A Critic Considers the ‘Ecstasy and Terror’ of Today With the Help of a Few Ancients

From the Greeks to “Game of Thrones”
By Daniel Mendelsohn

I get the feeling, or perhaps the impression, that Daniel Mendelsohn would already disapprove of any review that opens with the words “feeling” or “impression.” “Ecstasy and Terror,” his third collection of essays, examines subjects across the millenniums, from Sappho and Euripides to C. P. Cavafy, John Williams, Karl Ove Knausgaard and “Game of Thrones.” The final piece is “A Critic’s Manifesto,” from 2012, a Mendelsohn origin story of sorts, about the venerated critics he read in his youth. Their own “long and searching” essays were mini-disquisitions, so that when the teenage Mendelsohn hijacked the family copy of The New Yorker, he could learn from them about opera, poetry, dance and film, as well as the way this critical knowledge “could derive from passion, not a diploma.” He worshiped critics whose immense expertise stemmed “above all from their great love for the subject”: All hail Kael. “Even when you disagreed with them,” Mendelsohn writes, “their judgments had authority, because they were grounded in something more concrete, more available, than ‘feelings’ or ‘impressions.’”

Mendelsohn, now in his late 50s, grew up “in the waning days of ‘old’ literary culture” and still practices an expansive pedagogic mode of reviewing. (Most of the essays here were previously published in The New York Review of Books or by The New Yorker.) The manifesto that closes “Ecstasy and Terror” is a helpful guide to his technique. Most reviews should be a mix of positive and negative assessment, he states; they should not “devolve into flaccid cheerleading.” They should keep a sense of humor. Honor the subject. Edify readers. The unspoken lesson might be to sprinkle in illuminating analogies from antiquity as often as possible, for Zeus’ sake. Mendelsohn is either one of the great critics of our time or an unregistered cultural lobbyist sent from Mount Olympus.

“Most of the 20 essays collected here,” he assures us, “are not about the classics per se — although inevitably, and I hope interestingly, some of them betray the influence of my classical background.” With Mendelsohn, that background is always near. His ambitious project is not to resuscitate the classics but to remind us, as he put it in an earlier collection, that no such “mausoleum of culture” exists. Our breath is theirs — from “the high Aeschylean sheen” of “The Lord of the Rings” to George R. R. Martin’s “tart Thucydidean appreciation for the way in which political corruption can breed narrative corruption.” A “Greek DNA,” he argues, was present in our response to the Boston Marathon bombings and J.F.K.’s assassination.

The long and searching essay is a powerful tool for those who can make use of the space. Within it, Mendelsohn assumes different roles. Judgment is important but not the sole purpose. Some of the finest moments in this collection emerge when he examines our misinterpretations. His essay on Sappho draws on recently discovered fragments of her work, which reveal a poet who might not conform to current expectations. Many of the accepted facts of her biography “dissolve on close scrutiny” — as do conventional assumptions about her homosexuality.

“In Greek popular culture of the classical period and afterward Sappho was known primarily as an oversexed predator — of men,” he writes. In Sappho studies, there is “so little Sappho to study,” which may be a good way to ensure preconceived notions remain intact. But Mendelsohn takes pleasure in outlining new theories, demonstrating the vitality of ancient poetry as it makes its arduous journey through the centuries, surviving fires, floods, critics and “disapproving church fathers.” In Mendelsohn’s own translations, Sappho’s sentiments are so clear and familiar they could have been uttered this afternoon: “For the moment I catch sight of you there’s no / speech left in me.”

Elsewhere Mendelsohn finds subtle clues in a translation of Virgil’s verse by David Ferry, which unfortunately “smooths away” what he maintains is Virgil’s necessary oddness. Pay attention to the word placement. Ferry renders a line “The lofty walls of Rome” as opposed to the more accurate “walls of lofty Rome.” The latter reveals much more about empire than architecture, Mendelsohn points out. Throughout, his assessment is forensic and revelatory. His admonishment persuasive: Don’t correct the poet’s strangeness. Keep Virgil Weird.

Also: Celebrate complexity. Mendelsohn’s essay on Cavafy teaches us to appreciate the Greek poet’s unique perspective, “one that (as it were) allowed him to see history with a lover’s eye and love with a historian’s eye.” Mendelsohn argues for a nuanced reading, threading his way toward the “moving unity” of Cavafy’s poetry. While Mendelsohn is always compelled to note connections between work from another era and our own day, he understands in the case of Cavafy when this urge to “see him as one of us … threatens to take a crucial specificity away from him.”

Complex assessments don’t preclude the occasional forceful thumbs down. In a section titled “Moderns,” Mendelsohn gathers up existing critical consensus, disagrees and then deflates Hanya Yanagihara’s epic examination of male friendship in her novel “A Little Life,” which had been praised as “the great gay novel.” Mendelsohn notes that the book is “curiously reticent about the accouterments of erotic life” familiar to many urban gay men.

Pans are necessary, and the burden is noticeable in each negative Mendelsohn review — not in the prose itself but in the evident lengths to which he has gone to familiarize himself with the author’s previous works, biography, interviews and other press coverage. This means Mendelsohn can slice an author’s Achilles but leave a reader jotting down a list of her other books, the ones he believes succeed. It’s a rare fairness.

A recurring theme of “Ecstasy and Terror” is that critical decisions must come through an appetite for learning. “To think is to make judgments based on knowledge: period,” Mendelsohn writes. As readers, we may never achieve what he once described as Susan Sontag’s “insatiable avidity,” but a good critic should lure us on, so that our pursuit of their knowledge is irresistible. Successful criticism leaves readers helpless to do anything but keep reading. A good critic, he writes, “hungers to make sense of that new thing, to analyze it, interpret it, make it mean something.” A good critic also ensures his omnivorousness extends to the reader. As Medusa might have said, “Gorge on.”

Craig Taylor is the author of “Londoners.”

From the Greeks to “Game of Thrones”
By Daniel Mendelsohn
378 pp. New York Review Books. Paper, $18.95.

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