On Idols, Jay Gatsby, and Other Forms of Faith


On January 29, the Olympic torch relay for the PyeongChang Winter Olympics passed through Chuncheon in Gungwon Province. The last time I had really paid attention to the Olympics was when my family took me to Beijing nearly a decade ago. This year my eye alighted on the event not for the promise of feats of athleticism or sportsmanship, but on the last torchbearer of the day, the promotional ambassador from South Korea, the actor Jang Keun-suk.

In 2009 I was 16 years old, and early in the winter and into the better part of spring, I was hooked on the South Korean drama You’re Beautiful. A 16-episode television series that gained international cult status, spawned remakes in Japan and Taiwan, and briefly popularized the sale of a hybrid “pig-rabbit” stuffed animal that appears in the series, the storyline follows a young nun-in-training (played by Park Shin-hye) who is forced to disguise her identity and pretend to be male in a popular boy-band-slash-idol-group, A.N.JELL, cohabiting with the three other members of the band (played by Jang Keun-suk, Jung Yong-hwa, and Lee Hong-gi) all as beautiful as—well—angels. As she tries to hide her gender and transforms into an idol, hijinks and antics, dark family histories, jealousy, and, of course, love ensue.

For those who didn’t grow up with East Asian, and particularly Korean, dramas, the genre’s appeal—and the highly-specific world of idols and idol bands in the Korean media industry—can be difficult to understand. The romantic dramas are, compared to Western series, completely unsexy, or rather, unsexed. The humor is campy, even slapstick. Standard tropes include gender-bending, family debts, hospitalizations, “noble idiot”-esque sacrifices, and disappearances abroad. That Christmas I showed an episode of You’re Beautiful to a friend of my cousin, a young woman with short-cropped blonde hair. She took one look at Lee Hong-gi, pretty-faced and sporting a shaggy bleached blonde hairdo similar to her own, and snorted, “That’s a guy? No wonder people think I’m a dude.”

Still, I was in love. I remember debating the merits of the moody male lead and his nice-guy romantic rival with my best friend, sprawled out on the thick green duvet on her bed, in her comfortable room with its tall, white-framed windows. She was the one who gave me my own stuffed pig-rabbit to hang on my cellphone. Last year, not long after moving to New York and in a fit of escapism, I rewatched You’re Beautiful, this time sprawled on a rainbow-colored throw on the bed in my Brooklyn sublease, autumn leaves brittle on the sidewalk.

It had been eight years. There was still an undeniable charm. I found myself swept up again by the sheer escapism and audacity of the whole story, incredible as it was, or precisely because it was so incredible. One thing about the K-drama universe is its utter commitment to its implausibility. And yes—I’ll admit it—with his deep smooth voice, slim-fit blazers, gelled-up hair, and tight-collared shirts, Jang Keun-suk, the male lead, was gorgeous.

Not long after rewatching You’re Beautiful, I reread The Great Gatsby. In high school, the book was taught to me as a novel commenting on the American Dream. This time, reading it while still afloat on the clouds of my K-drama high, I caught much more about Nick’s tendencies towards idolization and symbol-making, his willingness to suspend his disbelief.

The first time Nick Carraway hears Gatsby tell the story of his life, he doesn’t believe it. “With an effort I managed to restrain my incredulous laughter,” he says. And who can blame him? Oxford and inheritances, tiger-hunting and rubies, war and heartbreak: It’s all too overblown, too storybook to be taken seriously. Then Gatsby shows Nick a medal from Montenegro. And Nick, all of a sudden, believes: “Then it was all true.”

The layers of apotheosization in the novel are multifold: Gatsby’s idealization of Daisy, Jordan’s interest in Nick, Myrtle’s desire for Tom, Nick’s own veneration of Gatsby. Each relationship is a forceful reading of the opposite party, a transmutation of human into desire. As much as our rational instincts tell us the incredible fantasy we’re being fed can’t be true, the smaller, perhaps more powerful part of us, would like to buy in. Because wouldn’t it be nice if the dream were true?

