Wednesday, 2 May 2012


The other day someone said to me that a certain mutual acquaintance should be feeling ashamed of himself.  I said that I doubted this was the case, as shame was so last century.  It was one of those throwaway remarks, but it did make me wonder: whatever happened to shame?

Shame is a curious experience.  I'm not even sure what sort of experience it is.  Is it an emotion, an idea, a physiological reaction, or some kind of mix of all of those, a sort of moral blushing?  It's a more acute experience than embarrassment,  but less acute than remorse.  In the end, to be ashamed seems to take two forms: it is both to acknowledge guilt before the tribunal of one's own better self, and it is also a perception -- often sudden -- that one has fallen short in the eyes of others.

I am glad to say that I have led a relatively shame-free life.  Partly through luck, partly through good judgement, and partly because I choose to stand humbly before the highest authority I know, and at moments of difficulty, uncertainty, and doubt, ask myself: "What would Shakespeare do?"  I have found the Court of Shakespeare a pretty humane and forgiving place, except in matters of spelling, punctuation, and infelicitous expression.  Will had plenty to be ashamed of himself, after all, that double-dealing, plot-stealing, brothel-owning, theatrical, whoreson rogue. Not to mention those dreadful puns!

But, obviously -- in common with all but the truly, worthily dull -- I have experienced moments of shame which have become prize specimens in the cabinet of torments I can resort to when a little self-reproof seems in order.  No, I'm not going to tell you about them; these are private moments, events generally long-forgotten by the other participants, or recalled by them in a quite different light. We are a forgiving species, and rarely remember the mortification of others, no matter how acutely we recall our own.  Besides, my time in the Left-Luggage Dept. of MI6 must forever remain a closed book.

And yet shame has been, in the past, a very public matter.  "Name and shame" used to be more than a handy rhyme, it was part of a system of regulatory behaviour that stood alongside -- and often substituted for -- the law.  Codes of honour used to be pervasive: words like "dishonour" and "disgrace" described psychic conditions that are now nearly extinct, but once had the capacity to render your life not worth living.

Do you remember the opening sequence of the TV series Branded, where the buttons are ceremonially ripped off Chuck Connors' uniform jacket, and his sword broken?  Or, in real life, the seppuku of Yukio Mishima following a failed coup d'etat in 1970?  Or what about the government minister who resigned his post in 1911 because his daughter had danced with a man whose brother's firm was involved in a tender to supply the Civil Service with paperclips?  Actually, I made that last one up, but you get my point.   It was pretty grim, living under such high expectations, and seems absurd and grotesque to us easy-going, live-and-let-live moderns.

No, thankfully, we have shaken off the shackles of shame, but have failed to put anything usefully restraining in their place.  In retrospect, this might be a problem.  Obviously, a government minister who, let's say, leaves his wife of 26 years to share his life with a bisexual woman, formerly in a civil partnership (who admits to selling stories about the sex life of his main political rival to the tabloid press), would -- once upon a time -- have been required to "consider his position".  Now?  Not so much.  Do we care?  Not really.

But consider the head of the Catholic Church in Ireland, Cardinal Sean Brady,  who, it emerges, was involved in "investigating" (i.e. covering up) and thereby enabling and prolonging the truly shameful activities of notorious paedophile priest Brendan Smyth in the mid-70s. Brady says he is now "ashamed" of his role, but sees no reason to resign.  In the classic defence of the shameless, he was only following (presumably holy) orders.

Would it have helped the Cardinal, or even Father Smyth, to have asked, "What would Shakespeare do"?  I have no idea, to be honest, but I recall these words:

Th'expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murd'rous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
Enjoyed no sooner but despised straight,
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had
Past reason hated, as a swallowed bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad;
Mad in pursuit and in possession so,
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
   All this the world well knows, yet none knows well
   To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.
Sonnet 129

Now there speaks a man who knows something about shame.

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