The Secret History and Dark Academia.

via Fall is Cool.

There is a trend in our midst, and I'm sure most of you who use social media regularly will know about it. It is that of the VSCO girl, born of the basic bitch trend a few years back: laid back chill, equipped with scrunchies, friendship bracelets, and hydro-flasks. But where there is a trend there is, deliberately or not, likely to be a counter-trend, and that counter-trend, the subject of this post, is dark academia, which is currently emerging on Tumblr.

Dark academia is a fascinating one: whereas the VSCO girls are all about the sun, beaches, and the environment, dark academia embraces autumn, knowledge, and the library, and however pretentious it may appear at first glance, it is just as positive. It has, naturally, its own look or, in Tumblr terms, an aethetic, which is a familiar one: your dark academic girl wears a simple gold or silver jewellery, blouses or turtle necks, midi or maxi skirts (tweed is perfect), and always has several books on their person, with ideally one in a foreign (preferably dead) language. She wears Dior's Hypnotic Poison, or Yves Saint Laurent's Black Opium, drinks black coffee, wears a long black or camel coat, loves antiques, classical music (or, indeed it seems from what I've read, art rock from the 1970s and dark wave from the 1980s), classical literature, and all things vintage. Above all else, she reads. The central text, as it appears at least, is Donna Tarrt's The Secret History (1992).

via a false awakening.
Though it's nearly 700 pages long, the plot can be summed up neatly by the opening paragraphs:
The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several days before we came to understand the gravity of our situation. He'd been dead for ten days before they found him, you know. It was one of the biggest manhunts in Vermont history - state troopers, the FBI, even an army helicopter; the college closed, the dye factory in Hampden shit down, people coming from New Hampshire, upstate New York, as far away as Boston.
It is difficult to believe that Henry's modest plan could have worked so well despite the unforeseen events. We hadn't intended to hide the body where it couldn't be found. In fact, we hadn't hidden it at all but had simply left it where it fell in hopes that some luckless passer-by would stumble over it before anyone even noticed he was missing. This was a tale that told itself simply and well: the loose rocks, the body at the bottom of the ravine with a break in the neck, and the muddy skidmarks of dug-in heels pointing the way down: a hiking accident, no more, no less, and it might have been left at that, at quiet tears and a small funeral, had it not been for the snow that fell that night; it covered him without a trace, and ten days later, when the thaw finally came, the state troopers and the FBI and the searchers from town all saw that they had been walking back and forth over his body until the snow above it was packed down like ice.
via myacademiaisdark
Having so coolly announced the murder of Bunny, the rest of the 660 pages is devoted to who murdered Bunny, why, and what happened next. It's the perfect thriller, unbearably tense, teasing the reader and building their anxiety with calm deliberateness. From Richard Papen, the narrator who was clearly in on the murder, we meet Henry Winter, Charles and Camilla Macaulay, Francis Abernathy, and poor dead Bunny Corcoran. All attend Hampden College in Vermont and are taught classics by Julian Morrow (a charming, unreal Miss Brodie type). But The Secret History is more, so much more than this plot or indeed the oppressive, claustrophobic atmosphere. The Secret History is one of the direct inspirations for the aesthetic that is Dark Academia, after all.

One of the reasons I love The Secret History so much (I'd go so far as to say it's one of my top 3 books) is the characters' unapologetic love and enthusiasm for learning about and from the classics. The entire concept is inspired by the Ancient Greeks and Romans, in which we find not only the philosophy but the fundamental emotions of human existence at their absolute rawness: love, sex, death, passion, betrayal, drama, and rage (rage, after all, was one of the very first words in Western civilisation - "Rage—Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles"). Like an Aeschylean tragedy, the characters are swept away by circumstance - one unfortunate, unplanned, and tragic event that was, given their closeted environment and thirst for knowledge, inevitable, and it leads to further tragedy with Bunny. Donna Tartt has taken the rules and structure of the Ancient Greek tragic plays and translated them into a 20th Century novel.

via he too is alexander
Why, then, is this novel the central text of Dark Academia? There's no simple answer, other than it appeals to the moody drama not only in the aesthetic but the desire for the absolute. The thirst for knowledge, the extremes of the ancients, the closeness of the friends, and the intense devotion to knowledge that isn't easily matched in any other novel provides almost a prescription for young lovers of academia. It has everything: the attitude, the emotion, and the look.

The Secret History, then, and indeed Dark Academia is compelling: the flicker of the candle flame, the dark glitter of fresh ink in the candle light, and the quasi-worship of the ancients that gives a sense of unity with the past, a feeling that all this has happened before and will again, and with the help of Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles, Seneca, Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle, and of course one of the very first poets in Western civilisation - Homer - one can find one's way through the chaos. It is pretentious, but it revels in it - it's unapologetic, even defiant, and in The Secret History Donna Tartt has, I think anyway, created something very beautiful and in some respects inspiring.

Comments

Jean said…
I ought to follow Tumblr more; I had no idea! About either VSCO or Dark academia. The latter sounds very fun but being very thin is undoubtedly still a requirement. I like that 40s blouse in the middle there, and I'm always up for some cloudy weather, fallen leaves, and brick buildings. The VSCO aesthetic looks much like a glamorized version of my own surroundings ages 13-17, not that I was ever blonde or extremely thin.

I will confess to not liking Secret History. Maybe if I'd read it when it came out -- when I actually was in college and hadn't read quite so many dark academic novels -- I would have loved it!
mudpuddle said…
the "idea" of the book is quite attractive... i'll open some pages the next library trip and see if it's a goer or not... great post and some sort of deep resonation in my subconscious...
o said…
Jean - I heard about VSCO through Buzzfeed - I think I'd have missed it too. But yes, as with every other trend on the planet thinness is a must it seems! That said I love the aesthetic, always have done, and I'm not very thin. And I still love unicorns, Taylor Swift, and watching the Kardashians from time to time so one couldn't say I was exactly devoted to it :)

And yes, I remember you really couldn't take to Secret History. I just love it though - and I think it was one of the reasons I got so into the ancient Greeks and Romans!

mudpuddle - yes, do try it! I hope you love it - tell me, will you, when you check it out, let me know if you go for it or not?
mudpuddle said…
okay, ill try to remember...
Silvia said…
Good post. My oldest, 15, calls my youngest, 13, VSCO girl! ha ha ha. The irony is that the so called VSCO girl, while fond of scrunchies and hydro-flasks, and because of Texas, always spotted with crocks or flip flops, t-shirts, and such, she goes to a Classical Academy where they memorize Cato's speeches, the Constitution amendments, they recite them, they study Latin and Greek, ha ha ha. But she's 13, we'll see later on what aesthetic she subscribes to, if she does follow any.

I started on this book, but quit. It wasn't the right time. But I agree I saw how well written the characters were, the atmosphere envelops you and wants you to keep reading. It reminded me, your post, of the movie, Dead Poet's Club.
o said…
Silvia, wow, I'm impressed with your daughter! That is seriously impressive, you must be very proud :) I've not seen Dead Poet's Club yet - I must, I keep meaning to...
Unknown said…
I chose to study this book in comparison to Oscar Wilde's "The picture of Dorian Gray“ and I love the book. Would start a pation for it to be produced into a film. I really love this aesthetic.

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