Autodidact: self-taught


Secret History

by V. L. Craven

The Secret History by Donna Tartt
-01- But walking through it all was one thing; walking away, unfortunately, has proved to be quite another, and though once I thought I had left that ravine forever on an April afternoon long ago, now I am not so sure. Now the searchers have departed, and life has grown quiet around me, I have come to realise that while for years I might have imagined myself to be somewhere else, in reality I have been there all the time: up at the top by the muddy wheel-ruts in the new grass, where the sky is dark over the shivering apple blossoms and the first chill of the snow that will fall that night is already in the air.
-02- I have only to glance over my shoulder for all those years to drop away and I see it behind me again, the ravine, rising all green and black through the saplings, a picture that will never leave me.
-03- Does such a thing as ‘the fatal flaw’, that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature? I used to think it didn’t. Now I think it does. And I think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.
-04- I didn’t have many friends but whether this was due to choice or circumstance I do not now know.
-05- …I was consumed by a more general sense of dread, of imprisonment within the dreary round of school and home; circumstances which, to me at least, presented sound empirical argument for gloom. My father was mean, our house ugly, and my mother didn’t pay much attention to me; my clothes were cheap and my haircut too short and no one at school seemed to like me that much; and since all this had been true for as long as I could remember, I felt things would doubtless continue in this depressing vein as far as I could foresee. In short: I felt my existence was tainted, in some subtle but essential way.
-06- Charles and Camilla are orphans (how I longed to be an orphan when I was a child!)
-07- So I studied literature and liked it better. But I didn’t like home any better. I don’t think I can explain the despair my surroundings inspired in me. Though I now suspect, given the circumstances and my disposition, I would’ve been unhappy anywhere, in Biarritz or Caracas or the Isle of Capri, I was then convinced that my unhappiness was indigenous to that place. Perhaps a part of it was. While to a certain extent Milton is right–the mind is its own place and in itself can make Heaven of Hell and so forth–it is nonetheless clear that Plano was modeled less on Paradise than that other, more dolorous city.
-08- Though I had a confused idea that my dissatisfaction was bohemian, vaguely Marxist in origin (when I was a teenager I made a fatuous show of socialism, mainly to irritate my father), I couldn’t really begin to understand it; and I would have been  angry if someone had suggested that it was due to a strong Puritan streak in my nature, which was in fact the case. Not long ago I found this passage in an old notebook, written when I was eighteen or so: ‘There is to me about this place a smell of rot, the smell of rot that ripe fruit makes. Nowhere, ever, have the hideous mechanics of birth and copulation and death-those monstrous upheavals of life that the Greeks call miasma , defilement–been so brutal or been painted up to look so pretty; have so many people put so much faith in lies and mutability and death death death.’
This, I think, is pretty rough stuff. From the sound of it, had I stayed in California I might have ended up in a cult or at the very least practicing some weird dietary restriction. I remember reading about Pythagoras around this time, and finding some of his ideas curiously appealing–wearing white garments, for instance, or abstaining from foods which have a soul.
But instead I would up on the East Coast.
-09- [About the brochure for Hampden College] I don’t know why it was in my closet. I suppose I’d saved it because it was so pretty. Senior year, I had spent dozens of hours studying the photographs as though if I stared at them long enough and longingly enough I would, by some sort of osmosis, be transported into their clear, pure silence. Even now I remember those pictures, like pictures in a storybook one loved as a child. Radiant meadows, mountains vaporous in the trembling distance; leaves ankle-deep on a gusty autumn road; bonfires and fog in the valleys; cellos, dark windowpanes, snow.
Hampden College, Hampden, Vermont. Established 1895. (This alone was a fact to cause wonder; nothing I knew of in Plano had been established much before 1962.) Student body, five hundred. Co-ed. Progressive. Specializing in the liberal arts. Highly selective. ‘Hampden, in providing a well-rounded course of study in the Humanities, seeks not only to give students a rigorous background in the chosen field but insight into all the disciplines of Western art, civilization, and thought. In doing so, we hope to provide the individual not only  with facts, but with the raw materials of wisdom.’
