Virginia and received his M.A. and Ph.D. in Classics from Princeton University.

Upon completing his Ph.D. in 1994, Mendelsohn began a career in journalism. In 2005 Mendelsohn was the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship for a translation of Cavafy's "Unfinished" poems, with commentary. His other honors include the National Book Critics Circle Award for Excellence in Book Reviewing (2000) and the George Jean Nathan Prize for Drama Criticism (2002).

Mendelsohn's academic speciality is Greek (especially Euripidean) tragedy. In 2015 his title The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million made the New Zealand Best Seller List.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

Green and Mendelsohn are much alike: gay, Jewish, longtime New Yorkers whose lives have been changed in early middle age by children. Green became nothing less than an active, involved parent, thanks to falling for high-school counselor Andy, a somewhat older, fellow gay New York Jew, who had just adopted a Latino Californian newborn. Green met Andy during a Hamptons weekend; luckily, he thinks, he was snared by the sight of Andy before realizing that the big package Andy was lifting out of the car was a carrier with an infant boy in it. Green fell for the child, Erez, as well as the father, participating increasingly with child care and backing Andy up when he decided to adopt another Latino newborn whom they named, at Green's suggestion, Lucas. Eventually, Green gave up his 18-year lease in Manhattan, moved a two-minute walk (down Love Lane--really!) from Andy in Brooklyn, and began the legal process of becoming the boys' second adoptive parent. Green tells this story in quarters--the first, superbly written, about Andy from childhood to adopting Erez; the next about himself, from childhood to meeting Andy; the third about developments up to the second adoption; and the last about two-child family life to date. He directly addresses the public issues swirling around gay parentage only in the last few pages, for his concern has been to show how--just as for the stuffed bunny in the children's classic to which the book's title refers--a child's love made Andy and, then, him "real." So doing, he dispels any qualms about these gay parents. Mendelsohn arrived at the same place--personal authenticity--that Green did, but his journey to it was different. Unlike Green, who reports lifelong sexual reticence, Mendelsohn plunged into the homosexual circus of 1970s and early 1980s Manhattan, albeit safely enough to avoid AIDS; and his book is partly about how desire shaped his self-conceptions, not very satisfactorily. It is also about other, conflicting sources of identity, principally his immigrant grandparents and their family stories. He learned, however, that those stories were interpretively constructed, even fabricated, not unlike his self-realization as a gay man. Getting a firm fix on who he "really" was seemed elusive, no matter which source he pursued. Spending half his time in New Jersey, caring for the child of a close female friend who, aging with no good marital prospects in sight, decided on assisted pregnancy, proved his ticket to wholeness. Read in tandem or independently, Green and Mendelsohn powerfully question the notion of exclusive gay identity and movingly affirm the value, regardless of sexual orientation, of parenthood. --Ray Olson

Publisher's Weekly Review

Weaving philosophical musings and discussions of Greek myths and drama with his personal experiences, Mendelsohn explores issues of identity, sexuality, fatherhood, family and history in five essays that amount to an idiosyncratic memoir. A lecturer in classics at Princeton whose literary criticism has appeared in the New Yorker and Out, he aims to understand the apparent contradictions of his life as a single gay man and a father figure to a friend's son, and as a critic and consumer of gay culture who lives amidst yet apart from his Jewish immigrant family's heterosexuality. Despite his ambition, however, Mendelsohn doesn't entirely hit his mark. The book is flawed by a style that aims to be elegantly elaborateÄone sentence is 404 words longÄbut comes across as pretentious (as when he employs "necropolis" instead of "cemetery" for little reason). His use of Greek myths is neither original nor insightful; a three-page sketch of the story of Antigone feels like filler. More problematic, however, is Mendelsohn's tendency not simply to generalize but to universalize from his own experience. He makes such dubious claims as this: "when men have sex with a woman they fall `into' the woman... gay men fall through their partners back into themselves." He also frequently speaks unreflectively of all gay men as a single group, undercutting his credibility as a social observer and critic. In the end, his intense focus on the primacy of his experience and the lack of social and historical context diminishes the resonance his own experience might have for others. (June) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



