ARR: “Secrets” is the theme of the latest issue of ARR, a Norwegian publication dedicated to the academic field of the history of ideas.
Why this theme? Well, among other things, there is the current practice of keepings tabs on everyone – transparency, revelations and surveillance is order of the day. Keeping things secret is seen as suspicious. Simultaneously, this secrecy is giving too much power to many more or less authoritarian governments. For liberal democracies, the fight against secrets within politics and management is vital.
Ellen Krefting is an historian of ideas at the University in Oslo. She argues that the opposite of a transparent, open society is “the Kafka-like, hidden, faceless power.” Krefting is especially interested in the autocracy: Machiavelli’s Prince was a master of using secrecy as an efficient governing principle; and autocracy was, according to Thomas Hobbes, the sole form of governing which could guarantee the safety of the citizens and the best for the community. The ruler’s “divine (mysterious, unpredictable and undetectable) origin and ‘sensible state’ doctrine” were about his practical need for political space to manoeuvre, often beyond “both the law, moral and debate”.
Do I need to mention Assad? He is not alone in declaring a “state of emergency” – authoritarian regimes who elevate themselves above their own constitution. Powerful men and women of the State thus use the Tacitus’ secret of empire against subjects seen as ignorant and “driven by passions”, they do not understand what is best for the community.
The 18th century was a golden age for autocracies and strict censorship. Krefting refers to the authors of the period as “eager users of anonymity and masked games, polyphonic dialogues, subtle allegories, fables and other fictional universes”. In the UK, around 80 texts were published with the words “secret history” in their titles. These were texts that sought to reveal or de-mystify rulers with their “indefinite relationships between documented facts, unsubstantiated rumours, court gossip, sensational exaggerations and pure fiction”. Scandalous stories featuring named people. Now, some 300 years later, I suppose we can admit that the stories and secret associations of that period are still alive and well – although we are now talking about fake news and Trump.
In another chapter of the latest ARR, psychoanalyst and philosopher Torberg Foss writes about the relationship of psychoanalysis with secrets. Foss does not share Freud’s belief that the act of revealing pathological secrets is always liberating, but has a greater “respect for the significance of having secrets”. Secrets no longer need to be unearthed at any cost – patients are actually entitled to keep theirs. Secrets may add colour to life itself, and keep passion alive.
Foss hits the nail on the head as he writes: “Is having secrets a condition for being able to think?” In today’s social media society, you are supposed to share your every whim and thought with everyone. You are modern – and you follow the doxa (the doctrinal field. –Ed.), the practice of our time, it is the “done thing”. At the same time, however, this manner of expression could also mean “to let go of ‘oneself’”, says Foss – and reminds us that Maurice Blanchot once wrote “how frightening it can be to encounter people who say everything they think, and where a collective ‘I’ is obviously lacking”. Foss goes on to mention Orwell’s iconic 1984 in which “they created a new language, featuring a special trait which made hidden thoughts or languages impossible”.
For some, it is painful to engage in profound thinking, or in the words of psychotherapists: to be separated from the feeling of safety in the womb. Do you master the feeling of being alone in the company of others? Or do you recall the joyous game you did as a child – a “secret” thought activity?
Psychoanalysts often experience that victims of sexual assault mourn the loss of their secrets; they have lost their privacy and no sexual feelings remain, explains Foss. He adds that Georges Bataille used secrecy itself as a means to describe eroticism, along with the need for an “unbreakable, nocturnal core”. A free and developed person must be able to relate to something unknown, to mystery, what should remain shrouded, unspoken. As ARR are alluding to; that one needs to be able to let something sink into oneself, to be able to retain one’s innermost – to have an “I”. If nothing valuable is allowed to take hold inside you before you must report on it, we could say that you end up on the “pornographic” public surface – without a sensible and thoughtful inside.
If secrets are not supposed to be used as a means to rule society, the point is that the secrets of the individual are necessary to be able to maintain an inner, spiritual life. With “Share!” being the current mantra, intimacy and the familiar are being starved. Foss finally refers to Shakespeare’s King Lear: Lear wants to know how much his three daughters love him. When it is the turn of the youngest, Cordelia, she becomes silent. Silently she mumbles to herself: “I am sure my love is more ponderous than my tongue.”