Hampden College, Hampden, Vermont. Even the name had an austere Anglican cadence, to my ear at least, which yearned hopelessly, for England and was dead to the sweet dark rhythms of the little mission towns. For a long time I looked at a picture of the building they called Commons. It was suffused with a weak, academic light–different from Plano, different from anything I had ever known–a light that made me think of long hours in dusty libraries, and old books, and silences.
-10- [Another professor talking about Julian Morrow] ‘Of course he is a distinguished scholar. He happens to be quite charming as well. But he has what I think are same very odd ideas about teaching. He and his students have virtually no contact with the rest of the division. I don’t know why they continue to list his courses in the general catalogue–it’s misleading, every year there is confusion about it–because, practically speaking, the classes are closed. I am told that to study with him one must have read the right things, hold similar views.
-11- Actually, finding the Lyceum wasn’t easy at all. It was a small building on the edge of campus, old and covered with ivy in such a manner as to be almost indistinguishable from its landscape. Downstairs were lecture halls and classrooms, all of them empty, with clean blackboards and freshly waxed floors. I wandered around helplessly until finally I noticed the staircase–small and badly lit–in the far corner of the building.
-12- Enjoying the noise of my shoes on the linoleum, I walked along briskly…
-13- …the more I heard about [Julian Morrow] , the more interested I became, and I began to watch for him and his little group of pupils around campus. Four boys and a girl, they were nothing so unusual at a distance. At close range, though they were an arresting party–at least to me, who had never seen anything like them, and to whom they suggested a variety of picturesque and fictive qualities.
Two of the boys wore glasses, curiously enough the same kind; tiny, old-fashioned, with round steel rims. The larger of the two–and he was quite large, well over six feet–was dark haired, with a square jaw and coarse, pale skin. He might have been handsome had his features been less set, or his eyes, behind the glasses, less expressionless and blank. He wore dark English suits and carried an umbrella (a bizarre sight in Hampden) and he walked stiffly through the throngs of hippies and beatniks and preppies and punks with the self-conscious formality of an old ballerina, surprising in one so large as he. ‘Henry Winter,’ said my friends when I pointed him out, at a distance, making a wide circle to avoid a group of bongo players on the lawn.
The smaller of the two–but not by much–was a sloppy blond boy, rosy-cheeked and gum-chewing, with a relentlessly cheery demeanor and his fists thrust deep in the pockets of his knee-sprung trousers. He wore the same jacket every day, a shapeless brown tweed that was frayed at the elbows and short in the sleeves, and his sandy hair was parted on the left, so a long forelock fell over one bespectacled eye. Bunny Corcoran was his name, Bunny being somehow short for Edmund. His voice was loud and honking, and carried in the dining halls.
The third boy was the most exotic of the set. Angular and elegant, he was precariously thin, with nervous hands and a shrewd albino face and a short, fiery mop of the reddest hair I had ever seen. I thought (erroneously) that he dressed like Alfred Douglas, or the Comte de Montesquiou; beautiful starchy shirts with French cuffs; magnificent neckties; a black greatcoat that billowed behind him as he walked and made him look like a cross between a student prince and Jack the Ripper. Once, to my delight, I even saw him wearing a pince-nez. (Later, I discovered that they weren’t real pince-nez, but only had glass in them, and that his eyes were a good deal sharper than my own.) Francis Abernathy was his name.
