The Secret of the One who Speaks

« The Sacrifice of Isaac » (Caravaggio)

All languages have their own words for ‘secret’, which unconsciously reveal a part of it.

The Greek word for secret is ἀπόῤῥηθον, aporrhêton, which literally means « far, or away, from speech ». The secret is properly what is « unspeakable », either that which cannot be said, since the resources of language are insufficient, or that which must be kept silent, since words must be kept away. The emphasis is on speech and language, their limits or their impotence. This is why the idea of secrecy among the Greeks is well expressed in hermeticism and in the religions of the mysteries, where the initiate must swear to keep secret the things taught.

In Latin, the word secretum (from the verb seco, secare, sectum, « to cut ») etymologically evokes the idea of separation, of physical cut. The emphasis is not on language, but on place or space. The secret is what is separated from the rest of the world, what is cut off from it. The secret participates in a partition of the world into highly differentiated zones, exclusive of each other.

In Hebrew, the word for secret is רָז (raz). It is a word of Persian origin. In the Bible it is only found in the book of Daniel, then at a rather late date, where it takes on the meaning of « mystery ».

Sanskrit offers, among other words: गुप्त, gupta and गुह्यguhya. The word gupta comes from the root gup- , « to keep, protect, defend ». It first means « protected, hidden ». It also means « secret » by derivation. In Sanskrit, secrecy seems to be less an end in itself, to be kept for what it is worth, than a means to protect the person who benefits from it. As for guhya, it comes from the root guh-, « tocover, to conceal, to hide ». Guhya is what must be hidden, like a magic formula, or the sexual organs, of which this word is also the name. Here too, the emphasis is on the veil and the act of veiling, more than on what is veiled.

In contrast, the German word for secret, Geheimnis, precisely brings out the link between the secret and the interiority, the inner self. The secret is what is deep in the heart, or in the intimacy of the soul.

We could go on for a long time with this anthology of the word « secret » in different languages. But we already sense that each culture has a conception of the secret that corresponds as well as possible to what it agrees to reveal to itself and to what it agrees to show to the world, as for its (collective) unconscious .

This is also true of individuals, and of the secrets that inhabit them, or that found them.

In A Taste for Secrecy, Jacques Derrida declares that the secret is « the very non-phenomenality of experience », and « something that is beyond the opposition of phenomenon and non-phenomenon, and which is the very element of existence »i.

Even if everything could be said, there is something that will always resist, that will always remain secret, singular, unique, irreplaceable, « even without having to hide anything »ii.

This singular, specific secret is not even opposed to what is not secret. Nor is it ineffable. This secret is the secret of all that is said. The secret undoes what is brought forward by the word.

The secret « undoes the word », which is also the characteristic of deconstruction.

By undoing the word, the secret takes on an absolute significance. This secret that can never be shared, even at the moment of sharing, occupies a position of overhang: it is the very condition of sharing.

This is the absolute secret. The secret is an « absolute » that reigns above or within the existing, or is completely detached from it. Derrida says: « It is the ab-solute even in the etymological sense of the term, that is to say what is cut off from the bond, detached, and cannot bind; it is the condition of the bond but it cannot bind: that is the absolute; if there is an absolute, it is secret. It is in this direction that I try to read Kierkegaard, Isaac’s sacrifice, the absolute as secret and as the ‘other’. Not transcendent, not even beyond myself: a resistance to the light of phenomenality that is radical, irreversible, to which one can give all sorts of forms, death, for example, but it is not even death. » iii

« The absolute as a secret and as the ‘other’ ». But « not transcendent ».

A rather enigmatic formula, admittedly…. But how is Isaac’s sacrifice linked to the question of the secret, if the absolute is the « other » and is not « transcendent »?

We need a tighter analysis.

« Abraham took the wood of the sacrifice, put it on Isaac his son, took the fire and the knife in his hand, and they both went together.» iv

Rashi comments: « They both went together: Abraham who knew he was going to sacrifice his son, walked with the same goodwill and joy as Isaac who suspected nothing. « 

Abraham kept the secret of what awaited Isaac. He told him nothing. The secret was absolute. Abraham did not let anything show on his face. He even walked cheerfully, according to Rashi, so as not to arouse any fear in Isaac. But some suspicion nevertheless arose and Isaac finally questioned his father: « ‘Here is the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb of the burnt offering?’ Abraham answered: ‘God himself will choose the lamb of the burnt offering, my son,’ and they both went together. » v

The repetition of this phrase, « they both went together », suggests two different meanings. Rashi comments: « And though Isaac understood that he was going to be immolated, ‘they both went together’, with one heart. »

The first time, it is Abraham who took the emotional burden on him. The second time, it was Isaac. He did not show anything about what he had guessed to be his fate. He kept his emotion secret.

In both cases, for Abraham and for Isaac, – absolute secrecy of the heart, but a secrecy that was not transcendent, indeed.

It was only the secret of a silent father, in one case, and the secret of a son who was silent, in the other. It was a doubly absolute secret, one can imagine.

Or, perhaps, was the absolute also present, secretly, in these moments, in two different ways?

This absolute, so secret, so doubly secret, can also, in fact, be called the « other ».

One could even suggest that this absolute wasthe « All Other ».

But then why does Derrida insist on the idea that the Absolute which is the « other » is precisely not « transcendent »?

In the text of Genesis, however, transcendence does appear at this crucial moment in all splendor: « But a messenger of the Lord called to him from heaven, and he said, ‘Abraham… Abraham!’ He answered, ‘Here I am,’ and said, ‘Do not lay a hand on this young man, do nothing to him! For now I know that you fear God, you who did not deny me your son, your only son ». vi

One knows that the absolute is secret, that it is the « other ». As for being « transcendent », it is a question of interpretation.

Shortly after finding a ram embarrassed by its horns in a bush and sacrificing it as a burnt offering in place of his son, Abraham named the place where this whole scene had taken place: « YHVH will see. »vii In Hebrew: יְהוָה יִרְאֶה (‘Adonai-Yiré’)

The Targum interprets this verse as follows, according to Rashi: God will choose for Himself this place to make His Divine Presence reside there and to make offerings there. And it will be said about this place: It is on this mountain that God makes Himself seen by His people.

But if « YHVH will see » is to be understood as « God will be seen », the Targum should also explain why the active way (God will see) has been changed into a passive way (God will be seen).

The Midrach gives yet another interpretation, according to Rachi. « YHVH will see » means: « The LORD will see this offering to forgive Israel every year and to spare it the punishment it deserves. So it will be said in the generations to come: Today God shows Himself on the mountain. Isaac’s ashes are still there to make atonement for our sins. »

A Cartesian spirit will point out that the ashes of the ram offered as a holocaust are still on the mountain called « YHVH will see », but certainly not the ashes of Isaac, since the latter left, alive and well, with his father to Beer-sheba.

From all of this, it emerges that the initial secret, so opaque, unravels endlessly, in twisted insinuations, in down-to-earth or messianic interpretations, depending on different « points of view ».

For us, who respect grammatical values more than lyrical flights of fancy, we will remember above all that « He will see » may also mean « He will be seen ».

Ultimately, it is the grammar itself, the foundation of the language, that must be deconstructed if we want to unlock the secret, not of the language, but of the one who speaks.

iJacques Derrida, Maurizio Ferraris. Le goût du secret. Hermann. 2018, p.69-70

iiIbid, p.70

iiiIbid, p.70

ivGen. 22.6

vGen. 22, 7-8

viGen. 22, 11-13

viiGen. 22.14

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