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Shame and shamelessness.

Freud, Gide and Immoralism


SHAME OPERATES A DIA-LECTICS of deferment and substitution. Frederick Sandys, an artist with a consummate skill when it came to depicting hair, has a drawing where a woman with a fantastic mane of it is shown in profile, biting her own hair, tugging at it so that her lip is distorted. When the artist painted a work derived from this drawing that might hang in a fashionable salon such as the Royal Academy, he substituted a flower on its stalk for the hair clenched in her teeth.

Shame is ignominy…Shame likes to pounce on compulsions: sucking one’s thumb, picking one’s nose, biting one’s nails, chewing one’s hair. 

Shame is ignominy. We can admit to killing. We like watching it. That’s violence in an outfront way. More often than not, it concerns honour. And we can ‘fess up to affairs. Boast about them, even. However, we may not choose to admit that we have been conned by a ransom attack and allowed a crook to tamper with our computer or been victim of an internet scam, because we have been fooled, and foolishness is not something one feels inclined to acknowledge. Equally, we are less likely to admit to the compulsive enjoyment of a fetish, some little habit which reveals our own dependency upon it. Such habits have a ridiculous aspect that we feel may provoke not so much disapproval (tinged with admiration) but mockery and disdain. Shame likes to pounce on compulsions: sucking one’s thumb, picking one’s nose, biting one’s nails, chewing one’s hair. There’s a frisson of auto-erotic association. Was Narcissus ashamed of being seen looking at himself in that pool? Was he doing something to himself? Did he only jump in and drown once aware that Echo was peeking?

Being teased is at the root of all bullying, rather than being condemned. And foolishness and foibles, once detected, incite mockery. Being teased induces a state of melancholy. Melancholy is the sister of shame. Take the melancholy that derives from the need of the author to dwell on the written work. Forever badgering away at it. There is shame here, the shame of appearing a narcissist. To return repeatedly to a text one has written may be compared to returning repeatedly to the mirror to examine one’s own features.

That melancholy shame – catching oneself altering the poem yet again – may be linked to being caught masturbating. A compulsion has been revealed, a weakness – in the writer’s case, a compulsion to niggle away at a result. It takes stamina to sustain your own dissatisfaction. To alter the poem is to kill off its previous version, thus admitting one’s own failure as its author. One may feel one has let oneself down, still not got it right, as yet another version gets screwed up and thrown in the bin. This has been described as mimetic suicide. Shame about shutting oneself away, writing all day, is as indicative of a tendency towards being a hermit as it is of narcissism. Can one feel mortified about just how withdrawn one is? Isn’t this as bad as appearing wrapped up in oneself?

The shame of whittling away at a preoccupation reminds me of the task Penelope set herself, unweaving what she had woven the day before. I have employed repetition to express her predicament:

To do what you undid
The night before
To undo what you did
The day before

To undo what you undid
Again the next night
To do what you did
As you do the next day

Only to undo it again
Just as you did
The night before
In order to do it again

Just as you did
The day before
The day before
Just as you did

In order to do it again
The night before
Just as you did
Only to undo it again

As you do the next day
To do what you did
Again the next night
To undo what you undid

One might contrast this melancholy preoccupation, essentially the shame of the artist immersed in conceptual esoterica – a shame epitomised by Dürer’s celebrated engraving – with the angry consensus stoking the accusations associated with ‘Pizzagate art’, which seem directed in a hostile but naïve manner. Most of the attacks on the Podesta clan (who, it is assumed, should be ashamed for other reasons) are aimed, not at their actions but at Tony Podesta‘s art collection – where bestiality mixes merrily with innocence. We should remind ourselves that, while artists may represent horrors – think of Hieronymus Bosch – they should not be accused of endorsing the horrors they reveal. Everything is imaginable. In the words of André Gide, one must dare to be oneself. Why should an angry sense of shame provoke us into trashing artists for revealing nightmares? Even so, Patricia Cornwall is happy to accuse Walter Sickert of being Jack the Ripper. Marina Abramovic and Kim Noble have been singled out for what amounts to accusations of witchcraft. Shame enables such hysterical distortions.

For Gide, social conformity as a moral obligation was at loggerheads with a duty to represent, in all its deformities, the human spirit.

