The Aesthetics of a Secret

April 22, 2022

Secrets, hidden lives, and other versions of myself cut through every vector of my life. I am not known or ever fully open to be known by a single person. While this can be lonely and frustrating, there is a sense in which this is a universal experience that doesn’t preclude connection (1), and also a sense in which this is an aesthetically superior position to the alternative of being fully transparent (2).


Fully accurate communication and complete understanding between people is impossible, but I don’t think we need to fret over it: it’s simply an aspect of having separate minds. The extent to which we can feel a broader species- or nature-level empathy often correlates to when we feel we are sharing a larger “mind” with other beings—but still, experiences like these aren’t ever absolute and usually don’t last. Living hidden internal lives is a result of our separation from each other, and leads to an inherently solitary mode of existence.

Rainer Maria Rilke writes (in the anthology Rilke on Love and Other Difficulties),

All companionship can consist only in the strengthening of two neighboring solitudes, whereas everything that one is wont to call giving oneself is by nature harmful to companionship: for when a person abandons himself, he is no longer anything, and when two people give themselves up in order to come close to each other, there is no longer any ground beneath them and their being together is a continual falling.

For Rilke, our solitude is essential to our being—to compromise on it would be to do harm to ourselves and to our relationships. A limitation to what can be shared with others creates negative space, and in this space lies our secrets and hidden selves. Maybe the union of everything we are able to show others amounts to something that feels like a “self”, but even if it falls short, this leftover, secret part is in a way the most important part of being alive: because it is the location of our independent selfhood.


More than being a fundamental aspect of conscious life, (and more excitingly) our secret life has an aesthetic value. Just as a chiaroscuro painting is well-composed using light and dark, life is more interesting as a balance of contrasts, i.e. known/hidden.

Søren Kierkegaard had a keenly developed sense of aesthetics toward life. Reading his work, it feels like he approached life like one would approach literature: how should one act to maximize aesthetic principles and pleasures?

In his essay “The Diary of the Seducer” (from Either/Or), Kierkegaard, through the persona of a manipulating and voyeuristic man, illustrates the controlled invention, rise, and fall of a romance between the narrator (the “Seducer”)—someone whose “life had been an attempt to realize the task of living poetically”—and a younger woman. Throughout, the narrator prioritizes aesthetic and poetic beauty above all (especially above ethics).

At every step in the relationship, the aesthetic merit of the developments are analyzed. Even the period of time before the two meet has to be treated carefully:

I must have more restraint, it is the chief requisite for all enjoyment. It does not look as if I shall very soon get any information about the girl who fills my soul and my thoughts so completely that the want is kept alive. I shall now keep very quiet, for this condition, this vague, indefinite, but still strong disquiet, has a sweetness of its own.

The narrator holds his initial fascination with the woman as a precious secret; his longing is something to be treasured and enjoyed.

I am in a waking dream [...] longing and expectation become more and more quiet, more and more blissful: they fondle me like a child, the heaven of hope arches over me, and her image floats across my vision like the moon’s, indistinct, now dazzling me with its light, now with its shadow.

Though the narrator is purposefully written to be disturbing in his scheming and artful cruelty, the way he sets up the love story to be filled to the brim with erotic tension, suspense, and agonizing bliss is masterful.

Essential to the poetry of the situation is secrecy. Most of the actual enjoyment happens privately, and this rich private experience creates a secret selfhood which supports a tension in the known/hidden dichotomy. Revelation and transparency would drive the plot too quickly toward resolution, so it’s held off for as long as is artistically sustainable.

Our hidden, secret selves are crucial fuel for creating a beautiful life, full of mystery and exquisite aesthetic tension.


I wasn’t sure how to include this quote from Kierkegaard’s “The Rotation Method” (also from Either/Or), but I think about it way too often...

When two beings fall in love with one another and begin to suspect that they were made for each other, it is time to have the courage to break it off; for by going on they have everything to lose and nothing to gain.