“The role of the critic,” Daniel Mendelsohn writes, “is to mediate intelligently and stylishly between a work and its audience; to educate and edify in an engaging and, preferably, entertaining way.” His latest collection exemplifies the range, depth, and erudition that have made him “required reading for anyone interested in dissecting culture” (The Daily Beast). In Ecstasy and Terror, Mendelsohn once again casts an eye at literature, film, television, and the personal essay, filtering his insights through his training as a scholar of classical antiquity in illuminating and sometimes surprising ways.
Many of these essays look with fresh eyes at our culture’s Greek and Roman models: some find an arresting modernity in canonical works (Bacchae, the Aeneid), while others detect a “Greek DNA” in our responses to national traumas such as the Boston Marathon bombings and the assassination of JFK. There are pieces on contemporary literature, from the “aesthetics of victimhood” in Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life to the uncomfortable mixture of art and autobiography in novels by Henry Roth, Ingmar Bergman, and Karl Ove Knausgård. Mendelsohn considers pop culture, too, in essays on the feminism of Game of Thrones and on recent films about artificial intelligence—a subject, he reminds us, that was already of interest to Homer.
This collection also brings together for the first time a number of the award-winning memoirist’s personal essays, including his “critic’s manifesto” and a touching reminiscence of his boyhood correspondence with the historical novelist Mary Renault, who inspired him to study the Classics.