Open Secrets identifies an ethos of affirmative reticence and recessive action in Mme de Lafayette's La Princesse de Clèves (1678), Jane Austen's Mansfield Park (1814), and poems by William Wordsworth, Emily Dickinson, and Thomas Hardy. The author argues that these works locate fulfillment not in narrative fruition, but in grace understood both as a simplicity of formal means and a freedom from work, in particular that of self-concealment and self-presentation. Declining the twin pressures of self-actualization and self-denial defining modernity's call to make good on one's talents, the subjects of the "literature of uncounted experience" do nothing so heroic as renounce ambitions of self-expression; they simply set aside the fantasy of the all-responsible subject. The originality of Open Secrets is thus to imagine the non-instrumental without casting it as a heavy ethical burden. Non-appropriation emerges not as what is difficult to do but as the path of least resistance. The book offers a valuable counterpoint to recent anti-Enlightenment revaluations of passivity that have made non-mastery and non-appropriation the fundamental task of the ethical subject.
About the Author
Anne-Lise François is Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley.
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OPEN SECRETSThe Literature of Uncounted Experience
By Anne-Lise François
Stanford University PressCopyright © 2008 the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.
Chapter OneToward a Theory of Recessive Action
i. open secrets: an overview
Wem die Natur ihr offenbares Geheimnis zu enthüllen anfängt, der empfindet eine unwiderstehliche Sehnsucht nach ihrer würdigsten Auslegerin, der Kunst. —Goethe, "Maximen und Reflexionen"
An initial if ultimately inadequate working definition of the open secret might be "a way of imparting knowledge such that it cannot be claimed and acted on." Such a definition would correspond to the relatively familiar uses of the concept on the part of critics as divergent as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Frank Kermode. So, for example, describing the epistemology of the closet, Sedgwick has called an "open secret" an essentially preventative or conservative mode of communication that reveals to insiders what it simultaneously hides from outsiders or, more specifically, protects them from what they do not wish to know, from what it is in their power to ignore. Indeed, the term is frequently linked in both Sedgwick's and D. A. Miller's critical idioms with that peculiar exercise of power that consists not in a knowledge claim, as a crude Enlightenment logic might have it, but in the privilege to ignore—the right to go on not knowing or pretending not to see. Epitomized by the rationally incomprehensible, doubly unjust promise of Luke 19:26—"That unto everyone which hath shall be given; and from him that hath not, even that he hath shall be taken away from him"—the "open secret" so defined is another name for the tautological hermeneutics, familiar from Kermode's work on biblical exegesis, dividing those who can read the Gospels' latent "spiritual" sense from those who, caught by the image of the parables' manifest sense, can only "see but not perceive." Yet my interest in the paradox of a disclosure that only opens the eyes of the seeing and closes the eyes of the unseeing lies less with its enforcing a hierarchical division between readers and nonreaders than with its presenting the critic with the formal problem of how to evaluate, recognize, and name a dramatic action so inconsequential it yields no peripeteia and seems to evade the Aristotelian definition of plot. Rather than either dismiss this movement of recessive disclosure as a nonevent whose sole effect is defensive—to bar change and ensure that nothing happen—or, on the contrary (but this amounts to the same), recognize it as the magic act essential to the effective workings of social relations— this book focuses on the ways in which the open secret as a gesture of self-canceling revelation permits a release from the ethical imperative to act upon knowledge.
