Secrecy and responsibility * Questions for Derrida and Dostoevsky
06-03-07 María del Mar Gómez
In the third book of Derrida's volume "The gift of death" he comments on Kierkegaard's essay "Fear and trembling".
It looks as if they -maybe Derrida, maybe Kierkegaard, or maybe is just me- arrive at the conclusion that what distinguishes ethics from religion is the question of secrecy. "By keeping the secret, Abraham betrays ethics. His silence, or at least the fact that he doesn't divulge the secret of the sacrifice he has been asked to make, is certainly not designated to save Isaac" (p. 59). He maintains this secret between himself and God and that makes him unique and completely responsible. He makes the decision to sacrifice his son alone, without speaking about it because "as soon as one enters the medium of language, one looses that very singularity" (p. 60). Although he is going against ethics he is being loyal to God. Derrida even says that "Abraham is thus at the same time the most moral and the most immoral, the most responsible and the most irresponsible of men, absolutely irresponsible because he is absolutely responsible, absolutely irresponsible in the face of men and his family, and in the face of the ethical, because he responds absolutely to absolute duty, disinterestedly and without hoping for a reward, without knowing why yet keeping it secret; answering to God and before God" (p. 72).
At first glance it looks as if in a secular society this behavior is apparently impossible since only a religious fanatic would commit a crime of this nature nowadays. However, at the end of the essay, Derrida raises the question that God can be the other, especially the other unknown.
The secrets that we found in "The Brothers Karamazov" cover a broad spectrum, but at least one is related to the sacrifice secret. At the end of Part III, when Dimitri is suspected of being the murderer of his father he refuses to tell were the money he has been spending came from. Dostoevsky calls the chapter where he finally confesses that it was money that he kept from Katerina Ivanova, "Mitya's great secret". If Abraham's silence was not a good way to save the life of his son, Dimitri's silence is also a very bad way to save his own freedom. Why was this silence so precious then? Let's try to compare both dilemmas:
It is important for Abraham to keep his secret because it is a commitment he has signed with God; for Dimitri keeping his secret is a question of honor, and honor is one of the main expressions of the belief that something bigger than humans rules society. Both secrecies are expressions of faith, and both betray the explicit laws that modern societies have established to mediate personal freedom in order to protect the good of society.
The problem is, and I think this is clearer in the case of Dimitri, that by keeping his secret he is assuming all the responsibility of betraying both Katerina Ivanova and Grushenka. In the moment he confesses where the money came from, this "crime" or fault looses power and from now on nobody condemns Dimitri for this fault, his responsibility has been diluted. The question then would be where the responsibility of Dimitri goes? Is it possible to maintain responsibility attached to the individual after his confession? How can modern societies maintain a fair judicial system and still maintain a society of responsible individuals?
Derrida, J. (1995) The gift of death, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
Dostoevsky, F. (2002) The brothers Karamazov, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York.