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Philosophy of secrets: Derrida’s fascination with crypto-Jews

TJI Pick
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Published: 30 May 2023

Last updated: 5 March 2024

Arguably the most famous philosopher of the 20th century, the father of deconstruction saw the archetype for understanding the nature of secrets within his Jewish heritage

Jacques Derrida’s fascination with the Marranos came late in his thinking. In a 1999 documentary about his life, speaking in a Catholic church in Toledo – a building that was once a synagogue, then a mosque, before becoming a Christian church – he says: “What is an absolute secret? I was obsessed with this question quite as much as that of my supposed Judeo-Spanish origins. These obsessions met in the figure of the Marrano.”

Derrida was drawn to “marranism”, as he came to call it, for several reasons, including the tension between an individual having no essential “I”, and the persistence of the idea of the secret as exemplary in revealing an “I” that is the true self.

But marranism, for Derrida, is also an example of “religion without religion” – simply to declare one’s faith, to confess it, is to lose it. Or, at times, even to lose one’s life.

The Marrano experience is, therefore, an extreme example of what many Jews of the 20th century experienced when, as Hannah Arendt pointed out in her essay The Jew as Pariah: A Hidden Tradition (1944), one had to conceal one’s identity, in this case Jewish, to be allowed to speak and even to live. It is a condition not exclusive to Judaism but, at the time of Arendt’s writing, it had a particular significance.

For Derrida, the Marrano experience goes beyond the moment of conversion (and/or betrayal), and even beyond the following generations who in some sense kept the menorah candle burning.

 “I am one of those Marranos who no longer say they are Jews even in the secret of their own hearts.” Instead of a secret we are conscious of, here is a secret that is unconscious.  “It is perhaps there that we find the secret of secrecy,” Derrida writes.

A philosophy of secrets (Aeon)

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Image: Mural of Derrida at the Abode of Chaos museum in Saint-Romain-au-Mont-d’Or (Thierry Ehrmann)

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