A question of formation

Ask me for novel recommendations and it won’t be long before I suggest you read Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.

What’s not to love: part murder mystery, part college coming-of-age story, part exploration of classical literature and philosophy. Set at an elite liberal arts college in New England, the story follows six Classics students in the lead up to the murder of one of the six by the others.

This description contains no real spoilers. We are introduced to the body of the dead student, the wonderfully named Bunny Corcoran, and those responsible in the novel’s prologue. The Secret History is a murder mystery in reverse: its question is not who did it, but why did they do it?

It’s a question I’ve been asking recently. Not with reference to anything as dramatic as murder— thankfully—but the broader question: How do we make sense of our actions? This is one of the questions at the heart of the Venn Vocational Programme; more precisely, what are wise actions and how do we learn to take them?

At the heart of The Secret History is the question of formation. The novel’s epigraph, a quote from Plato’s Republic, gives the game away: “Come then, and let us pass a leisure hour in story-telling, and our story shall be the education of our heroes.”

Trying to make sense of a murder, we follow the tutelage of our ‘heroes’ in the Classics under the charismatic Julian Morrow, their formation through what they read, study, debate, and admire. This formation bears fruit in character: they all, according to the narrator, “shared a certain coolness, a cruel, mannered charm which was not modern in the least but had a strange cold breath of the ancient world.” This coolness, this cruelty, ultimately terminates in murder. Asked how he could justify killing his friend, one of the characters, Henry Winter, lights a cigarette and says, “I prefer to think of it as redistribution of matter.”

The Secret History describes an important insight. So much of how we act in the world stems from our character, and our character is, at least in part, a question of formation. Jesus had a similar insight: “every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit” (Matthew 7:17).

Working on the Venn Vocational Programme has made these insights relevant to me, but so too have the challenges of fatherhood and marriage, of increased responsibility in the adult world. I find myself asking often, how can I act wisely here? There are many answers to this question—and the VVP takes a number of approaches—but one is clear: pay attention to what type of person I am becoming, how I am being formed.

The Secret History is a profound and in many ways troubling book. Tartt’s skill as a writer means she doesn’t just describe the formation that leads to murder, she enacts it—by the time our heroes commit to killing Bunny, we the reader are with them, we sympathise, we want Bunny dead too. We have spent so long in the world of our characters that we see the world the way they do: we have been formed; we are complicit.

The Secret History is a warning: pay attention to what is forming you—what stories you dwell on, who you spend time with, who you allow to tutor you.

Tartt, of course, wasn’t the first to say it. Plato did. So too, Jesus. But I’ll end with the Apostle Paul:

8 Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. 9 Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me— put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:8-9)