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Debunking Dark Academia: From Dead Poets Society to The Secret History

Humans starve and hunt for beauty in the world that surrounds them. We crave it, and we need it psychologically. We delve into aesthetics to find meaning behind our existence, a mindless search for beauty in our being. The universe of dark academia is mere make-believe. The conceptions are nothing more than manifestations of an altered reality. While the aura of this aesthetic may seem highly sagacious, if we investigate from the vantage point of an intellectual, dark academia is actually problematic.

Dark Academia has been hyped up by Gen-Z with an attempt, in the words of Francois Rabelais, “to seek the Great Perhaps.” While this is in pursuit of purpose, it also offers an escape from our conditions through vintage images. These images include a color palette of dark and neutral shades, thick classic novels, minimal and delicate jewellery, tweed trousers, black turtlenecks, and too many cups of black coffee. Often located in an art museum or a historic library or merely at a study desk, these dark academic snapshots worship aesthetic standards that, if followed, can only lead us astray.

A common question that would arise is how did the Dark Academia social media trend spring to prominence recently? The answer lies in the Style section of The New York Times. Most likely in June 2020, during the initial days of the pandemic lockdown, an article titled “Academia Lives-On TikTok” brought this concept to light. People took to the app of Tik Tok and created a slew of short looping videos, lionizing dark academia and boosting its popularity. Having its genesis in Tumblr, this internet culture has transcribed into real life to become a lifestyle movement with core beliefs and ethos.

“Known as Dark Academia, it is a subculture with a heavy emphasis on reading, writing, learning — and a look best described as traditional-academic-with-a-gothic-edge; think stubby brown cardigans, vintage tweed pants, a worn leather satchel full of a stack of books, dark photos, brooding poetry and skulls lined up next to candles.”

— The New York Times

Dark academia is the yearning for a life yet to be lived with academic blunders. There is an unbearable whiteness with the literary canon having little to no variety. It creates an unhealthy romanticizing in denial of the eternal verities. The aesthetic is just a set of facades to hide superficiality and meaningless conformity.

The critics point mainly to the lack of diversity in this community, notably in terms of colour. Dark Academia, as an aesthetic, is steeped in 19th and 20th century Europe. It is sadly, largely white and often depicts the stories of privileged white men. Since it is Euro-centric, it only promotes Ancient Rome and Greece and ignores other races and colours. The issue arises from Dark Academia’s attempt to teach that Eurocentric literature and languages are superior to all other literature and languages. There is no heterogeneity in the trend. The 1988 book and 1989 film, Dead Poets Society is an archetype of Dark Academia as a movement. John Keating, a liberal English teacher, encourages his students to defy convention, challenge the status quo, and live life without remorse. He brings with him a passion for teaching romanticism, thus exposing his students to a world they have never seen before. The nasty scar is that the entire cast is composed of white men, completely devoid of diversity in terms of race and gender.

In order to fully comprehend the aesthetic, we must look at The Secret History by Donna Tartt. It has been the magnum opus of the dark academia genre since its publication in 1992. Although it is rarely read, and when it is, it is frequently misunderstood, The Secret History showcases itself as the orthodox lexicon of dark academia. The novel is about five students studying Greek at an elite university in New England and their attempts to hide the murder of their coalition’s former sixth member. The stumbling block here is the ultimate need to be a part of the upper class. It’s a necessity to be rich with a polished urbanity. The Dark Academia community includes solely the elites of the society. They receive criticism due to the concentration on top-tier and Oxbridge universities, which are unreachable to the general populace.

Unfortunately, dark academia is in many ways an enigma pointing out how to glorify suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, and depression. Mental illness and drunkenness are romanticized and idealized in an extreme way. The aesthetic supports studying around the clock, skipping sleep, and ignoring the need to maintain mental health in order to do so. In the world of dark academia, unhealthy lifestyles such as caffeine obsession and extreme sleep deprivation are prevalent.

The camp of people who find placidity in dark academia wish to be perceived as something akin to an angsty scholar who is intelligent but disturbed. They seem unruffled as they read complex poetry and discuss classics at length. A chaotic yet organized energy powered by a frantic drive for learning consumes them, thus entrapping them into this toxic romanticization. Only neurotypical and nonpareil individuals can find a place in this tribe. Achieving divine madness is a dark academics’ raison d’être. “Whether or not, Dark Academia is the Modern Renaissance” – it is a question that persists unanswered in the colorful yet daunting thoughts of the dark academia realm.

Ambrisha Zubeen is a student pursuing English Hons. from Jamia Millia Islamia.

Edited by: Diptarka Chatterjee

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Written by Ambrisha Zubeen

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