Text by Bella Harter, Photos by Tilda Butterworth
Latin; lazy summer afternoons; soft whisperings; broken glass'
Do you ever daydream about how you could have prevented the burning of the library of Alexandria? ‘Snookersneak’ does, as do the 1,900 tumblr users who liked or reblogged their post. The ‘Dark Academia’ (DA) community has grown on the internet over the past few years, but its roots in popular culture extend much further back, and its aesthetic further still. Depictions of academia in film, television and, more notably, literature, seem to be frozen in a hazy mid-century vignette. Something about the intellectual world of the post-war period captures people’s imaginations: I’m thinking here of The Imitation Game (2014) and The Theory of Everything (2014), of Sylvia Plath biopics and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History (1992).
The last of these is cited frequently in the DA community, and is recognised by various online genre-lists as one of the aesthetic’s defining texts. The Secret History tells the story of an eccentric group of well-to-do Classics students at an East Coast college who commit a murder which sets them spiralling into a romanticised world of suspicion and substance abuse. Although Tartt’s characters live in the 1980s, they dress and behave as if they’re in the 1950s. Clad in tweed and silk, they spend more time rowing on lakes, reciting poetry and performing Bacchic ceremonies than drinking from kegs and throwing parties, as their peers, who litter the scenery of their campus, do.
I suspect the novel’s moody and evocative style is the main reason it garnered so much public success. Richard Papen, the story’s Fitzgeraldian narrator (and voyeur), declares on the first page that his fatal flaw is 'a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs'—a longing shared by the text itself. Tumblr ‘aesthetics’ lists are built of the imagery conjured by this kind of literature, but, in focusing purely on their superficialities, they become troublingly removed from the texts’ political implications. 'Hello! I was curious about what kind of wax seal stamps you think would work with the dark academia aesthetic?', one anonymous user writes in to ‘dark-academia-tips’, a Q&A style blog run by a seventeen-year-old. 'The coolest stamp would, of course, be one adorned with your family crest,' she responds. Behind this blasé ‘of course’ lies a murky realm of assumptions about elitism that find themselves largely unaddressed within the DA community. This is not amusing ‘geek-chic’, but a subculture based on an archaic – yet by no means bygone – interrelation of class and aesthetic value.
The Secret History is more aware of its political implications, but these implications are regressive, and worryingly it often seems that it is not despite, but because of these implications, that the text appeals. Terry Eagleton writes that the 'literary text’s ideological context inheres unconsciously in every literary expression as it is produced or articulated'. DA enacts a confusing repression of the ideology which underwrites its existence. To read Tartt’s book is to engage in cognitive dissonance, simultaneously recognising our enjoyment and our social concerns in an alienation of aesthetics from politics.
We see some of this instability in DA’s awkward attempts to locate its origins in the following responses to two queries sent to ‘dark-academia-tips’. The first comes from a nervous individual who worries that they won’t be included within the community because they don’t 'suit' its clothing: 'DA was never about the fashion, but about the knowledge. I think fashion just sort of came along the way’. The second from a high-school student with poor grades: DA is about 'enjoying the aesthetic of studying, but not necessarily the act itself.' Which is it? The aesthetic or the act? The oscillation between the two suggests that they are considered interchangeable, challenging our notion of a consistent ideology. In the DA community, there is no delineation between performance and sincerity. To understand this it is worth probing what ideology is being channelled. In The Idea of the University (1852), John Henry Newman writes that a university ought to be 'a community of thinkers, engaging in intellectual pursuits not for any external purpose but as an end in itself'. This is L’art pour l’art, a principle that exists today: note its rousing citation by ‘University and Science Minister’ David Willett in his 2010 speech to ‘Universities UK’. Oscar Wilde, claimed as a founding figure of both Aestheticism and Dark Academia, went as far as to say that his life was his greatest work of art. If personal stylistic expression could be considered an ideological stance, then perhaps aesthetics themselves are an ideological modality.
This is complicated, however, by how detached from politics Wilde’s brand of aestheticism was, foreshadowing the DA community’s separation of the aesthetic and the political. Wilde writes that 'individualism is the new Hellenism', but in The Secret History Hellenism never died. Eccentric and aloof, Julian, the professor who teaches Richard and his friends, is the closest thing that the novel produces to embodying a fully developed ideology, one ambivalent towards the reality of the world beyond his office. He teaches his students to value art, to see themselves as inheritors of the refined sensibilities of classical civilisation. But as Richard damningly puts towards the end of the novel, 'the secret of Julian’s charm was that he latched onto young people who wanted to feel better than everybody else; that he had a strange gift for twisting feelings of inferiority into superiority and arrogance.' This is one of the few moments of exposition in a text which largely steers clear of commenting on the characters from a removed position. Richard is too close to the book’s events to judge, and, for the most part, so are we. Tartt’s writing serves the reader an imaginary, idealised world garnished with Latin, allowing her readers to, in Wilde’s words, 'swallow the classics whole and never taste them'. Her sumptuous description and classical allusions flatter the reader with the suggestion that their capacity to enjoy the text is down to their own refined tastes. The novel sells the dream that we can live more vibrantly through literature, one which relies on the supposition that non-aesthetes, perhaps even non-classicists, experience the world more dully.
