The Simplicity of Shame


Adam Phillips

         … even the subject’s destruction of himself cannot take place without

libidinal satisfaction.

                — Freud, The Economic Problem of Masochism


When the critic D.A. Miller writes that what “lies at the close heart” of Jane Austen’s “Style is … a failed, or refused, but in any case shameful relation to the conjugal imperative” he invites us to imagine what a shameless relation to marriage might be (perhaps Mickey Rooney’s suggestion that he always got married in the morning so if it didn’t work out he wouldn’t have wasted the day?). It is, that is to say, always worth wondering what any apparently shameful act would be like done shamelessly (as if we could then work out what we do to our experience by adding or subtracting shame: as though we could choose to feel it). A shameful relation to marriage — or to the “conjugal imperative,” as Miller puts it, clearly relishing both terms — might be a complicated thing. Indeed the ambiguity of the phrase could suggest that one might have a shameful relation to being married, and to not being married, despite the fact that we know Austen was not herself married. And, of course, there are gay men — to whom Miller is implicitly alluding, without quite making Austen a queer theorist — who think that gay men should be ashamed of themselves for wanting gay marriage, for wanting to make that concession to straight life, with all it has entailed. As though marriage was also something one should have a shameful relation to.

But by referring to a shameful relation to marriage Miller both ups the stakes, and intimates that all shameful relations are not straightforward, or straightforwardly bad. Austen’s shameful relation to marriage, after all, is integrally related to her much acclaimed style; it is, in Miller’s account, among the sources of something that is among the best things about her. No-one says shame is a blessing( or a gift, or a talent); but we might wonder, in the pragmatic way, what we might be using shame to do, and to do to our attention; or how shame might be used; in, say, Austen’s case, how one might conjure a style out of shame, or a morality, or a speculation about what shame might make possible. And this seems particularly improbable because shame is virtually by definition one of those feelings — one of those experiences — that might seem, as people used to say, irreducible. So unbearable, as shame so often is, as to be unusually difficult to think about. Though when we are thinking about it we should probably bear in mind the O.E.D. suggestion that “shame” and “sham” may be linked etymologically; “sham,” the O.E.D. tells us, is “commonly explained as in some way connected with ‘sham,’ northern dialect form of shame.” When we are at our most authentic it may be worth wondering what we may be pretending to.

“When you are doing anything concrete,” Ford Madox Ford once remarked, “your powers of observation may thus desert you.” There is nothing less abstract, more visceral, than feeling ashamed; and so, by the same token as Ford suggests, your powers of observation may thus desert you. An uncanny narrowing of the mind, shame forecloses one’s attention. And this, as we shall see, may be part of its function. One of the projects of shame is to create blind-spots. So I want to describe shame as a certain kind of attention, a quality of attention, one gives to the self; and wonder, as one might of any form of attention, what is wanted by giving this appalled attention to oneself, in which it is as though one part of the self rises up, as it were, and assumes a disgusted, omniscient su-periority over what seems like one’s entire self. And in which one might also, indeed, legitimately wonder — given the character-assassination that is shame — which is the more horrifying, the judge or the judged ? A question that is unlikely to be asked because when one is ashamed of oneself it is generally presumed that one is thoroughly deserving of one’s mortification. For shame to have its effect, there must be no mental space for second or third thoughts about what has happened and is consequently happening. There is simply the torturer and the tortured. Shame is a figure for the mind colonised.

“What arouses shame,” Bernard Williams writes in Shame and Necessity , yoking the two terms together, as though both were inelucta-ble,“is something that typically elicits from others contempt, or derision, or avoidance.” And that typically elicits something even worse from the self. Shame, that is to say, is a conversation stopper; once someone’s actions are deemed to be beyond justification the limits of exchange have been reached (it is a question that often confronts the priest and the psychoanalyst, namely, what can you say, to or for, the person who is ashamed?). “The root of shame,” Williams writes,


