“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.
Daniel Mendelsohn teaches at Bard and is Editor-at-Large at The New York Review of Books. His books include An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic (2017); The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million (2006); How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken: Essays (2008), and, from New York Review Books, Waiting for the Barbarians: Essays from the Classics to Pop Culture (2012).
Vinson Cunningham is a staff writer and co-theatre critic for The New Yorker. His essays, reviews, and profiles have also appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the New York Times Book Review, FADER, Vulture, The Awl, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. A former White House staffer, he now teaches an MFA Writing course at Sarah Lawrence College and lives in New York City.