-14- And then there were a pair, boy and girl. I saw them together a great deal, and at first I thought they were boyfriend and girlfriend, until one day I saw them up close and realized they had to be siblings. Later I learned they were twins. They looked very much alike, with heavy dark-blond hair and epicene faces as clear, as cheerful and grave, as a couple of Flemish angels. And perhaps most unusual in the context of Hampden–where pseudo-intellects and teenage decadents abounded, and where black clothing was de rigueur –they liked to wear pale clothes, particularly white. In this swarm of cigarettes and dark sophistication they appeared here and there like figures from an allegory, or long-dead celebrants from some forgotten garden party. It was easy to find out who they were, as they shared they distinction of being the only twins on campus. Their names were Charles and Camilla Macaulay.
-15- Slowly, more information came my way. Francis Abernathy was from Boston and, from most accounts, quite wealthy. Henry, too, was said to be wealthy; what’s more, he was a linguistic genius. He spoke a number of languages, ancient and modern, and had published a translation of Anacreon, with commentary, when he was only eighteen. … The twins had an apartment off campus, and were from somewhere down south.
-16- This was Bunny. His voice was nasal, garrulous, W.C. Fields with a bad case of Long Island lockjaw.
-17- I was confused by this sudden glare of attention; it was as if the characters in a favorite painting, absorbed in their own concerns, had looked up out of the canvas and spoken to me. Only the day before Francis, in a swish of black cashmere and cigarette smoke, had brushed past me in a corridor. For a moment, as his arm touched mine, he was a creature of flesh and blood, but the next he was a hallucination again, a figment of the imagination stalking down the hallway as heedless of me as ghosts, in their shadowy rounds, are said to be heedless of the living.
-18- Charles shuffled his papers together, stood up again; Camilla stood beside him and this time she offered me her hand, too. Side by side, they were very much alike, in similarity less of lineament than of manner and bearing, a correspondence of gesture which bounced and echoed between them so that a blink seemed to reverberate, moments later, in a twitch of the other’s eyelid. Their eyes were the same colour of gray, intelligent and calm. She, I thought, was very beautiful, in an unsettling, almost medieval way which would not be apparent to the casual observer.
-19- [About Julian Morrow’s office] It was a beautiful room, not an office at all, and much bigger than it looked from outside–airy and white, with a high ceiling and a breeze fluttering in the starched curtains. In the corner, near a low bookshelf, was a big round table littered with teapots and Greek books, and there were flowers everywhere, roses and carnations and anemones, on his desk, on the table, in the windowsills. The roses were especially fragrant; their smell hung rich and heavy in the air, mingled with the smell of bergamot, and black China tea, and a faint inky scent of camphor. Breathing deep, I felt intoxicated. Everywhere I looked was something beautiful–Oriental rugs, porcelains, tiny paintings like jewels–a dazzle of fractured color that struck me as if I had stepped into one of those little Byzantine churches that are so plain on the outside; inside, the most paradisal painted eggshell of gilt and  tesserae.
-20- ‘But do you really think,’ [Julian] said, concerned, ‘that one can call psychology a science?’
‘Certainly. What else is it?’
‘But even Plato knew that class and conditioning and so forth have a inalterable effect on the individual. It seems to me that psychology is only another word for what the ancients called fate.’
‘Psychology  is a terrible word.’
He agreed vigorously. ‘Yes, it is terrible, isn’t it?’ he said, but with an expression that indicated that he thought is rather tasteless of me even to use it. ‘Perhaps in certain ways it is a helpful construct in talking about a certain kind of mind. The country people who live around me are fascinating because their lives are so closely bound to fate that they really are predestined. But–‘ he laughed– ‘I’m afraid my students are never very interesting to me because I always know exactly what they’re going to do.
I was charmed by his conversation, and despite its illusion of being rather modern and digressive (to me, the hallmark of the modern mind is that it loved to wander from its subject) I now see that he was leading me by circumlocution to the same points again and again. For if the modern mind is whimsical and discursive, the classical mind is narrow, unhesitating, relentless. It is not a quality of intelligence that one encounters frequently these days. But  though I can digress with the best of them, I am nothing in my soul if not obsessive.
