Episode 115 – Idlers and Belgians

Virtual Memories Show:
Edward Mendelson – Idlers and Belgians

“I have a private test for whether I’m an individual person or whether I’m part of the culture: I go to the supermarket and I look at the supermarket weeklies, and if I recognize the names, then I’m not a person, I’m a product of collective culture.”

moral-agents200Professor Edward Mendelson joins the show to talk about his new book, Moral Agents: Eight Twentieth-Century American Writers (New York Review Books), which profiles Lionel Triling, Dwight Macdonald, Alfred Kazin, William Maxwell, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, WH Auden, Frank O’Hara. We discuss the role of individuals in mass culture, the intellectual’s temptation to be a leader, the outdated figure of the Beloved Professor, Orwell’s misinterpretation of Auden, the writer he was terrified to meet, the failures of identity politics, the purpose of Columbia University’s Core Curriculum, his lack of nostalgia for the era of public intellectuals, the way certain books need a year off from teaching in order to recharge, and more. Give it a listen!

“All these writers were tempted by the way they were taken seriously.”

We also talk about why he hates one of my favorite novels, why he agrees with my take on Achilles’ uncanniness in the Iliad, why professors think students are getting dumber year after year, how the economic collapse of the ’70s led to improved colleges across the country, why he thinks Stoner is a study in self-pity, and more! Go listen!

Edward Mendelson on the Virtual Memories Show

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About our Guest

At Columbia since 1981, Professor Edward Mendelson has also taught at Yale and Harvard. A recipient of American Council of Learned Societies, NEH, and Guggenheim fellowships, he is chiefly interested in 19th-and 20th-century literature, formal and social aspects of poetry and narrative, and biographical criticism. He is Auden’s literary executor; his book Later Auden (1999) is a sequel to his Early Auden (1981). His book, The Things That Matter: What Seven Classic Novels Have to Say About the Stages of Life, was published by Pantheon in 2006. His new book is Moral Agents: Eight Twentieth-Century American Writers, from New York Review Books. He has edited a volume of essays on Thomas Pynchon and, with Michael Seidel, Homer to Brecht: The European Epic & Dramatic Traditions. He has prepared editions of novels by Hardy, Bennett, Meredith, Wells, and Trollope, the first five volumes of a complete edition of Auden, and selections of Auden’s poems and prose. His essays and reviews have appeared in the New York Review of Books, London Review of Books, TLS, the New York Times Book Review, and many other journals and collections, and he wrote an introduction for a new edition of Gravity’s Rainbow. He has also written about computers, music, and the visual arts. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and was the first Isabel Dalhousie Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Edinburgh.

Credits: This episode’s music is Homesickness by Tsegue-Maryam Guebrou. The conversation was recorded at Mr. Mendelson’s office on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Logic Pro. Photo of Mr. Mendelson by me.

Podcast: War is a Self-Licking Ice Cream Cone

Major Zachary D. Martin, USMC (ret'd.) on the Virtual Memories Show

Virtual Memories – season 3 episode 29 –
War is a Self-Licking Ice Cream Cone

“There is a great tradition of very brilliant, outside-the-box, non-traditional, dynamic thinkers in the Marine Corps. . . . At the same time, our totem animal is the bulldog, not an animal known for its finesse.”

Zach Martin recently retired from the U.S. Marine Corps after 16 years in the service. But 25 years ago, he and your host were hyperliterate misfit high-school pals, trading Thomas Pynchon, Thomas Disch and Robert Anton Wilson novels. So how did he end up commanding Marine Recon forces in Iraq and Afghanistan as Maj. Zachary D. Martin?

“We greatly misunderstand the young men who go overseas and fight for us. We make them idols. They’re heroes, but we misunderstand what that means.”

We have a wide-ranging conversation about Zach’s career, the military’s risk-averse culture, the rise (and fall) of counterinsurgency strategy, what it’s like to give a kill order, how it felt to lose troops under his command, what it’s like to clear, hold and build a city in Afghanistan (and how it felt to see it all fall apart), how he fought all his best battles in Afghanistan wearing shorts and t-shirt, and more!

“The police we were training [in Afghanistan] were effective. I mean, they were gangsters, but provided you were willing to overlook their criminal activities, they were certainly maintaining order.”

We also discuss Virginia Postrel’s The Power of Glamour and how it reflects the nation’s perception of the military, how he was inspired by Bill Clinton (but didn’t reckon with survivor bias), why he’d like to write a novel about his experiences at war, what books meant the most to him during his years in the service, the difference between motivation and volition, and why war is like a self-licking ice cream cone.

Enjoy the conversation! Then check out the archives for more great episodes! Related conversations:

Follow The Virtual Memories Show on iTunes, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and RSS!

About our Guest

Major Zachary D. Martin (ret.) was most recently a member of Afghan National Police Advisor Team, and previously served as the Commanding Officer, Force Reconnaissance Company, 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. His most recent deployment in that role was to Afghanistan in command of Company G, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines. He keeps a blog about his reading and writing at booksandmovement.net, where you can also find some of the articles he wrote during his career in the Marines.

Credits: This episode’s music is Life During Wartime by Talking Heads. The conversation was recorded at the home of a friend of Maj. Martin on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. The intro and outro were recorded at home on a Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Garage Band. Photo of Zach Martin by me.

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