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'The Secret History' Syndrome

Despite the rise of wokeness and outspokenness against elitism in this day and age, there hangs about us an eternal nostalgia for bygone eras. Country villas, medieval architecture, and a general longing for hedonistic, mysterious existences free from real life’s worries about housing crises and deadlines seem to haunt our desires and always have. Since the 20th-century, the World Wars, and the rise of social mobility, novels like Brideshead Revisited and The Talented Mr Ripley, and the movie Saltburn recently joining this canon, have all reflected a nostalgia for classist fantasies of aristocracy and a romanticisation of the elite nature of academia.


One particularly successful novel, reflecting everything fashionable, elusive, and dreamy about this ‘dark academia’ fantasy, is Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. The novel, having sold millions of copies, tells the story of a group of classics students who, studying under an eccentric professor, don bedsheets, binge-drink, and partake in orgiastic and debauched bacchanalias, committing murder in the process (and the aftermath). The novel itself is well written and presents a good criticism of the destructive and warped mentalities of hyper-privileged teens who converse in dead languages. The characters show up to classes in suits and ties, escape to their country mansions on the weekends, and talk to each other in Ancient Greek.


So why glorify a book where basically every character is snobbish, seriously immoral, and pretentious? It is not just nostalgia for an unattainable past that Donna Tartt brings out in us — it is this oddly specific romanticisation of all things outdated and elite and disdain for everything modern and mainstream. Yes, The Secret History is a seductive book. Upon reading it, we feel that we, too, are being let in on a secret, that we can be part of an exclusive group of attractive, wealthy intellectuals. The charm of its fictional ‘Hampden College,’ a tight-knit liberal arts college in a small town in Vermont, is not too far off from St Andrews itself, a place where it is easy to feel that we are living in a ‘dark academia’ bubble — but how healthy actually is this fetishisation of academia, and what are its repercussions?


‘The Secret History Syndrome’ is what I like to call that peculiar condition when people come to university with unrealistic expectations and are met with disappointment, and anxiety, and for students from non-traditional backgrounds, impostor syndrome. In reality, the fetishisation of books like The Secret History and their glorifications of binge drinking, unhealthy relationships, and taking psychedelics and calling it a bacchanalia, is really just a romanticisation of poor life decisions. The glamour of these mistakes is short-lived. 


In real life, people who brag about knowing the genitive case are not particularly pleasant to be around. Though it’s perfectly healthy to be passionate about classics and academia, you don’t need a trench coat to do so. Nonetheless, if romance and the glamour of exclusivity excite you, worry not. Concerns for aesthetics and outward appearances are good in moderation, but be warned — with too much romanticisation of drunken and brooding academics, one runs the risk of turning into the very caricature of the spoilt humanities student that Donna Tartt set out to criticise. 


At university, we are granted with endless opportunities to innovate, learn from those around us, and have a good time. In a place where you can do just about anything, do not chase after a fantasy that, while attractive, is ultimately empty. Instead, in the few years given to you, craft a university experience that you truly enjoy and is truly fulfilling. 


Do what fulfils you, and do not worry about fitting into the aesthetic of a debauched and wealthy classicist, for the joys of hedonistic escapism won’t grant you a rewarding university experience. Being part of an exclusive group that overdresses in an attempt to emulate an irrevocably bygone era won’t bring any form of satisfaction or fulfilment to your life, without genuine connection. There is no real bright side to snobbishness and pretension, just as Donna Tartt is trying to tell us there is nothing romantic about murder — even if it’s part of the aesthetic!


Illustration by Hannah Beggerow

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WOAH NO WAY- Granny Grow

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I love a hot take

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