The Secret History by Donna Tartt

  Looking at a spot on the wall above my head, she began to recite the lines. I stared at her. Did she have a boyfriend, Francis maybe? He and she were fairly chummy, but Francis didn’t look like the sort who would be too interested in girls. Not that I stood much of a chance, surrounded as she was by all these clever rich boys in dark suits; me, with my clumsy hands and suburban ways.

  Her voice in Greek was harsh and low and lovely.

  Thus he died, and all the life struggled out of him;

  and as he died he spattered me with the dark red

  and violent-driven rain of bitter-savored blood

  to make me glad, as gardens stand among the showers

  of God in glory at the birthtime of the buds.

  There was a brief silence after she had finished; rather to my surprise, Henry winked solemnly at her from across the table.

  Julian smiled. “What a beautiful passage,” he said. “I never tire of it. But how is it that such a ghastly thing, a queen stabbing her husband in his bath, is so lovely to us?”

  “It’s the meter,” said Francis. “Iambic trimeter. Those really hideous parts of Inferno, for instance, Pier de Medicina with his nose hacked off and talking through a bloody slit in his windpipe—”

  “I can think of worse than that,” Charles said.

  “So can I. But that passage is lovely and it’s because of the terza rima. The music of it. The trimeter tolls through that speech of Klytemnestra’s like a bell.”

  “But iambic trimeter is fairly common in Greek lyric, isn’t it?” said Julian. “Why is that particular section so breathtaking? Why do we not find ourselves attracted to some calmer or more pleasing one?”

  “Aristotle says in the Poetics,” said Henry, “that objects such as corpses, painful to view in themselves, can become delightful to contemplate in a work of art.”

  “And I believe Aristotle is correct. After all, what are the scenes in poetry graven on our memories, the ones that we love the most? Precisely these. The murder of Agamemnon and the wrath of Achilles. Dido on the funeral pyre. The daggers of the traitors and Caesar’s blood—remember how Suetonius describes his body being borne away on the litter, with one arm hanging down?”

  “Death is the mother of beauty,” said Henry.

  “And what is beauty?”


  “Well said,” said Julian. “Beauty is rarely soft or consolatory. Quite the contrary. Genuine beauty is always quite alarming.”

  I looked at Camilla, her face bright in the sun, and thought of that line from the Iliad I love so much, about Pallas Athene and the terrible eyes shining.

  “And if beauty is terror,” said Julian, “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, chin cupped in palm.

  The teakettle began to whistle.

  Once the cups were set out, and Henry had poured the tea, somber as a mandarin, we began to talk about the madnesses induced by the gods: poetic, prophetic, and, finally, Dionysian.

  “Which is by far the most mysterious,” said Julian. “We have been accustomed to thinking of religious ecstasy as a thing found only in primitive societies, though it frequently occurs in the most cultivated peoples. The Greeks, you know, really weren’t very different from us. They were a very formal people, extraordinarily civilized, rather repressed. And yet they were frequently swept away en masse by the wildest enthusiasms—dancing, frenzies, slaughter, visions—which for us, I suppose, would seem clinical madness, irreversible. Yet the Greeks—some of them, anyway—could go in and out of it as they pleased. We cannot dismiss these accounts entirely as myth. They are quite well documented, though ancient commentators were as mystified by them as we are. Some say they were the results of prayer and fasting, others that they were brought about by drink. Certainly the group nature of the hysteria had something to do with it as well. Even so, it is hard to account for the extremism of the phenomenon. The revelers were apparently hurled back into a non-rational, pre-intellectual state, where the personality was replaced by something completely different—and by ‘different’ I mean something to all appearances not mortal. Inhuman.”

  I thought of the Bacchae, a play whose violence and savagery made me uneasy, as did the sadism of its bloodthirsty god. Compared to the other tragedies, which were dominated by recognizable principles of justice no matter how harsh, it was a triumph of barbarism over reason: dark, chaotic, inexplicable.