lies in exposure in a more general sense, in being at a disadvantage; in

what I shall call, in a very general phrase, a loss of power … The sense

of shame is a reaction of the subject to the consciousness of this loss: in

Gabriele Taylor’s phrase … it is “the emotion of self-protection,” and

in the experience of shame, one’s whole being seems diminished or

lessened. In my experience of shame the other sees all of me and all

through me … the desire[is] to disappear, not be there …


To put it perversely, shame frees one to disappear; and frees one to wonder why a loss of power might not be a consummation devoutly to be wished. Williams implies that the problem is as much one of exposure as of the doing of disreputable things; and it is indeed one of the terrors of shame that it estranges one from others, that it instigates separation and aban-donment. Shame, as generally conceived, can only be experienced as loss, as a devastation exposed, a violation of privacy. Even if the shameful act was begun in a state of triumphalism — as an exhilarating transgression — shame is the defeat occasioned by such triumphs (in shame something has always collapsed). In shame, though, all one’s attention, as Williams suggests, is given over to a dreaded exposure — “the other sees all of me and all through me” — and then hopefully moves towards restitution. The all of me that is seen is all contemptible; and so I am utterly defined by what is shameful about me. It is the “emotion of self protection” that presumably prompts the recovery of a valued self (it is a reminder of the self that is simultaneously an attack on the self). But so absorbing is the experience of shame that it prompts the wish to disappear, to not be there. There is the unbearable attention to the self, and then the murder, the vanishing act of the mortified self. Attention to the so-called external world long having vanished, reduced to a chorus of the appalled. In shame there is a loss of interest in the external world, and a loss of interest in what is or may be good about the self. Shame is the ethnic cleansing of the self. It is a state of horrified and horrifying conviction. It is the making of a dreaded spectacle of oneself.

Shame, that is to say, unlike guilt, is peculiarly difficult to get round; you can’t be talked out of feeling mortified (there is more to self-betrayal than simply breaking rules). Indeed, shame seems to be one of the realest things we ever feel (“real” meaning difficult to redescribe, or to transform into something else). In one of the standard psychoanalytic accounts of the difference between shame and guilt – a paper of Sandler, Holder and Meers entitled “Ego-Ideal and Ideal-Self” – guilt is taken to be reparable in a way that shame might not be. “Shame,” they write, “may be related to ‘I cannot see myself as I want to see myself or as I want others to see me.’ Guilt, on the other hand, would be associated with, ‘I do not really want to be what I feel I ought to be.’” Guilt is the consequence of a protest, shame of a failure; where there is shame there is unassailable consent to the ethical standards that have been violated; where there is guilt there has been doubt about the rules that have been broken. When there is guilt there is ambivalence about the rules; when there is shame there is, perhaps, unconscious ambivalence, an ambivalence that has had to be repressed. We will come back to the idea of shame being, as it were, a more radical protest; as well, of course, as the affirmation of moral goodness and its essential value that we prefer it to be.

But when we are ashamed of ourselves we know what we have done and we know that it is terrible; it was always already known to be terrible . And in this sense, of course, shame, it would seem, is above all reassuring. Shameful acts do not bring us any moral news; they are not, in any obvious sense, revisionary (if you are incontinent in public people may be sympathetic but they won’t be impressed). So shame reassures us that we are creatures with integrity and control — creatures with absolute or “core values” — who suffer most when we let ourselves down (or are seen to be letting ourselves down); our suffering here being a sign of our fundamental commitment to being seen by others and ourselves as we want to be seen, of what we feel when we betray our essential (and known) morality.

But then, if it is a question of what is seen —and all the definitions of shame involve something being seen — shame is what we feel about whatever it is about ourselves that we can, and want to, successfully conceal. Shame, in other words, is conservative in the fullest sense; it is there to conserve our privacy, to conserve ourselves as we would prefer to be seen; to conserve our belief that we can conceal ourselves. Because shame is what is felt when we fail to perform well enough (think of the potential humiliation of the stand-up comic). If shame is always possi-ble, performance is everything. Our capacity for shame is a horrifying reminder of what we believe our preferred self really is —and that there is one —however much of a strain it may be to sustain it.

So, in one sense, Miller is making a familiar point: that our lives are organised to manage whatever it is about ourselves that we are ashamed of. That, to all intents and purposes, we are what we can do with, and about, our shame. And this can make concealment, in its various cultural guises, our primary preoccupation; though what is being concealed can also be an all-too-troubled relation to our cultural ideals, to our preferred versions of ourselves, those objects of desire that have been procured for us (“before I go to the continent I must go to the incontinent,” Byron wrote in a letter). Austen’s style, in Miller’s view—the most distinctive thing about her—comes out of a “shameful relation” to marriage, something that nobody in Austen’s world could be indifferent to. We are more likely now to have a shameful relation to money or sex, or food, or fame, or politics; but it is only possible to have a shameful relation to the things that matter most. That is how we know what matters most, or what is supposed to —you can have a shameful relation to it. By being ashamed of ourselves we reveal what we value about ourselves, and how we avoid our doubts about what we value. So essential is the shame we need to conceal that it informs everything. Our style is always a shameful relation to something. Or that, at least, is what Miller might want us to consider.

