Why you should read The Secret History, or, is my school a cult? @_sarahalliday

By Sara Halliday  

Marc’s keen on eternity this year. Make stuff that is remembered, make things that get us noticed for the long term rather than just in the short term. He asked us this morning what piece of culture had changed the way we think about things, and my answer was The Secret History by Donna Tartt. I’m here to evangelize, but in the immortal words of Alex Taylor “you just need to get this f-ing book”.

The novel revolves around a teacher and his class of committed students. Students whose interest in Ancient Greek sets them apart from their peers (often willingly). Students who want to impress, excite, and please their teacher. Sounding familiar yet? The group put Julian (the professor) on a pedestal, thinking that his ideas are paramount, and I reckon that Julian does everything he can to ensure they keep thinking this without saying it out loud. He’s a father figure while the students are away from home, and he is ultimately responsible for their welfare. Admittedly two students do die in his care, but I think that’s unlikely to happen with Marc. Though he did smash Dan’s mug today, so who knows where the line is.


The SCA is an odd place. A microcosm of learning which revolves around two rooms and a dingy toilet. Obviously, we’re encouraged to leave the building regularly, to experience life outside of the bubble, but there’s still a tendency to seek comfort in familiar surroundings. Some universities stretch for miles, with fancy plate glass buildings and aged brick. We live day-in-day-out in a church attic, passing countless questionable individuals as we walk up to the building. The focus is what we’re learning, rather than where we’re learning it. There’s nothing showy really about the SCA (though that might change after Meg’s rehaul of the studio next week).


Time is vital to the novel, it’s split into two sections – the time before the murder and after it, but it goes deeper than that. Like Marc, the group in The Secret History have a yearning for eternity. Their mantra throughout is ‘Live forever’ – ironic given the deaths? The fact that they’re studying Ancient Greek reminds me of our studying of classic ads. Keeping the craft alive, using sharpies while other ad schools use graphics tablets. We all have an interest in things that have stood the test of time, and the desire for our work to live forever goes on.


The Secret History really does let you in on secrets. Up in Julian’s ivory tower, we learn of deaths, rumors, and universal truths. The rest of the university goes on without really knowing what’s going on up there, and not really caring until they produce something which affects the greater population. People walk past our church daily, unaware of what they’re walking past. Unaware that we’re up the spiral staircase, squirreling and scamping our days away. We have to remember that Joe Public does not care what we’re doing unless the things that we make or do have an impact on his day.


Finally, beauty. What is beauty? Or in our context, what is a good advert? Tartt describes beauty as ‘rarely soft or consolatory. Quite the contrary. Genuine beauty is always quite alarming.’. Think about it. When was the last time that you made something which alarmed you? The last time you did something which scared you? I’m still trying to work out whether I’ll have an epiphany when I make something really great, it hasn’t happened yet but I’m working on it.


Anyway, buy The Secret History. It’s a good ‘un.

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