Monday, July 12, 2010

The Secreting "Sphinx without a Secret"

     In his brief short story, “The Sphinx without a Secret,” Oscar Wilde lays bare modernity’s process of subjectification. The plot seems disturbingly commonplace: a man falls in love with a seemingly conventional femme fatale; the beloved shrouds herself in mystery, asking for discreet rendezvous and subterranean letters; the lover sees his beloved enter a back-alley abode, and reading all the conventional markings of a secret tryst, demands a confession of infidelity; the disgraced beloved meekly professes innocence; the lover, convinced of deceit, frantically denounces her.

     Yet, nothing is, seemingly, as it seems. Hearing of his beloved’s death, the protagonist, Lord Murchison, returns to the back-alley abode only to discover – the woman’s innocence, her tryst being nothing more than a few solitary hours spent reading novels and sipping tea. A stunning turn of events! and Murchison finds himself “anxious and puzzled.” Seeking the aid of an old college friend, the narrator, Murchison lays bare his case – actually the beloved’s – to which the narrator, confronting the thrice removed lived reality of a tertiary case (from the back-alley landlady to Murchison to the narrator), exclaims, in the most haltingly conventional terms, “Lady Alroy was simply a woman with a mania for mystery . . . She had a passion for secrecy, but she herself was a merely a Sphinx without a secret.”
     Yet a lingering mystery appears to hang over both Murchison and the text itself. We, along with Murchison, close Wilde’s brief story with the tepid question, “‘I wonder?’”
     Wonder what? That the narrator’s case is illegitimate is, I argue, too clear to be startling. Instead, what disturbs Murchison and reader is a remnant of mystery left undeciphered by the brazen narrator. The wonder is not whether or not Lady Alroy “had a passion” for mystery. Rather, the wonder is whether or not such a passion is not, in actuality, a mystery, but instead something base and mundane, something belonging to one who is reduced to the phrase, “simply a woman with a mania for mystery.”
     As astute readers of Wilde’s text, we must be keen to the cocksure pronouncement of the narrator’s case, deconstructing his words in order to reveal the deep anxiety behind his calm, confident tone. For the narrator really is responding to an urgency, to an abnormality his conventional forms of thought and language cannot properly contain. Not that of a woman who loves simply to shroud herself in an empty mystery (which is, logically, a mystery that “took-in” Murchison), but the shock of a constitutive lack of mystery within the “mystery” itself. Behind the lurid-seeming details of the case rests a woman quietly ensconced in commonplace novel reading and tea sipping. Her mystery: nothing more (or less) than an utter lack of mystery, a lack the narrator’s case-making apparatus cannot properly account for. Hence the terrifyingly conventional pronouncement.
     And what that pronouncement cannot confront and must leave as a remnant to knowledge is how mystery, which once served to render the subjectivity of others intelligible by opening up alterity to case-machinery, no longer functions as it once did. Now a new force serves to render subjectivity intelligible, independent of alterity. The lack of one’s mystery is, the story leads us to reflect, one’s self-constitutive secret – a secret completely intelligible, completely open through the very gesture that attempts to hide what is at all times fully exposed. And, crucially, in that withdrawing gesture, one makes fully intelligible that which before was merely visible.
     The site of this secretive gesture is “face” – that surface upon which one’s absolute visibility and one’s potential intelligibility play out through the process of secreting, a withdrawal-that-opens.
     This is a paradigm for intelligibility. Exposed to an infinite and ceaseless gaze, all living beings have lost their mystery – that is, mystery has been exposed in its illegitimacy to be nothing more than the ruse of a bankrupt process of subjectification. The subject no longer has recourse to its mystery as its constitutive form. Instead, the open secret constitutes one’s subjectivity; one’s lack of mystery, one’s constitutive lack of a central emptiness (mystery) provides the impetuous for a (shameful and embarrassed) withdrawal from visibility. Yet that very gesture of secreting opens one to intelligibility, and the dual process (of simultaneously receding from and expanding into intelligibility) itself constitutes the modern, gaze-plagued subject.
     Lady Alroy, perpetually growing pale under a perpetually interrogating gaze, secrets herself thus. With shame at her exposed subjectivity, her exposed secreting, she can only pile on the shrouds of a conventional domestic “mystery” and, when those screens have been rent, merely, in the spirit of her blithe comrade Bartleby, confess, “I have told the truth.”

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