Why I Loved The Secret History and the Invasion of Academic Aesthetics

“Death is the mother of beauty,” said Henry.
“And what is beauty?”
“Terror.”
“Well said,” said Julian. “Beauty is rarely soft or consolatory. Quite the contrary. Genuine beauty is always quite alarming.”
I looked at Camilla, her face bright in the sun, and thought of line from the Iliad I love so much, about Pallas Athene and the terrible eyes shining.
“And if beauty is terror,” said Julian, “then what is desire? We think we have many desires, but in fact we have only one. What is it?”
“To live,” said Camilla.
“To live forever,” said Bunny, chin cupped in palm.

from The Secret History, Chapter One

For a long while now, I’ve been absolutely bonkers about academics. Stories of old universities—the kinds with thirteenth-century libraries full of old, dusty books—have always struck chords inside my head. Ever since I was twelve years old, I wanted to be that scholar. You know: the one who scribbles in Latin on a piece of parchment with a long quill pen, no light to write by save the flickering flame of a dying oil lamp. University aspirations have been high ever since I was little, and they have been entirely of my own creation (my parents support me, but have never pressured me into pursuing higher academics, thankfully).

As a college senior at eighteen, I’m still in love with research, reading, and writing. I’m still utterly bamboozled by the fact that I’ll have a bachelor’s degree ere five months expires. I can’t seem to get enough, and my ultimate hope (as I’ve mentioned in earlier posts) is to gain an offer at one of the graduate school programs I’ve applied to.

I am unashamedly wrapped up in academics, books (and books and books), classical music, chess, the German language, beautiful old things, philosophy, theology, cobblestoned cities, and turtleneck sweaters paired with a beret. I always considered my interest in such things to be…niche. Unique to me. Very atypical of the twenty-first century young person.

I’m obsessed.

I felt this about my glossy hardcover copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy.

ANYWAY.

Recently, I’ve noticed these aesthetic trends on the internet (and perhaps I’m a bit late in finally addressing this) called dark academia and it’s sister aesthetic, light academia. There are several variants—gothic academia, classic academia, romantic academia—all of which are basically the same at their basest level.

These aesthetics took 2020 by storm. I have realized—woefully late—that these have existed for a few years now, but the insanity that was last year really set them off. To my credit, I discovered these academic trends last summer when I watched the delightful film Dead Poets Society for the first time, fell in love with Neil Perry, and have been absolutely tickled by the academia aesthetic scene ever since.

The academia aesthetics—to define them briefly—revolve around the pursuit of knowledge and the romanticization of studying, art, beauty, human nature (which can often prove problematic), and self-discovery. Picture a forlorn student carrying an armful of works by Epicurus and Homer. He or she is wearing a long cloak, a beret, and walking briskly down the foggy, deserted street of a university town somewhere in Europe with the sole intention of making it to the pub in time for the meeting of a secret society. Typical colors worn by said student include brown, plaid, and black, and their favorite time of year is autumn.

*giggles*

The only reason I have waited this long to write about these gorgeous aesthetics is because I felt the need to finish Donna Tartt’s The Secret History before completely outing myself as an aesthetic-obsessed academic. Everyone within the illusive, mysterious dark academia community seems to have a copy of said book. I have been waiting with ardent, foot-stamping anticipation to finally talk about this novel on my blog.

Because while I love The Secret History for the aesthetic, I love it so much more for the philosophy. In fact, I feel as though The Secret History—while it is considered the primary dark academia reference book for good reasons—is actually a bit of a critique of academic aesthetics themselves.

The main character, Richard, is basically a young man who gets obsessed with the Dark-and-Broody-Intellectual™ aesthetic at a prestigious east coast university he attends, and after being ushered into a very selective group of breathtakingly brilliant Greek students, the aesthetic itself begins to drive all of them into moral decrepitude.

Their only conviction is that of the aesthetic, and that aesthetic takes them to horribly dark places. I will not be giving spoilers in this post, (as I know a lot of you readers have expressed interest in reading The Secret History for yourselves) but I will say that one of my main reasons for loving this novel was due to the way it spoke to me as an aspiring academic.