Even so, a defense of inconsequence such as the kind proposed here will perhaps inevitably look like a fetishization of virginity, of the blank page on which commitment is forever deferred in the name of limitless potential. Indeed, popular psychology affords us the ready label of "passive aggressive" for protagonists such as Austen's Fanny Price or Wordsworth's Lucy or the numerous figures in Dickinson's poetry, who keep themselves quiet and exert ways of being in the world without seeming to make demands. As for Lafayette's heroine, who but a secretly vindictive hysteric whose only yes is a "no" would confess to her husband her love for another man and then refuse to act on this desire when left free to do so by her husband's premature death? So, from false modesty to aggressive self-effacement, one might inventory the arsenal of ready stereotypes pathologizing unpursued desire, motivating noninsistence, and denying the possibility of weightless claims to attention. To the fetishist of Goethe's aphorism, whom an ungenerous reader might accuse of diverting his eyes toward art at the first glimpse of nature's disclosure, and the neurotic who won't have her fingers burnt by actual possession, highbrow philosophical discourse might add the Hegelian "Beautiful Soul" who saves herself for the day that never comes, rejecting each suitor for materialization as deficient in the negating, self-canceling power that is all she has to express; the Kierkegaardian ironist who speaks so as to have said nothing, thereby retaining "the subjective freedom that at all times has in its power the possibility of a beginning and is not handicapped by earlier situations"; the Kierkegaardian "knight of resignation," who can make up his mind to loss but cannot bear to have his love returned; the Nietzschean "man of ressentiment," who "understands how to keep silent, how not to forget, how to wait, how to be provisionally self-deprecating and humble."
Recent critical approaches to the open secret have generally echoed these popular skeptical diagnoses in their tendency to read the figure as one of disavowal—a denial that does not so much abandon as put its object in reserve—or as an ideological trick ensuring the neutralization, containment, and uneven distribution of the power supposed to come with knowledge. In post-Marxist, psychoanalytically informed ideology theory, the "open secret" becomes a trope for the implicit workings of ideology itself—for the way in which the ideological not only gains assent without show of force and polices imagination without explicit censorship, but occupies the space of the blank page from which it can produce a consensus that no actually written document could ever yield. Like the Queen who, in Lacan's analysis of Poe's "Purloined Letter," does nothing to dress or cover up her lack except "keep herself immobile in [the] shadow [of the sign of woman]," the figure of the open secret evokes the "emperor-has-no-clothes" syndrome, frequently discussed by Slavoj Zizek, whereby a particular system of power is able to "lie in the guise of truth" and continues to work even when—and indeed only because—no one believes it anymore. Such "cynicism," according to which no one is expected to subscribe to the explicit rhetoric of a dominant regime, signals the limits of the traditional "Enlightenment" approach that once trusted to the efficacy of exposing the fraudulence of claims to power. On another level, as a figure of ellipsis—of the set that no determinate content can fill and whose ends trail off into the implicit and nonspecifiable—the open secret also corresponds to the secret of openness or the fetish of nonclosure to which Zizek repeatedly draws our attention in his numerous accounts of how the symbolic order of Western modernity turns out to be premised on a gap it posits as having to remain empty or unfilled, always capable of accommodating one more articulated content, whether in question are human rights or the reasons of desire.
In other cases the figure of the open secret is understood as itself an instance of ideological mystification, and the critical work consists of unmasking one of the two antitheses—"open" or "secret"—as the illusion hiding the truth of the other. Thus the claim to openness, nondifferentiation, universality, or accessibility may be revealed as the illusion masking—either to protect or to deny—the existence of the invisible minority and secret of unmarked difference (Sedgwick follows Proust in mapping Jewish and gay identities onto one another as invisibly stigmatized Others in anti-Semitic and homophobic societies, themselves ironically informed by the trope of "the stranger in our midst" of the Christian story and drama of election). Or criticism may target a naive Enlightenment belief in the power of communication to set us free; thus Bataille, Foucault, and, more recently, Michael Taussig and Jodi Dean have all emphasized the degree to which disclosure, far from defusing, only recharges the fetish power of the public secret that loves to "spend itself" in revelation. Or secrecy itself may be the show; indeed, as D. A. Miller cannily reminds us, it requires a show.
On the other hand, as Goethe's image of nature as the "offenbares Geheimnis" suggests, the open secret also has a long-standing place in Judeo-Christian thought as the image for the "secular" or "worldly" correlative to the trope of divine revelation: "the open book of nature"—"that universal and publick Manuscript that lies expans'd unto the Eyes of all"—at stake in which is not simply the idea of another mode of access to the Law supplementing the written Word of God but a figure for its givenness—there for all to see—that no degree of wealth or power and no technology of reading, however sophisticated, can increase. This trope informs almost all of Heidegger's lexicon of unconcealment, as well as Kierkegaard's and Levinas's attempts to think beyond the self-generating, self-realizing progress of enlightenment, the concept of revelation as something that reason itself cannot produce or comprehend. Yet, as I argue below, precisely as a "naturalization," the open secret also implies a shift in the kind of attention that "revelation" (Offenbarung) demands, an attenuation of revelation's stakes, a license to take the revealed for granted. Section v of this chapter ("Stop here, or gently pass!") will describe the ways in which I have conceived this project as an indirect response to the language of limitless duty, impossible exigency, and heroic responsibility that, however passively inflected, continues to inform the Heideggerian work of disclosing Being and, more explicitly, post-Heideggerian ethical thought. "When I hear talk of enigma, I prick up my ears," Jean Laplanche asserts with that oddly phlegmatic, Dupin-like verve we've come to hear as the distinctive mark of the analyst's cool. Yet there are many such ears on alert if we are to judge by the acuity of attention bestowed in a number of postsecular contexts—psychoanalysis, Heideggerian-inspired ontology, Levinasian ethics—on a type of revelation whose enigmatic dimension cannot be traced to some omitted x but survives, indeed inheres in, its disclosure—a message it may take "forever" to heed, not because it is hard to decipher but because what such address or disconcealment calls forth is not on the order of observable action and measurable response. Of recent theorists, Eric Santner has perhaps made most explicit the connection to the theological concept of "revelation," comparing the "enigmatic messages" that, in Laplanche's account, "set the child the difficult, or even impossible task of mastery and symbolization," to what Scholem once called "the nothingness of revelation" confronting Kafka (and perhaps secular Jews of the early twentieth century in general)—where "revelation appears to be without meaning, in which it still asserts itself, in which it has validity but no significance." Whether ontological or historical, Santner's examples tend to define as essentially traumatic this proximity to opacity and state of being delivered over to something that refuses itself; in this they run the risk of being misread as instances of a "fallen" mode of revelation as if by contrast with some earlier, more generous and less unyielding openness. Part of why I wish to risk so oxymoronic, and perhaps also so naive, a term as natural revelation is to underscore, by contrast, the sense in which the muteness or mildness of the open secret as I'm using the term is not experienced as defective or constitutive of a lack; my examples refer to the reception of an address so light it is hard to know how one is concerned by it, but this uncertainty need not be experienced, as it is, in Santner's account of Laplanche, as setting the recipient to what he calls the "never-ceasing" work of decipherment and symbolization (On Creaturely Life, 33).
"A mode of expressivity that our available modes of acknowledgment and interpersonal engagement can't take up" is Santner's recent formulation for what it was Freud's originality to begin to listen to—a formulation that I'm tempted to steal for the "open secret," except insofar as the very term expressivity automatically produces a duty to bear witness, and so precludes the question that I would want to add: what if we were to try "setting down" rather than "taking up" a gift itself indistinguishable from its abandonment? Thus, in contrast with the restless vigilance and tireless chivalry usually if paradoxically elicited by the enigma's own weakness on the scales of positive representation, its opacity to itself, or incapacity to state its demands, Wordsworth's line "Stop here, or gently pass!" scandalously grants permission to pass, implying an indistinct continuity between the act of stopping to listen and acknowledge and that of letting lapse or fall behind. Similarly, one might read Goethe's seemingly faithless, inconsequent swerve to art not as a regressive fetishistic retreat from modern science's exposure of nature's secrets but as a facing up to the freedom implied by the open secret—as if the only "free" response to such unsolicited revelation consisted not of taking advantage of it by trying to see more but of giving an image, a shadow, a back, to the very gratuity with which "nature" gives "herself up." While everyone across the critical spectrum, from critics of ideology to historians of the "ordinary" to phenomenological thinkers, seems to take for granted the moral imperative not to take anything for granted, least of all the given, the open secret, as I define it in section v, constitutes a gift of revelation so transmuted it's taken for granted—absorbed into the ground of the ordinary—before being perceived as such, buried as part of its reception rather than repression.
