Trembling Before the Secret

Posted by Dale Townshend on September 19, 2009 in Blog tagged with
While reading Derrida’s The Gift of Death recently, I stumbled upon a passage which, to my mind, has considerable implications for conceptualising the Gothic aesthetic, literary, filmic or otherwise, particularly in terms of the effect it might have on its readers / viewers. Derrida’s musings concern, specifically, the ‘secret’ and the subjective ‘trembling’ it provokes. It’s rather a long passage, but please bear with me:
“A secret always makes you tremble. Not simply quiver or shiver, which also happens sometimes, but tremble.  A quiver can of course manifest fear, anguish, apprehension of death; as when one quivers in advance, in anticipation of what it to come. But it can be slight, on the surface of the skin, like a quiver that announces the arrival or pleasure or an orgasm. It is a moment in passing, the suspended time of seduction. A quiver is not always very serious, it is sometimes discreet, barely discernible, somewhat epi-phenomenal. It prepares for, rather than follows the event. One could say that water quivers before it boils; that is the idea I was referring to as seduction: a superficial pre-boil, a preliminary and visible agitation.

                On the other hand, trembling, at least as a signal or symptom, is something that has already taken place. As in the case of an earthquake [tremblement de terre] or when one trembles all over. It is no longer preliminary even if, unsettling everything so as to imprint upon the body an irrepressible shaking, the event that makes one tremble portends and threatens still. It suggests that violence is going to break out again, that some traumatism will insist on being repeated. As different as dread, fear, anxiety, terror, panic, or anguish remain from one another, they have already begun in the trembling, and what has provoked them continues, or threatens to continue, to make us tremble. Most often we neither know what is coming upon us nor see its origin; it therefore remains a secret. We are afraid of the fear, we anguish over the anguish, and we tremble. We tremble in that strange repetition that ties an irrefutable past (a shock that has been felt, a traumatism has already affected us) to a future that cannot be anticipated; anticipated but unpredictable; apprehended, but, and this is why there is a future, apprehended precisely as unforeseeable, unpredictable; approached as unapproachable.    Even if one thinks one knows what is going to happen, the new instant of that happening remains untouched, still unaccessible, in fact unlivable. In the repetition of what still remains unpredictable, we tremble first of all because we don’t know from which direction the shock came, whence it was given (whether a good surprise or a bad shock, sometimes a surprise received as a shock); and we tremble from not knowing, in he form of a double secret, whether it is going to continue, start again, insist, be repeated: whether it will, how it will, where, when; and why this shock.    Hence I tremble because I am still afraid of what already makes me afraid, of what I can neither see nor foresee. I tremble at what exceeds my seeing and my knowing [mon voir et mon savoir] although it concerns the inner-most parts of me, right down to my soul, down to the bone, as we say. Inasmuch as it tends to undo both seeing and knowing, trembling is indeed an experience of secrecy or of mystery, but another secret, another enigma, or another mystery comes on top of the unlivable experience, adding yet another seal or concealment to the tremor [ . . ].  Where does this supplementary seal come from? One doesn’t know why one trembles. This limit to knowledge no longer only relates to the cause or unknown event, the unseen or unknown that makes us tremble. Neither do we know why it produces this particular symptom, a certain irrepressible agitation of the body, the uncontrollable instability of its members or of the substance of the skin or muscles.” (Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death, 53-55)

What strikes me here is Derrida’s reading of trembling before the secret – a position into which readers / viewers of Gothic / horror are frequently coerced. I’m struck by Derrida’s sense that trembling only occurs through a sense of repetition: we tremble because we anticipate the repetition of something that we have already experienced before. Nonetheless, that which makes us tremble is, ultimately, unknown and unknowable: we fear the repetition of the past, while realising that that which is to repeated is unknowable.   It remains a secret, and quivering is the result. Derrida then introduces here another level of secrecy: the trembling-inducing secret is a secret, but on top of that, we do not know why we tremble in the first place. This, I think, is a good description of my responses to horror films: based on past viewing experiences, I KNOW that something horrible is about to happen – in this sense, the secret is a repetition of what I have seen on the horror screen before – but I am still at a loss as to what, precisely, this horrid thing will be.   It remains a secret, and I tremble as a result. But neither do I know why I tremble.   


My questions are as follows: how might Derrida’s reading of the secret and the act of trembling pertain to the Gothic aesthetic? How does trembling differ from a psychoanalytic notion of the Uncanny? Given its implication in acts of repetition, is trembling anything like the Uncanny experience? How might Derridean trembling constitute a rereading of the eighteenth-century Sublime? Does the heroine of eighteenth-century Gothic romance ‘tremble’ in ways that are consonant with Derrida’s musings? What are your thoughts?


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