The Secret History

July 16, 2017

Dear Reader,

One of the elements that has kept The Great Gatsby iconic is it’s main characters’ incredible wealth. For the 2013 Luhrmann film, Tiffany’s debuted a new Great Gatsby collection and Vogue’s May 2013 issue put Carey Mulligan on the cover covered in the jewels. Daisy just isn’t Daisy if she isn’t draped in diamonds. Rich people fascinate us as much for the beautiful things they can possess as for the freedom their money seems to give them. Yet it is Fitzgerald’s critique of the apathy of the wildly wealthy that lends the novel it’s poignancy. In the last chapter he writes,

“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy- they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”The phrase “vast carelessness” is useful when thinking about Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. The elite circle of wealthy friends in that novel are ultimately infected by the same ugliness of Tom and Daisy: they are careless people.

Roughly, The Secret History is the story of a murder. As soon as the book begins the reader learns that a murder will take place and that the main characters all have a hand in it. Tartt does not conceal the identity of the victim; this is no whodunit. The narrator, Richard, is telling us the story of his five friends and classmates from college. Henry is the brilliant Holmesian autodidact, blessed from birth with a practically bottomless fortune. Francis is louche, stylish, seductive (and also wealthy). Charles and Camilla are twins who, while far less well-off than Henry or Francis, are still from a wealthy background. Bunny is brash, damaged, and childlike. These five are the sole Classics students at a remote Vermont college. Julian, their professor, is a wealthy and inscrutable intellectual who waxes eloquent on the ancient Greek mind. Richard is the Nick Carraway of the tale, observing and reporting, flitting in and out of their world. A few other characters jump in and out of the story but are merely clutter and not worth the time Tartt asks us to spend on them.

The five, Henry foremost, treat Classics like a religion. They worship a constructed image of the Greek mindset, finding within it a kind of meaningfulness they lack. Julian teaches them that “beauty is terror” and that religious ecstasy is an exalted and enviable state. The Greek idea of the wisdom of a balanced life and a just society are subsumed by the group’s fascination with the extremes of The Bacchae and the frenzied violence of the maenads. Unbeknownst to Richard, the group aims to recreate an ancient bacchanal. They starve themselves, take drugs, and work themselves into a frenzy until they get it just right and completely lose control of themselves. The business of the novel is to trace the consequences of that act.

‘The death of Pentheus’; detail of a red-figure cup by the Athenian painter Douris, circa 480 BC

Each character has their own reason for inducing personal chaos and the novel dances around revealing these separate motivations. Yet the novel, and Richard personally, never directly questions why these characters believe it is morally acceptable to lose control of themselves. We are at a disadvantage, of a sort, because Richard does not seem to question the morality of their choices, nor does he indict them for the consequences of that loss of control. For most of the novel he declines to confront the selfishness that led to their decision and because he is our only narrative voice, it often feels that the novel does too. Nor do the characters understand the bacchanal or the evil that comes out of it as selfish. While out of their heads, the group accidentally kills a farmer while cavorting on his land. Yet the murder they later commit to cover up that crime has a far more haunting effect on their lives than the accidental murder of the innocent farmer does. The reason, as the group readily admits, is because the farmer’s life is worth far less than theirs. His death is regrettable insofar as any death is, but his particular individual death troubles their consciences hardly at all.

One of the most troubling parts of the book is the description Henry gives of the bacchanal. He begins by saying,“One mustn’t underestimate the primal appeal—to lose one’s self, lose it utterly. And in losing it be born to the principle of continuous life, outside the prison of mortality and time.” Despite the stated purpose of his story- to communicate to Richard that they have accidentally killed a man- he is still enraptured by his gain from the experience. Then Richard asks a small, but pivotal, question.

But these are fundamentally sex rituals, aren’t they?’

It came out not as a question but as a statement. He didn’t blink, but sat waiting for me to continue.

‘Well? Aren’t they?’

He leaned over to rest his cigarette in the ashtray. ‘Of course,’ he said agreeably, cool as a priest in his dark suit and ascetic spectacles. ‘You know that as well as I do.’

We sat looking at each other for a moment.

‘What exactly did you do?’ I said.

‘Well, really, I think we needn’t go into that now,’ he said smoothly. ‘There was a certain carnal element to the proceedings but the phenomenon was basically spiritual in nature.’

The casual nature of this answer is astounding. When Richard asks later about Camilla, the sole girl in this little cabal, Henry says, “I suppose we’ll never know what really happened… We didn’t find her until a good bit later. She was sitting quietly on the bank of a stream with her feet in the water, her robe perfectly white, and no blood anywhere except for her hair. It was dark and clotted, completely soaked. As if she’d tried to dye it red.” The question of whether a teenage girl can consent to group sex with three men, one of whom is her brother, while high out of her mind, is not explored further. We do know that she was traumatized enough to be incapable of speech for some time following this “certain carnal element” that was capped off by murder.

It is at this point that we must return to the intersection of wealth and apathy. The book is a frustrating read because it’s narrator, and the characters he transmits to us, all seem outrageously apathetic. This is not to say that the murders don’t affect them; each one is touched profoundly and tragically by the events Richard recounts. But the underlying morality, or lack thereof that leads to the two murders, is never denounced. There is no rejection of the use they make of bastardized Greek thought. Their is no external punishment; there is no reckoning. Julian, their professor, does not know about the murders for most of the book, yet he does know that they have been attempting and ultimately succeed to have the bacchanal. He encourages them to do this because it is a function of their elite status that makes achieving their spiritual heights worth the risk to others. It is a combination of their wealth (or appearance of it) and their intelligence that allows them into his class in the first place. Throughout the novel the circle is defined by their wealth and their elite status. Richard is always talking about how they dress, how much they drink, what they eat, and the places that they live. The fact that Henry, especially, is both wealthy and brilliant directly influences his system of morality. He seems to believe his life and his desires to be worth more than almost everyone else’s because he is wealthy and brilliant. In the end, his system is proven disastrous, but it is that system that the others ultimately follow to their separate sad ends.

I am of of two minds about the novel. I find it very hard to understand how every character could be so accepting of the moral bankruptcy that is so astonishingly pervasive. The carelessness with which Daisy and Tom treat Gatsby maddens Nick Carraway. I kept waiting for that from Richard. All I wanted was for each character to come to the moment where they say “How could we have been so careless? How could we have been so selfish?” but that moment does not come. Their world ends in ice, not in fire- and perhaps it does suffice, but it does not satisfy.

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