Thus one way of summarizing my departure from ideological approaches to the open secret would be to say that if they uncover the work open secrets perform even in appearing to do nothing, I take seriously the release from critical energies and sense of something simply there for the asking implied by the various senses of open in "open secret." Open, for example, can mean all of the following: awaiting enclosure—undetermined and open to change—a site of potentiality; exposed—vulnerable—defenseless; public—held in common—known to all or to some. Just as a poem can sometimes offer a sense of quiet, inexplicable but by no means threatening or extraordinary, mystery—the sense not that critical work is unnecessary but that no one will be at fault if the mystery remains unmastered—the action of the novels and poems studied in this book might be called "gratuitous," not in the common pejorative sense but according to the word's full range of meanings: "freely bestowed; granted without claim or merit; provided without payment or return; costing nothing to the recipient; free" (The Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition; hereafter referred to as OED). My argument in this sense gives free rein to the inevitable slippage across semantic registers—ontological, theological, aesthetic, economic, and ethical—by which the open secret continues to resonate with the religious and aesthetic concepts of grace and to evoke the related trope of the "gift" of natural revelation as opposed to the work of reason.
Central to this effect of grace in the novels in question is their mode of recessive narration allowing subjective perceptions to assert themselves with the simplicity and flatness of objective truths; so self-contained they can hardly even be said to occur, these states of mind at the same time more closely resemble decisions than reflections, insofar as they can only be briefly narrated, rather than articulated, vocalized, or elaborated in cognition. In fact, I would like to round off this preliminary exposition of the "open secret," which began with the example of the strangely opaque transparency of biblical parables, with a brief excursion on the topic of third-person narration of subjective or "first-person" experience—the narrative method whose development defines both Austen's and Lafayette's contribution to the history of the modern novel. Such a discussion seems pertinent, first, because this unobtrusively intimate narrative mode holds a key to what "we moderns" might consider the Holy Word's secular equivalent—the inner lives of "other people"—and, second, because the critical debates surrounding the "impersonal" narration of "personal" or private experience (from the question of the narrative voice's relation to the characters whom it shadows without resembling, to that of whether one is even justified in positing "a narrator" "speaking behind" the sentences of narration) tend to reproduce in miniature the range of responses to the "open secret" just described. Indeed, the case of unvoiced or unclaimed language, of a report not structured and directed as communication, is as scandalous to the hermeneutics of suspicion (and its underlying rationalist premise of a closed economy and law of just returns) as the idea of a "free gift" or of an avowal that, like the Princesse de Clèves' famous aveu, would "disclaim" or "un-claim" love (claim it so as to leave it untouched) and still not amount to disavowal in the sense of a denied, unconscious, or evasive affirmative. The case of inward states and mental decisions being materialized for the first and last time by this strangely agentless mode of report can also clarify the "uncounted experiences" of my subtitle, in which uncounted refers less to an absence of narration or failure to acknowledge than to an action of "uncounting" (even "dis-counting"—making light of, depositing to leave unclaimed—if this could be taken nonpejoratively) comparable to the Penelope-like work of undoing, unthreading, unraveling with which narrative itself has come to be identified.
Excerpted from OPEN SECRETS by Anne-Lise François Copyright © 2008 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Stanford University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
§ 1 Toward a Theory of Recessive Action....................1
§ 2 L'aveu sans suite: Love's Open Secret in Lafayette's La Princesse de Clèves....................66
§ 3 Lying Lightly: Lyric Inconsequence in Wordsworth, Dickinson, and Hardy....................129
§ 4 Fanny's "Labour of Privacy" and the Accommodation of Virtue in Austen's Mansfield Park....................218