Towards that end, the mental leaps we take can be incredible. Perhaps the root of building an idol is one’s willingness to adapt any small gesture into a symbol fitting the story. Here is Nick, for instance, on Gatsby’s smile:
It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced—or seemed to face—the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just so far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.
This is the kind of outsized reading that fans pin upon the faraway icons of their sublimated desires, reifying details of biography, gesture, and dress, projecting objects and moments into assumptions of meaning and tenderness. One wonders what Nick was trying to escape from. Idolatry is a form of love, and love, after all, is not a usefully descriptive term: It is the catch-all hiding all sorts of projections and desires, hollow shapes and aberrant hopes, like the bland and smiling Noh mask that anonymizes completely expression, body, intent.

As a 16-year-old, I did precisely the same thing to Jang Keun-suk, projecting desire and hope and all sorts of elemental qualities onto a televised phrase, a photo-shoot smile.  Back then I lived in a narrow and highly-structured world where I sensed, in a way I could not have articulated then, that there was much more of life waiting on the wings, some of it beautiful, some of it unstable, some of it far less predictable or orderly than I could see. And I was netted in the promises made incarnate by crazy stories like You’re Beautiful, as Nick was by Gatsby’s self-created myth: promises of love and of pain, and of the wild ways a life could suddenly change.

There’s a scene in You’re Beautiful in which Jang Keun-suk tells Park Shin-hye, “I am loved by thousands of people. That is my job.”

Part of the fun of the drama is how it shines a light on the behind-the-scenes work of an idol, dealing with fans, keeping up appearances, providing the raw material one consumes in their story-making. The actors in the series perform roles as meta-types of the idols they are, in some form, in real life. (The four principal stars are, today, all big names in acting or music). It was this that made me realize the reciprocal nature of the idol and the idolater. To be idealized, the idol must first be believed.

Out of all the people that Gatsby hosted in his mansion, it was only Nick that was willing to read so much into his smile, which in reality must have been merely a smile on a handsome face,  a social tic acquired in his eagerness to please. It was also only Nick, out of all of Gatsby’s guests, that felt such loyalty, even love, to him at the end of everything, arranging his funeral, writing his story, trying to seek some recompense.

Even at the end of the novel, though Gatsby’s self-made myth is imploded, Nick has found something else to deify. He’s a believer still, reworking the material to something different, even grander. He thinks about the endless parties, the green light, the transformation from James Gatz to Jay Gatsby. In relating Gatsby’s story he creates a new myth for his old idol, populating it with sensitive extrapolations he conjures from the bones of Gatsby’s experience and, in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s clamorous, perfumed language, the vocabulary of a dreamer, enshrining his legend.

This year, succumbing again to the girlish fanaticism I’d once possessed for a K-drama hero, for a moody pair of guy-linered eyes, skinny jeans, and a husky voice singing love ballads, there was a part of me aware, like Nick, of the falseness and ridiculousness of it all. But incredulity conversely reinforces this desire to believe: It makes the symbol all the stronger when the disbelief is assuaged. Part of the power of icons is how much we want, despite all the evidence and common sense given to the contrary, the myths we imbue them with to be real. If only, if only the possibilities were true. By the way, I don’t have a religion.

But perhaps it is the nature of faith to turn out to be misplaced. Everyone lets down everyone else: Daisy lets down Gatsby, Nick lets down Jordan, Gatsby isn’t who he told Nick he was. The dream falls apart when we can no longer believe.

This time, revisiting the drama and the novel, You’re Beautiful held up rather less well than The Great Gatsby. Unlike when I was in high school, this time I found parts of the drama cheesy to the point of being embarrassing to watch. Some of the sequences I found so romantic back in the day now were just silly. But when I was 16 it was easier to love.

Somewhere along the eight years between 16 and 24, fantasy had proven, was proving, to be frailer than I’d thought. This time, revisiting both stories, I was more aware of the mechanisms and pitfalls of idolatry. Many of the people and institutions that were once unimpeachable in my mind had, in the years since, gradually or suddenly fallen from their perches. Each time it happened I was a little less surprised. I guess the word is disillusionment.

