menu Language Is A Virus

Donna Tartt - on Elitism

For example, when asked if superiority over others is something that interests her - which it clearly does, as a throbbing theme throughout both novels (the elite students in The Secret History are always lauding it over everybody else, the Little Friend trailer-park whites feel superior to the poor blacks, because they're white; the poor blacks feel superior to the trailer-park whites, because they're cleaner, more moral) - she denies it. "Asserting superiority over others is just a sad theme of human life that you see on the news every day," she says. And when I say that race is a clear element in The Little Friend, she doesn't think there's much truth in this, either. So the fact that Ida, Harriet's maid (black, as was Tartt's own), is the person Harriet loves most but who is treated appallingly by her white employers, is "not so much to do with race as the horror of the child who's really attached to the nanny, and then the nanny's taken away".

Nevertheless, she has some interesting things to say about the American south, if more the south as a concept than the south of her home. "There's a horrible ethos in rural southern poverty that it's dumb to do well, it's stupid to succeed, and that people will laugh at you," she says. (This is superbly demonstrated in The Little Friend in the character of Gum, grandmother to the white, troubled, trailer-park family, the Ratliffs, and one of the most memorable monsters in recent literature. She stops her grandson from going to college and says things like, "My diddy said it was something wrong with any man that'll sit down in a chair and read a book." She also complains about having to do jury service because "***** stoled a tractor" and adds chillingly: "In my time, we didn't have all this nonsense about a big trial.") Tartt continues: "Unfortunately, there's a big anti-intellectual strain in the American south, and there always has been. We're not big on thought. And it's worse for women, because it's always worse for women, frankly."

Well, all of them are young, rich, intelligent, charming, very well socially connected. They lead very studious, very sort of pastoral lives. The school is out in the country, and, they're also incredibly arrogant, both intellectually and morally. They study Classics; that's their great passion, and they take it deadly seriously. But, they're young, they're callous, they don't temper their studies with any sort of balance or humanity. They live in a kind of a solar system of their own making, and they really have just very grandiose ideas about what it's possible for human beings to do. Only extremely young people have this kind of arrogance. They're very intolerant of imperfection. They want to root out their own imperfections by force, and they're not tolerant at all of imperfection in others. There's something Nietzche once said about the Greeks, which is kind of appropriate in this context, is that, "The unsubdued search for knowledge in itself barbarizes just as much as hatred of knowledge." And in this effort of trying to civilize themselves or tearing out their imperfections they also manage to destroy a lot of their humanity.

+ + + Comments + + +