In 1828, Thomas Carlyle, the British author and polymath, wrote an essay considering Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship. Carlyle praised the work that he also translated into English—and he praised it in particular on the grounds that, through the character of Wilhelm, a young man who rejects a life of urban business for one in pursuit of art, the novel had itself achieved a kind of transcendence. In the character of Wilhelm, Carlyle suggested,
Poetry and Prose are no longer at variance, for the poet’s eyes are opened: he sees the changes of many-colored existence, and sees the loveliness and deep purport which lies hidden under the very meanest of them; hidden to the vulgar sight, but clear to the poet’s; because the “open secret” is no longer a secret to him, and he knows that the Universe is full of goodness; that whatever has being has beauty.
Carlyle’s effusions were textbook examples of early Romanticism: the artist as uniquely capable of seeing the world; the assumption that beauty and truth are irrevocably tangled together. His essay also marked the first time, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, that the English language would make mention of an “open secret”—a phenomenon that, in Carlyle’s sense of it, embodied the heady realities of the Universe that lay just beyond the reach of the “vulgar sight.”
Carlyle’s original use of the term is, to put it mildly, markedly different from the uses that have been issued like drumbeats in recent days, in headlines about Harvey Weinstein and his alleged pattern of sexual impropriety with the women in his orbit. Headlines that reported, and expanded, on the New York Times investigation that found previously undisclosed allegations of harassment and abuse against the mogul that stretched over nearly three decades. Headlines that treated Weinstein’s behavior as an “open secret”—not the antithesis of Carlyle’s “vulgar sight,” but rather the embodiment of it. “Harvey Weinstein was Hollywood’s biggest open secret.” His was “the ‘worst-kept secret’ in Hollywood and New York.” His behavior, hidden and revealed, heralded “the era of open secrets.” Open secret, open secret, open secret, the stories reminded, as they revealed horrors that had apparently been known all along.