  “We don’t like to admit it,” said Julian, “but the idea of losing control is one that fascinates controlled people such as ourselves more than almost anything. All truly civilized people—the ancients no less than us—have civilized themselves through the willful repression of the old, animal self. Are we, in this room, really very different from the Greeks or the Romans? Obsessed with duty, piety, loyalty, sacrifice? All those things which are to modern tastes so chilling?”

  I looked around the table at the six faces. To modern tastes they were somewhat chilling. I imagine any other teacher would’ve been on the phone to Psychological Counseling in about five minutes had he heard what Henry said about arming the Greek class and marching into Hampden town.

  “And it’s a temptation for any intelligent person, and especially for perfectionists such as the ancients and ourselves, to try to murder the primitive, emotive, appetitive self. But that is a mistake.”

  “Why?” said Francis, leaning slightly forward.

  Julian arched an eyebrow; his long, wise nose gave his profile a forward tilt, like an Etruscan in a bas-relief. “Because it is dangerous to ignore the existence of the irrational. The more cultivated a person is, the more intelligent, the more repressed, then the more he needs some method of channeling the primitive impulses he’s worked so hard to subdue. Otherwise those powerful old forces will mass and strengthen until they are violent enough to break free, more violent for the delay, often strong enough to sweep the will away entirely. For a warning of what happens in the absence of such a pressure valve, we have the example of the Romans. The emperors. Think, for example, of Tiberius, the ugly stepson, trying to live up to the command of his stepfather Augustus. Think of the tremendous, impossible strain he must have undergone, following in the footsteps of a savior, a god. The people hated him. No matter how hard he tried he was never good enough, could never be rid of the hateful self, and finally the floodgates broke. He was swept away on his perversions and he died, old and mad, lost in the pleasure gardens of Capri: not even happy there, as one might hope, but miserable. Before he died he wrote a letter home to the Senate. ‘May all the Gods and Goddesses visit me with more utter destruction than I feel I am daily suffering.’ Think of those who came after him. Caligula. Nero.”

  He paused. “The Roman genius, and perhaps the Roman flaw,” he said, “was an obsession with order. One sees it in their architecture, their literature, their laws—this fierce denial of darkness, unreason, chaos.” He laughed. “Easy to see why the Romans, usually so tolerant of foreign religions, persecuted the Christians mercilessly—how absurd to think a common criminal had risen from the dead, how appalling that his followers celebrated him by drinking his blood. The illogic of it frightened them and they did everything they could to crush it. In fact, I think the reason they took such drastic steps was because they were not only frightened but also terribly attracted to it. Pragmatists are often strangely superstitious. For all their logic, who lived in more abject terror of the supernatural than the Romans?

  “The Greeks were different. They had a passion for order and symmetry, much like the Romans, but they knew how foolish it was to deny the unseen world, the old gods. Emotion, darkness, barbarism.” He looked at the ceiling for a moment, his face almost troubled. “Do you remember what we were speaking of earlier, of how bloody, terrible things are sometimes the most beautiful?” he said. “It’s a very Greek idea, and a very profound one. Beauty is terror. W
hatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it. And what could be more terrifying and beautiful, to souls like the Greeks or our own, than to lose control completely? To throw off the chains of being for an instant, to shatter the accident of our mortal selves? Euripides speaks of the Maenads: head thrown back, throat to the stars, ‘more like deer than human being.’ To be absolutely free! One is quite capable, of course, of working out these destructive passions in more vulgar and less efficient ways. But how glorious to release them in a single burst! To sing, to scream, to dance barefoot in the woods in the dead of night, with no more awareness of mortality than an animal! These are powerful mysteries. The bellowing of bulls. Springs of honey bubbling from the ground. If we are strong enough in our souls we can rip away the veil and look that naked, terrible beauty right in the face; let God consume us, devour us, unstring our bones. Then spit us out reborn.”

  We were all leaning forward, motionless. My mouth had fallen open; I was aware of every breath I took.