From Chapter One For a long time I have lived in two places.         One of these places is a quiet street lined with houses whose windows peer out from between wooden shutters at trees and the occasional car, a street in many ways like the nondescript one where I grew up, seething and afraid. When I am in that place, I live in one of those narrow squinting houses with a woman and a small child. I will come to that later.         The other place where I live is in New York City, slightly to the north of gay culture.         Half a block west of my front door lies Eighth Avenue, a one-way, four-lane, north-south artery that carries traffic uptown--that is, north. Eighth Avenue begins far downtown as the much smaller Hudson Street, still paved in places with cobblestones and endlessly subject to obscure and ongoing repairs; down there, it takes you past tiny cross-streets whose numberless names betray their great age, since once you get above the Village, above Fourteenth Street, the later, modern, rigid grid on which Manhattan is laid out supersedes the haphazard and twisted and ancient streets to the south. The grid is, for the most part, easy: its longitudinal lines are all called avenues, their numbers increasing as you go from east to west (with a few famous exceptions, like Park and Madison), and its latitudinal lines are streets, whose numbers escalate as you go from south to north. Attempts are occasionally made to impose names on these numbers--we are supposed to call Sixth Avenue "the Avenue of the Americas," for instance, and someone has rechristened a snippet of West Sixty-fifth Street near Lincoln Center "Leonard Bernstein Way"--but New Yorkers, always pressed for time, enjoy the brisk and unromantic efficiency of the numbers and ignore the names. In many ways we are a city of people who prefer numbers to names.         As Hudson Street arcs its way up through the West Village, which until recently was the center of New York gay life, it shakes off its curves and widens, becoming Eighth Avenue just below Fourteenth Street, which is the east-west thoroughfare that marks the southern boundary of the neighborhood called Chelsea, the current center of New York gay life. Fourteenth Street divides the Village from Chelsea. Most of the streets in Greenwich Village have names; all of the streets in Chelsea are numbered.         If you walk the half-block from my door to Eighth Avenue and make a right turn into it here, in the mid-Twenties, following the traffic north, it'll take you first past some nondescript lofts and tenements and, at Twenty-seventh Street, the Fashion Institute of Technology, which is known generally by its acronym, F.I.T., or, more locally, as "Fags In Training"; then it heads past the big train station at Thirty-fourth Street and the bus station at Forty-second. The avenue continues up through the glittering clutter of Times Square and, after dissolving briefly into the incoherent rapids of Columbus Circle, reemerges rather grandly as Central Park West. Lined by stout matronly prewar buildings on one side and the park on the other, Central Park West neatly divides Culture from Nature for the perusal of those well heeled enough to appreciate the view. It continues with bourgeois rectitude straight up along the park into the West Seventies and Eighties and Nineties--addresses that, at least until the rise of Chelsea as the city's premier gay neighborhood, were favored by a lot of gay men, but are now more likely to be associated, at least by the emigres here in my neighborhood, with yuppies, strollers, and, vaguely, heterosexuality.         But of course I rarely turn right at the end of my block. Instead I almost always head south, against the flow of traffic. When I do so it's only a couple of blocks from my street to Twenty-third Street, which is Chelsea's northern border. The neighborhood itself extends as far east as Broadway and as far west as Tenth Avenue; but its living heart is Eighth Avenue. Between Fourteenth Street on the south and Twenty-third Street on the north, Eighth Avenue is, for all intents and purposes, the Main Street of the gayest enclave of the gayest city in the world.         When I was in high school, in a newish suburb that had the word "Old" in its name, as if to assuage the insecurities of its first-generation American homeowners, a place where the houses, identical in structure, were distinguishable only by the color of their nonfunctional shutters, I dreamed of a place like this. I am sure that many other gay youths had (and still have) the same dream. Like me, they may have secretly read certain books over the course of successive weekends while standing nervously in the stacks of the local public library or in B. Dalton, so great was the terror of bringing those particular books home; like me, they may have kissed and fondled the soft demanding bodies of girls with the same sense of willed detachment they brought to laboratory dissections of frogs; like me, they may have needed to summon up the pictures of other classmates as they did so, classmates who were also boys, whose striped swimsuits and wide, awkward shoulders gave some of their friends a sense of panicked tenderness that, because unutterable, soon hardened into irony. I secretly imagined a place where all the people were other boys, and where all the stores and books and songs and movies and restaurants were by boys, about other boys. It would be a place where somehow the outside reality of the world that met your eyes and ears could finally be made to match the inner, hidden reality of what you knew yourself to be. A place where willed detachment and a carapace of irony would no longer be necessary.         