To Leave the Phenomenal and Enter the Sublime (or, notes on pregnancy cravings and The Secret History)

It is a measure of how swiftly I now fall asleep that I am only eighty percent through The Secret History, which I bought over a week ago and have reading in fevered subway and elevator snatches and those drowsy bedtime minutes ever since. I bought it after reading Esquire’s marvelous, scintillating oral history of Bennington College in its bacchanalian heyday, when an astoundingly high percentage of its students went on to become the Greatest Writers of Their Generation. Why, you could do meth with Bret Easton Ellis, banter about obscure comic books with Jonathan Lethem, attend one of Claude Frederick’s lectures on classical homosexual texts (this in the early eighties, mind you), and read a zine featuring Donna Tartt’s latest short story all before lunchtime!

The Secret History is a novel of and about Bennington — Tartt began writing it when she was still a student there — and it is a real testament to how, if you put the same thing in front of two people, you will get two entirely different descriptions. Because the Bennington I know is not Donna Tartt’s Bennington, and neither is it the Bennington of one of my other literary giantesses, Shirley Jackson. The Bennington I know has had most of its starched, Rockwellian aesthetic worn to the bone; it is a place of sagging porches and peeling paint and moss growing, to hushed affect, in places it oughtn’t. The licks of Town & Country wealth Tartt picked up on have largely migrated down route 7 to Williamstown, where they mingle with crunchier and preppier varietals. More striking, in my mind, is the absence of the natural mysticism so essential to Tartt’s setting.

In Tartt’s hands, the town’s rolling hills and dales swell and grow shaggy with fog; the deciduous forests knit tightly together. Only her high autumn, with its hyper-saturated foliage and sparkling lakes, is familiar. And yet, I believe in her Bennington as much — maybe even more — than I believe in my own, and take pleasure in the knowledge that we have both drank obscure (and, to my mind, flat) British beers in the astroturfed back garden of The Man of Kent and been briskly hon’ed over our indecisiveness at the Blue Benn.

The Secret History, at any rate, is delicious. I adored all but the endings of both The Goldfinch and The Little Friend, with their Dickensian twists and southern gothic horrors, but A Secret History is something else. It’s one of those books that seems, at its outset, straightforward — as my friend Nicole put it, “mischief at elite schools” —  and would have been eminently enjoyable in that form. Instead, I got to the halfway point (a good 280 pages in — brevity is not the soul of Tartt’s wit), and realized that the prologue, which I’d thought was one of those prologue-cum-epilogues, was actually en medias ras, and I had absolutely no idea how the remaining 282 pages would unfold.

I mean.

How many books do that?

The Secret History illustrates how all stories are mystery stories, and the degree to which we realize it depends on how skillfully they are told. Even now I’m waiting for a shoe to drop, and largely in the dark about its form. Perhaps tonight I will find out.

But what does The Secret History have to do with pregnancy cravings? Well, the first is about the slippery slope of decadence (“Beauty is harsh,” as the novel’s protagonists are wont to say. Khalepa ta kala.), and the second is about salad greens.

My first pregnancy, salad and I were on the worst of terms; now, as I inch towards the end of my second, I find myself constantly fiending for it. Sometimes, it’s greek salad that I want. Not the Americanized kind, with its bastard iceberg and sawdust cheese crumbles, but the real-deal (or real as far as I, having never stepped foot in Greece, know): cow’s milk feta and its brine, Persian cucumbers, tomato, green bell pepper, kalamata olives, red onion, lemon juice, olive oil, tarragon, salt. I made it for father’s day lunch and went back for thirds, then finished the rest off for breakfast. Sometimes it’s the green papaya salad we order from Mekong BK, with its lime and fish sauce funk and limpid crunch of peanut. But most of the time, what I want is a pile of lettuces in a shallotty vinaigrette.

The lettuce needs to make a convincing case for having been freshly picked; the vinaigrette needs to sing with acid and smite, just slightly, with mustard. The proportions of vinaigrette to lettuce need to be just so. No pooling, and no dry leaves. What I am describing is my mother’s salad, the one she made several nights a week as effortlessly as you or I might pour a glass of water. None of us kids ever wanted salad, it was never a request — and yet, by the end of dinner, the big teak bowl was always empty, but for a few, tamped-down leaves of lettuce.

It is salad season in New York, but even still, I have not made what I am looking for. The dressing isn’t zippy enough, or I apply it too liberally. According to Jody Williams, what I am missing is a salad spinner. Jody washes and dries the lettuce for her famous salad four times! Ordinary me would scoff at such effort, but fiending me has gone as far as to search for — though not buy — a salad spinner.

What I am looking for, of course, is to “leave the phenomenal world, and enter into the sublime.”

Do you remember Rapunzel’s mother? Her pregnancy craving for salad greens cost her her daughter. In Germany, those greens are called fieldsalat, but rapunzel is one of the many English names for them, along with rampion, mache, fetticus, and nut salad. That nuttiness isn’t something I associate with it — I recall more of a pepperiness, like watercress — but perhaps my pregnant tongue distinguish it.


There is an alternative interpretation of Rapunzel in which the mother’s cravings for greens are driven not by some lack of vitamin K but, rather, by a desire not to be pregnant. In the pre-Grimm Italian and French versions of the fairy tail, which first crop up in the seventeenth century, the greens were not mache but parsley — and parsley, eaten in quantities, has emmenagogic properties, which were well known at the time.

This isn’t mache’s fault, of course, and emmenagogic isn’t the same as abortic, but still. Maybe not the best juju. What it is, however, is somewhat in keeping with the darker side of The Secret History’s dionysian spirit. Abortion is not a plot point, but naturally occuring poisons and their effects are a focal, and recurring device, one that allows some of the protagonists to become their truest selves, and others to become, well, unselved.

Food for thought (or thought for food, I suppose).

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