Clearly, when we are ashamed of ourselves there is something we have failed to be, or to do, that is deemed essential; and this failure to be or to do something or other has been exposed (nakedness is the figure for shame, because there is no other body that we can be). But in our falling short we can wonder whether it is ourselves or our standards that are at fault, or a travesty; though it is this questioning, as I have said, that guilt makes possible and shame disables. And we can also wonder, by the same token, how we might recruit our ideals in our quest for shame (shame successfully disarms a skepticism about our cultural ideals, that we may want to recover). Though we tend to talk of people sometimes enjoying their guilt, we rarely talk of their enjoying feeling ashamed, and we should. And not merely because of the exquisite and excruciating punishment it provides, but because it is also our most visceral protest against our most demeaning confinements. When shame is not sustaining our values, it is pre-empting our moral enquiry. And in this sense shame is always an uncompleted action; it forecloses the question, what else could happen next, other than the appropriate and apparently deserved mortification ? That we are capable of feeling something we call shame — that we are prone to feeling mortified — might indeed suggest that there is something, or many things, in the feeling of shame that we want, or even need. That it is a way of saying something that has not, as yet, found another form; which means that shame is something we are least able to adequately respond to, in ourselves and others. We can suffer our shame but we can”t read it. We can punish it but we can”t easily and interestingly interpret it. We can”t imagine what else—what unknown future—it could lead to. It is our relation to shame that is shameful, not shame itself.

Clearly shame is not solely a confirmation of our ideals (or of our willingness and ability to live up to them). People go to great lengths to risk being shamed, to have the opportunity of being shamed, so that it seems also a baffled and therefore baffling request for something other than punishment and correction. In a sense it is a pre-empting of curiosity (hiding from a puzzling experience in a false certainty). This is perhaps what Edmund intimates, in talking to Fanny in Mansfield Park when he refers to “a mixture of many feelings—a great though short struggle– half a wish of yielding to truths, half a sense of shame….” The shame, it is implied, is a refuge from the yielding to truths, and from the mixture of many feelings that make shame a crippling over-simplification. It is a short struggle because shame is the abiding temptation. There is something irresistible about it. And this too is worth wondering about:what it is about shame that is at once so alluring and persuasive?

We don’t now think of Jane Austen as merely refusing or failing to get married, any more than we think of her novels as simply promoting or endorsing marriage (or the marriage market). If Miller is right, Austen’s was a shameful relation to marriage that, like many shameful relations, was potentially a new beginning. What may have been shame in the first instance opened up into the strangely expansive world of Austen’s novels. To transform shame into style is not to settle for it.



The trouble with a secret life is that it is very frequently a secret

from the person who lives it and not at all a secret for the people

he encounters.

                      — James Baldwin, Another Country


In James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room — another novel about “the conjugal imperative” — a man discovers, or rediscovers his homosexual desire in the process of gradually separating from a “girlfriend” whom he intends to marry. And it is a book, perhaps unsurprisingly, in which shame is used, as it were, as a sign of the real (perhaps a legacy of Bald-win’s religious upbringing). Baldwin’s characters feel shame in this novel when they are not being true to what is most valuable, and alive, in their lives. When shame is referred to the book becomes what we might think of as moralistic in the nicest possible way; the characters are revealed as having some kind of moral compass, some assured sense of the true and the good in a book that is otherwise so acute about confusion, and about how terrified people are of how they feel about each other; about just how disturbing and intriguing it is that we confound and betray ourselves and each other as we do. But when shame turns up in the novel we know where we are. As though moral dilemmas can be resolved by moral truths. As though when there is shame we know where we are, and who we are.

The hero David has a louche, wealthy, older gay friend called Jacques who is notorious in their circle in Paris for his disreputable encounters with younger, poorer boys. “Tell me,” [David] says to Jacques, one evening,


“is there really no other way for you but this? To kneel down forever

before an army of boys for just five dirty minutes in the dark?”