This is the place I can go to if, when I reach the end of my street, I turn left instead of right. Curiously, now that I'm here it's not clear to me that this is the place I want to be. I divide my time now between my two geographies: the familiar streets of Chelsea, with its men and boys and flesh, and the street in the suburb about sixty miles away, lined with pin oaks and taciturn old houses. In front of these houses you will see no young men. You might see a retired widower mowing the lawn--"cutting the grass," he might say--with a rusting red mower, or an old woman sitting on the porch, fanning herself with a tabloid, scanning the street and other people's windows for some event, something to happen. Built long before the thinly shingled houses in the place where I grew up were hastily assembled, these houses are stolid: you sense about them that they know they will outlive, once again, the present generation of owners. These houses have real shutters, shutters that work. Sometimes when I take a break from writing I walk down the east side of Eighth to Fourteenth Street, then cross over to the west side and walk back up. At the corner of Twenty-second Street is the Big Cup, a Day-Glo-painted coffeehouse that has proved even more popular as a late-night alternative to gay bars than it is as an afternoon gathering spot for other self-employeds. The latter tend, as far as I can see, to fall into two groups: writers, whose elaborate charade of using their laptops productively sags more and more with every hopeful glance up at the opening door, and a small but fairly regular collection of hustlers, who monopolize the telephone at the back of the room while checking off entries in what you assume must be small black books. In Twenty-second Street itself are Barracuda, a low-ceilinged gay bar that has been frequented exclusively by horny young middle-class gay men since it opened in the fall of 1995 with a party celebrating the publication of a queer-radical treatise by the lesbian activist Urvashi Vaid; and Barracuda's next-door neighbor, a bookstore called the Unicorn, whose inconsequential stock lines a small front room through which you pass en route to the back room, a barely lit space where men can have sex with each other after paying a ten-dollar entrance fee.         But as I say, I usually continue straight down Eighth. Just past the Big Cup is a home furnishings store called Distinctive Furnishings, where you can buy, among other things, screen savers that display mostly-naked, muscle-bound young men in bathing suits. Then there's a clothing store called Tops N Bottoms (a gleeful double entendre: in the language of gay sex those words refer to those who prefer the active and passive roles in intercourse). A nearby card store called Rainbows and Triangles has a full stock of gay-themed birthday and anniversary and condolence cards. "Because I know how you feel" goes the inside of a card whose outside shows a well-dressed young hunk in a black suit holding a white rose. On this side of the avenue you eventually also pass the American Fitness gym, almost invariably referred to by its campier nickname, "American Princess." Many of the gyms frequented by gay men have been similarly redubbed: Better Bodies has become "Bitter Bottoms," and, in wry but not wholly unadmiring tribute to its owner's hypertrophied pectorals, the David Barton gym on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Thirteenth Street is also known as "Dolly Parton's." A bit farther south is the Chelsea Gym, through whose enormous second-floor windows you can watch men cycle and lift things and run. The crucial meeting between the two male leads in the gay film Jeffrey is set here. Perhaps in recognition of its primacy in the chronology of body culture, the Chelsea Gym has no nickname.         Also on this side of Eighth Avenue are the Viceroy restaurant--a place you hear described as being one of the "nice" eating spots on this avenue which seems, the more you think of it, to be about little besides feeding, developing, and clothing men's bodies--and the Video Blitz video store. The Video Blitz is just across Seventeenth Street from a huge Blockbuster, but local gay men are apt to belong to both, since Blockbuster cannot compete with Video Blitz's ample collection of art films and gay pornography for rental: The Bigger the Better, A Matter of Size, Brothers Should Do It.         When I get as far south as Fourteenth Street I usually cross Eighth Avenue and head back uptown. At Fifteenth I pass the Candy Bar and Grill, which opened in the fall of 1996 and whose door is monitored alternately by a tallish drag queen and a shorter, chubby club promoter. The decor here recalls that of upscale Catskills hotels of the fifties, the kind of place my Jewish, heterosexual family might have gone for a weekend in, say, 1953, the year my parents, a mathematician and a schoolteacher, were married; but by now the large and intricate "Moderne" lighting fixtures that would have impressed those young Jewish people almost fifty years ago have, like so many artifacts from the world of their youth, somehow become the objects of irony, signaling a particular brand of stylishness, a certain kind of knowingness, to the young, attractive gay men who come here in order to feel glamorous and special. (For some reason many of these men are dark-haired; not Jewish perhaps, but Mediterranean.) North of Candy Bar is FoodBar, perhaps the most popular restaurant in the neighborhood, at least partly because its co-owner, Joe, is as opulently well muscled and darkly handsome as some of its clientele is, and most of its clientele aspires to be. As you walk past FoodBar you invariably see him through the enormous plate-glass window etched with the restaurant's name; he's sitting on a bar stool close to the front door, smoking in a tight T-shirt, dispensing seats and air kisses to huge men in work boots and tank tops. Often as I pass by on my walks he'll raise an amused eyebrow at me and beckon me in with a look that says he won't take seriously my inevitable protests about overwork and looming deadlines; pushing a pack of cigarettes across the bar at me, he'll order me a glass of red wine, and another one for himself, and we'll gossip about boys or books. There are no unattractive waiters at FoodBar. Excerpted from The Elusive Embrace: Desire and the Riddle of Identity by Daniel Mendelsohn All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.