LitCrit: Dark Academia revisited

In the fall of 2018 I wrote the blog post that would bring in the majority of my readers for years to come without knowing it. It took me two hours to write and it was done in the middle of the night, nine hours before it was set to be published. My Dark Academia blog post was one I was very proud of at the time. And I still like it to this day, but what i do not like is the genre itself.

In my original post I said: “Dark Academia novels contain elements of both satire and tragedy” which I still believe to be true, but I have also come to realise that people who un-ironically enjoy this genre and who strive for this aesthetic, including myself in 2018, aren’t paying attention to the satire part. They read The Secret History and yearn for this apparent aesthetic and academic life without realising the book is heavily satire and that none of these aspects are to be desired.

One thing in the original post I will agree with whole heartedly, is my comment on how this genre focusses primarily on straight white men, and puts women and lgbt+ people in the background as accessories to the main characters life, and it often disregards poc completely. But me writing it in a blog post doesn’t mean that the people who want to emulate this aesthetic completely realise. The majority of the support I see for Dark Academia online seems to be completely uncritical of the negative aspects of the genre and aesthetic.

When I wrote my original post I was so sure that the genre was based more in tragedy than in comedy. The endings weren’t happy so it had to be tragedy right? Well that’s hard to explain. I think in order to fully realise the way the genre utilises tragedy and comedy we once again have to look to The Secret History, because that book is obvious satire which would place it in the comedy genre, but the ending isn’t funny or even remotely happy. Anyone who has read or even heard about the book though knows it’s about a group of classics students, and the terms of tragedy and comedy were most noted by Aristotle in Poetics.

Aristotle defines comedy a representation of people who are inferior, i.e the commoner. Whereas tragedy is defined as a representation of the superior kind, i.e the upperclass like kings or mythological characters. It is also important to note that the characters in comedies were often stereotypes where the characters in tragedies were real people. But comedies were also often a vessel for political criticism, and satire of both public people and happenings.

The Secret History is therefore in my opinion more comedy than it is tragedy because the main character is a character who is not from the upper level he’s a commoner who gets thrust into a position he is not used to, and the characters have been regarded as stereotypes since the publication of the books. But then why is the novel mostly concerned with tragedies and why is the ending unhappy? Well in my belief it was Tartt’s way to poke fun at the Classics majors she knew, Donna herself was not a Classics student but from the Esquire article The Secret Oral History of Bennington her relationships with classics get briefly explained:

Donna was not part of our Greek tutorials. The courses she took with Claude anyone who signed up could take. Claude adored certain women, but he was also homosexual and had a very, let’s say, classical aesthetic or hierarchy, which prizes maleness and male beauty.

This would be enough of a reason to want to poke fun at them for their ideas of grandeur and give this satirical novel a tragic ending, it was Tartt’s own way to utilise the Greek genres to her own advantage and write a satirical novel about how the classics students she knew were too in their own head.

The point of this analysis of The Secret History is because it is widely regarded as the original dark academia book, and it is the book that has been used to define the elements of the genre. And many of the comedy elements are present in other popular dark academia books, and especially If We Were Villains, Oliver Marks is the least talented in the group and he comes from a family that doesn’t support his acting. The characters in If We Were Villains also all embody a stereotype seen in plays as described in the synopsis, “hero, villain, tyrant, temptress, ingenue, extra.” The problems of this book arise when these stereotypes are mixed and the characters no longer embody the stereotypes they were meant to.

In conclusion you cannot talk about the Dark Academia Genre without mentioning satire and comedy. Dark Academia is at it core a satirical and exaggerated picture of academia and university life, and it is just veiled in a layer of tragedy which is also in a sense satirical.

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