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28 Sep

A Temporary History of (My) Dark Academia ‹ Literary

A Temporary History of (My) Dark Academia ‹ Literary

Where there may be academia, there may be dark academia. Dark academia is academia’s black swan and shadow self, a mirror that reflects and opposes: it’s how academics wish to see themselves, the apotheosis and the parody of who they at all times already are. Pythagoras, chased by enemies, refusing to run through a field of beans because he believed they resembled fetuses, and wouldn’t kill them, so died himself as a substitute. Hypatia, Neoplatonist mathematician, martyred for teaching philosophy. The invention of the zero.

Dark academia is each young and old, richly storied yet not possible to pin down. But the web iteration of the genre [1] officially began in 1992, with the publication of The Secret History, Donna Tartt’s disgustingly delicious debut novel and the ürtext for the following many years of meme. [2] “Starting with endings, The Secret History’s prologue is a foray into the novel’s own future,” writes dark academia scholar Olivia Stowell. [3] The primary wave of Covid-19 saw an increase of “pandemia”––that’s, pandemic dark academia. School closures sparked an enormous orgiastic frenzy of academy worship. [4]

The core dark academia aesthetic comprises many delicious subcategories. Prep school dark academia—What Was She Pondering?: Notes On A Scandal; Goodbye, Mr. Chips; Dead Poets Society, etc.—are likely to be very Brit-based, very Gothic architecture erogenous zone, very white. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark’s novel and the film adaptation starring a young Maggie Smith because the blondest of dark academes, are equally prime examples of this subset. The story features the titular Miss Brodie, a prep-school teacher who cultivates her cult of personality, who develops her “set,” a harem [5] of educational types (Sandy, the brunette with “insight but no instinct”; Rose, the strawberry blonde with instinct but no insight; Monica, the maths genius; dweeby dim Mary; Eunice, the athlete; Jenny, the wonder; etc.). All the pieces may be very arch, very cool; there are artists and attics and affairs and likewise a terrible death by wandering in conflagration, in flagrante literally.

Dark academia fuels itself, a snake eating its own tail, a fractal monster that may never be meta enough for its own satisfaction. A boarding-school girl named Brooke is reading a book a couple of boarding school featuring a doppelganger who’s obsessive about Instagram ads for Sylvia Plath-inspired skirts—there’s never enough darkness inside the darkness. First as tragedy, then as farce, then as flourish, then as requirement.

College dark academia is more overtly homoerotic; the ladies are each reading and living My Good Friend and Rebeccaand The Talented Mr. Ripley as they carry fuzzed-out thrifted Evelina and Colette and B-side midcentury jams, Elizabeths Taylor and Hardwick. The literary magazine party on the Jane Hotel, old-growth potted plants in a red-gold light, iron balustrades and a mahogany bar puddled with light. A dark academia fuckboi pitches me his idea in regards to the university as a medieval Marxist institution. I see it as MmarxI: the Video Game. No person is talking about how the University is definitely this deeply Marxist capitalist thing, he says. I’m No person! I say. Who’re You?

Harvard is brick Bostonian Brahmin, J.Press and cross-dressing and deep mahogany encased inside; Princeton is Oxonian Gothic, plus new-money wood glass; Yale is Gothic on the skin with a Georgian interior courtyard and streets you can’t cross at night. Christ Church is Harry Potter, Cambridge is the key best.

Dark academia can be sleepaway camp. What’s a dark academia scholar but a PhD student earning nothing but glory?

The fantasy division of dark academia—Harry Potter and ilk—heavily flirt with steampunk, a cog-based analog world that by very dint of its mechanical nature supports the magical all of the more. Gothic academia, windswept moors, a direct line from Wuthering Heights to Kate Bush swaying on the heath in a period-red gown like one in all those inflatable air-dancing tube guys for used cars, impossibly tall with skinny arms, cylinder for a bottom, grin fused on and wildly prized-open lidless eyes, over-swaying in a flat breeze, stoically maniacal in a gale. There’s fairy academia, Mists of Avalon, Goblin Market; there’s Pre-Raphaelite jewel-tone academia, the Lady of Shalott; there’s Darkest Academia, my all-black mass-market paperback cover of The Hobbit, black nail polish, House of Leaves. [6]


All the pieces freezes just a little later than you’re thinking that it’s going to and thaws much later than you expect in Vermont. The trees off-gas a maple scent that smells like fake syrup. In a lot of the northern hemisphere the earth’s solidly spongy, but here, the landscape is ashy mushroom bone, denuded, just a couple of tufts of ambitious neon grass. On this primary night of the vernal equinox, we wrap ourselves in tattered tartan blankets and traipse out to the old sugar shack, the wood swelling with dark winter rot.

We peel off the blankets, we’re wearing nothing, we’re naked, not nude, pale fungal bodies, skin translucent within the moonlight; we join hands in a weird rangy circle and dance until we’re motionless. Later, someone has lit a fireplace by the shack; we’re shivering in old cords and fisherman sweaters, swigging Talisker from silver flasks, our feet in three layers of LL Bean socks. We’ve killed Bunny, but he’s blond, also a WASP, it doesn’t matter, he was at all times already dead. He’s also already reborn, a pink overgrown baby suckling a martini.

The autumnal equinox is the primary day Sylvia can wear her flannel miniskirt and we’re here for it. We hate sweat, we only worship the sun within the buff. It’s the fifteenth truly cold day of fall, beyond crisp, the mud dried in brain rivulets. The deciduous trees are on the waning side of flaming, the garnets and atomic tangerines and insulting marigolds all melding right into a gray stubble. We’re cold, clammy. We’re by the sundial on the flagstones, the skinny light bringing no warmth. We stub out cigarettes.

Viv describes the within the fifty-year-old professor’s apartment, white bathrobe, rain-head shower, surprisingly modern wall of glass staring into the lawn. Deer peer at themselves and silly birds smash into it at alarming velocities, their fat bodies quivering; sometimes they bounce off, dazed, but as a rule they spatter, blood and guts and disgusting sinew smeary as baby poo, smutty splutter across the flagstone patio. They hadn’t trouble to cover the pool so weird biomatter floats on top like lesions, and by “they” Viv means the professor and his wife, he’s married, she’s eighteen or whatever, we’re all Lolita in our minds.


My Dark Academia
After I was ten, I wrote short stories to make my mother cry. Mariel and her little sister are alone within the desert, stranded, perishing of thirst. Their grandmother, who was their caretaker, has just passed away. Their mother died in childbirth; no father. Mariel and her sister struggle into the new wind, in tattered school uniforms, stockings with deep runs. Mariel’s sister’s flask suggestions out across the desert, the dark pool spreading across the sunshine tan until the sand easily absorbs it, reversing its course into dryness. Here—Mariel hands her own small flask to her sister. You have got this. The sister drinks, revives, surges forward. Just then Mariel sees an oasis in the space, hallelujah!; nevertheless it’s an illusion, she reaches toward it, leaves her mortal body in a skinny-ass heap as she launches into the ether and dances within the rain.

In a seminar on Joyce and Beckett within the basement [7] of the Harvard English department, a tenured drama professor in horn-rimmed glasses and no body fat introduced the “at all times already” tense: something has happened, nevertheless it’s already happened, and was already going to occur.

Past perfect, future perfect; the one place it doesn’t exist is the current. In this manner, dark academia can be sleepaway camp. What’s a dark academia scholar but a PhD student earning nothing but glory?

I even have a surfeit of gold stars: valedictorian, Princeton, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Harvard, Phi Beta Kappa, Princeton again, summa cum laude, book reviews, publications, green juice. I’ve found this Vitamin C complement all of the celebrities love. Squeeze it out right into a glass and it bobbles like just a little jelly.


In Julia May Jonas’s Vladimir, the narrator is a lusty English professor in her late fifties, leering after the younger junior prof, Vladimir, a forty-year-old with a hot mind and a ripped bod. After she devours Vlad’s “experimental” novel, our narrator invites him over for a swim, where she ogles his washboard abs, her gaze lingering over their ridges; every description of her own husband’s physicality thereafter emphasizes his decay, like she’s wielding a contour brush from hell: the sweatshirt that accentuates his gut, the unlucky shorts. The narrator remembers herself on the carousel as a baby, in a hideous acrylic outfit, hating every minute of it. But when she looks at a photograph of herself, she reports, she’s got a dopey smile plastered to her face, a child with a sticky face from a melting lollipop. The memory is simply too brilliant, a glare without sunglasses.

After I was dating a much older man, we went to the beach to see a solar eclipse. Everyone insisted we couldn’t stare straight on the sun, but he was blind in a single eye, so he rolled his glass eyeball straight into the white- hot orb. A pall got here over the beach. It was noon, but the whole lot was black. We shivered in suddenly inadequate thin cotton. The beach wasn’t really a beach, it was Lake Michigan, everyone insisted that there have been waves so it was just like the ocean, except pine trees and campus and leafy Midwest campus suburbia marched straight as much as it. He was compact, fit without trying, except that he did try, tennis and long sports massages.

The Secret History’s Henry is the Humbert ürhunk of the bunch, muscled from the might of translating Milton into Latin at nighttime. No person sees him eat anything except black coffee, and Scotch, and, once per week, a steak generously seasoned with salt and pepper, cooked in forged iron, sizzling with butter.


Conference Affairs
At a conference, I check in to seek out that the hotel has already put a person into my hotel room. We’ve slept together. Greater than once. He has a girlfriend. He sends me an image of the hotel television. Good evening, it says, and it gives my name. Make this journey much more rewarding. A fake fire burns in a fake fireplace on the screen. He says he didn’t plan it, but his room charges are on my bill.

I had an eating disorder, a typical refrain of dark academics, said with shame and sanctimony.

As an alternative of sleeping with my dark academic, I drink a number of good whiskey with solidly hunky reliable boys, flirting safely; engaged but not married, so not yet occupied with having affairs.

My ex-best friend was, she told me herself, sleeping with the person at the highest of the shitty media men list. His name was in red. She desired to have his baby, she didn’t imagine in contraception because she was afraid the hormones would fuck along with her body. I told her to take plan B, but did she?

She’d also grown increasingly Catholic for the gilt, it was so beautiful, the way in which she could buy whatever she desired to fuck along with her body guilt-free.


The male body is a hunk, the feminine is a sickle.

Gretel is a recurring dark academia nightmare: stuff and stuffed and stuffed so the once-emaciated body balloons past endomorph and into spherical. Like a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade float, overnight, the too-thin pale naïf swells right into a distended cream puff. Her skin glows, éclair-smooth.

After I was seven, I wrote a book: The Pretty Girl Who Was Smart and the Beautiful Girl Who Was Silly, a couple of pair of auburn-haired fraternal twins who lived as much as their monikers. Lydia, the titular beautiful/silly, parades in her curls. Kelly, an Olympic gymnast and award-winning novelist and mathematician before she’s thirteen, is rarely satisfied. Lydia finally takes a dark turn, becomes so frustrated at her inability to pass the primary grade, that she eats thousands and thousands upon thousands and thousands of cookies until growing so huge that she bursts.

Dark academia might queer gender norms in its fashion, but much of the aesthetic still relies on conservative standards of heteronormative desire.

I had an eating disorder, a typical refrain of dark academics, said with shame and sanctimony. True for me. I rarely got my period and after I did it was crusty-maroon. [8] Even with the copper IUD that was purported to make me bleed and bleed, I cramped up.


Dark Academia Patagonia
Men are mesomorphs, women are ectomorphs.

Dark academia Patagonia is a fitness regime bordering on addiction, and it takes up many hours of your day. You tell the reporter that you just run in a mohair sweater since it breathes well. Running is preppy sanctimony. The pantheon of punishing pastimes only the elite can afford: Pure Barre, running, Peloton, hot yoga, the category, Reformer Pilates, Refine, Bar Method, Physique57, the Tracy Anderson Method. The Lululemon peels the body.

Lionel Shriver also hates bodies. Alison Bechdel loves and hates bodies. Jock academia.


Queer Studies
Dark academia might queer gender norms in its fashion, but much of the aesthetic still relies on conservative standards of heteronormative desire. Pushing the norm involves reification.

Queerness is a central a part of the look, brogues and vests and tweeds, however the language of those fashion selections reflects gender divide, not blurring: “mannish” Oxfords, cricket sweaters “borrowed from the boys.” In other words, the surface has queered, however the core stays conservative.


Whenever you walk into the English department at Harvard, the very first thing you see if you look up is a chandelier product of antlers. Teddy Roosevelt’s portrait stares out on the antlers, Big Buck Hunter. There are numerous mesomorphic white men erotically gracing the halls. Even Eliot is hunky in attractive round glasses. Any individual has stuck up a postcard of John Ashbery in a kimono, in the identical conquering pose as Roosevelt.

Dark academic desire is queer mirroring—I would like to be fucking Cassandra and Henry and Rebecca and Lavinia and Marjorie and Daniel and Graham and Peter, and to be them.


Fear of Pregnancy
“Stunted” and “student” are anagrams.

Christine Smallwood uses miscarriage in The Lifetime of the Mind as a metaphor for adjunct hell. Dorothy, our protagonist, has to terminate a pregnancy medically, but keeps bleeding for weeks, rusty tracks in her underwear that nobody else can see; when she finally expels a mucus-y pre-fetal blob, she’s the just one who can know or care. It’s surprising that Dorothy has a reputation; in these kinds of situations, I’d expect the narrator to go nameless, as our classic faceless heroine in, say, Rebecca, or, more recently, Vladimir, a book Smallwood couldn’t have read but nevertheless will need to have at all times already known.

“Stillbirth” is a selected female dark academia horror we won’t speak of. Men will push their ideas into existence, women must develop into male to birth their book-babies.

After graduating from one terminal degree, I enter one other. Everyone in my yr presented as cis female, five years before the longer term is female, so on the time we were all best friends within the eyes of the school. Isn’t it sweet, the feminine cohort. A decade later, one figures out they aren’t female, and 4 have male babies. Most of my friends are in geriatric pregnancies. I cannot discover a date, let alone a womb.


Death Wish
Dark academia’s deathy vibe emerges in its life-or-death argot. Adjunct hell. Bone-white. Method wars. Publish or perish. Statement of purpose.


[1] Is it a genre? PhD candidate Gunner Taylor refers to dark academia a “medium-spanning aesthetic trend” (Gunner Taylor, “Tweed Jackets and Class Consciousness,” Dark Academia cluster, Post45, 15 Mar 2022).

[2] For a primer, see accounts and posts from online dark academics corresponding to ca.tk.in, cosyfaerie, Dark.Academia, DarkAcademiaLibrary, finelythreadedsky, jasminlibrary, Graviphantalia, MyFairestTreasure, quartzdelta, outfit.trends.tt, TimelyWitness5638, and theyluvv_.s, amongst many others.

[3] Olivia Stowell, “The Time Warp, Again?,” Dark Academia cluster, Post45, 15 Mar 2022.

[4] PhD-adjacent Hollis Bennett traces pandemia to the 1918 Spanish flu, when school closures scattered Recent York’s elite prep students across the Upper West and East Sides. Bennett tracks the circulation amongst Brearley and Spence students of calendrical daybooks often called “Tick Tocks,” through which teenagers relied on quick sketches and elaborate shorthand to notice their day by day fashion selections. Senior adjunct Willia I. Tate has documented an uptick in “autograph books” amongst students sent home from Miss Porter’s School in Connecticut: the goal was to gather signatures not only from fellow students, but from professors and influential peers in rival boarding schools. See Hollis Bennett, “Influencers with Influenza: Recent York City’s Boarding Schools and the 1918 Pandemic,” Brigantine Media Journal vol. 6, no. 27: St. Johnsbury, VT, 2018. Tate’s work is unpublished.

[5] “Harem” was once clued within the Recent York Times crossword as “Decidedly non-feminist women’s group.”

[6] I’m indebted to the Aesthetics Wiki for illuminating dark academia taxonomy and identifying crucial touchstones.

[7] Dark academia scholar Hollis Bennett traces the history of dark academia basements. In “The Antisocial Network: How Princeton’s Tunnels and Harvard’s Catacombs Limned Liminal Desire,” Bennett excavates the key history of subterranean punk-goth culture underneath campus life. In an analogous yet entirely opposite architectural vein, William I. Tate’s “Rarest Air: The World Above the Ivory Tower” investigates the long yet unspoken tradition amongst rogue students of scaling academic buildings. One such climbing cult, at Princeton University, had a yearly tradition of stealing the clapper contained in the bell at the highest of Nassau Hall. A member of the junior class, designated the Clapper Keeper, is granted custody of the article. On the night of graduation, the Keeper must return the clapper to the tower in order that on the stroke of midnight, the bell can toll once more for the brand new outgoing group of seniors. If the clapper isn’t returned, that class, unbeknownst to them, falls under a curse, the spell of which may only be broken when the bell rings over again. It isn’t known what number of cohorts of Princeton seniors have been thus afflicted.

[8] For a similar-different see Caren Beilin, Noemi Press, 2014. See also Hannah Sanghee Park, The Same-Different, Louisiana State University Press, 2015.


Our Dark Academia by Adrienne Raphel is accessible via Rescue Press.

Adrienne Raphel

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