-21- [Julian:] ‘…We study art, history, philosophy, all sorts of things. If I find you are deficient in a given area, I may decide to give you a tutorial, perhaps refer you to another teacher. As French is not my first language, I think it wise if you continue to study that with Mr Laforgue. Next year I’ll start you on Latin. It’s a difficult language but knowing Greek with make it easier for you. The most satisfying of languages, Latin. You will find it a delight to learn.’
-22- [Julian:] ‘I believe that having a great diversity of teachers is harmful and confusing for a young mind, in the same way I believe it is better to know one book intimately than a hundred superficially,’ he said. ‘I know he modern world tends not to agree with me, but after all, Plato had only one teacher, and Alexander.’
Slowly I nodded, trying as I did so to think of a tactful way to withdraw, when my eyes met his and suddenly I thought:  Why not?  I was slightly giddy with the force of his personality but the extremism of the offer was appealing as well. His students—if they were any mark of his tutelage—were imposing enough, and different as they all were they shared a certain coolness, a cruel, mannered charm which was not modern in the least but had a strange cold breath of the ancient world: they were magnificent creatures, such eyes, such hands, such looks—sic oculos, sic ille manus, sic ora ferebat. I envied them, and found them attractive; moreover this strange quality, far from being natural, gave every indication of having been intensely cultivated. (It was the same, I would come to find, with Julian: though he gave quite the opposite impression, of freshness and candor, it was not spontaneity but superior art which made it seem unstudied.) Studied or not, I wanted to be like them. It was heady to think that these qualities were acquired ones and that, perhaps, that was the way I might learn them.
003. 42-3 Dr Blind (pronouned “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.
004. 50 “And you like [Henry] ?”
“Certainly, certainly. He’s a hard fellow to live with, though. Hates noise, hates company, hates a mess. None of this bringing your date back to the room to listen to a couple Art Pepper records, if you know what I’m trying to get at.”
“I think he’s sort of rude.”
Bunny shrugged. “That’s his way. See, his mind doesn’t work the same way yours and mine do. He’s always up in the clouds with Plato or something. Works too hard, takes himself too seriously, studying Sanskrit and Coptic and those other nutty languages. …”
“How many languages does he know?”
“I lost count. Seven or eight…”
“Where’s he from?”
He said this in such a deadpan way I thought he was joking and I laughed.
Bunny raised an amused eyebrow. “What? You thought he was from Buckingham Palace or something?”
I shrugged, still laughing. Henry was so peculiar, it was hard to imagine him being from anyplace.
005. 57 “Well,” said Bunny chummily, his voice booming in the tense silence, “I’d apologize for dragging you away from your book if you hadn’t brought it with you. What you got there? Any good?”
Without a word, Henry handed it to him. The lettering on the front was in some Oriental language. Bunny stared at it for a moment, then gave it back. “That’s nice,” he said faintly.
006. 59 Though polite enough, they seemed wary and slightly puzzled, as if I were from some country with unfamiliar, eccentric customs, which made it necessary for them to take great caution in order to not startle or offend.
007. 66 I moved relentlessly over the evening, back and forth, straining to remember exact words, telling inflections, any subtle insults or kindnesses I might’ve missed, and my mind—quite willingly—supplied various distortions.
008. 75 All my life, people have mistaken my shyness for sullenness, snobbery, bad temper of one sort or another. ‘Stop looking for superior!’ my father sometimes used to shout at me when I was eating, watching television, or otherwise minding my own business. But this facial cast of mine (that’s what I think it is, really, a way my mouth has or turning down at the corners, it has little to do with my actual moods) has worked as often to my favour to my disadvantage. Months after I got to know the five of them, I found to my surprise that at the start they’d been nearly as bewildered by me as I by them. It never occurred to me that my behaviour could seem to them anything but awkward and provincial, certainly not that it would appear as enigmatic as it in fact did; why, they eventually asked me, hadn’t I told anyone anything about myself?