      “Think,” said Jacques,“of the men who have kneeled before you

while you thought of something else and pretended that nothing

was happening down there in the dark between your legs”….“you

think,” he persisted, “that my life is shameful because my encounters

are. And they are. But you should ask yourself why they are.”

      “Why are they—shameful?,” I asked him.

      “Because there is no affection in them, and no joy. It’s like putting

an electric plug in a dead socket. Touch, but no contact. All touch, but

no contact and no light.”

      “I asked him:‘why?’”

     “That you must ask yourself,” he told me, “and perhaps one day

this morning will not be ashes in your mouth.”


Jacques begins by suggesting that what seems obvious is not self-evident; that it involves questions even if, or particularly if, it doesn”t seem to invite them, or need them. Jacques prompts David to ask what is shameful about shameful acts; and by implication to think, if these are shameful acts, what qualifies an encounter as being without shame; or rather, more ambiguously, as shameless? Of course his life is shameful, he says, because his encounters are — as though a life was a series of encounters — “but you should ask yourself why they are.” In other words David should ask himself and not Jacques, and he should ask himself what it is that makes these encounters shameful. The army of boys suggests conscription; and Jacques knows what is shameful about his life – though not necessarily, any more than anybody does, quite what makes these things shameful. And yet like all people who are ashamed of themselves Jacques knows exactly what really matters; his shame discloses his moral clarity (a moral clarity he may have intermittently dissociated himself from). There is no affection, no joy; touch but without contact or light; without enlightenment or illumination. And the reader agrees; no-one promotes the absence of affection, or joy, or contact, or light. But in this there is, it should be noted, a whole story about sexuality, and about what is of value between people (when we talk about shame — or indeed about sexuality — there is always a normative story being flagged up). And there is no debate about this; an already existing consensus has been recovered. In what Caryl Phillips has called Baldwin’s “audacious second novel” — “a novel by a young black writer containing no black characters, and dealing with the taboo subject of homosexuality” — it is shame that somehow organises the novel, partly by alluding to its tensions and omissions.

It is, that is to say, pointedly not the shame cultivated and contrived by racism and homophobia that Baldwin refers to, but the shame of impoverished human relationships. There is shame in Giovanni’s Room when there is deprivation, deprivation felt as demeaning; the deprivation that renders people abject and self-hating rather than personally and politically enraged and engaged. Shame is not experienced by Baldwin’s characters as injustice, but as a confounding lack of relatedness; there is no affection, no joy in the encounters, “it’s like putting an electric plug in a dead socket.” There is no connection (the allusion may be to Whitman’s “ I sing the body electric”). What is, I think, especially poignant and compelling in Giovanni’s Room is the narrator’s sense that whatever else shame is — and it may be many things, “a mixture of many feelings,” in Austen’s words — it refers to lack of fellow-feeling; what Baldwin calls, winningly, affection. It is not sexuality that is resisted, but the affection in it. It may be mortifying to feel that estranged when there is the possibility of intimacy (“there is no sex without love or its refusal,” Baldwin’s gay contemporary American writer Paul Goodman said). As David is thrown into a state of sexual frenzy walking round Paris he notices a sailor:


But hurrying, and not daring now to look at anyone, male or female

who passed me on the broad sidewalks, I knew that what the sailor

had seen in my unguarded eyes was envy and desire. I had seen it often

in Jacques’ eyes and my reaction and the sail-or’s had been the same.

But if I were still able to feel affection and if he had seen it in my eyes, it

would not have helped, for affection, for the boys I was doomed to

look at, was vastly more frightening than lust.


When you become unguarded the guard of shame turns up. In the uncanny game of seeing and being seen the envy and desire — the “lust” — is not the terror; it is the affection that is “vastly more frightening than lust” (like a vastation). Shame, paradoxically, may be a punishment for, or a refusal of, fellow-feeling, for the refused acknowledgement of vulnerability, which is always a vulnerability shared. Shame then as estranging, but also as an estrangement technique( when we are ashamed of ourselves we are effectively saying this is what I really am and, at the same time as it were, “this can’t, this mustn’t be me”; which like all not-me experiences is an affinity disowned). The person who is ashamed of himself confirms and affirms a community in the act of estranging himself from it: this is what he draws our attention to.1 Baldwin suggests in Giovanni’s Room that David’s shame at being gay is his shame of feeling affection for men, for which the lust is both an elaboration and a cover-story. And then, as always, there is the further shame, of lying to oneself and others, in this case about one’s affections. In David’s final separation from the woman he is to marry — the aptly named Hella — she says to him,


“But I knew,” she said, “I knew. This is what makes me so ashamed.

I knew it every time you looked at me. I knew it every time we went

to bed. If only you had told me the truth then. Don’t you see how unjust

it was to wait for me to find it out?”


If Hella is ashamed of her knowing self-deception she must want to be — or believe herself to be — someone who tells herself the truth about her feelings and perceptions; and someone who knows — who has the capacity to recognize — these truths. Shame, then, also as a sign of self-deception, and the fear of it as an abiding temptation: a baffling or a violation of a well-known morality. If you want to know what you want to be, pay attention to what makes you feel ashamed of yourself. It is a revelation, so to speak, of your ego-ideal; who you, in the fullest sense, wish to be: how you would like to look. But it is also, by the same token, a revelation of an assumed self-knowledge (someone who had no idea who they were or wanted to be could not feel shame). Either Hella knows what she feels and perceives or she wants to be the kind of person who does. She does know, but she wants to be the kind of person who can act on her knowledge, who doesn”t wishfully set it aside.

“Behaviour that is in conflict with the super-ego,” the psychoanalyst Charles Rycroft writes, “evokes guilt, while that which conflicts with the ego-ideal evokes shame.” Hella is ashamed because in her ideal picture of herself — which Freud calls the ego-ideal — she is someone who trusts what she feels. In the Freudian story, broadly speaking, the super-ego is the internalised rules of the parents, the ego-ideal is the internalised preferred version of oneself: “a model to which the subject attempts to conform,” in the words of Laplanche and Pontalis’s The Language of Psychoanalysis . Which in turn makes us wonder what it might be to attempt to conform to a model, and of that as a picture of development. “The ego-ideal,” the Italian analyst Antonino Ferro writes in Seeds of Illness, Seeds of Recovery ,


performs functions of protection and stimulation…[but] may also be—

… pathologically tyrannical, peremptorily insisting on the

achievement of high and unattainable objectives … [it] not only gives

rise to frustration but also exposes the subject to self-devaluation…

[it functions characteristically with] mildness or the imposition of

malignant demands.


The ego-ideal, that is to say, creates an essential perplexity: is it safe-guard-ing and sustaining what is best about us — what we value above all about ourselves, about life — or is it humiliating us with unattainable ideals? And are we able to think about and talk about the values it promotes or have we been, as it were, brainwashed or enchanted by our ideals? Are we setting ourselves up to fail, or bringing out the best in ourselves; and is there a difference? It is clear from this cursory, albeit psychoanalytic account that to question one’s preferred version of oneself — the model of oneself one attempts to conform to — is quite different from breaking the rules. The ego-ideal described as “a model to which the subject attempts to conform” involves as well a question about what kind of attention such models may require of us (devotional, skeptical, entranced, ironic?). There is a picture to be realised, projects to be accomplished, however unconscious, in shaping of the self.

So that shame, as I have been suggesting, raises in an acute form questions about the power and strangeness of identification — of attempting to conform to a model — in the shaping of a self; it represents the self, by definition, as always aspiring, always in a state of emulation, ever quite itself because always as yet unattained. And yet a self who claims to know what it wants to be. Shame measures the distance between who we take ourselves to be, and who we would like to be — the distance between our ego and our ego-ideal that is the source of our suffering.

But what Giovanni’s Room helps us to see is that, though we may be very conscious of our preferred version of ourselves — indeed we may, to all intents and purposes, be thinking of nothing else — it may also be true that only shame more fully discloses or reveals the model to which we are attempting to conform (and also the enigma of this wanting to conform, as though the self was merely its repertoire of more or less successful imitations). There is a difference between the models we are and are not conscious of; a difference between our conscious and our unconscious affinities. In other words, we may unconsciously seek out shaming experiences to realise in our falling short just what it was we had been attempting, or wanting to attain. There is clearly a tyranny — perhaps an insidious or subtle tyranny — of the unconscious model of ourselves that we are attempting to conform to. I may be conscious of trying to conform to a heterosexual model of myself that is in conflict with my homosexual desire. I may be unconscious of wanting to be able to be affectionate with men, or of wanting to be truthful with myself and others about what I experience. When I am thoroughly ashamed of myself there is the possibility of such clarities. But shame, as I say, always runs the risk of being an uncompleted action; one that supposedly should lead back to a known and abandoned ideal self rather than forward to a newly reconceived self. To have a shameful relation to anything — marriage, homosexuality, money — is to be working out, in however baffled and baffling a way — the unconscious models one may be trying to conform to. And this brings with it of course — at least to the enlightenment- minded — the possibility that in becoming aware of something one might change it. Or more simply, one might be able to have different kinds of conversation about it. Shame may be more of a confounding of sociability than a despair about it.

