The Secret History by Donna Tartt
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I am too old, and I have seen too much, to fall in love with the novel that helped to inspire the #darkacademia trend. Granted, as a student who spent four years reading Shakespeare, Dickens, and Joyce under the high, dim vault of the Cathedral of Learning’s commons room, I had the most #darkacademic experience possible at an urban public research university. But then I spent seven years in graduate school, and seven years after that as an adjunct professor; I have seen the true darkness of academia, and it has very little to do with the Gothic trappings of Donna Tartt’s classic 1992 thriller.
What is #darkacademia, really, but a response to this genuine darkness? Such Poe-like airs as Tartt and her contemporary devotees put on are an attempt to reenchant the life of the mind after its exsanguination and despiritualization by the increasingly rationalized bureaucracies of the contemporary university. Despite attempts to bring the trend in line with social justice, #darkacademia represents a conservative backlash against both academic leftism and corporatist neoliberalism in our time, with these two tendencies’ routinized subversions and mandatory inculcations and profit-seeking administrations. In reaching back a generation to canonize The Secret History as the inspiration of their aesthetic, today’s gloomy ephebes chose wisely, since Tartt’s novel belongs to the last backlash, coming as it did between The Closing of the American Mind (1987) and The Western Canon (1994)—a black blossom between the Blooms—and deriving some of its emotional impetus, however disavowed, from the same sources as those jeremiads against the leveling of humanities education.
The Secret History is a long book—over 500 pages—with a complicated plot, but the basic premise is simple. Our narrator is Richard Papen, a lower-middle-class suburban Californian who matriculates to Hampden, a fictional small Vermont liberal arts college. Once on campus, he falls in with a glamorous quintet of privileged classics students who study under the exclusive tutelage of a forbidding but charming instructor named Julian. Concealing his modest origins, Richard becomes entangled in the lives of the young classicists, a company that includes the chilly genius Henry (the group’s unofficial leader), the beguiling twins Charles and Camilla (Richard falls in love with the alluringly epicene sister), the dashing but closeted Francis, and the boisterous, lovably vulgar sponger Bunny. Richard is drawn more deeply into their troubles when, in an attempt to reenact the bacchic frenzy, they accidentally kill a Vermont farmer. When Bunny, who was not present at the rite, learns about this manslaughter and threatens either blackmail or simple drunken blabbing, the group, led by the mastermind Henry, plots a more deliberate murder. Tartt reveals that the group killed Bunny on the novel’s first page, and the actual killing comes midway through the book; the remainder is a meandering double bill of suspense—will they get away with it?—and meditation on the wages of sin.
In theory, Tartt means to morally indict the classics-obsessed mentality, the way pornographers used to preface their works with an assurance that all the fornication to follow was offered merely as a cautionary tale. In practice, just as Mario Puzo succeeded only in glamorizing the mafia, Norman Lear inadvertently turned Archie Bunker into a folk hero, and even Nabokov inspired some number of young girls to don heart-shaped glasses in a misunderstanding of his fable’s import, Tartt has only created a cult around her classicists’ cultus. She bears some responsibility for this ostensible misprision, it must be said.
For example, Tartt tries to have her narrative’s politics both ways. She may mean to criticize or even satirize the dissolution of the privileged, but she makes their freedom and savoir-faire undeniably attractive, partially by ensuring that the novel has no other pole of attraction. The other Hampden students are progressive-school dilettantes, intellectually unserious party animals. The Vermont townies are even worse, a bunch of brain-dead bigots—a basket of deplorables, I am tempted to say—so the collateral death of one such rube in the pursuit of our heroes’ ecstasy is no great loss. The novel’s other designated victim, the nouveau riche vulgarian Bunny, is also the only member of our sextet to be violently bigoted himself, dropping homophobic and anti-Semitic slurs every few pages to offset our regret at his forced tumble down the ravine. Tartt hints early on that Julian himself shares Bunny’s biases—
“We’ll be studying Dante, Virgil, all sorts of things. But I wouldn’t advise you to go out and buy a copy of Goodbye, Columbus” (required, notoriously, in one of the freshman English classes) “if you will forgive me for being vulgar.”
