Years ago, my good friend Sherry commented that this was possibly the best book she had read. Since she is someone whose opinions I value, I made a mental note. It took me a while, but I finally got around to reading it, and while it might not be the best book I’ve read, it was damn good!
To very briefly summarize the story (and not give any spoilers), it is about a group of college students who are focusing their studies on classicism. They are isolated from the rest of the student body and their studies are led by a single professor who is very enigmatic. One evening, some of the students decide to perform an actual Bacchanal, which has unexpected and problematic results. This starts a chain of events that is worthy of a Greek tragedy.
Ms. Tartt’s writing is impeccable. She possesses a tremendous command of language and weaves an intricate and engaging tale. It’s a long book, but there was never a moment that I found my interest waning. I was captivated from the opening pages right up until the end.
The book is written in first person narrative from the perspective of Richard Papen. Early in the book, he expresses his fascination with his studies. It is a feeling I could completely relate to, that sense of wonder and discovery, where you begin to see meaning and symbolism in everything around you.
It is easy to see things in retrospect. But I was ignorant then of everything but my own happiness, and I don’t know what else to say except that life itself seemed very magical in those days: a web of symbol, coincidence, premonition, omen. Everything, somehow, fit together; some sly and benevolent Providence was revealing itself by degrees and I felt myself trembling on the brink of a fabulous discovery, as though any morning it was all going to come together—my future, my past, the whole of my life—and I was going to sit up in bed like a thunderbolt and say oh! oh! oh!
There are many deep passages in this book, but one that stands out for me concerns the struggle between the logical and the illogical, as embodied by the Romans. During one of the lessons, Julian (the enigmatic professor) elaborates on this.
He paused. “The Roman genius, and perhaps the Roman flaw,” he said, “was an obsession with order. One sees it in their architecture, their literature, their laws—this fierce denial of darkness, unreason, chaos.” He laughed. “Easy to see why the Romans, usually tolerant of foreign religions, persecuted the Christians mercilessly—how absurd to think a common criminal had risen from the dead, how appalling that his followers celebrated him by drinking his blood. The illogic of it frightened them and they did everything they could to crush it. In fact, I think the reason they took such drastic steps was because they were not only frightened but also terribly attracted to it. Pragmatists are often strangely superstitious. For all their logic, who lived in more abject terror of the supernatural than the Romans?”
I have met many people over the years who profess to be “new age seekers.” Many of these people take the view that everything spiritual is wonderful and loving. I have never been one of those. There is a light and a dark side to everything, even the spiritual. It’s part of the natural balance. To deny the existence of one is a grave mistake indeed. I would never presume to have the wisdom to judge things as either good or evil, but I recognize that there are positive and negative energies, for lack of a better description, and one must learn to interact with both.
Another thing about this passage that is spot on is how people can be both frightened and attracted to something simultaneously. We see it still today and I suspect that it is this innate part of humans that is the root of the polarization we are seeing in society and politics. In order to defend our paradigms, we feel the need to attack whoever embodies the opposite, and the most fervent are often those who secretly long for that which they oppose.
Of course, though, for me, it was the description of the mystical experience achieved during the Bacchanal that was the most moving part of the book. Capturing the essence of a mystical experience in mere words is daunting, to say the least. The description here, although fiction, is powerful.
“It was heart-shaking. Glorious. Torches, dizziness, singing. Wolves howling around us and a bull bellowing in the dark. The river ran white. It was like a film in fast motion, the moon waxing and waning, clouds rushing across the sky. Vines grew from the ground so fast they twined up the trees like snakes; seasons passing in the wink of an eye, entire years for all I know . . . I mean, we think of phenomenal change as being the very essence of time, when it’s not at all. Time is something which defies spring and winter, birth and decay, the good and the bad, indifferently. Something changeless and joyous and absolutely indestructible. Duality ceases to exist; there is no ego, no “I,” and yet it’s not at all like those horrid comparisons one sometimes hears in Eastern religions, the self being a drop of water swallowed by the ocean of the universe. It’s more like the universe expands to fill the boundaries of the self. You have no idea how pallid the workday boundaries of ordinary existence seem, after such an ecstasy. It was like being a baby. I couldn’t remember my name. The soles of my feet were cut to pieces and I couldn’t even feel it.”
(pp. 167 – 168)
That is the dark side of the mystical experience: how can one return to pallid, ordinary existence after experiencing divine ecstasy? It is easy to see why people go down that rabbit hole and never come back.
As Henry, one of Richard’s fellow students, continues to relate details of the experience, Richard questions whether Henry truly believed that he saw Dionysus, to which Henry replies:
“What if you had never seen the sea before? What if the only thing you’d ever seen was a child’s picture—blue crayon, choppy waves? Would you know the real sea if you only knew the picture? Would you be able to recognize the real thing even if you saw it? You don’t know what Dionysus looks like. We’re talking about God here. God is serious business.”
As I said earlier, this book is excellent. I highly recommend it. It is well-written, thought-provoking, and the story itself is compelling. I know that Ms. Tartt has written a couple other books since this one. I feel pretty certain that I will be reading more of her works in the future.