At one point in Baldwin’s novel, Giovanni turns to David and looks at him: “His eyes were red and wet, but he wore a strange smile, it was composed of cruelty and shame and delight.” Baldwin is reminding us here that shame is compatible with what Austen called “a mixture of many feelings,” and that it may be itself a composition of feelings. A lot of work goes into the attempt to conform to a preferred model of oneself; a lot of the work being the work of representation itself, the finding and making of alluring figures.



…. what both biologically and psychologically defines life is that

it is transmitted.

                             —J.B.Pontalis, The Birth and Recognition of the Self


In the psychoanalytic story it is notoriously sexuality that forms, informs and deforms our attempt to conform to a model; and that most intimately involves us in questions about how we want to be seen, by ourselves and others (the models of course are culturally transmitted, the drives biologically transmitted). And so there is always an easy link to be made between sexuality and shame. And yet when we turn to Freud, the author of the essential sexuality of psychoanalysis, we find a notable absence of interesting accounts of shame. As though shame is something Freud, like the rest of us, is unwilling or unable to elaborate theoretically, while insisting on its significance in sexual development. In the Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905), for example, there are thirteen references to shame virtually all of which reiterate, often verbatim, the same point. Repetition, of course, is something that Freud is keen to wake us up to, and wake himself up to. For Freud where there is repetition there is unfinished or unfinishable business; shame is always repetition without improvisation; where there is shame there is always something traumatic; that is, something apparently untransformable.

Not only does Freud keep saying the same thing about shame in the Three Essays : what he does say has become the stuff of psychoanalytic cliché. Shame is a defence against sex; it exposes furtive and mortifying desire. Strachey’s Editor’s Note to the Three Essays gives the game away: In Freud’s early letters to Fleiss, Strachey remarks, we can see the first “indications of a more psychological approach” — after which a discussion unfolds regarding the repressive forces of disgust, shame and morality. Shame, then, as one of Freud’s repressive forces, accorded a kind of agency, as though it might do something to or for us; act on our behalf. But we have to note what Freud associates shame with to get a sense of what he is conceivably getting at.

In the section on “Perversions” in the Three Essays Freud refers to “the sexual instinct [going] to astonishing lengths in successfully overriding the resistances of shame, disgust, horror or pain.” Freud cites as example “cases of licking excrement or of intercourse with dead bodies,” suggesting that the sexual instinct has to be imaginative in a way the defenses can’t be. “Certain mental forces,” he continues, “act as resistances, of which shame and disgust are the most prominent” — most prominent meaning most noticeable and/or most effective. Hysterics, he writes further on, because they are excessively sexually repressed, show “an intensification of resistance against the sexual instinct (which we have already met with in the form of shame, disgust and morality).” Under the heading “Sexual Inhibitions” Freud writes of what he calls latency as the period of development in which “are built up the mental forces which are later to impede the course of the sexual instinct, and, like dams, restrict its flow — disgust, feelings of shame, and the claims of aesthetic and moral ideals. Thus the individual is actively building his protection from his instinctual life.” These mental dams are constructions, developmental achievements. “Small children,” he writes,


are essentially without shame, and at some periods of their earliest

years show an unmistakeable satisfaction in exposing their bodies,

with especial emphasis on the sexual parts. The counterpart

of this supposedly perverse inclination, curiosity to see other people’s

genitals, probably does not become manifest until sometime later in

childhood, when the obstacle set up by the sense of shame has already

reached a certain degree of development.


