Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Leading me by circumlocution

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 loves 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.
The Secret History, by Donna Tartt, reminds me hugely of my dead cousin Peter. Everything about it. Well, not everything. I mean, it's not the dead body at the beginning of book that reminds me of the deadness of Peter. But Peter's world was academic — and we connected. He was my favourite cousin, my closest — we were just a year apart.

We would talk for hours in theoretical terms about politics and the law, about literature and philosophy, about music and film, about artificial intelligence and the possibility of extraterrestrial life. We talked about how theory could be implemented in practice.

I wonder if he read The Secret History before he died.
It was funny, but people never seemed to notice at first glance how big Henry was. Maybe it was because of his clothes, which were like one of those lame but curiously impenetrable disguises from a comic book (why does no one ever see that "bookish" Clark Kent, without his glasses, is Superman?). Or maybe it was a questions of his making people see. He had the far more remarkable talent of making himself invisible — in a room, in a car, a virtual ability to dematerialize at will — and perhaps this gift was only the converse of that one: the sudden concentration of his wandering molecules rendering his shadowy form solid, all at once, a metamorphosis startling to the viewer.
Peter had that gift too.

His air of being moneyed. His cultivated persona, in how he wore his clothes and his hair, whom he was seen with and where, what he was seen to be reading and studying, what he was seen to be drinking, the drugs he did. How he would deem you with a glance for inclusion or exclusion. Yet he was charming. I wanted to be in his club — when I was 9 and visiting his family's cottage, hen I was 19 and hanging out in downtown Toronto. We all wanted into his club.
Hampden College, as a body, was always strangely prone to hysteria. Whether from isolation, malice, or simple boredom, people there were far more credulous and excitable than educated people are generally believed to be, and this hermetic, overheated, atmosphere made it a thriving black petrie dish of melodrama and distortion.
Peter claimed his mother was prone to hysterics. I knew our grandmother had "episodes," but bloody hell, two world wars, a philandering husband, and exile from her homeland... hysterics seems like a perfectly reasonable response. So it seems reasonable too that one of the daughters might've learned that behaviour (my own mother tended toward melancholic). And I never figured out if any of it was true, or if his perception was the product of male entitlement, dismissal of the feminine, mommy issues, or simply drug-addled revisionist personal history. But then, I kind of think he inherited the hysteria gene himself.
I could say that 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. I could also say that he did this not through altruistic motives but selfish ones, in order to fulfill some egotistic impulse of his own. And I could elaborate on this at some length and with, I believe, a fair degree of accuracy. But still that would not explain the fundamental magic of his personality of — even in the light of subsequent events — I still have an overwhelming wish to see him the way that I first saw him: as the wise old man who appeared to me out of nowhere on a desolate strip of road, with a bewitching offer to make all my dreams come true.
Julian is a suspicious character. Well, they all are really. But him maybe more so. The professor. Because we don't know anything about him, yet he's an older authority figure — we have the sense he should know better.

This whole book is very Hitchcockian, I find. It's not about the crime; it's about the psychology of the people involved. Specifically Rope. But also Strangers on a Train and Shadow of a Doubt and others. In Hitchcock, it's about the idea of a perfect crime. In The Secret History it's that too, but it starts as something purer: simply, putting theory into practice.

The Secret History reminds me of the classes I never took, at the college I never went to, with the people I never knew.

I think I'm a modern mind, Peter was classical.

Ten reasons why we love Donna Tartt's The Secret History

No comments: