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


For Derrida, secrets make us tremble not in anticipation of what is to come, but rather because of what has come before:

We tremble in the strange repetition that ties an irrefutable past (a shock has been felt, some trauma has already affected us) to a future that cannot be anticipated; anticipated but unpredictable; apprehended, yet, and this is why there is a future, apprehended precisely as unforeseeable, unpredictable; approached as unapproachable.1

Every revelation is, then, a kind of disappointment as what is revealed falls short of that absolute mystery, the end we cannot foresee, that makes us tremble. For Derrida, this is the value of secrecy, allowing the mystery of the end to be buried anew in the otherwise apparent revelation of truth. If Brooks and Benjamin are right, the pleasure we take in narrative derives from a similar dynamic. Telling tales allows us to experience endings at second hand: not only have the events told, if real, already happened, but the ending, the reassuring limit that allows us to see the whole, belongs to someone else. Narrative, like the secrecy upon which it depends, is about glimpsing the end while concealing it anew. For Derrida the logic of secrecy is that a secret is, and I quote, ‘never better kept than in being exposed’. Secrets make us tremble because they make a show of revelation. Every secret told promises to reveal the truth; but each revelation only represses the contingency of the present. What secrets tell us is that the truth is provisional; that the true remains so only until somebody else tells.

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. 55.[back]