—but she drops it quickly. Our classicists remain mostly untainted by such lapses in political taste, being culturally cosmopolitan and erotically urbane rather than provincial and prejudiced. (Their sexual sophistication, by the way, encompasses both bisexuality and incest, as if Tartt thought these equivalent.)
With these unconvincing feints, popular fiction tries to morally launder the iniquitous and inequitable fantasy of freedom it proffers to readers. Despite poptimists’ charge that critics of Tartt are “elitist” when they point out her melodramatic plotting, evidenced by this weighty novel’s many empty calories of ersatz suspense, or her often overwrought prose (“His eyes were magnified and wicked behind his pince-nez”), the source of this novel’s popularity is nevertheless its daydream fantasy about joining the elite. Then again, maybe this moral duplicity is not entirely Tartt’s fault. Truffaut’s famous if apocryphal adage on the limits of cinema—he is supposed to have said, “There is no such thing as an anti-war film,” since movies glamorize everything—might hold true for all the arts and any subject matter. To create an effective work of art about [X] is to fashion [X] into the artifice of eternity, and what could be more glamorous than that? Another temptation is to say that great literature shouldn’t imaginatively fulfill the audience’s wishes, but too many readers want to marry Messrs. Darcy and Rochester or to join the conversation in Joyce’s Dublin and on Mann’s mountain for this to be true. To the endless despair of spartan socialists and other preachers of grayly Mao-jacketed justice, accession to the exceptionality of art is what common readers—and here I count myself among them—have always wanted. We are all Richard Papen.
On that note, one period-specific detail of The Secret History that might ring oddly to today’s reader is Richard’s casual contempt for the radical left. Richard is a morally trustworthy narrator—we know this because he overtly worries about whether or not he is, and he dutifully tells us about all his faults—so when he makes fun of Hampden’s self-styled “progressive” bien-pensance, we know we can take him seriously, especially since such jocular sallies against the further left was a staple of serious fiction from the ’70s through the 2000s—from, let’s say, A Book of Common Prayer to American Pastoral (Tartt is in good company). Now we know that this counter-revolutionary sensibility was at least in part the result of an psychological operation, but even so, at least as far as fiction is concerned, the CIA was only going with the grain of the novel form, which has always, with its slow accretion of social detail and its plenitudes of strongly particularized characters, swamped extremist passions in an abundant flow of temporal experience. As Tartt has told many an interviewer, her hero is Charles Dickens.
The Greek-loving extremists are the main flaw of The Secret History, though, the price Tartt pays for her essential Dickensian moderation. If you are a writer, you will re-write your contemporaries’ novels in your head as you read them, and I just couldn’t and can’t understand why Tartt so neglects the character of Julian. I would have cast him as the novel’s Ahab, the captain of his dark seminar’s doomed crew, a brooding and Byronic central figure; I would have had him present for both killings, masterminding their evasion of law enforcement, and I would even have made him, not Henry, the demon lover of Camilla. Isn’t he supposed to be the inspiration for Henry and Co.’s orgies? If so, he should utter dialogue that rises above a slightly darker version of Dead Poets Society platitudes: “I hope we’re all ready to leave the phenomenal world, and enter into the sublime?” (Richard weakly apologizes on behalf of his author, “it is impossible for a mediocre intellect to render the speech of a superior one,” but many writers from Wilde to Nabokov, both cited alongside Dickens by Tartt as influences, have found a way.) We also learn little about him since he occupies so few of the novel’s pages, and what we do learn makes him sound like a globetrotting fop rather than a menacing mage. I’m sure part of Tartt’s purpose is to cut this arrogant figure down to size, but she fails to persuade us of his grandeur first. As for Henry, the book’s cold and ingenious villain, he is, with his one-note personality and his improbably complete erudition (ranging from Sanskrit to mycology), a cartoon rather than a character; if you’ll suffer another pop-culture allusion, he is Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory transposed from low comedy to high melodrama, but still a bit ludicrous for the metamorphosis. Since Julian fails to convince as human Dionysus and Henry is only a dark Apollo, and a wooden one at that, it’s hard to understand just what drives our protagonists to the brink of insanity.