009. 79 Grown children (an oxymoron, I realize) veer instinctively to extremes; the young scholar is much more a pedant than his older counterpart.
010. 80 [About the classics clique] [They were intrigued] by the fact that I read papers and watched news on television from time to time (a habit which seemed to them an outrageous eccentricity, peculiar to me alone; none of them were the least bit interested in anything that went on in the world, and their ignorance of current events and even recent history was rather astounding. Once, over dinner, Henry was quite startled t learn from me that men had walked on the moon. “No,” he said, putting down his fork.
“It’s true,” chorused the rest, who had somehow managed to pick this up along the way.
“I don’t believe it.”
“I saw it,” said Bunny. “It was on television.”
“How did they get there? When did this happen?”)
011. 91 Henry and Francis were further out: Francis talking, gesticulating wildly in his white robe and Henry with his hands clasped behind his back, Satan listening patiently to the rantings of some desert prophet.
012. 297 [Referring to Greek lit] There was a tradition among the ancients that things were very cheap in Hell.
013. 213 [Bunny] tried to insult and belittle [Camilla] in a variety of ways, most of which struck wide of the mark. She was impervious to slights about her appearance; met his eye, unblinking, as he told the most vulgar and humiliating jokes; laughed if he attempted to insult her taste or intelligence; ignored his frequent discourses [about women being inferior to men.]
014. 215 An interesting question: what was I thinking, as I watched his eyes widen with startled incredulity (“come on, fellas, you’re joking, right?”) for what would be the very last time? Not of the fact that I was helping to save my friends, certainly not: nor of fear; nor guilt. But little things. Insults, innuendos, petty cruelties. The hundreds of small, unavenged humiliations which had been rising in me for months. It was of them I thought, and nothing more. It was because of them that I was able to watch him at all, without the slightest tinge of pity or regret, as he teetered on the cliff’s edge for one long moment—arms flailing, eyes rolling, a silent-movie comedian slipping on a banana peel—before he toppled backwards, and fell to his death.
015. 218 “I mean,” [Henry] said, pushing his glasses up on the bridge of his nose, “that strictly in terms of virulence there are any number of excellent poisons, most of them far superior to this. The woods will be soon full of foxglove and monkshood. I could get all the arsenic I needed from flypaper. And even herbs that aren’t common here—good God, the Borgias would have wept to see the health-food store I found in Brattleboro last week. Hellebore, mandrake, pure oil of wormwood… I suppose people will buy anything if they think it’s natural. The wormwood they were selling as organic insect repellent, as if that made it safer than the stuff at the supermarket. One bottle could have killed an army.”
016. 228-9 Julian had a polite but implacable contempt for Judeo-Christian tradition in virtually all its forms. He would deny this if confronted, citing evasively his affection for Dante and Giotto, but anything overtly religious filled him with a pagan alarm; and I believe that like Pliny, whom he resembled in so many respects, he secretly thought it to be a degenerate cult carried to extravagant lengths.
017. 265 [After killing Bunny Richard calls Henry.] “When you’re worried about something,” said Henry abruptly, “have you ever tried thinking in a different language?”
“It slows you down. Keeps your thoughts from running wild. A good discipline in any circumstance. Or you might try doing what the Buddhists do.”
“In the practice of Zen there is an exercise called zazen—similar, I think, to the Theravadic practice of vipassana. One sits facing a blank wall. No matter the emotion one feels, no matter how strong or violent, one remains motionless. Facing the wall. The discipline, of course, is in continuing to sit.”
There was a silence, during which I struggled for language to adequately express what I thought of this goofball advice.
018. I knew then, and know now, virtually nothing about Julian’s life outside of the classroom, which is perhaps what lent such a tantalizing breath of mystery to everything he said or did. No doubt his personal life was a flawed as anyone’s, but the only side of himself he ever allowed us to see was polished to such a high gloss of perfection that it seemed when he was away from us he must lead an existence too rarefied for me to even imagine.
