Joe Hill's Reviews > The Secret History

The Secret History by Donna Tartt
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's review
Oct 23, 2007

really liked it
Recommended for: anyone
Read in July, 2007

Someone just brought up Nietzsche’s Apollonian vs. Dionysian theory, which is described at the link below, if you are as unfamiliar as I was.

Apparently Donna Tartt was well-versed in this theme, as it is prevalent in The Secret History. The gist of Nietzsche’s theory is that the ancient Greeks attained such a high level of culture mainly due to their personal struggle between the opposing philosophies of Apollo and Dionysus; Apollo being the god of art, and thus, stagnation, while Dionysus is the god of debauchery and barbarism, and thus, action. This struggle between appreciation for art and culture and a zeal for living is what Nietzsche credits for the Greeks impressive progress. He also believed that the only way we can progress today is to swing the pendulum toward Dionysus.

I see Tartt’s Greek professor character as Apollonian—beautiful and seemingly wise, but in the end, shallow, and useless in times of tragedy. His students loved him, but they (or Henry, at least) realized the inherent stagnation in pouring over ancient texts and art--they needed a Dionysian push to move them forward to real progress. This is a rather obvious observation, I think it is even spelled out by the Henry character in the novel. However, the basis for Nietzsche’s theory, which I’m now sure Tartt was aware of, is that the basic will of humans is not to simply survive, but to survive at a level superior to that of your peers. Knowing this adds new colors to the tableau Tartt weaved for us, a story that is ultimately about class struggle (ala Philip Roth, hence, the faux-snubb reference). I think it tells us how carefully Tartt chose her vehicle for this story and reveals a little more of her brilliance.
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Elizabeth I enjoyed reading your review, I was unaware of the Nietzsche Theory, very interesting. This was definately one of my all time favorite books. I have recomended it many times and I'm suprised how often some one doesn't "get it". Seems like you have to be a true lover of reading and books to enjoy this one.

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