Tellingly, the second half of The Secret History loses track of the dangerous-classics theme and is all the better for it. As Tartt drifts from her slightly gimmicky premise during the long sequence of Bunny’s funeral, the novel becomes a bittersweet comedy of manners, dramatizing the danger not of intellection but rather of wealth untethered to character or purpose. In these scenes, and in Tartt’s poignant command throughout the novel of the passage of time, the turn of the seasons, I see the young author’s potential to become a novelist of a more conventionally “literary” type, in the manner of Johns Cheever, Updike, or Irving, free to pursue character and mood when unburdened by the straitjacket of the highly artificial thriller convention’s demand that the author generate regular, emotionally escalating episodes of suspense. Such realism, just as much as the literate sensation novel, is a genuinely Dickensian legacy; it is also, ultimately, the key to the novel’s significance.
A critic of no less “elitist” a reputation than the late George Steiner himself is quoted on the paperback’s first page, praising Tartt for “having the arrogant boldness to tell us that it is in abstract, arcane scholarship and mandarin addictions that utter violence can flourish.” Steiner was fond of repeating the observation that the Nazis listened to Schubert and read Goethe while they tended the death camps; presumably, he considered Tartt an ally in his warning that art cannot make us better people. The Secret History, however, does not mount Steiner’s case about the supposed moral treachery of the aesthetic. For Tartt, the art-and-morality question is finally a question of which art.
The closest Tartt comes to a general statement is not about art per se or high art or elite culture, but simply about the fact that Ancient Greece is not a reliable moral model to the modern citizen. At one point, Richard attributes to Julian an excessive love of “Art and Beauty,” while in a later passage he refers to Julian’s “high cold principles” of “[d]uty, piety, loyalty, sacrifice.” But these aren’t really compatible values, and neither of them reflect the quest for Dionysian frenzy Julian’s students undertake following his counsel to embrace the irrational; Tartt’s characters make a mishmash of Athens and Sparta, of archaic and classical Greece, of Apollo and Dionysus; all that matters for their purposes is that they evade the modern, the everyday, the mediocre, the contingent; and this evasion is what “Greece” in all its avatars seems to mean to them. In Richard’s finest literary observation, he contrasts the Greek language with the English, while also contrasting the harsh, fated clarity of the classical sensibility to the errant and contingent copiousness of a disposition he does not name but which we might variously call the Gothic, the Romantic, or simply the novelistic:
How can I make you see it, this strange harsh light which pervades Homer’s landscapes and illumines the dialogues of Plato, an alien light, inarticulable in our common tongue? Our shared language is a language of the intricate, the peculiar, the home of pumpkins and ragamuffins and bodkins and beer, the tongue of Ahab and Falstaff and Mrs Gamp; and while I find it entirely suitable for reflections such as these, it fails me utterly when I attempt to describe in it what I love about Greek, that language innocent of all quirks and cranks; a language obsessed with action, and with the joy of seeing action multiply from action, action marching relentlessly ahead and with yet more actions filing in from either side to fall into neat step at the rear, in a long straight rank of cause and effect toward what will be inevitable, the only possible end.
Here is Tartt’s truest triumph: this idolator of Dickens has defeated her anti-heroes’ delusions of grandly pitiless Greek tragedy at the level of literary form, by capturing their personalities in the honest but forgiving comic light of homely English fiction. Tartt’s—and Richard’s—antidote to the derangements inspired by ancient aesthetics is not a critique of art but rather the art of the novel. I can’t celebrate #darkacademia, but I can celebrate that.
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