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 ...
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.