Who Doesn't Know?

by Marvin Bell

   Twister4 by JDR



"My life, my secret," wrote the poet James Wright.

Our friend Barbara is known as Bobbie the Artist by the circus with which she travels part of each year. Dorothy and I drive to a nearby town to hang around the back lot, see the show, and watch them tear down afterwards. We don't know where the circus has set up but we know how to find it. Once we take the exit from the Interstate, we look for arrows attached to the poles of road signs. Arrows up mean straight ahead. Arrows pointed down mean that a turn is coming. Each circus has its own arrow design, and the arrows are left behind when the troupe moves on: hence, one circus is said to have followed a previous year's arrows to the wrong lot. It isn't exactly secret knowledge that the way is marked by arrows, but generally people don't know. The circus has many other secrets -- secrets of the midway, performing secrets of the big top. Among circus workers, last names and home towns go unsaid in case someone doesn't want to be found.

A secret is defined by those who are not supposed to know. Who can say that secrets are good or bad? The good and the bad overlap. There are military secrets that must be kept for a campaign to succeed, but what about military that, if revealed, would prevent needless bloodshed? Do you remember "The Pentagon Papers?" What happened at Ruby Ridge and for what reason?

There are lies taken for truth because they are leaked as if they were secrets. Newspapers lie by taking things out of context so that much of the daily newspaper now seems to be information on the edge of secrecy. Organized from the top down, newspapers increasingly exist to sell advertising, and sales accrue to those that titillate and shock. Such is the character of a marketplace ethic, which, beholden to the bottom line in a dog-eat-dog global economy, and seeing a populace imprisoned by fear of the future, rarely factors in the good of anyone else. People have to make a living, and they will do it, if necessary, at the expense of others. Secrets are the natural outgrowth of competition.

And of oppression -- political or social. In Yugoslavia in 1983, a group of us were taking an evening walk around the lake in Bled, Slovenia, during a PEN conference. The fellow walking next to me walked slower and slower until the rest of the group was well ahead. Then he spoke to me again of an ongoing issue: whether it would be safe to bring me to a protest meeting in Belgrade concerning the imprisonment of a certain poet for a line in his book of poems. As always, we had to speak privately -- in secret.

Eastern Europe was once the place to study sophisticated secrecy. I had already had some experience in the encoded talk of Eastern Europe, still then under the overt domination of the Soviet Republic. At a banquet celebrating the end of a literary festival in Sarajevo the week before, a town official spoke to me during dinner of the greatness of the United States, first with reference to World War II and then to the presidency. He carefully praised the presidency, but never the President. The Presidency of the United States, he assessed more than once, is worthy of respect. Translation: your current President is a dope.

Later that evening, I went with my translator to a young poets' bar. Speaking in Serbo-Croatian, she explained that I was an American poet. One of the young writers lifted his glass and said (in English), "Fuck Reagan!" Then he asked if I were a Republican or a Democrat. "Neither," I said, through my translator. "Independent." "Ah," he said, raising his glass in toast, "Anarchista!"

It occurs to me that a true anarchism might permit no secrets. Except for a society in which every person makes every decision first in terms of the welfare of others, I can't conceive of a society without secrets. (And I haven't even touched on the kind of secret which is kept expressly for the sake of others.)

In the meantime, we are left to consider whether everyone needs, wishes or can know everything about you. We are left with the problem with separating what is news from what is journalism and deciding among truths. The study of ethics feeds off such ambivalent scenarios. You know a secret that, if indulged, will help one person but hurt two others. Or, your child has a great time waiting for Christmas, but keeps asking if there's a Santa. And, at the bridge tournament, you pick up a hand that is unshuffled and thus still arranged by suit, after which the bid is three passes to you. You now realize that the hand was passed out, and that you can make a bid of "one no trump." It is against the rules to employ such knowledge. You can call over the tournament director and have the hand thrown out, thus distorting the evening's play for everyone; shuffle your hand and pass, thus passing up a chance for you and your partner to score big; or bid one no-trump for the chance of gaining a "top board" score for that hand. Such a minor secret, such a tiny decision, so easy to bite the bullet and pass, thus puffing up your sense of integrity. But of such dilemmas are made the scenarios of much weightier issues. Few social or political decisions afford the luxury of deciding between good and bad. Instead, the possibilities range from the "best best" through the "worst worst."

We don't like to think this, but even the worst act of dictators have been kept secret because, while they were bad for some people, they were good for them. A secret is a see-saw, with victims on one end and benefactors on the other. Sometimes, it is unclear as to who should sit where: the victim is part benefactor and vice versa.

In the meantime, we go on thinking that secrets are either thrilling (the covert, the arcane, the cryptic), money-in-our-pockets (beauty secrets, recipes), or potentially destructive (dirty secrets, family skeletons). In fact, many secrets are a form of denial, often necessary, sometimes frivolous. What does it imply that a deodorant for women is named "Secret"? Is it is secret that women perspire? Is it a private knowledge that women, too, have bodily functions? Gosh. Blame the idiots who decided to work the idea that women must appear to be something they are not.

It's a secret where the head of the corporation lives. How to reach the CEO who just "downsized" fifteen hundred people out of their jobs is a company secret. It's confidential. It's need-to-know, and your lost salary isn't need enough. The reason it's a secret is that institutions need to stay in the shadows. Secrets are the darkness in which slugs thrive. Oliver North had a basement office.

Did you have a magic decoder ring? Secrets are thrilling when you first let in on them. Later, you find out that you were told in order to make you a partner in crime.

Is it a secret that things end? Only grownups know. So, is it a secret? Is it a secret that we live well at the expense of others? In other words, is the nature of the human condition a secret? Will the truth about anything less comprehensive than, say, death or The Tao, truly set you free?

Should the doctor tell the patient right off that he is dying? Should the cancer patient tell others, knowing that people will begin to keep her at arm's length or that she will be unable thereafter to escape the subject in conversation? Does the victim of a crime always help himself by coming forward? Is your sexual life to be announced publicly because someone else suffers the effect of your privacy?

What do I feel like inside? Who am I, really? Can we meet this side of fear? Dare we? We would like to believe that true friendship will survive any revelation, but the evidence suggests otherwise. We learn as we go.

"My life, my secret." Too complex to take credit or blame. Impossible to explain. Unworkable to hold in contempt any part of what it means to be a human being. There are awful secrets out there. Beyond instances of physical abuse and deprivation, we dare not pull out another's secrets. On the level of emotions, we live at a distance from one another. Still, there are ways -- sex and long intimacy, for example -- in which we sometimes cross most of the distance, but never all of it. We die alone. How totally wonderful, therefore, that we live near others. If it is good to know oneself, it is twice good to know oneself in the presence of others.





 "Secrets: Who Doesn't Know?" © 1996, 1997 by Marvin Bell. Reprinted from Blue Heron's Secrets by permission of the author.


 Original Graphic © 1997 by Jim Davis-Rosenthal



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