Saturday, June 20, 2009

Secretum meum mihi

Secrecy, as expressed by its etymology, is a topological severing and a severed topology, a place of disjoining and a disjoined place. Secretum, from the substantive of secerno (to set apart, sever, disjoin), signifies both something hidden, concealed, mysterious and a remote, out of the way, solitary location. This essential relation to place explicates secrecy's radical subjectivity, the sense in which an authentic secret, as opposed to something merely occluded, is exactly something that cannot be communicated or produced, something that, forever remaining in its own place, can only be pointed toward. As Bachelard says, "All we communicate to others is an orientation towards what is secret without ever being able to tell the secret objectively. What is secret never has total objectivity."[1] But what forever remains in its own place, par excellence, is place itself, as indicated by Aristotle's definition of place as "non-portable vessel" and "innermost boundary of what contains" (Physics 212a).[2] Secrecy thus communicates something essential about place per se: its incommunicability. More deeply, secrecy is itself a local relation or topological communion with the incommunicable, not a dialogue within but a whispering through place. Like the original but unseen fissure within the wall shared only by Ovid's lovers, the space of secrecy splits or disjoins place, opening a way for holding the non-portable, possessing the non-possessable.[3] Something of this structure appears captured in the tendency to talk of persons as bearing, harboring, or carrying secrets and in secret childhood experiences of secret places, places proverbially "still within us" because they were never properly anywhere else. Conspicuous here is a fundamental collapse or dis-differentation of the distinction between the object and its location, proportional to secretum's semantic confounding of the difference between a secret and a secret place. Secrecy remains an essentially epistemic category, but only by virtue of being constituted by knowledge of an object whose nature and meaning are fundamentally overtaken, like an ancient overgrown ruin, by the place of knowing it. A secret overcomes the immobility of place. Secrecy is like inverted or inside-out place, the outermost boundary of what contains, something way out there or beyond the sky, and a portable non-vessel, a highly keepable container preciously holding something at once everything and almost nothing other than itself, like a little reliquary. At the limit of this inversion is the self as absolute secret, and as Bachelard says, "absolute casket." Explaining this phrase, he cites a letter by Mallarmé in which the inner and outer versions of secrecy as inverted place beautifully intersect: "Every man has a secret in him, many die without finding it, and will never find because they are dead . . . I am dead and risen again with the jeweled key of my last spiritual casket. It is up to me now to open it . . . and its mystery will emanate in a sky of great beauty."[4] Like the dwelling-place of Diana's nakedness, secrecy maps a subtle topographical state of identity between internal and external, intimate and wild, private and other, bedroom and forest. Secrecy is the divine safety Jupiter offers the virgin Io before ravishing her: "quodsi sola times latebras intrare ferarum, / praeside tuta deo nemorum secreta subibis" [but if you fear to penetrate alone the hiding places of wild beasts, with a god as your guardian you will securely enter the secrets of the woods].[5] Secrecy is the eternally individuated erotic room of mystical union: "Et unaquaeque invenit secretum sibi cum sponso, et dicit: Secretum meum mihi, secretum meum mihi. Non omnibus uno in loco frui datur grata et secreta sponsi praesentia" [And each enters with the bridegroom into a secret place for herself, and says, my secret is for me, my secret is for me. The dear and secret presence of the bridegroom is not given for all to enjoy in one place].[6]

[1] Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, trans. Maria Jolas (Boston: Beacon, 1969), 13.

[2] "Just, in fact, as the vessel is transportable place, so place is a non-portable vessel" (Aristotle, Physics, 4.4.3, 212b, cited from The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. Richard McKeon [New York: Random House, 1941], 277).

[3] "fissus erat tenui rima, quam duxerat olim, / cum fieret, paries domui communis utrique, / id vitium nulli per saecula longa notatum— / quid non sentit amor?—primi vidistis amantes" (Ovid, Metamorphoses, 4.65-8) [the wall common to each house was split with a subtle fissure, which it had formed long ago when it was made; you, lovers—what does love not sense?—first saw that flaw noticed by no one for generations].

[4] Bachelard, Poetics of Space, 85 and 85n.1.

[5] Ovid, Metamorphoses, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1966), I.593-4. All translations mine unless otherwise noted.

[6] Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermones super Cantica Canticorum, 23.9, Library of Latin Texts – Series A <>.


kvond said...

Nicola: "Secretum, from the substantive of secerno (to set apart, sever, disjoin), signifies both something hidden, concealed, mysterious and a remote, out of the way, solitary location."