Freud goes on to speak of “the masculine and feminine dispositions” and to note that “the development of the inhibitions of sexuality takes place in little girls earlier and in the face of less resistance than in boys.” But insistently, repeatedly, he associates shame with disgust, with the structures of morality and authority erected by society. It is, for him, a form of attention, at once coerced and coercive; it makes us see things in a particular way. Disgust, pity, aesthetic and moral ideals: all are described by Freud as forces, “mental forces,” that inhibit, impede and obstruct the sexual instinct, what he calls its flow and direction; they are “resistances” to sexuality.

Everything in this story is reactive to sexuality; everything is a way of coping with desire. The excessively repressed, the hysterics, require more inhibitions like shame to keep themselves safe from desire. Children, unlike the hysterics, are “essentially without shame,” which means they enjoy exposing their bodies, and particularly their genitals; and are easily and pleasurably curious about other people’s genitals, so that shame is also an inhibitor of that essential ingredient of sexuality, curiosity; shame is a form of attention that forecloses attention; it is the saboteur of curiosity, both about itself and what it has made us ashamed of.

To put this in another way, it may be one of the functions of shame to pre-empt the consequences — to pre-empt imagining the consequences — of forbidden acts. Shame dams up our thinking, our imagining, our conversation. And this, of course, depending on one’s point of view, may be no bad thing. In a world without shame there might be more bullying, more intimidation. Presumably there would be more sex. In these formulations Freud is implicitly inviting us to imagine and describe what the less inhibited sexual life would look like. And indeed the way Freud puts it suggests that shame is at least one key or clue to our desire; it is what we are likely to feel — the resistance we will put up, the dam we will erect, the moral or aesthetic ideal we will promote — when there is a compelling but forbidden desire in the offing, or being kept at bay. In this story we can only apprehend our desire by decoding our resistances to it. Sexuality must be daemonic if it requires such elaborate cultural work to contain it. The greater the shame, the greater the urgency, the more momentous the disruption of desire.

In spite of the persistent attention he pays to shame, Freud allows himself considerable equivocation. Associated with moral and aesthetic ideals. shame is regarded as something we make which can thus be unmade or remade. On the other hand, if shame is akin to disgust or pity we may all too easily think of it as natural, as part of us rather than made by us. In either case, though, it is through shame that we pay attention, we have to pay attention, to our most unacceptable desires. And we draw attention to these desires — “the other sees all of me and all through me” — in our mortification. Throughout, we may say, we know what we are up against, and that we are up against something. The shamed person reminds people of what he and they already know. And in that sense shame recycles — perhaps for reconsideration — unacceptable desire.

In his great book, The Greeks and the Irrational , E.R. Dodds writes of “the tension between individual impulse and the pressure of social conformity characteristic of shame culture.” Picking up on the anthropologist Ruth Benedict’s distinction between guilt-cultures and shame-culture, Dodds elaborates the ethos of the shame-culture: “In such a society,” he writes, “anything which exposes a man to the contempt or ridicule of his fellows, which causes him to ‘lose face,’ is felt as unbearable.” Shame, Freud says, is the losing face caused by sexuality; it is sexuality — our desire, and our desire for others — that leaves us all too prone to the contempt and ridicule of ourselves and others.

But perhaps, by the same token, Freud’s account of sexuality — paradoxically — reveals his own shameful relation to curiosity, or even to sexuality itself, which for Freud is the source and aim of curiosity. After all, Freud has warned us in no uncertain terms about our life-task of protecting ourselves from our desire (“Man’s project,” Lacan famously pronounced, “is to escape from his desire”). So Freud himself, in his text, can hardly be exempt from this project. In order to defend yourself against sex, as I have said, you have to know — or believe that you know — what it is. Freud, I think, has a shameful relation to his omniscience about sexuality. He fears, that is to say — like everyone else — his naiveté about sex. This is what he wants to conceal and expose in his great work of psychoanalysis. He fears the contempt and ridicule of his fellows; he fears the exposure of his ignorance and his curiosity around and about sexuality. And of course he was right, in that it was to be sexuality that created the controversy about psychoanalysis. The pleasure and the terror of sexuality is the continual risk, and possibility, of losing face. Of being paid, and paying, the wrong kind of attention; of wanting the wrong kind of attention. Shame exposes the tyranny of the face we must not lose.

  1. When Baldwin was asked in his Paris Review interview of 1984, “Did what you wanted to write come easily to you from the start?”, Baldwin replied, “I had to be released from a terrible shyness – an illusion that I could hide anything from anybody.” Tempting here to think of shame as “a terrible shyness.”