For Gide, social conformity as a moral obligation was at loggerheads with a duty to represent, in all its deformities, the human spirit. Such representation was done by delving into the truth about oneself and about others, even if you used a fiction to express your essentially confessional result. The writer who deals with shame must acknowledge that this human spirit we suppose we share is capable of producing monstrosities. Society needs an identification to be explored, by the artist or writer, in order to understand the character of the despot or the delinquent. Only through grasping the dynamic that drives aberration may the danger it represents be averted. To move beyond shame into cathartic representation is the principle aim of literary confession.

If such representation moves into socially unacceptable regions, that which is represented may be called into question. A white-washed version gets promoted and adopted by the milieu. When forming his theory of the seduction of the young, Freud initially thought that his patients were relating more or less factual stories of sexual mistreatment, and that their abuse was responsible for many of their neuroses. Within a few years, however, Freud abandoned his theory, ostensibly concluding that the memories of sexual abuse were in fact imaginary fantasies. The collapse of the theory led in 1897 to the emergence of Freud’s new theory of infantile sexuality. The impulses, fantasies and conflicts that Freud claimed to have uncovered beneath the neurotic symptoms of his patients derived not from external contamination, he now maintained, but from the mind of the child itself.

The negative consequence of this shift was that it would cause some therapists to dismiss reported abuse as fantasy; a situation which, when the abuse is documented, has given rise to criticism (e.g.  “The Freudian Coverup” by social worker Florence Rush or Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson’s The Assault on Truth: Freud’s Suppression of the Seduction Theory). And while it is true that, without the rejection of the seduction theory, concepts such as the unconscious, repression, transference and resistance, might not have emerged, one senses that the theory was abandoned, at least partly, because it proved an embarrassment to Viennese society. As a member of that social group, Freud was shamed into rebuttal.

Incidentally, my grandfather met Freud in Vienna, while directing Keren haYesod1 in Vienna between 1923 and 1925, and I am ashamed to say that he collected a tithe for the promotion of a National Home for the Jews from an enthusiastic Freud, as well as from visiting Albert Einstein; both perfectly aware that this was a flagrant act of colonisation, when in truth the notion of colonisation was already “dead in the water”. Overwhelming waves of Jewish refugees from pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe were encouraging a Nazi reaction, typified by the abortive Beer Hall Putsch in Munich. This may explain the endorsement of Zionism by these worthies. It hardly makes it right.

Shame acknowledged requires blame. We prefer to credit children with innocence, and to lay the blame on some elder. Statutory rape makes this explicit. What we cannot allow is any hint of complicity.

As for the rejection of the seduction theory, today the pendulum seems to have swung back. Shame acknowledged requires blame. We prefer to credit children with innocence, and to lay the blame on some elder. Statutory rape makes this explicit. What we cannot allow is any hint of complicity. To my mind, neither seduction nor fantasy can be settled on with any certainty. Each case, each telling, demands its own assessment. At the same time, each assessment cannot help but be based on a moral assumption, and that moral position may well be calibrated by how much the incident related, whether fact or fiction, invokes a burning, a physical feeling of shame, as to the mere idea of the abuse under scrutiny.

As a writer, I am intrigued by complicity. Nabokov was as well; think of Lolita inviting Humbert to lick her eye-ball, admittedly after he introduces the idea. Here it is appropriate to turn from considering the nature of confessional writing to another genre, that of immoralism. This I define as a genre, sometimes considered decadent, which might be thought of as “shameless writing”.

And having thus created me,
Thus rooted me, he bade me grow
Guiltless forever, like a tree
That buds and blooms, nor seeks to know
The law by which it prospers so …

Gide refers to these lines – from Browning’s “Johannes Agricola in Meditation” – when elucidating the Antinomian heresy, where the chosen are singled out for salvation, whatever their deeds. He refers to them in his introduction to James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (first published in 1824). The events it covers are revealed to us in the Editor’s narrative, which constitutes the first part of the book; an account of a series of horrible and confusing crimes. In the second part, however, which contains the “justified sinner’s” Memoirs, we enter into the mind of the unrepentant perpetrator, and we are invited to share his sense of mystic confirmation:

I wept for joy to be thus assured of my freedom from all sin, and of the impossibility of my ever again falling away from my new state.