The pursuit of knowledge must have a purpose.

The novel was and continues to be a bit of a call-to-arms for me as a student. Even though I finished it a month ago, the memory of it continually forces me to look inward and ask myself: where do I expect to go with all of the knowledge I have and all the knowledge I hope to acquire? Why do I want what I want?

There’s one particular scene in The Secret History before all the Drama™ begins and things are perfect and picturesque (as per their ideal aesthetic), where Richard and Charles are asking one another where they and their pretentious friend group will be in ten years.

And as the scene progresses, they both seem to silently realize that neither of them has any clue of what they want or what they’ll end up doing with their education.

Charles looked at me sideways. “So, what about you?” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, do you have any plans?” He laughed. “What are you doing for the next forty or fifty years of your life?”
Out on the lawn, Bunny had just knocked Henry’s ball about seventy feet outside the court. There was a ragged burst of laughter; faint, but clear, it floated back across the evening air. That laughter haunts me still.

from The Secret History, Chapter Two

The last line of that excerpt is especially bone-chilling giving the novel’s denouement, but it actually answers part of Charles’s question. And if you’ve read the book, you’re nodding your head and also biting your lip.

The consequences of their drama is what the next forty or fifty years of their lives will all be marred by. The consequences of their desire for the aesthetic will be their fate.

The only purpose driving them forward is that aesthetic.

Obviously, you can read my full (Long Boi™) review of The Secret History on Goodreads, so I’ll not spend too much time rambling about it here (mainly to avoid uncontrollably screaming about Henry Winter), but I will say that the way this book discussed morality and purpose were especially profound to me.

What is my purpose? Why have I chosen to study old books? Why do I choose to do what I do? Why do I write? Why do I read? Why do I do anything?

There must be a purpose for every course of action that I take. In fact, there is a purpose to every action that I take. The real question is: what is that purpose? It isn’t that I have no purpose, it’s that quite often, I have forgotten what that purpose is.

It reminds me quite a bit of Christ’s words to the church in Ephesus in Revelation 2. Their ideas and their passions are true, good, and right—but they had forgotten the purpose driving those passions. They had forgotten the reason.

I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.

Revelation 2:4-5 ESV

What was the love that woke us up before dawn, forcing us to take each new day with a lungful of morning air and a refreshed vision? What was it that compelled us to pursue the lives that we now pursue?

I pursue knowledge, truth, beauty, academics, and love, but why do I pursue them? I pursue them because I was made a human, and this human was put upon this earth to create beautiful things that would remind all of the other humans that our true purpose is to love our Maker. Our God. Our Friend.

Christ is my purpose. Behind everything, Christ must be that which spurs me on.

My motto of 2021 is solus Christus.

Christ alone.

So when I wear my long black coat and beret, delight in the warm colors of academic aesthetics, pour over old books, read beautiful stories, cry over moral depravity, pine for the desires of my heart, romanticize everything, pursue excellence, seek truth, and know God, I remember why.

It is not the academics that drives me.

It is Christ that drives me to the academics.

Christ alone.

And I can certainly delight in those aesthetics to nurse my soul along the way when things need romanticizing.

Because let’s be honest: romanticizing everything tends to make one feel better about things.

You can always find me in the quietest section at the school library wearing a long coat and a formidable look of concentration as I study a pile of old books.

Bis bald,

Emily 😌

3 thoughts on “Why I Loved The Secret History and the Invasion of Academic Aesthetics

  1. Oh! At first I thought you meant the one by Procopius.
    I remember hearing about Tartt’s The Secret History from another Oxford scholar blogger, many years ago. But I haven’t read it, at least not yet.

  2. I found this post extremely fascinating! You have such a beautiful way with words ❤ I love the dark academia aesthetic but haven’t read many classics myself – /The Secret History/ sounds like a good place to start though – the excerpts you shared had me hooked! 😀

  3. “The pursuit of knowledge must have a purpose.” YES. This is such a good article, and definitely sums up the points a reader *should* grasp from The Secret History.

    Also. I talked to you on Goodreads before and kept forgetting to look at this post! But I very much ADORE your blog!!

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