While cleaning out my closet, I found the pig-rabbit my best friend had given me in high school. With the jolt of time settling, I realized the actors in the drama were, at the time, younger than I am now. After finishing the drama I looked up again the handsome lead who had captivated me so. This was around the time he announced he would be the ambassador for the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics. Seeing him now, I was unreasonably surprised to see how much he’d changed. He’d cut his hair and ditched the black jeans for summer-colored suits; his skin was no longer so smooth. And I could no longer so easily suspend my disbelief, or so easily alchemize meaning from his gestures.

How I wished it weren’t so. Still, his voice remained the same, and though he now sings sunny pop songs instead of slow ballads, it was easy to pretend, for a little while, that I could go back to believing.

Ms. Lonely: Olivia Laing in the Lonely City


In a recent feature in Afar magazine, Chris Colin describes three friends he made while traveling in Tokyo. They accompanied him to restaurants around the city, talked with him about relationships and parents, and were paid by the hour to hang out with him.

Colin was reporting on the service Client Partners, which provides simple, platonic friendship to its customers. At first he chalks this up to a phenomenon he calls “Japanese wackiness,” in line with cat cafes and host clubs. But in a country with an overworked, rapidly shrinking population and high suicide rates — a country still recovering from the twin blows of the Tohoku earthquake and Fukushima nuclear disaster — Client Partners seeks to address a societal crisis rather than fill a niche demand. The deluge of photos on social media and gaggles of people hanging out in subway stations are all a mask, the professional friends tell Colin. There is a deep loneliness there, an unmet need for human intimacy.

In The Lonely City, set 6,700 miles from the young skyscrapers of Tokyo in the older, grimier blocks of New York City, Olivia Laing conducts her own investigation into the way loneliness is expressed in the metropolis, using art as her point of departure: Andy Warhol’s endless audio tapes, the epic bloody watercolors hoarded by Chicago janitor Henry Darger, the terrifyingly public Internet-cum-social-experiments of Josh Harris. “Loneliness,” she writes is “a populated place: a city in itself.” Laing draws on the “fertile as well as frightening” sensation of loneliness — a state of being experienced from Tokyo to New York, felt by a quarter of American adults and a greater percentage of British ones — to tackle not only why and how loneliness is experienced, but the fruit it brings forth. How does art resist the isolating effects of solitude?

The success of Laing’s book is that it doesn’t require the reader to know much about — or even to be particularly interested in — the New York art world. It’s more about the people that populate it and the stories that make them who they are. The Lonely City draws on social science, gay culture, AIDS history, and the influence of technology, weaving in snippets of memoir. Laing’s prose is elegant and concise, with a breath of Joan Didion: a painting is described as a “cool green icebox,” loneliness as a “city, perhaps at dusk, when everyone turns homeward and the neon flickers into life.”

The book moves seamlessly between Blade Runner and Ludwig Wittgenstein, from art to attachment theory, from Henry Darger to behavioral psychology and Harry Harlow’s experiments with “monster mothers.” In its interdisciplinary scope and mix of culture, theory, and memoir, The Lonely City brings to mind other nonfiction hits of recent years, books like Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts or Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams. These books are written by complex, fiercely intelligent women with deep capacities for rigorous research, analysis, and synthesis. The topics they tackle are tough and human: queer identity and modern families in The Argonauts; the various trespasses and violences of empathy (as well as its tenderness and necessity) in The Empathy Exams. Laing has likewise done the legwork; her evocations of the various artists that make up her book are penetrating and full of reversals.