Gide comments:

I doubt whether Hogg’s personal point-of-view is that of true religion or whether it is not that of reason, common sense and a natural Tom Jones-like expansiveness, which is that of the justified sinner’s brother, whom the “justified” murders out of a jealous and brooding hatred and, moreover, with the desire of getting hold of the elder brother’s share of their father’s inheritance. All this he does with the inspired claim of committing not so much a murder as a pious deed … All fanaticism is capable of bringing forth similar dispensers of justice.

Gide is convinced that Browning was aware of Hogg’s revolutionary novel and was perhaps influenced by it in the creation of his dramatic soliloquies which so often invite the reader to identify with the unsavoury by following the introspection of some criminal mind. Consider much of The Ring and the Book, or My Last Duchess, or these lines from Porphyria’s Lover:

Happy and proud; at last I knew
Porphyria worshipped me; surprise
Made my heart swell, and still it grew
While I debated what to do.s
That moment she was mine, mine, fair,
Perfectly pure and good: I found
A thing to do, and all her hair
In one long yellow string I wound
Three times her little throat around
And strangled her …

THIS INVITATION TO COME into intimate contact with violence, even to explore its innermost workings, can sometimes beguile the reader into sympathy with its practitioners. It is a literary pleasure, in a Barthesian sense, a pleasure we take in the text, and this is subtly distinct from that fascination with the macabre celebrated so exhaustively in The Romantic Agony by Mario Praz. Here, we are not concerned with the poet’s preoccupation with the ghoulish, but with an inquiry into what makes wrong-doing so “human”, for surely it is an enigma that the lovers of criminals will often remain faithful to them even after they learn the violent details? Gide himself is the foremost exponent of this conceptual genre, manifest in various arts, which may with justice be called “Immoralism” – to coin the term from his most celebrated novel The Immoralist.

A bookish and sedentary young man called Michel starts to cough blood on his honeymoon. His wife Marceline nurses him with care, and he struggles towards health. During that struggle he comes to realise that he has never lived with any appreciation of the pleasures of health, sunlight and bodily beauty in mind. Now he embraces a more hedonistic approach, recovers and becomes a changed personality, rebelling against the morality of self-sacrifice and social compromise enjoined by the Christian ethic of service. Subsequently, Michel resolves to follow the dictates of his own desires in fervent admiration of crude but vigorous pleasures. He enjoys pure air and perfect objects. He gives a series of lectures in which he expounds his new theory of passionate engagement. Then, at a gathering of acquaintances, a sort of panic seizes him:

Hubert and Louis were carelessly turning over some fine etchings from my father’s collection, entirely regardless of how they were creasing them. In the smoking-room, Mathias, the better to listen to Leonard, had put his red-hot cigar down on a rosewood table. A glass of curacao had been spilled on the carpet. Albert was sprawling impudently on the sofa, with his muddy boots dirtying the cover. And the very dust of the air one breathed came from the horrible wear and tear of material objects … A frantic desire seized me to send all my guests packing. Furniture, stuffs, prints, lost all their value for me at the first stain; things stained were things touched by disease, with the mark of death on them.

Later his wife falls ill, after a miscarriage; but whereas his wife nursed him with “Christian compassion”, Michel’s reaction to his wife’s illness is largely one of revulsion:

Meanwhile the horrible clot had brought on serious trouble; after her heart had escaped, it attacked her lungs, brought on congestion, impeded her breathing, made it short and laborious. I thought she would never get well. Disease had taken hold of Marceline, never again to leave her; it had marked her, stained her. Henceforth she was a thing that had been spoiled.

Michel admires the Barbarian empire of the Goths, especially the fifteen-year-old king Athalaric, who plunged “for a few years into a life of violent and unbridled pleasures with rude companions of his own age … dying at eighteen, rotten and sodden with debauchery.” The immoralist’s fetish of health thus becomes confused with a callous hedonism, but his contempt for anything that is not stainless and his recognition of such hot-blooded vigour as was originally the child king’s strikes a chord with the idealised primitivism of the Hitlerjungen – that impulse to sweep away our old, tired civilization in order to create a violently raw new regime, celebrating a Spartan brutality – for Michel says of Athalaric, “I recognised in this tragic impulse toward a wilder, more natural state, something of what Marceline used to call my ‘crisis’.” And so, despite his having been saved by her, Michel is unable to nurse Marceline with the care she requires, and, finally, she fades. In reading The Immoralist we may feel unable to forgive Michel for not preferring her to himself. Yet this is the crux of the dilemma presented to us; for despite ourselves we sympathise with Michel’s impulses, we identify with his first person singular, we share his confession – his I.

