The Complicated Need for an Intellectual Father Figure: Thoughts on Reading Donna Tartt’s The Secret History

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

This books has been staring at me in the Ts of my Fiction section for quite a while now, so I thought I would delay all the other, newer books on my extensive reading list and pick it up for Christmas.

Like The Magician King, the book made me stop in my tracks, remember a time fifteen years ago when I was younger and my brain was being put through its paces by an irascible, fiery, extremely intelligent and deeple flawed Mexican philosopher.

But I get ahead of myself. The Secret History is told by Richard Papen, a twenty year old discontent from a less than loving family in suburban California. He gets his chance to get away when he is accepted to Hampden College in Vermont in the English Literature department. Once there, he manages to get accepted to the exclusive Classics department. It is run by an eccentric named Julian Morrow who only takes a certain number of students. To be accepted means that all Richard’s classes will be taken with Morrow and with the same small group of peers.

Pause. Because here is where my heart broke a little. In fact, I did what I never do- I dog-eared the passage that reminded me of what I felt during those years of listening to my own mentor:

He was a marvelous talker,  magical talker, and I wish I were able to give a better idea of what he said, but it is impossible for a mediocre intellect to render the speech of a superior one–especially after so many years–without losing a good deal in translation. The discussion that day was about loss of self, about Plato’s four divine madnesses, about madness of all sorts; he began by talking about what he called the burden of the self, and why people want to lose the self in the first place.

 Mentor might not be the right word. This is always been hard for me to understand because it sounds a lot like I was seeking a father figure, and given that my own father died when I was quite young, that would make sense. But I always felt like that was too simple an explanation.

But I need to go back and explain a little about my own experience. In the mid-90s, I re-met J (we had known each other in high school but were not close). At the time, he was part of circle of painters and sculptors (actually, he was the only sculptor) that met each Sunday to listen to a lecture by a friend of his father’s, the above mentioned Mexican Philosopher and then they would have a critique period of the work they had produced that week. It included J’s father, a few younger painters.
At the time I started going out with Jeremy, I was not invited to these meetings.

But I was interested. And appalled. Mr. philosopher had told J, when J mentioned my interest, that I was like those women who pretend to like motorcycles to endear them to their men. Eventually though, I was allowed in. And I like to think that Mr. Philosopher learned to regret his harsh assessment of my involvement. But I will never know. My contribution was in poetry.

What I found in this group was some serious scholarship and discipline and it just occurred to me when I was reading Tartt’s book: I found not only an intellectual father figure, but an intellectual family. And it was so good. I hadn’t realised how much that was missing in my life until I began attending these meetings and a world of ideas – not only nuance but layers of richness and complexity of meaning. Stretching my brain to its outer regions. Bringing a thought to its logical conclusion.

Although the philosopher died shortly after our group broke up, he is still my measuring stick for every choice I make in my life. What would ____ say?

It is also very sad to me to think that all the ideas that fill up my brain come from that era of my life. I have not studied anything with the intensity and discipline since that time. I have not had discussions that go on into the middle of the night about the concept of scarcity or the traditional dichotomy between the Appollonian and Dionysian and how that dichotomy must be looked at in a new light given the advent of quantum mechanics.

I miss those times.

Tartt’s book is not ultimately about that relationship, though the exclusiveness of the group and the mentorship of the elusive Julian Morrow places a big part. In fact, it plays more on the theme of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment sans the redemption Raskalnikov finally finds. It is a messy and morally ambiguous tale of young people wanting to live solely in Art and Beauty. Of course they do not succeed.

There is one last quote that captured exactly how I felt about my own Julian Morrow:

 It’s funny. In retelling these events, I have fought against a tendency to sentimentalize Julian, to make him seem very saintly–basically to falsify him–in order to make our veneration of him seem more explicable; to make it seem something more, in short, than my own fatal tendency to try to make interesting people good. And I know I said earlier that he was perfect but he wasn’t perfect, far from it; he could be silly and vain and remote and often cruel and we still loved him, in spite of, because.

 So in a sense, I am also grieving with this book. I am grieving for my own loss. That I have fallen into the Socratic trap of the unexamined life. That even our mentors, our intellectual or otherwise father figures are as fallible and human as we are. And that as a mother, I will inevitably not be able to give my children all that they need- emotionally, maybe. Intellectually, perhaps. I grieve for my own and everybody else’s tragic and beautiful imperfections.

Oh. And by the way, yes I do think you should read this book. Even if you never had the curse and blessing of a flawed intellectual father figure.

2 thoughts on “The Complicated Need for an Intellectual Father Figure: Thoughts on Reading Donna Tartt’s The Secret History

  1. !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    I have so much to say about this. Too much for here. Also many more questions about this collective and the philosopher's misogyny.

    Too bad we talked YA novels yesterday (found out later that I already have Knife of Never Letting Go on my list of books to read; your influence on my reading habits is so powerful it has become part of my subconscious!) instead of this one; didn't know you were reading it/read it.

    I really really really disliked this book. And at this point, I read it almost a year ago so could not have a coherent discussion with you, but still. I'm so interested in the fact that you liked a book whose characters made my skin crawl. ALL OF THEM.

    I never, EVER would have seen Julian as a father figure. Especially with that bizarro disappearing act of his. Agh. Too far apart. Time + geography. Agh.

  2. Hmm. I think maybe it is the revers- your reading habits are straying into my subconscious. I had no idea why the book was calling to me the way it did. Now I realise it was probably because I read your blog post. Yes. The characters were unlikeable. Yes, I got tired of them. But it was the idea (or maybe youthful pretension) that struck such a resounding chord in me. Julian was only a father figure in the way of ideas. IN the way an older person can make your brain think about things you never dreamed about. In that way. The fact he was such a louse (and I love the George Orwell quote about him) just goes to show you the complex nature of mentors. I think we need to skype again and talk about this!

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