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The Beauty of Terror



Snippet from

The Secret History  



- Donna Tartt


Literary Drama





Context: This snippet provides an academic discussion on how the madness, terror, and bloodshed in Greek classics have a beauty to them. A group of six students and their professor casually discuss the violence and bloodshed in literature especially in the Greek classics.




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I came from a lower-class family and a loveless California home to the hermetic, overheated atmosphere of Vermont's Hampden College. I was accepted into a clique of five socially sophisticated students who studied Classics. The group included fraternal twins Charles and Camilla Macaulay, who were charming but secretive, as well as Francis Abernathy, whose secluded country home became a sanctuary for the group. Then there was the linguistic genius Henry Winter, an intellectual with a passion for the Pali canon, Homer, and Plato; and back-slapping Bunny Corcoran, a kind-of bigoted jokester. Oh and we also had an idiosyncratic, morally fraudulent professor, Dr. Julian Morrow.


He was a marvelous talker, a magical talker, and I wish I were able to give a better idea what he said, but it is impossible for a mediocre intellect to render the speech of a superior one—especially after so many years—without losing a good deal in the translation. I remember a great discussion one day about loss of self, about Plato’s four divine madnesses, about madness of all sorts; he began by talking about what he called the burden of the self, and why people want to lose the self in the first place.


“Why does that obstinate little voice in our heads torment us so?” he said, looking round the table. “Could it be because it reminds us that we are alive, of our mortality, of our individual souls—which, after all, we are too afraid to surrender but yet make feel more miserable than any other thing? But isn’t it also pain that often makes us most aware of self? It is a terrible thing to learn as a child that one is a being separate from all the world, that no one and no thing hurts along with one’s burned tongues and skinned knees, that one’s aches and pains are all one’s own. Even more terrible, as we grow older, to learn that no person, no matter how beloved, can ever truly understand us. Our own selves make us most unhappy, and that’s why we’re so anxious to lose them, don’t you think? Remember the Erinyes?”


“The Furies,” said Bunny, his eyes dazzled and lost beneath the bang of hair.


“Exactly. And how did they drive people mad? They turned up the volume of the inner monologue, magnified qualities already present to great excess, made people so much themselves that they couldn’t stand it.


“And how can we lose this maddening self, lose it entirely? Love? Yes, but as old Cephalus once heard Sophocles say, the least of us know that love is a cruel and terrible master. One loses oneself for the sake of the other, but in doing so becomes enslaved and miserable to the most capricious of all the gods. War? One can lose oneself in the joy of battle, in fighting for a glorious cause, but there are not a great many glorious causes for which to fight these days.” He laughed. “Though after all your Xenophon and Thucydides I dare say there are not many young people better versed in military tactics. I’m sure, if you wanted to, you’d be quite capable of marching on Hampden town and taking it over by yourselves.”


Henry laughed. “We could do it this afternoon, with six men,” he said.


“How?” said everyone at once.


“One person to cut the phone and power lines, one at the bridge over the Battenkill, one at the main road out, to the north. The rest of us could advance from the south and west. There aren’t many of us, but if we scattered we’d be able to close off all other points of entry”—here he held out his hand, fingers spread wide—“and advance to the center from all points.” The fingers closed into a fist. “Of course, we’d have the advantage of surprise,” he said, and I felt an unexpected thrill at the coldness of his voice.


Julian laughed. “And how many years has it been since the gods have intervened in human wars? I expect Apollo and Athena Nike would come down to fight at your side, ‘invited or uninvited,’ as the oracle at Delphi said to the Spartans. Imagine what heroes you’d be.”


“Demigods,” said Francis, laughing. “We could sit on thrones in the town square.”


“While the local merchants paid you tribute.”


“Gold. Peacocks and ivory.”


“Cheddar cheese and common crackers more like it,” Bunny said.


“Bloodshed is a terrible thing,” said Julian hastily—the remark about the common crackers had displeased him—“but the bloodiest parts of Homer and Aeschylus are often the most magnificent—for example, that glorious speech of Klytemnestra’s in the Agamemnon that I love so much—Camilla, you were our Klytemnestra when we did the Oresteia; do you remember any of it?”


The light from the window was streaming directly into her face; in such strong light most people look somewhat washed out, but her clear, fine features were only illuminated until it was a shock to look at her, at her pale and radiant eyes with their sooty lashes, at the gold glimmer at her temple that blended gradually into her glossy hair, warm as honey. “I remember a little,” she said.


Looking at a spot on the wall above my head, she began to recite the lines. I stared at her. Did she have a boyfriend, Francis maybe? He and she were fairly chummy, but Francis didn’t look like the sort who would be too interested in girls. Not that I stood much of a chance, surrounded as she was by all these clever rich boys in dark suits; me, with my clumsy hands and suburban ways.


Her voice in Greek was harsh and low and lovely.



Thus he died, and all the life struggled out of him;

and as he died he spattered me with the dark red

and violent-driven rain of bitter-savored blood

to make me glad, as gardens stand among the showers

of God in glory at the birthtime of the buds.



There was a brief silence after she had finished; rather to my surprise, Henry winked solemnly at her from across the table.


Julian smiled. “What a beautiful passage,” he said. “I never tire of it. But how is it that such a ghastly thing, a queen stabbing her husband in his bath, is so lovely to us?”


“It’s the meter,” said Francis. “Iambic trimeter. Those really hideous parts of Inferno, for instance, Pier de Medicina with his nose hacked off and talking through a bloody slit in his windpipe—”


“I can think of worse than that,” Charles said.


“So can I. But that passage is lovely and it’s because of the terza rima. The music of it. The trimeter tolls through that speech of Klytemnestra’s like a bell.” “But iambic trimeter is fairly common in Greek lyric, isn’t it?” said Julian. “Why is that particular section so breathtaking? Why do we not find ourselves attracted to some calmer or more pleasing one?”


“Aristotle says in the Poetics,” said Henry, “that objects such as corpses, painful to view in themselves, can become delightful to contemplate in a work of art.”


“And I believe Aristotle is correct. After all, what are the scenes in poetry graven on our memories, the ones that we love the most? Precisely these. The murder of Agamemnon and the wrath of Achilles. Dido on the funeral pyre. The daggers of the traitors and Caesar’s blood—remember how Suetonius describes his body being borne away on the litter, with one arm hanging down?”


“Death is the mother of beauty,” said Henry.


“And what is beauty?”


“Terror.”


“Well said,” said Julian. “Beauty is rarely soft or consolatory. Quite the contrary. Genuine beauty is always quite alarming.”


I looked at Camilla, her face bright in the sun, and thought of that line from the Iliad I love so much, about Pallas Athene and the terrible eyes shining.


“And if beauty is terror,” said Julian, “then what is desire? We think we have many desires, but in fact we have only one. What is it?”


“To live,” said Camilla.


“To live forever,” said Bunny, chin cupped in palm.



The casual way in which we discussed such topics as terror, bloodshed and violence is something I can never forget. We considered ourselves bold, strong and scholarly. Almost a step above the rest of the world. It was perhaps not the biggest surprise how all of us ended up having very tragic lives. Charles developed a drinking problem. Francis was forced into marriage by his family. Henry and Camilla developed a relationship which was broken by Henry’s suicide. Bunny, well Bunny got killed. Most of all, it was a shame how only one of us, I, ended up staying with literature, a lonely academic.



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