There’s Andy Warhol, of whom Laing writes, “[He was] famous for his relentless sociability…almost never without a glittering entourage and yet his work is surprisingly eloquent on isolation and the problems of attachment.” She paints a particularly loving and detailed portrait of David Wojnarowicz, whose first memory is of horseshoe crabs and who liked to hang by his fingers from the window ledge of his bedroom. (Laing refers to him by his first name; the intimacy is startling.) The connections and conclusions she draws are coherent, nuanced, and sometimes surprising. See, for instance, how she juggles the delicate politics of communication and the double-edged blade of confession and intimacy:
It’s about wanting and not wanting: about needing people to pour themselves out into you and then needing them to stop, to restore the boundaries of the self, to maintain separation and control. It’s about having a personality that both longs for and fears being subsumed into another ego.
The Lonely City is smart and crisp without being jargony, and the wide cast of characters and complex ideas are laid out in easy-to-absorb ways. Laing’s research and insight into the queer art community in New York, both before and during the AIDS crisis, is particularly rich ground. Through Laing’s book we can see the systemic causes of loneliness — an individual experience, but one that comes from an interplay of a broad variety of societal factors of exclusion and inequality. As she tells us, “Loneliness is personal, and it is also political.” This is important, and where The Lonely City is at its best. Laing carefully shows us how social deprivation as a result of poor environment or systemic prejudice can result in a lifelong struggle with socialization and belonging that colors an individual for life.

But this is not just a book of cultural criticism and social research. Like The Argonauts and The Empathy Exams, or Vivian Gornick’s The Odd Woman and the City, Laing also incorporates memoir. Curiously, this is where the book feels most flat. We get snippets of her time in New York, subletting various friends’ apartments and moving around different neighborhoods. We hear about a Halloween party and a little bit about a failed relationship, about where Laing likes to walk for her morning coffee and the hours she spends on Twitter. We know Laing is lonely, because she says that she is. But though her analysis of the lives and motivations of the artists is deep and compelling, she very rarely turns that same analytical lens to herself, and in the rare moments she does, doesn’t push through to any type of conclusion.

In one of the lengthier personal passages, but also one of the most confusing parts of the book, Laing describes a struggle with gender identity:
I was not at all comfortable in the gender box to which I’d been assigned…I’d never been comfortable with the demands of femininity, had always felt more like a boy, a gay boy, that I inhabited a gender position somewhere between the binaries of male and female, some impossible other, some impossible both.
What do we do with this information? It’s striking; we feel it must have some significance to Laing’s project. But as part of Laing’s narrative it mysteriously drops out and isn’t returned to.

This invites the question that arises again and again in popular discourse around writing: what do we want from our nonfiction writers? Confession? Resolution? In her essay “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain”, Leslie Jamison uses her own history of heartbreak and self-harm to talk about the icon of the “damaged” female and the shadow she casts on the modern-day women who are afraid of being her. “I am not a melodramatic person.” It’s personal. It digs deep. Jamison is not afraid to share a lot. Even if she were, today’s readers have such an appetite for these explosive, confessional personal essays that it’s too late to be afraid.

Laing, by contrast, is reticent. She doesn’t share much of herself. Unlike Nelson or Jamison, Laing doesn’t seem committed enough to the memoir strain of her cross-genre book. We wonder, then, why she traverses the personal at all. In some ways this highlights one of her opening precepts: “Loneliness is difficult to confess; difficult too to categorize.” A running theme in her book is the difficulty of tackling loneliness head-on, in writing or in speech — and why, perhaps, so many artists approached it in elliptical ways.

We are aware of Laing’s loneliness as she researches and engages with the artists in the book, so we also see her dogged (but perhaps not always completely truthful) optimism about the ameliorative effects of art for combating loneliness. Was Henry Darger’s disturbing art really about “the reparative impulse” of collaging together the self’s fractured, lonely parts? In all her description of the generative side to loneliness — the stuff that comes from loneliness, Laing never quite answers the question: Were these artists’ lives made happier because of their art?

Reading a book about loneliness when you are lonely is tricky; the reader looks for a solution to the problem. Writing a book about loneliness when you are lonely must be even more difficult. At the end of The Lonely City, Laing does not offer up novel “answers,” either to her own loneliness or the reader’s; it’s not clear, even, whether the book feels loneliness is a problem to be solved. (Indeed, the best conclusion from Laing’s personal experience comes after the book ends, in the acknowledgements: “writing a book about loneliness…has been astonishingly connecting.”) Her closing prescriptions — to be kind, to stay open — are the stuff of motivational blogs. It’s hard to fault her for this; it’s not, after all, a self-help book. As anyone who has been lonely knows, it can’t necessarily be cured — either by friends who are paid by the hour, or by a book.

My First Book: Adventures in Learning to Read Japanese

- | 2

I don’t remember reading my first book. From the memories of my childhood there is only a vague list, incomplete and out of order, of the books I have read but not necessarily the specifics of where, or how, or why.

Gone with those memories, too, are the ones of what I did when I didn’t know a word or came across a particularly complex sentence. I don’t remember using a dictionary. No one read to me. Only, there was a time when there was a lot I couldn’t read; now, there isn’t a lot that I can’t. What happened in between?

It took me six years of study to finish reading my first book in Japanese. That book was Rui Kodemari’s Kokoro no mori (Heart’s Forest), a fifth-grade novel I found in the Japanese elementary school where I teach. The plot, somewhat fittingly, follows a Japanese boy in the sixth grade who moves to America without knowing any English.

Though Kokoro no mori was the first book I finished, it certainly wasn’t the first book I tried to. In the last couple years of studying Japanese, there were plenty of times when I picked up a volume intending to diligently go through it, looking up every new word or grammar point if necessary, and close the book both triumphant and possessed of an automatic near-fluent grasp of the language. First there was Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen, which I’d read in translation before picking up the Japanese version at a used Book-Off in San Diego. I got through five pages, laboriously checking every new word and writing it down in a notebook before getting hopelessly bored at the slow pace. I already knew what was going to happen, after all. A year later I tried the first volume of Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, because I’d read that he wrote an easier, non-traditional Japanese that was closer to English. But that, too, proved to be a bust. After that there were e-books of Natsume Sōseki’s Kokoro and Botchan, a volume of poetry by Shuntarō Tanikawa, and a short story collection by Yōko Ogawa not yet translated into English. I fingered them furtively in the aisles of used bookshops or in aisles of the school library that no one ever went to. I bought them with my eyes lowered, not exchanging words with the cashier, afraid they’d assume a competence in me I hadn’t earned. One by one, I opened them, got out my dictionary or smartphone app, muddled through a few pages, and then, inevitably, gave up.

When you first start learning a language, it’s easy to make a lot of progress: You go from knowing nothing at all to being able to read a new alphabet or make a basic dialogue in a couple of months. In the early stages, there are a lot of benchmarks indicating concrete advances in your language proficiency, like saying hello, asking for directions, listing your hobbies, writing your first paragraph. But in the intermediate and advanced stages, progress is less obvious and painfully slow, if not invisible altogether. I spent one unit in my intermediate Japanese class reading a dialogue about a college student who spent a summer working in a fish cannery in Alaska. “When the hell,” I thought to myself, “am I ever going to need to know the word for fish cannery?”

It was around this time I started picking up Japanese books, but never finishing them. For two years I lingered at a learning plateau; I was pretty good but not, to my mind, good enough. After moving to Japan, I could give instructions to my students and understand most of what my coworkers said, but I got by with what I had without feeling any sense of improvement. And the knowledge of how much more there was still to learn was overwhelming. Though I’d come a long way, the level of fluency required to read a book or become a translator — one of my ambitions — seemed paradoxically more achievable and still impossibly far.

Then came the fifth-grade classroom and Kokoro no mori. I opened the book idly during a lunch period. The first sentence — Who are you?  — was so short, direct, and easy to understand that, without thinking about it, I immediately read further.

And it was easy. Or rather, it was easier: I got through the first page without a dictionary, though there were a few places where I stumbled. I found myself on the second page in less than five minutes. I brought the book home with me. Three weeks later, after starting, stopping, and starting again, I turned the last page and shut the book with an odd sensation: So that was it? I’d done it?

Though of course, that wasn’t it. I’d finished the book, but along the way, I had to shed the hubris I unwittingly carried when reading English. I was so used to being able to pick up whatever I wanted go through it, if not always quickly, at least with some measure of ease, that I carried that over to reading Japanese. It was no surprise I was easily frustrated.