019. 327 “I hate Gucci,” said Francis.
“Do you?” said Henry, glancing up from his reverie. “Really? I think it’s rather grand.”
“Come on, Henry.”
“Well, it’s so expensive, but it’s so ugly too, isn’t it? i think they make it ugly on purpose. And yet people buy it out of sheer perversity.”
020. 346 [Henry] was talking on and on in a low voice about Schliemann’s Ilios, the fingertips of his big square hands on the table’s edge as if it were a Ouija board. When I’d lived with him over the winter, he would sometimes go on for hours on these didactic monologues, reeling off a pedantic and astonishingly accurate torrent of knowledge wit the slow, transfixed calm of a subject under hypnosis. He was talking about the excavation of Hissarlik: “a terrible place, a cursed place,” he said dreamily—cities and cities buried beneath each other, cities torn down, cities burnt and their bricks melted to glass…a terrible place, he said absently, a cursed place, nests of tiny brown adders of the sort that the Greeks called antelion and thousands and thousands of little owl-headed death gods (goddesses, really, some hideous prototype of Athena) staring fanatical and rigid from the engraved illustrations.
021. 359 Whatever else one may say about guilt, it certainly lends one diabolical powers of invention…
022. 463 [Henry addressing Richard] “You don’t feel a great deal of emotion for other people, do you?”
I was taken aback. “What are you talking about?” I said. “Of course I do.”
“Do you?” He raised an eyebrow. “I don’t think so. It doesn’t matter,” he said, after a long, tense pause. “I don’t, either.”
“What are you trying to get at?”
He shrugged. “Nothing,” he said. “Except that my life, for the most part, has been very stale and colorless. Dead, I mean. The world has always been an empty place to me. I was incapable of enjoying even the simplest things. I felt dead in everything I did.” He brushed the dirt from his hands. “But then it changed,” he said.” “The night I killed that man.” … “It was the most important night of my life,” he said calmly. “It enabled me to do what I’ve always wanted most.”
“Which is?”
“To live without thinking.” … “Before, I was paralyzed, though I didn’t really know it,” he said. “It was because i thought too much, lived too much in the mind. It was hard to make decisions. I felt immobilized.”
“And now?”
“Now,” he said, “now, I know that I can do anything that I want.”
023. 465 Things which were odd, by Julian’s definition, often turned out to be amusingly mundane. By his own choice, he had so little contact with the outside world that he frequently considered the commonplace to be bizarre: an automatic-teller machine, for instance, or some new peculiarity in the supermarket—cereal shaped like vampires, or unrefrigerated yogurt sold in pop-top cans. All of us enjoyed hearing about there little forays of his into the twentieth century, so Francis and I pressed him to tell us what now had happened.
024. 477 His voice chilled me to the bone. Though he and Henry had in common a distinct coldness of manner—sometimes, around them, the very temperature seemed to drop—I had always thought Henry’s coldness essential, to the marrow, and Julian’s only a veneer for what was, at bottom, a warm and kind-hearted nature. But the twinkle in Julian’s eye, as I looked at him now, was mechanical and dead. It was as if the charming theatrical curtain had dropped away and I saw him for the first time as he really was: not the benign old sage, the indulgent and protective good-parent of my dreams, but ambiguous, a moral neutral, whose beguiling trappings concealed a being watchful, capricious and heartless.
025. 480 George Orwell—a keen observer of what lay behind the glitter of constructed facades, social and otherwise—had met Julian on several occasions, and had not liked him. To a friend he wrote: “Upon meeting Julian Morrow, one has the impression that he is a man of extraordinary sympathy and warmth. But what you call his ‘Asiatic serenity’ is, I think, a mask for great coldness. The face one shows him he invariably reflects back at one, creating the illusion of warmth and depth when in fact he is brittle and shallow as a mirror….

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