Gauri Viswanathan, “Conversion and the Idea of the Secret” (pp. 161–186)

Obsessed with the notion of the secret in his writings on religion, Jacques Derrida uncannily evokes a predecessor with whom he has rarely, if at all, been compared—the Russian occultist Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. This essay argues that Blavatsky’s occult writings set the stage for the kinds of speculations on crypto-conversion, conscience, and responsibility that subsequently engaged Derrida. Like Blavatsky, Derrida saw conversion not as change but as retaining whatever it displaces in the form of a secret, persisting as an enduring reminder of supplanted religious beliefs. While Derrida was more interested in conversion as a form of repression that mutually constitutes the old and the new, Blavatsky held a broader and more dynamic view of conversion-as-repression: in describing Christianity’s battle against the heterogeneous belief-systems it eventually supplanted, she sought to illuminate conversion as a larger process well beyond the individual and involving religious expansion and consolidation. The essay culminates in a close reading of an occult text, W. B. Yeats’s “The Manuscript of ‘Leo Africanus,’” that exemplifies the problematics of crypto-conversion as delineated by Blavatsky and Derrida in their respective ways. “Leo Africanus” stages Yeats’s encounter with a dead spirit alternatively grasped as his anti-self and historical conscience. A breakthrough in understanding allows Yeats to acknowledge an occluded history—his as much as that of his deceased interlocutor—that can only be told in the terms of crypto-conversion, in this instance of a sixteenth-century African slave forcibly converted to Christianity and turned into a native informant of African history and geography.

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