Now, I was forced to relearn all my old techniques: I had to go slowly, I couldn’t skim. Sometimes I stopped over a particularly long sentence or involved description and parsed it out on a piece of paper. Sometimes, I just skipped it.

Sometimes I read holding the book open with my left hand and the dictionary with my right. A lot of vocabulary I guessed at, or took from context. Tsuga, I knew, must be a type of tree, but what kind? Imori was some kind of animal — but which one?

I had to start looking at each sentence holistically — to look at the text to see the forest, not the trees. If there was a word or phrase I was stuck on, sometimes I just had to let it go. Rather than fixating on how the verb was conjugated or the choice of one adverb or adjective over another, I had to ask myself if I even understood what was going on. Often, I didn’t; there were many times when I had to go back, rereading a passage the meaning of which, later passages showed, I had completely misunderstood.

I couldn’t use most of the critical apparati I had developed, the tools and skills of close reading I’d been trained to apply. For instance, I couldn’t decide if the prose in the novel was good or bad, if it had a voice, if there was good pacing or flow. I didn’t know whether the dialogue sounded natural or if there were clichés. I had nothing to compare it to. Even the book cover was humbling — I didn’t recognize the first word in the title, which was printed in a round and curly font. I assumed it was a kanji character I hadn’t learned. Then a couple of second graders who saw me reading one day read the title out loud: “Kokoro no mori.” I gripped the book and felt foolish — kokoro is one of the easiest characters there is.

When it came to Japanese, I had none of the confidence I had when it came to English. More than anything, Kokoro no mori made me a beginner in reading again.

But being a beginner has its own particular pleasures. No longer complacent about my ability to understand, whenever I did get a sentence or new word down, I felt a sense of achievement in a way that I hadn’t in years. I relived the excitement and pride of learning how to read when I was a child; piece by piece, I was unlocking the story, the language — and by extension, a whole new world.

I had my first instance of critical pleasure when I read about the three American friends Hibiki makes at his new school: Tom, Jack, and Bob. He refers to them as a collective: “My American friends, Tom and Jack and Bob” — those three names, always together, always in that order. They tell Hibiki about American holidays, play ball with him in the park, and that’s it. Throughout the entire book they never appear on set or even interact with Hibiki. Ultimately, they are simply cardboard cutouts — typified, generic “American friends.”

This is what it must be like, I thought, when a Japanese person runs into a character named Tanaka who only likes to eat sushi. There they were: my first stereotypes. It became a private running joke between me and the book.

All readers are familiar with the sensation of falling into a book. By their very nature, books invite you to immerse yourself in the world they have constructed.

When it comes to a book in another language, however, such immersion feels both familiar and alien. While reading Kokoro no mori, I felt like a seasoned explorer suddenly sent to scope out Mars: the process was the same, but everything else was totally different. I had to attune myself to the rhythms of another language, to slowly gather an instinct for its patterns and structures, its particular logic. After spending so long in comfortable, well-trod terrain, finding myself in a new one was intimidating, exhilarating, and mesmerizing, all at once.

Now on the other side of my first book, I can safely say that I am still not very good at Japanese. I don’t know much more than I did when I started, except maybe the names of some trees and how to say turkey.

But at the same time, something has changed. The longer I read, the more I fell into the cadences of Japanese. Rather than simply following the rules, I started feeling a deeper instinct for the language. I felt more confident in discerning what sounded natural and what didn’t. I started adapting to Japanese more.

After I finished the book, I went back to school; I handed Kokoro no mori to the teacher I’d borrowed it from. Then I went to the library. Hesitantly at first, then a little more boldly, with a growing sense of anticipation, I started browsing the books on display at the counter. They were still a little daunting, but they looked friendlier.

The first book is not special only because it’s a sign of progress. The first book is special because it holds a promise: there will be books after.

