Dark Academia: Faux Hermits and Goya Paintings

Edited By: Tejaswini Vondivillu​

Every time I attempt to de-caricaturise the concept of Dark Academia in my mind, I can’t help but be reminded of that one TikTok that goes, “I like Dead Poets Society for its rich, transcendentalist message”, and pans to a series of pictures of a young Ethan Hawke as Todd Anderson with the ‘90s heartthrob’ filter.

First off, that is a formidable argument to be made in its case if there ever was one. I mean come on, that toothy smile, the swoop of his hair and those double-layered sweatshirts? Yeah, I’m sure you felt that too. It’s safe to say that Dead Poets Society along with The Secret History by Donna Tartt are the modern founding fathers of Dark Academia culture. Between Mr Keating’s impassioned poetry driven monologues to never succumb to the inanities of life and the perpetually broody Henry who only reads in poorly lit, mossy structures and drinks his body’s weight in hard liquor every day, it’s like a Dark Academia Pinterest mood-board regurgitated itself over the pages/screen with a Sepia filter pulled over the top. I blazed through the movie and book in two weeks.

But unfortunately, my stint in the world of Dark Academia ended with hate reading/watching The Secret History and Dead Poets Society respectively. You’d think with my burgeoning inclination to romanticise everything within an inch of its life, this would be right up my alley. But in light of the fact that I can’t wear coffee dreg coloured turtlenecks without looking like a plucked emu, I will be cancelling the trend. 

There is obviously the more pressing issue of the aesthetic being exclusionary on several fronts. But a conversation to expunge the trend on account of it being Eurocentric, intellectually elitist and terribly lacking in body diversity would require a more well thought-out critique. This article, on the other hand, I treat as an entry in the Burn Book under the name “Dark Academia: Stop trying to make Sufijan Stevens happen.”

For starters, I have little to no patience for Victorian Literature apart from Bleak House and Treasure Island. Blasphemous, I know. I chalk it down to my general distaste for rampant cholera and ingesting pill size bits of arsenic for a white face. Also, you will never catch me listening to Chopin on vinyl because I refuse to spend an upwards of 100 dollars on a turntable to receive auditory enlightenment. And let’s face it, buying your third 40 rupee coffee from Sandeep bhaiya at Fuel Zone isn’t nearly as sexy as coffee from your French press and a shot of single malt by the fireplace.

Even the mention of caffeine and alcohol in the same sentence without accrediting Ms. Tartt and her severely self-destructive protagonists feels like a charge of plagiarism. The seductiveness of The Secret History is not lost on me though. Sign me up to study in an ostentatious liberal arts college in rural Vermont where we spend the weekends in a quaint country home, performing incantation rituals to summon Dionysus (minus the accidentally murdering a farmer part) any time of the year.

But what irks me is the sheer dissonance between what the aesthetic claims to stand for and what it ultimately plays out as. Apart from the feeling of wallowing in a lost plot and growing increasingly tired of their “dastardly deeds”, The Secret History also leaves you with a bitter after taste of the kind that stems from the discomfort of running an elaborate charade to fit in. 

The protagonist, Richard, deeply ashamed of his mediocrity undergoes a complete overhaul to fit the pretentious trust-fund kid profile that was required of him to be accepted into Julian’s Greek class. Ultimately his academic prowess did him no favours until he assumed a mind-numbingly insular personality, making him practically indiscernible from the other uni-dimensional characters in the book.

For all its talk about being an inclusive space that stands for unabashed expression and the pursuit of knowledge, it’s unyielding in the kind of academia and more disturbingly, the kind of persona they’re welcoming to. I can see the Dark Academic gatekeepers huffing at my inability to casually fling Latin phrases into a conversation or drop a purple prose mixtape onto an unsuspecting plebeian.

So until the aesthetic stops being reductive and, frankly, insulting to every one’s intelligence or I rebrand to look like Saoirse Ronan and name myself Sylvia or something equally pretentious, I will be steering clear of it.