Kvond: But if we look deeper into the etymology do we not find se- -cerno, the cerno of perception, discernment, from the Greek krino, "to pick out, to choose" very close to "intelligence" inter-lego.

In your view, how can we ONLY communicate an orientation toward what is secret, if that very act of communication is itself an expression of, a revelation of, the very secret thing?

Or, do you ascribe to Wittgenstein's argument against Private Language?

Is not each cloistered thing also/only a fold? Is not every wall only a temporal/tempo'd slowing of beat (and never a complete hermeticism)? Does not every vessel also connect?

Is not the secret presence of the bridegroom only a measure of delay, a connection? I believe in the casket, but the casket lays near the soil, connective to the flesh. It is a mere layer, no?

kvond said...

p.s. thanks for another fascinating post.

amarilla said...

If you have any interest in a very sloppy and accidental gloss on your post, have a look. Thanks so much for your generous, lovely work.

Nicola Masciandaro said...


The perceptual basis of secrecy sounds good to me, particularly as it seems that some kind of concealing/revealing, backgrounding/foregrounding goes into seeing anything as thing, object, etc. Arabic sirr means both secret and something revealed.

Surely not only or purely an orientation, as orienation, like question, always seems to have something in it of what it points to, as its secret! The question is the answer, the symptom is the cause etc. Secrecy is generative, it propagates, folds/unfolds as you indicate. Cf. the hadith "I was a hidden treasure . . .", emanationist ideas of creation.

Thanks for these cool questions!


Nicola Masciandaro said...


That is lovely! Left a comment.



kvond said...

Nicola: "The perceptual basis of secrecy sounds good to me, particularly as it seems that some kind of concealing/revealing, backgrounding/foregrounding goes into seeing anything as thing, object..."

Kvond: this is the trouble for me with philosophical backgrounds of Idealist/phenomenological assurance. Dispite the beauty of the binary, is it not that the foreground/background binary as far as it is thought of in abstraction as some kind of Being/Non-Being (a mistake I feel), quite superficial? That is, one must be able to "read" the background in order to simultaneously make the foreground foreground. It is a tension, not a secrecy. The background is somehting like the base melody that makes the harmony leap up with vital expression. But the melody is not "secret" or hidden. Is that not so? When you look at something and see "it" you cannot see it without seeing all other things in some degree, right?

Nicola Masciandaro said...

Totally agree. And you need the binary to say this. Right? I do not see how we can exclude binarism, duality, affirmation/negation, dialectic, and so on from our language and understanding of things. Repetition is dual in essence, the gap is a gap between something that is one and two. Though of course we overcome, intellectually, perceptually, experientially etc. dualisms all the time, which is a big reason I am fascinated with prepositionality, as a reflection of this tensional space as you indicate it. The reality of the 'of', the 'in', the 'towards' etc fits within but is not bound by dualism. Think Genesis, gospel of John, 'before' the beginning there is an IN.

kvond said...

But Nicola, why is this a "secret"? Or why is secretness an "essential" (if this is what you believe) property? It's like saying that there is a "gap" between "the nose" and "the face". There really isn't, just thinking about it in imaginative (and categorical) ways makes it seem like there is.

Nicola Masciandaro said...

Well I am pretty much starting with and trying to stay with secrecy here, to keep to the surface as it were, not (necessarily) deconstruct it, nor introduce or assume any clear gaps between objects and thinking. Certainly more a commentary on the concept of secrecy, than any kind of attempt at definitive statement on the reality of secrecy ("reality" being a secret anyway!). There is an idea of something essential here, not secrets as essences, but secrecy as a category that communicates something essential, about place, epistemology etc. I.e. the concept has a propriety, a place. I love the face/nose question, because no there is not a gap between the two and yet they are two, different, so 'secret' doesn't seem like a bad way to talk about the difference, like, there is a secret relationship between a nose and a face, so that we can see the face (along with the nose) without seeing 'nose' at all and we can perceptually dislocate the nose from the face so that it becomes grotesque etc.

kvond said...

I think I can see what you are saying with how you approach the face/nose, but something tells me that this cannot be a resting place, that such a concept stops too soon, does not dig under, is too-far in the ontology of the mind as ideal. If anything, the reason why we can see both, integrate them, split them apart, has to be something of the order that the face itself radiates, it blooms, and does so in an unsecretive fashion.

Nicola Masciandaro said...

I think so. Both before and in the midst of playing games of part and whole the face is unfoldingly present.