Losing Yourself: What The Secret History Tells Us About the Liberal Arts

- | 9

1.I encountered Donna Tartt’s The Secret History the summer after my first year of college, as part of a grab bag of used but new-to-me books (along with poetry by Dickinson and Glück and Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose) passed on to me by an alumnus of my school who had enrolled as an English major a decade before I had. Now over twenty years after its publication, and with Tartt’s widely anticipated new novel The Goldfinch on the way, The Secret History still endures, and, in light of all the recent discussions about the liberal arts and its students, it may be worth revisiting why.
Though I had not taken classes with secretive Aristotelian professors, partook of drinking binges and bacchanals, made friends with twenty-year olds who were fluent in ancient Greek, or, significantly, murdered a friend, the book (what to classify it as? A reverse murder mystery, a literary novel, a college story, a coming of age story) struck a chord in me. At first I pinned it down to the plot, but there was something more compelling to it than that — and specifically, something compelling to readers, like me, who identified with Tartt’s characters: introspective and book-loving students of the liberal arts.
For the protagonists of Tartt’s novel were just that: students who liked to write and read and think, dreamy and bookish, studying for a degree in Classics. Richard, Henry, Camilla, Francis, and the rest were not pre-professionals, or enrolling in classes with an eye to generating career skills; rather, they were students who devoted themselves to an intense teacher and an intense study of ancient texts and ideas, and who looked to those studies for answers to questions in their own personal lives. They were, in short, liberal arts students, precisely of the breed that is lamented as being increasingly endangered.
2.The appeal of the story to a certain type of crowd (“students of an intellectual bent,” the alumnus said, while my ego purred) goes beyond the intrigue. If The Secret History were a simple murder mystery, the narrative could have ended at Bunny’s death. But it didn’t, because, more than being a story about murder, the novel is about wanting to change, but failing. And it is precisely this failed transformation that makes the book relatable.
Richard, the novel’s narrator, first describes the five students in the elite Classics class as isolated, aloof, with “a strange cold breath of the ancient world,” strange but arresting — and ultimately, when given the option to join this crew, he takes it, hoping to cultivate the same aura himself. Once in, he and these other otherworldly students study (and oh, studying so picturesquely!) under their irresistible, charismatic teacher, who on Richard’s first day asks them to “leave the phenomenal world, and enter into the sublime,” before leading them in a whirlwind discussion on divine madness in the cozy style of a Socratic seminar.
Richard had escaped the dust and destitution of Plano by coming to Hampden, wanting to get as far away from himself as possible, and from the first had been mesmerized by the mystery of the Classics group. Crucially, he believes that the aura of Julian Morrow’s students is one he can achieve by studying what they studied. And once in with them, he comments, “I felt myself trembling on the brink of a fabulous discovery, as though any morning it was all going to come together…I was going to sit up in a bed like a thunderbolt and say oh! oh! oh!”
Such is the seductive appeal of the liberal arts. We are told that being a true student of the liberal arts means to have cultivated a love of learning and a set of broadly applicable skills in critical thinking, writing, reading, constant questioning, and interpersonal empathy. We are told that such students are in search of truth, looking for guidance in their studies on how to live the good life and cultivate their souls. We are told the liberal arts are a way of experiencing life; we are told the schools and institutions that teach the humanities to students — at least, in the ideal education — are not merely teaching texts but fostering great citizens and empathetic human beings. From these descriptions, the liberal arts seem like a kind of magic medicine that will make you smarter, cooler, better. One certainly might hope, and many do, that the liberal arts would make everything, like Richard said, suddenly come together.
At the time the college alumnus gave me the book bag, I was fresh from a year when I’d read for the first time in my life ancient philosophers and meditations on the nature of man. Impressed by the confidence and air of intelligence my professors and this college alumnus shared, I thought that I had gotten my foot into the door of the right club, the club that would set me apart from the common masses and propel me into a higher class: intellectual. Basically, my professors and the alumnus represented the same elitism that appealed to Richard and beckoned him to join the Classics. It was the wink-wink-nudge-nudge, you get me, we’re both literary, we appreciate this kind of thing, the secret handshake and tip of the hat: follow us, we know what to do, we’ll make you into an intellectual. In short, I, like Richard, thought I could leave everything boring and nasty about me behind, and was on the brink of transforming into a completely new and better person. Who among us hasn’t wanted that?