This dream is obviously elitist, even if it maintains, as Wilde does in his essay ‘The Soul of Man Under Socialism’ (1891), that anyone could achieve this quality of experience if they only read the right things. In light of this it becomes easier to understand why people are eager to join the online ranks of Dark Academics, and why they are worried that they might not be included. Part of the lie of aestheticism, perpetuated by Tartt, is that anyone, even the excruciatingly low-born (comfortably suburban) Richard Papen, can become refined. Hence DA’s eagerness to suggest that you need neither formalised education nor expensive clothes to be a part of the community. But without either, can Dark Academia exist?
Elitism means that some individuals have more things than others, whether those things are money, clothing, education or ‘life’. Without the advantages of high social class one cannot enter into elite social circles, apart from in fantasy, or, as DA constantly implies, in the past. The post-war period is considered by many to be the ‘Golden Age’ of academia in this country. Before university education was made available to greater stretches of society in the 70s and 80s, class sizes were smaller, academics had relatively light and undemanding teaching responsibilities and more time to pursue their own research. By setting films in the 1940s, or having characters behave as if they lived in them, the audience is allowed the paradoxical fantasy that everyone can have access to what by definition can only be had by a few. It is not insignificant, then, that Julian’s tutelage of Richard and his group of friends in a small, self-contained group without formal exams is supposed to be an exception to the way the rest of the university operates. If it weren’t exceptional it wouldn’t have the appeal of elitism. It is less that his teaching style is unconventional; more that it is forty years out of date.
Both the ideology of Dark Academia (built on a misunderstanding of Wilde) and its aesthetic are bound in a tweedy nostalgia predicated on its availability to a chosen few. The critic Richard F. Kolbusz writes that The Secret History’s readership is primarily '[y]oung, professional, liberal-arts alumni, nostalgic for the life of the mind while experiencing the harsh truths of the life of the paycheck'. This seems exactly right, although I would argue that it is not for their own lives that they are nostalgic, but for a university of the past that they didn’t experience and, more crucially, would certainly never have been available to them. Texts like Tartt’s keep alive an archaic vision of academia that continues to shape the imaginations of people entering the university system, as well as those looking back upon their education; evidenced clearly by John Henry Newman’s claim that universities should still be a 'community of thinkers' engaging in 'intellectual pursuits' as an end in themselves. This is not our modern academic reality, and hasn’t been for a long time.
Newman’s conception of academia cannot be apolitical because it is not contemporary; it is betrayed by its nostalgic aesthetics. Aestheticism, too, cannot realistically detach itself from the world. Tartt, surprisingly, lets us peek at this. 'There is nothing wrong with a love of Beauty', a senior professor says to Richard, towards the end of the novel. 'But Beauty, unless she is wed to something more meaningful, is always superficial. It is not that your Julian chooses solely to concentrate on certain, exalted things; it is that he chooses to ignore others equally as important.' What I have referred to as Tartt’s choice to keep us ‘close to the narrative’ exemplifies the blinkering demanded by such ‘big-A’ aesthetic positions. It is in the spaces between what the text reveals to us that politics is taking place, and, just as notably, history. The period between the 1950s and the late 1980s was a time when specifically student protest gained media and public attention in an unprecedented way: locating the story in an anachronistic, nostalgic moment occludes the real political change that took place in these universities.
This is, on at least one level, the way that nostalgia functions. It narrows the gap between past and present and suspends us somewhere in between. It is unsurprising that DA has found its clearest articulation in the internet age. As Lownthal puts it, '[n]ostalgia no longer has to rely on individual memory or desire: it can be fed forever by quick access to an infinitely recyclable past'; a past in which moments can be brought to touch with little awareness of the time that stretched between them. The internet allows us to decontextualise, and in doing so we enact a process of collective, selective forgetting. The illogical vision of Dark Academia is only viable in imaginative spaces, like books and blogs, because it is a fiction.
When time becomes untethered in texts like The Secret History, we see how easily aesthetics can drift away from political realities. In the dreamy, unreal space of nostalgia, as Mark Fisher puts it, the 'slow cancellation of the future can take place'. That Dark Academia, trivial as it may appear, has such a wide appeal suggests that people don’t want to see the past clearly. A thought that might have serious implications down the line, surpassing elitism, for the repetition of the horrors of the past. Shaping the present on an idealised past ('Make America Great Again') not only keeps us from imagining a progressive future: it keeps us from imagining any future.