  “And that, to me, is the terrible seduction of Dionysiac ritual. Hard for us to imagine. That fire of pure being.”

  After class, I wandered downstairs in a dream, my head spinning, but acutely, achingly conscious that I was alive and young on a beautiful day; the sky a deep deep painful blue, wind scattering the red and yellow leaves in a whirlwind of confetti.

  Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it.

  That night I wrote in my journal: “Trees are schizophrenic now and beginning to lose control, enraged with the shock of their fiery new colors. Someone—was it van Gogh?—said that orange is the color of insanity. Beauty is terror. We want to be devoured by it, to hide ourselves in that fire which refines us.”

  I went into the post office (blasé students, business as usual) and, still preposterously lightheaded, scribbled a picture postcard to my mother—fiery maples, a mountain stream. A sentence on the back advised: Plan to see Vermont’s fall foliage between Sept. 25 and Oct. 15th when it is at its vivid best.

  As I was putting it in the out-of-town mail slot, I saw Bunny across the room, his back to me, scanning the row of numbered boxes. He stopped at what was apparently my own box and bent to stick something in it. Then he straightened surreptitiously and walked out quickly, his hands in his pockets and his hair flopping everywhere.

  I waited until he was gone, then went to my mailbox. Inside, I found a cream-colored envelope—thick paper, crisp and very formal—but the handwriting was crabbed and childish as a fifth-grader’s, in pencil. The note within was in pencil, too, tiny and uneven and hard to read:

  Richard old Man

  What do you Say we have Lunch on Saturday, maybe about 1? I know this Great little place. Cocktails, the business. My treat. Please come.



  p.s. wear a Tie. I am Sure you would have anyway but they will drag some godawful one out of the back and meke (s.p.) you Wear it if you Dont.

  I examined the note, put it in my pocket, and was walking out when I almost bumped into Dr. Roland coming in the door. At first he didn’t seem to know who I was. But just when I thought I was going to get away, the creaky machinery of his face began to grind and a cardboard dawn of recognition was lowered, with jerks, from the dusty proscenium.

  “Hello, Doctor Roland,” I said, abandoning hope.

  “How’s she running, boy?”

  He meant my imaginary car. Christine. Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang. “Fine,” I said.

  “Take it to Redeemed Repair?”


  “Manifold trouble.”

  “Yes,” I said, and then realized I’d told him earlier it was the transmission. But Dr. Roland had now begun an informative lecture concerning the care and function of the manifold gasket.

  “And that,” he concluded, “is one of your major problems with a foreign automobile. You can waste a lot of oil that way. Those cans of Penn State will add up. And Penn State doesn’t grow on trees.”

  He gave me a significant look.

  “Who was it sold you the gasket?” he asked.

  “I can’t remember,” I said, swaying in a trance of boredom but edging imperceptibly towards the door.

  “Was it Bud?”

  “I think so.”

  “Or Bill. Bill Hundy is good.”

  “I believe it was Bud,” I said.

  “What did you think about that old blue jay?”

  I was uncertain if this referred to Bud or to a literal blue jay, or if, perhaps, we were heading into the territory of senile dementia. It was sometimes difficult to believe that Dr. Roland was a tenured professor in the Social Science Department of this, a distinguished college. He was more like some gabby old codger who would sit next to you on a bus and try to show you bits of paper he kept folded in his wallet.

  He was reviewing some of the information he had previously given me on the manifold gaskets and I was waiting for a good moment to remember, suddenly, that I was late for an appointment, when Dr. Roland’s friend Dr. Blind struggled up, beaming, leaning on his walker. Dr. Blind (pronounced “Blend”) was about ninety years old and had taught, for the past fifty years, a course called “Invariant Subspaces” which was noted for its monotony and virtually absolute unintelligibility, as well as for the fact that the final exam, as long as anyone could remember, had consisted of the same single yes-or-no question. The question was three pages long but the answer was always “Yes.” That was all you needed to know to pass Invariant Subspaces.