3.The character that to me is the most striking, out of everyone, in The Secret History, is that of Henry Winter. (Even Camilla and Charles, with their incestuous relationship lifted straight from Greek tragedy, can’t compare). Henry, the rigid, imposing scholar, who makes puns in Greek more fluently than he can in English and greets his beloved teacher on the phone with “Khairei!” was, out of the six, certainly the most devoted scholar. After all, it was he who attempted to simulate divine madness and who successfully held a bacchanal.
The believability of the fiction aside, one has to admire Henry’s passion. But in this case, it is Henry’s passion that leads to not only his fall, but also the breaking of the magic circle that they had been living in.
The bacchanal leads to a dead body, which leads to blackmail, which leads Henry to organize Bunny’s death. All of these events, in narrative, happen breathlessly; under the light of objective reality, they do, of course, seem utterly ludicrous. And yet the extremity of the tale does not lessen the takeaway.
Henry had seen the most concretely out of the group the possibility of a completely new self. He admits to Richard that his life had been stale, dead, and colorless, and that the entire appeal of the bacchanal was to “lose one’s self, lose it utterly.” The night it happened, he was able to do what he always wanted: to live without thinking.
The similarities between Richard and Henry are obvious. Like Richard, Henry had wanted to escape his old life. Like Richard, Henry was drawn to the study of the liberal arts to do so — but, seemingly, he found the key that Richard hadn’t. He might even have found it as a result of the studies he felt were so colorless. They were what enabled him to draw in the madness and kill the farmer. And as a result, he felt invincible, confident, in control; he had changed himself, become everything he wanted.
If the story stopped here, the moral lesson would be troubling. But Henry ultimately kills himself. Richard speculates on why: Julian had abandoned his students after hearing about the results of his teaching, and Henry, devastated, had needed to prove the worth of “those high cold principles which Julian had taught…Duty, piety, loyalty, sacrifice.” Though Henry, unlike Richard, had managed to forge a new self for a brief moment, it didn’t last. He could not escape from the realities of life so easily, and had to return to his old self. He was stuck. Then, bam, the gunshot.
4.What this tells us is that really, there is no magical transformation. It isn’t that books can’t change you. Of course they can, if you let them. With time and effort, they allow you to understand yourself and the world more deeply and better. But your self is not remade with a bang. There is no thunderbolt. Whether you like it or not, you are who you are. And it is the reality of this youthful illusion’s dissolution that gives The Secret History its tragic appeal.
Of course, one could point out that this book is fiction, that the characters are not real, and that most liberal arts students do not try to induce divine madness or push friends off cliffs. But that’s not the point. The novel depends on its strong characters, characters we can believe in and empathize with: Camilla liking novels, Francis gay, Bunny a spendthrift, Charles liking alcohol too much. In fact, at one point, late in the story, Richard comments that neither he nor his friends, despite their aura, were destined for a career in academia. They were just normal students, who were trying to learn how to live with all parts of themselves that they hoped to change. And when they stepped under Julian Morrow’s guidance, it seemed they might.
But by the end, Richard admits the failure: the magic teacher, turned out to be rather useless in light of a real crisis; two of their circle, dead; the rest of them, living rather aimless and unhappy lives. He became one of the elite circle, all right, but the elite circle turned out to be a rather ordinary one. He didn’t become a new person, unless as to assume a new identity of murderer. He did not leave his past self behind. At the end of the story, he states himself that he had remained what he always was: a bystander.
That doesn’t mean that he learned nothing. Quite the contrary.
His recourse was perhaps the most obvious one for a student taught to think, criticize, and observe. He analyzes the past, wonders at it, and teases out the motivations and forces leading down the chain of events. He tries to make sense of the chaos. He examines his life.
And then he does about the only thing that he, and all the line of questioners before him who have tried to find meaning out of living, can do: he writes down the entire story. And in so doing, his readers can escape their own lives, swept away briefly before coming jarringly back to their own bodies.

Image: Unsplash/Max Letek.