The Secret History—of Philhellenism

Donna Tartt. The Secret History. New York: Ballantine Books, 1992.

On the first page of The Secret History, we learn that the novel’s protagonists have murdered one of their classmates. The rest of the novel explores the tangled circumstances leading up to this murder, and its consequences. 

I hope we’re all ready to leave the phenomenal world, and enter into the sublime?

This line—Professor Julian Morrow’s customary signal that his classics classes are about to begin—neatly sums up what is, to me, the most fascinating aspect of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Through the eyes of Richard Papen, a transfer student from a blue-collar background trying to blend in with his elite and privileged classmates, we see an environment with all the claustrophobia and turmoil of many campus novels (Tom Wolfe’s I am Charlotte Simmons springs to mind): academic stress, sleepless nights, sex, drugs, alcohol. But when authorities investigating Bunny’s death start uncovering Hampden College’s thriving drug trade, Richard and his friends welcome it as a perfect distraction from the truth. The real problem is not that Morrow’s students are downing a staggering amount of alcohol, but that they are caught between the phenomenal world and the sublime.

To put it another way, the students are caught between Apollonian and Dionysian visions of the ancient world. In the classroom, they read Plato and Thucydides, compose essays in Greek, and discuss erudite philosophical problems. When Richard first joins the small group of under Morrow’s tutelage, he notices that “[h]is students—if they were any mark of his tutelage—were imposing enough, and different as they all were they shared a certain coolness, a cruel, mannered charm which was not modern in the least but had a strange cold breath of the ancient world” (31). Outside the classroom, the group—led by the quietly brilliant Henry Winter—begins to explore the ecstatic side of Greek culture, attempting to recreate mystery cult and Bacchic revelry.

The division between these two experiences of the classical past—Apollo in the daytime classroom, Dionysos in the nighttime woods—is powerfully evoked. Equally compelling is the impossibility of these students maintaining such a double life, of ever fully leaving the phenomenal world behind when they depart for the sublime. Richard constantly expresses surprise at his friends’ composure: he fully expects silent Henry, suave Francis, or the twins Charles and Camilla to betray themselves in word or manner, and, in a sense, the group’s descent into chaos after they murder the sixth classmate, Bunny, accomplishes just that. The cold, rational mask inevitably slips to reveal the irrational reality beneath.

These binaries are, of course, modern paradigms, more to do with the various waves of philhellenism that have swept the western world since the Renaissance. We have idealized the Greeks as quintessentially civilized and enlightened, or as uniquely expressive of raw, primitive emotions that we now repress. The Greeks are poster children for Victorian education, and they are free-spirited forerunners of postmodernism. 

What this accomplishes, both for Morrow’s students and for real life philhellenists, is a sense of exclusivity. Richard is particularly vulnerable to this, eager as he is to escape his unremarkable, suburban childhood. “Hoi polloi. Barbaroi,” he thinks to himself when he interacts with students outside the classics department (147). This is precisely what so many of us think, armed with the ability to read an ancient tongue—whether we choose to think of it as Apollonian or Dionysian, it is very easy to feel like initiates in the Hellenic Mysteries, guardians of an ancient, dying heritage. The Secret History concentrates these tendencies by making the reader a member of this miniature cult, in on the secret, shaking our heads at the barbarous and short-sighted many.

I do not wish to imply that the Hampden College classics department, with its one professor and its six students, is in any way an accurate representation of classics as a discipline. Morrow’s pedagogical methods are unorthodox and of dubious effectiveness—his students somehow manage to be at once deeply familiar with the entire canon and uncertain whether or not Greek has an ablative case—and many of the views he espouses are almost ludicrously Victorian. I have enough respect for Tartt to think that these inaccuracies are part of her characterization rather than misconceptions on her part. 

In spite of this, The Secret History captures vividly some of the dangers inherent in studying the classical world. It is so easy to idealize, so easy to create from our own values and longings a society completely other and completely praiseworthy. Classics certainly needs advocates, individuals able to demonstrate the value of learning languages in which you will never be able to order a hamburger and learning the history of a people you will never meet. But it also needs to avoid perpetuating a world made up of initiated classicists and the hoi polloi. 

I deeply enjoyed The Secret History; its pacing, its preoccupation with beauty, its insider-outsider narrative forever poised between belief and disgust. But I do fear that those outside of classics will think that classicists really do look like Julian Morrow or Henry Winter—debating in Greek, espousing an ancient philosophy, coldly excluding the unwashed masses.

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