Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Notes On Embarrassment

Is it possible to die of embarrassment? Wikipedia has a fun page devoted to the topic of death from laughter which, among several notable deaths due to hilarity, lists Chrysippus, the 3rd Century philosopher, as having conked it when he got the giggles upon espying his donkey eating some figs. My own father watched The Big Lebowski in the week after he had been told to take it easy following an operation, and the film caused him to laugh so much that he could no longer tell if he was crying from laughter or from the physical pain in his stomach.

But there doesn't seem to be anything online about actual deaths due to embarrassment - and, to paraphrase Adam Mars-Jones in his memoir Kid Gloves, if something is on the internet it may or may not exist, but if it isn't on the internet it doesn't exist. It surprises me that literal death from embarrassment--or mortification, signifying putting the flesh to death--hasn't been known to happen, because I have personally felt on the brink of popping my clogs for that very reason for at least the last six days. Perhaps all deaths due to embarrassment are too self-delaying for doctors to be able to attribute them precisely to that cause. Maybe I will only die some time next year of the accumulated embarrassment from this week, which will have weighed heavily on my internal organs, caused my cardiovascular rhythm to go just that little bit berserk and tainted my bloodstream with so much anger and confusion. Or maybe I will simply cringe to death, my body bent double until my spine physically cracks in half along its entire length, splitting my body into two neat segments that bisect at my nape and arsehole. "This man has shattered himself in two!" a doctor will exclaim, "How is this possible?" "It's simple, doctor," a grieving friend will reply, "he was listening to Prime Minister's Questions in the week after a majority of Britain's imbecile voting masses decided to fuck themselves in the eye, and heard a minister ask David Cameron a question about primary school children drawing birthday cards for the Queen." "I see," the doctor will say. "And the shame was so great that it caused him to implode on the spot?" "That's right, doctor. He was dead within a minute."

Britain has a long and noble history of embarrassment, which doesn't seem to exist in other cultures to quite the same extent. Patrice Leconte's film Ridicule is the rare French work that hinges on a sense of mortification, or social shame. In it, 18th century courtiers in Versailles take turns attempting to shame each other in public, using sexual and intellectual tactics to tarnish reputations. The sense here of ridicule as a force to diminish other people has a satirical function aimed at the upper classes and aristocracy, for whom all interaction is a game with winners and losers. The film borrows from Les Liaisons Dangereuses in its view of a petty and conniving upper class engaged in killing each other out of boredom. But Ridicule has an essentially tragic, quite grandiose aspect to its take on the subject, which would seem to be absent from the rich British culture of embarrassment.

In Jane Austen's Emma, perhaps the greatest moment of embarrassment in literature occurs when Emma humiliates Miss Bates during an excursion to Box Hill, with a toxic quip. Emma has proposed, in her boredom, that the company play a game whereby everybody must say "either one thing very clever, or two things moderately clever; or three things very dull indeed." Miss Bates, quite wittily and astutely, says that she is likely to win the game since she is able to say dull things without even trying - whereupon Emma (cruelly, hilariously, mortifyingly) replies: "Ah! Ma'am, but there may be a difficulty. Pardon me but you will be limited as to number - only three at once."

Can you feel the shame? Does your body recoil from the sheer social horror of the situation? The genius of Jane Austen is that the embarrassment works both ways here, and it keeps augmenting with time, since Miss Bates is embarrassed by the aggressive and horrifically rude nastiness of the quip, and Emma herself is embarrassed by Miss Bates' embarrassment, and the other guests on the excursion, who are not active members of the exchange, have now had their day ruined because of embarrassment.

Note how embarrassment in this scenario is almost self-generating: all it requires is boredom to ignite it, and ignorance and cruelty to keep it alive, and from there it propagates with reckless abandon, becoming something more than it was in the instant when it was born. But the embarrassment in Emma stands for more than a simple social interaction: it represents Emma's unthinkingness, in not understanding that she is attacking someone vulnerable; in not seeing that Miss Bates is in many regards except her want of fortune, quite like Emma herself. When Mr Knightley later rebukes Emma for her actions, it is with real fury, because Emma has shown a lack of understanding for others, and Emma feels so much regret, feels so "agitated, mortified and grieved" that she cries all the way home. The roots of the embarrassment in this scene grow from political differences - one person is highly educated and has excellent prospects and money, and the other person, who has been mocked, has next to nothing except society's regard and compassion for her. Emma has contravened a simple societal law, and the violence of her behaviour rings out in the setting of Austen's world.

I won't overwork the parallels with my own embarrassment upon seeing Britain lurch into a post-Brexit world--the violence and ignorance of people's actions and discourse over the last few months easily speak for themselves--other than to observe that it's in everyone's language that we have failed to give a proper account of the crisis we are in. The words we use have not been up to the task of explaining first of all the crux of the plebiscite and secondly the outlook once the referendum had taken place. My embarrassment stems in part from observing this linguistic failure: it's there in the Labour party's inability to confront the government over its abdication of political duty, but it also exists online, in our collective inability to measure the extent of our decision. Why has there been almost no discussion of the cultural impact Britain faces in hiding itself away from others, in protecting itself from contact? Why did we not hear a positive argument about the European Union, which might have touched on anything from art to sexual relationships, and how they make our lives sing better and louder?

Embarrassment derives, also, from a misunderstanding of scale. Emma, at Box Hill, fails to understand the dimensions of her gaffe; does not measure, either, the chasm between her and Miss Bates. Britain's woeful misunderstanding of its place in the world, and the language used to lament and decry its loss of prospects or indeed to vaunt its powers by people on both sides of this ridiculous debate, have caused consternation so damaging to my constitution that I will quite likely die of it before November.

Even a country that pretty much invented the notion of embarrassment can have too much of it. I have friends who cannot watch cringe comedy, who duck behind the sofa during the worst, most acutely truthful and painful scenes in Nighty Night. But everyone is now being forced to watch these scenes play out, our eyes taped open like the protagonist's in A Clockwork Orange, except instead of watching scenes of brutality we're witnessing Britain repeatedly falling on its bloated arse while actual existences are in jeopardy. How much more can we take?


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