IT IS IMPORTANT here to distinguish between immoralism as a literary genre (the topic under discussion) and Nietzsche’s “Philosophy of Immoralism.” While Nietzsche may have influenced the protagonist of Gide’s novel, his stance should not be confused with the genre I am attempting to describe. Nietzsche called himself an immoralist. He adopted a position designed to undermine traditional morality, which he considered corrupt. As an alternative to a morality of mores – the done thing to do – he developed a notion of affirmatively being in life, which was based on the “will to power”. He considered that instinctually we tap into this will to command rather than obey. Good can be seen as that which “heightens the feeling of power in man, the will to power, power itself.”

Immoralism is a literary and artistic method of drawing attention to strategies which many people may prefer not to entertain, and therefore it may require the reader to imagine himself inside the mind of a thug.

Gide’s position is quite other than this. In his introduction to The Justified Sinner, he prefaces his remarks by stating his admiration for John Stuart Mill’s essay On Liberty, to which, in 1924, “current events and the menace of totalitarianism were then giving a renewal of topical interest.” It should hardly be necessary to point out that immoralism is not some picaresque advocacy of a thuggish approach to life; on the contrary, it is a literary and artistic method of drawing attention to strategies which many people may prefer not to entertain, and therefore it may require the reader to imagine himself inside the mind of a thug.

Consider the state-of-mind of Rebecca, the IDF sniper, born into an orthodox family in Boston, Mass. She was, purportedly, the person who shot dead Razan al-Najjar, a first-response Palestinian nurse, on the first of June at the fence in Gaza. As a writer, it intrigues me to consider what might have motivated the finger that pulled that trigger. In the Jewish calendar, this very day is when the footsteps of the Messiah have begun to walk the earth, in preparation for Armageddon and judgement. Rebecca was the mother of Jacob, who followed his hairy twin Esau into the world by holding onto his leg – pulling it, if you like. Later, Jacob cheated his elder brother out of his birth-right, offering in its stead “a mess of pottage”. Spiritually speaking, these twins are in schizophrenic opposition to each other – the uncouth, rough twin who is in the right, and the smooth-talking educated twin who is in the wrong but much favoured by God. A Talmudic reference relevant to the name Rebecca, says that if someone claims you have cheated him but it turns out that in fact he has cheated you, you are then entitled to twice the value of the amount in question. I am reminded of the IDF principle of “hitting back twice as hard”.

From a writer’s point-of-view, surely, Gide’s perception that we should try to get inside the mind of shamelessness is worth pursuing. Yet all too often the immoralist work of art is attacked for seemingly endorsing or even perpetrating its content, as can be seen by the criticism of the Podesta art collection.

Anthony HowellAnthony Howell, a former dancer with the Royal Ballet, was founder of The Theatre of Mistakes and performed solo at the Hayward Gallery and at the Sydney Biennale. His articles on visual art, dance, performance, and poetry have appeared in many publications including Art Monthly, The London Magazine, Harpers & Queen, The Times Literary Supplement. He is a contributing editor of  The Fortnightly Review. In 2001 he received a LADA bursary to study the tango in Buenos Aires and now teaches the dance at his studio/gallery The Room in Tottenham Hale. He is the author of a seminal textbook, The Analysis of Performance Art: A Guide to Its Theory and Practice. Details about his collaborative project, Grey Suit Online, are here. His latest collection is From Inside (The High Window).

Note: This lecture was delivered as a part of the Institute of Psychoanalysis ‘Writing Shame’ Conference 30 June 2018.

More: A longer discussion on this topic appears on the author’s website here.


  1. Keren haYesod – the United Israel Appeal is the official fundraising organization for Israel the world over, with campaigns in 45 countries. Worth noting, besides, that T.E. Lawrence having also promised Palestine to the Arabs, in 1904, the British actually offered the Zionists Uganda! It would be, Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain promised, an “antechamber to the Holy Land.” Theodore Herzl politely declined.

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