Sunday, March 13, 2016

amor vincit omnia

"All right," said Julian, looking around the table. "I hope we're all ready to leave the phenomenal world, and enter into the sublime."
The Greek class at Hampden College met in a room that's a bit too dreamy to be the meeting place of a real college class: it was spacious and sun-dappled, with leather-bound books strewn across the round table and the intoxicating fragrance of bergamot and fresh roses hanging rich and heavy in the air. The image of six, bright-eyed students sitting around the table in rapt attention of their brilliant professor's spiel on Bacchanalian rituals conjures up the most romantic kind of college nostalgia. The Secret History reads like a love letter to all the romantic impulses classics majors conceive when we read Euripides and Homer: surely we have the capacity to push the limits of mundane existence and taste our mortality in the darkness and heat of the moment like the heroes of ancient Greek literature; surely the only difference between us and the Olympian gods is that they are the αθάνατοι—deathless, immortal, eternal—while we only have the briefness of our mortality to live.

Donna Tartt's debut novel The Secret History is a murder mystery that is much more interested in answering the question of "why did it come to this?" than questions of who or how; the whodunit is revealed in first couple pages of the prologue before we even meet our everyman narrator. The protagonists—a group of classics students in the most elusive clique at their university—take their fascination by ideas of letting go and being completely free like the gods of classical mythology beyond the boundaries of morality, and it's this born to die interpretation of life they discovered in Greek tragedy that drive Richard Papen, Henry Winter, Francis Abernathy, and Charles and Camilla Macaulay first to obsession, then to destruction, and ultimately to the murder of Bunny Corcoran. 

The members of the classics club are not pleasant people: they have this extravagant carelessness with regards to other people's lives that reminded me of both the recklessness of the Greek gods themselves but also the American money of the quintessential Fitzgerald protagonist. How could these kids, wasting away in boredom and booze, really be the reflection of the American dream? And yet as much as the characters epitomize everything there is to dislike about the rich and snobbish's Ivory Tower convictions about the purpose of academia, I was certainly very compelled by these characters with complicated morals and afflictions of ennui. Tartt's prose is so decadent I couldn't help but delight in watching their lives crumble to pieces in the nearly 600 page novel.

This was one of those books that reminded me of just how mesmerizing and atmospheric a book can be, and when I finally finished it on a sleepless September night I couldn't get the imagery of life at Hampden out of my head. In spite of the stark scenic contrast between my life at a sprawling, public university in the perpetually sunny California and the tight-knit, private college in the picturesque Vermont countryside, I have a particular affection for this novel because I found so much that echoed my own experiences with studying classics between its pages. Between the intimate relationships and vivid imagery, Tartt asks and teases answers to questions that lie at the heart of the classics discipline: How did we get here? What does our past tell us about humanity? What bearing do action and character ultimately have on our fates? What are the things we live and die for, and how are those greater than our mortality? The thing I love about studying the humanities is that there will never be a single objective answer to any of the questions we've been asking for millennia; there are only subjective ones, and the only meaning to life are the ones we make for ourselves.
“If beauty is terror, 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.
 xoxo, vivian

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