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Anne-Lise François’ Open Secrets is a remarkable book, which works its way in limpid prose towards its goal of giving literature a day off from the work of hermeneutics or other kinds of good, serious critical productivity. The documents that enable François to intimate literature—and criticism’s—holiday are an eccentric corpus of texts across different genres, from La Princesse of Cleves to the poetry of Wordsworth, Dickinson, and Hardy, framed by the philosophical reflections of Blanchot, Lacan, Žižek, Derrida, Levinas, and their comrades. François identifies her primary work as a Romantic lineage. I, for one, however, am skeptical that La Princesse de Clèves's gem-like classicism has anything Romantic about it. Rather, I find more persuasive another of François’ gestures to define this canon as some mode of pastoral, where nothing happens and that nothing is, if not everything, at least enough. Defining François’ corpus as a mode of pastoral cuts across different genres, movements, and styles, and also preserves the environmental concerns that led her to first conceive the subject of the book, which arose, she tells us, while working for Greenpeace in the mid 1990’s, pondering the relation of our capitalist work ethic to the new environmentalism’s mantra to tread lightly on the earth. How, in addition, was the positive restraint of environmental goals to be accommodated with the feminist recognition that reticence was a traditional trap set for women, whose valued passivity was a ruse of disempowerment?
François has unified her body of texts because they propose what she describes, in the title of her first chapter, an emergent “Theory of Recessive Action.” This notion is not immediately legible, and much of her book offers readings and reflections clarifying what she understands by the phrase. If she takes up the gesture of definition repeatedly with nuanced and shifting perspectives, it is because her concept is difficult, but also because the act of definition comes up short with its utilitarian ambitions. Recessive action models a form of ordinariness that is translucent and inviting. It evinces a passivity that can be mapped onto the gender double-binds of heroines condemned to propriety yet simultaneously required to act in order to achieve their generic requirements as protagonists worthy of our interest and perhaps admiration. At the same time, while these heroines model recessive action, the concept is not intrinsically sociological. Similarly, recessive action achieves a state of grace, a term redolent of theology, yet which has nothing about it that is inherently theological. Recessive action luxuriates in a notion of textuality as an open secret, a phrase François takes from Eve Sedgwick and D. A. Miller, but which she frees from conservative overtones. In François’ eccentric pastoral, the open secret does not serve the denial of social justice. Rather than don’t ask, don’t tell, the open secret in François’ rendition becomes welcoming and perhaps in the shade, but not in the shadows. The open secret is a pastoral chronotope where literary protagonists and readers alike enjoy a respite from the search for meaning and truth, which is still a kind of work, non-instrumental as this work may have been qualified to be since the Enlightenment.
Austen’s heroines like Anne Elliot of Persuasion and Fanny of Mansfield Park discussed by François will luxuriate in this vacation. For no character is it more affirming than Lafayette’s La Princesse of Cleves, whose passivity, self-denial, and elusiveness have been read by feminist critics for twenty-five years as the site where the soft power of gender ideology encloses, traps, torments, frustrates, denies—and yet perhaps satisfies Lafayette’s elegant hysteric. Such negative assessments are invoked in François’ extended readings of the novel, in order to be transformed into an ethos of chasteness in a spirit of generosity and calm. The Princess’s chasteness lets other characters be, in a garden withdrawn from the hothouse politics of the court, and the Princess only asks for such a live and let live approach for herself. Lightness is another value that recurs as François sets the Princess free from her self-denying, elusive torment. So too are the values of modesty, grace, transparency, slightness, and the almost but not completely imperceptible.
Opening a work bristling with lengthy footnotes conversing with poststructuralist and particularly deconstructive theorists, readers will be surprised at the ease and almost conversational nature of these references. François wears her philosophy lightly. She is a master of the paratext, and her delightful and idiosyncratic index references are as sententiously eloquent as her footnotes are luminously meandering. Find under modesty: “as mildness of ambitions . . . ‘modest consciousness’ (Yeazell), closet, and exercises in unknowing . . . tact or truthfulness to timing and form . . . See also Acknowledgment, Feminine virtue, Minimalism.” And under pastoral: “as ethos of unworldly wordliness (as virtue, effortless success, moral realism, temporal accommodation . . . and incapacity for critical work.” Reading, in contrast, quickly leads to overwork; thus one reads: “Reading, as discovery or recovery: hermeneutics of suspicion; historicist critics; ‘gothic,’ ‘paranoid,’ ‘melancholic’ interpretive practices . . . See also Repression, Sedgwick, Sublime, Trauma theory” (288).
François’ canon is restricted—along with the writings of Wordsworth, those of Dickinson and Hardy are notably freed from the heavy work of producing deep meaning. One may wonder, however, how many works this canon could encompass and I, for one, would have liked to see more discussion of the limits of works to which the mode of recessive action applies. In addition, I wonder how many readers who are not literary critics—readers who are perhaps avid for action and literature’s feverish power to appeal to the senses—will be willing to accept the restraint if not stasis demanded to enjoy the refreshment of François’ critical pastoral.
Nonetheless, even if this number is literary scholarship’s “happy few,” François’ critical intervention needs to be heeded, quietly as it may be expressed. It targets our critical compulsion to overproduce meanings. She addresses her mild polemic to those followers of the “clichéd slogans of our critical moment”: “you can never be melancholy enough; you can never be paranoid enough” (33), whatever the specific ideological strain that you prefer for your expression.
Some of these strains have rightly taught us to be suspicious of soft power as the most coercive of all. There is thus a side of me that resists as quietism François’ invitation to a non-productive approach to texts that I see as laden with ideology and conflict. At the same time, her point is well taken and resonates with other critical gestures of the moment: gestures seeking to free literature from the overbearing weight of hermeneutics, allegorization, symptomatic reading, or other kinds of incessantly productive interpretation. In François’ book, the invitation reminds me of the portal in Alice in Wonderland—an opening that intimates the everyday as mysterious in a non-theological, anthropological yet non-sensational way—a portal that we can perhaps enter, if only we can find the right trick to get us scaled to the appropriate size and frame of mind. I think of this opening as the invitation to the practice of a new critical phenomenology that does not mine hidden depths or make literature incessantly the source of surplus value—but nor does this phenomenology take its hands off the text to pay homage to genius. Rather, such a phenomenology contents itself with the gesture, modest yet illuminating, of measuring and stock-taking: not with any entrepreneurial ambition, but with the goal of clearing some space in the mind for readers to enjoy literature’s power to breathe, to be present, to be.
Margaret Cohen is a Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature at Stanford University, where she directed Stanford's Center for the Study of the Novel from 2004-2007. Her publications include Profane Illumination and The Sentimental Education of the Novel, as well as The Novel and the Work of the Sea, forthcoming from UP Princeton in 2010. She has co-edited Spectacles of Realism and The Literary Channel, and has edited Sophie Cottin's Claire d'Albe for MLA and Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary for Norton.