In the holiday break, where the days drift like dreams one after another, losing track of time, I find myself reading more than ever. I had the great pleasure of finally finishing Donna Tartt’s brilliant 1992 novel The Secret History, the same author who recently wrote The Goldfinch which won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize. The Secret History took me an excruciatingly long time to finish– it’s a sprawling nearly 600-page novel, dense with detail and suspense. I started it last December, read it for a couple months between classes in the dining hall or before bed until the library due date approached, and I still wasn’t finished (I wonder how many completions of books have been squandered by library due dates). More than half a year later, I wandered into a bookstore and, remembering how much I loved the book, how absolutely beautiful it was, I bought it and finished it.
I marvelled at the author’s capability to create such a beautiful novel– though it’s strange that I call it beautiful, as the plotline centers around the murder(s) committed by a group of classics students at a small, elite college in Vermont. Most of the group of protagonists are illustriously rich (except for the narrator), lack guiding parental figures, and are drawn to the abstract and the beautiful. They are herded by their professor Julian, who doles out ideas about aesthetics and Greek and philosophy in their class, his students like a tiny cult and him like a benevolent dictator. He presents the idea of a bacchae to his students, essentially a huge party where people get drunk and do various other activities to achieve some sort of transcendent, spiritual experience. His students actually– not just theoretically– carry this out, and, in the process, end up unknowingly murdering a farmer. One thing leads to another, and before they know it, they are on a bewitching, mesmerizing path into evil.
The fatal flaws of these characters, I think, is that they fail to draw the line between the beautiful and the good. Often, the conflation of morality and beauty can lead to disastrous consequences. Things that are irreverent, crude, hurtful, don’t seem so bad because they appeal to our senses or pleasures. The murders these characters commit are done out of a love for beauty– they yearned for the picturesque, longed to be part of the tragedies and dramas they read about in their Greek class.
Julian, the professor in the book, often said “Beauty is terror.” Donna Tartt, the author, was asked in an interview whether she believed beauty really is terror, to which she responded: “Beauty is harsh– I mean, there’s almost no respect in which it isn’t harsh. If you’re talking about physical beauty, if you’re talking about the beauty of a flower, or a beautiful person, it’s horrible because it’s given completely capriciously, one has no control over it, you have it or you don’t, really. The same with the flower– the flower can’t help if it’s a rose or a weed, it’s just born what it is. So there’s cruelty in the way that it’s even doled out. And also, it’s ephemeral, that’s the horrible thing about it. Even to the living things that are lucky enough to be given beauty, it lasts for a very short time.”
This, I think, is the fatal flaw that the characters in The Secret History fail to understand. To them, it is beauty that is the eternal thing, not morality– or perhaps, they mistake beauty as being equivalent to goodness, and fail to recognize that it is so fundamentally unjust, unfeeling, and ephemeral. It’s like what Oscar Wilde once said: “A work of art is useless as a flower is useless. A flower blossoms for its own joy. We gain a moment of joy by looking at it. That is all that is to be said about our relations to flowers.”
And perhaps we must have this perspective about beauty and art and goodness. Perhaps this way, we can properly separate a flower from its feeling, fact from fiction, or else we risk the mistake that the characters in The Secret History made, leading them down the inexorable path of evil, steeped so far that they didn’t even know it was wrong. Evil is still evil if it is in a picture frame, if it is on a beautiful face, if it is in Greek tragedy. Evil can be beautiful, but it can never be good.