Time to Tell: Secrecy and Narrative in the Nineteenth-Century (1/4)

[This is a paper I gave at BAVS in September 2015. I’m in the process of redrafting it for a chapter of my next book, provisionally entitled Whispers of Print. It’s in four parts.]

Tremble. What does one do when one trembles? What is it that makes you tremble?

A secret always makes you tremble. Not simply quiver or shiver, which also happens sometimes, but tremble.1

Why does a secret always make you tremble? For Derrida, secrets make us tremble because they remind us of former trauma. As the secret has not yet been revealed, we do not tremble because of its content – we don’t yet know what it is going to be – but rather because it reminds us of something. ‘We are afraid of the fear’, Derrida writes, ‘we anguish over the anguish, and we tremble’ (55). We know to fear the fear, to anguish over the anguish, because we have experienced such revelations before. The tremble, for Derrida, comes because of something that has already taken place: it is a sign of repetition, of violence breaking out once again. My argument in this series of posts is that what we fear about secrets is the power they have to rewrite the past. The revelation of what was previously concealed means that what I thought was true was actually false. Secrets, no matter how banal, make real life into fiction.

Once a secret is told the world is not the same. The revelation, if accepted, rewrites the past and marks it off as separate from the newly revealed present. Telling secrets, then, is a way of drawing a line between past and present and so moving on, each secret revealed getting closer to the truth. Yet this implies that it is possible to know everything; or, to put it another way, that everything is already there, concealed and waiting to be found out. Such a world is already written, plotted but concealed, with an ending yet to come. But the world is not narrated and absolute disclosure is impossible. Secrets might make us tremble because they make life into fiction, but they also make us tremble for what they tell us about the world. Every secret reveals what is really going on but, at the same time, cannot but remind us that this new world is itself subject to rewritings yet to come.

In the next post, I think a little about the cultural life of secrets. Whereas secrecy might appear to be something aberrant, I will argue that it performs a vital social function, creating bonds between some people and so differences between others. The third post turns to narrative. As structured revelation, narrative depends on secrecy, on letting the other know that you know something and, crucially, you are willing to tell. Narrative, according to Peter Brooks’s reading of Walter Benjamin, is a way of experiencing an ending, a moment in which one can look back and comprehend the story as a whole.2 The book, I will argue, is a privileged cultural object, both in the nineteenth century and today, because it maps narrative onto its material form. The everydayness of books means it is easy to overlook their role as both repositories of secrets and engines of structured revelation, but if narrative allows us to enjoy what Brooks calls the ‘anticipation of retrospection’ (22), then the book’s numbered pages make explicit when it is to come.

1 Jacques Derrida, ‘The Gift of Death’, The Gift of Death and Literature in Secret, translated by David Wills (London and Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), p. 54.[back]
2 Peter Brooks, Reading for the Plot (1984; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), p. 22.[back]