  He was, if possible, even a bigger windbag than Dr. Roland. Together, they were like one of those superhero alliances in the comic books, invincible, an unconquerable confederation of boredom and confusion. I murmured an excuse and slipped away, leaving them to their own formidable devices.



  I HAD HOPED the weather would be cool for my lunch with Bunny, because my best jacket was a scratchy dark tweed, but when I woke on Saturday it was hot and getting hotter.

  “Gonna be a scorcher today,” said the janitor as I passed him in the hall. “Indian summer.”

  The jacket was beautiful—Irish wool, gray with flecks of mossy green; I had bought it in San Francisco with nearly every cent I’d saved from my summer job—but it was much too heavy for a warm sunny day. I put it on and went to the bathroom to straighten my tie.

  I was in no mood for talk and I was unpleasantly surprised to find Judy Poovey brushing her teeth at the sink. Judy Poovey lived a couple of doors down from me and seemed to think that because she was from Los Angeles we had a lot in common. She cornered me in hallways; tried to make me dance at parties; had told several girls that she was going to sleep with me, only in less delicate terms. She had wild clothes, frosted hair, a red Corvette with California plates bearing the legend JUDY P. Her voice was loud and rose frequently to a screech, which rang through the house like the cries of some terrifying tropical bird.

  “Hi, Richard,” she said, and spit out a mouthful of toothpaste. She was wearing cut-off jeans that had bizarre, frantic designs drawn on them in Magic Marker and a spandex top which revealed her intensely aerobicized midriff.

  “Hello,” I said, setting to work on my tie.

  “You look cute today.”


  “Got a date?”

  I looked away from the mirror, at her. “What?”

  “Where you going?”

  By now, I was used to her interrogations. “Out to lunch.”

  “Who with?”

  “Bunny Corcoran.”

  “You know Bunny?”

  Again, I turned to look at her. “Sort of. Do you?”

  “Sure. He was in my art history class. He’s hilarious. I hate that geeky friend of his, though, the other one with the glasses, what’s his name?”


  “Yeah, him.” She leaned towards the mirror and began to fluff out her hair, swiveling her head this way and that. Her nails were Chanel red but so long they had to be the
kind you bought at the drugstore. “I think he’s an asshole.”

  “I kind of like him,” I said, offended.

  “I don’t.” She parted her hair in the center, using the curved talon of her forefinger as a comb. “He’s always been a bastard to me. I hate those twins, too.”

  “Why? The twins are nice.”

  “Oh yeah?” she said, rolling a mascaraed eye at me in the mirror. “Listen to this. I was at this party last term, really drunk, and sort of slam-dancing, right? Everybody was crashing into everybody else, and for some reason this girl twin was walking through the dance floor and pow, I slammed right into her, really hard. So then she says something rude, like totally uncalled for, and first thing I knew I’d thrown my beer in her face. It was that kind of a night. I’d already had about six beers thrown on me, and it just seemed like the thing to do, you know?

  “So anyway, she starts yelling at me and in about half a second there’s the other twin and that Henry guy standing over me like they’re about to beat me up.” She pulled her hair back from her face in a ponytail and inspected her profile in the mirror. “So anyway. I’m drunk, and these two guys are leaning over me in this menacing way, and you know that Henry, he’s really big. It was kind of scary but I was too drunk to care so I just told them to fuck off.” She turned from the mirror and smiled brilliantly. “I was drinking Kamikazes that night. Something terrible always happens to me when I drink Kamikazes. I wreck my car, I get into fights …”

  “What happened?”

  She shrugged and turned back to the mirror. “Like I said, I just told them to fuck off. And the boy twin, he starts screaming at me. Like he really wants to kill me, you know? And that Henry just standing there, right, but to me he was scarier than the other one. So anyway. A friend of mine who used to go here and who’s really tough, he was in this motorcycle gang, into chains and shit—ever heard of Spike Romney?”

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