Shame in the New Gilded Age

The Neo-Victorian Era and Two Thin Red Lines—

When I was five years old I watched my father split his head open with an axe. We were living in New Hampshire at the time and it was winter, the fields deep in snow. My father was splitting logs in the basement of our house. He was a physically powerful man, and while young he had worked for several years on his father’s sawmill on a mountain outside Tucson, Arizona. I sat on the wooden stairs and watched him divide the logs with a rhythmic metallic chuck, the pieces dancing away onto the cement floor. At the apex of a full-bodied downswing, the head of the axe caught on a piece of old clothesline concealed near the rafters and the sharp blade swung around and struck him hard in the back of the head and he cursed and knelt down. Paralyzed, I watched his deep red blood flow out from where his fingers clenched the wound. The blood matted his black hair, and pooled around him on the dusty cement. Unable to move or respond I sat rigid as my father staggered past me into the bright daylight, a dripping rag now pressed to the wound. Charging around to the front of the house, he left a thin trail of red in the white snow. Then, after more shouting, I heard the car engine kick into life and drive off. Shivering as the sun sank down, I sat listening to the furnace tick in the shadows. Hours later, my father returned with the wound stitched closed and found me in the same position.

This memory came to me recently while on holiday with my family in Maine, but with a difference I found striking. There was a simplicity and a directness to the familiar sequence of images, which in the past had always been fraught with confusing emotions. No longer terrifying or oddly guilt-inducing, the episode with the axe is simply something that happened. I noticed another thing too: the thin red line of my father’s blood winding through the banks of snow around our New Hampshire house now connected in my mind with another memory, decades later, concerning The Thin Red Line—Terrence Malik’s film about the war in the Pacific. My father, a veteran of that war, must have been in his mid-seventies when we met at the multiplex near his home in Philadelphia. What happened to him physically before the first ten minutes of the film had passed astonished me. Tremors. A shortness of breath leading to hyperventilation. Violent shaking of his entire body. We had to leave.

Sitting with my father after fleeing the multiplex, I thought back on the many colorful stories he had recounted about his four years of jungle combat with the Bushmasters, the 158th Infantry Regiment, which he had joined the day after Pearl Harbor when he was a 17 (he lied about his age). A natural storyteller, my father had regaled my sisters and I on our long car trips with accounts of landings and battles, and the friendships he had made with the many Mexicans and Indigenous Americans—from the Papago, Apache, Navajo and Pima tribes —in his company, men with names like Jaime Tichea and Everett Rhodes. I realized he had been able to

depict everything but his own trauma, which today would be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder. Details from the background of those stories—the assignment he was given to stack of dead bodies of his friends after a battle in Noemfoor, the sight of soldiers cut in half by machine gun fire in New Guinea—suddenly moved to the fore, bringing with them an awareness of just how young he was at that time—eighteen, nineteen years old. In a flash I also understood something about my father’s emotional remoteness, and the violence of his terrifying rages, factors that had loomed large in my childhood, and the role shame played in my sense of myself as I grew. In my own life, it seems to me now, these two red lines converge into a seam and connect to my heart, explaining my own relationship to the very particular kind of suffering known in dharma practice asdukkha.

As a child I encountered my father’s remoteness as a kind of indictment—what was it I was missing that would cause him to avoid me? The question gave form to a deeper effort—a kind of greed, actually—to achieve for myself the kind of distinct boundedness I saw in others. Had I been more sensitive, perhaps I would have been able to detect a profound vulnerability in my father’s remove. For someone with PTSD, I now understand, the deeper affects of loving connection can threaten to destabilize critical coping mechanisms, flooding the psyche with the overwhelming somatic reservoirs of gutteral panic. I saw my father often in those states of overwhelm, particularly during the years following my parent’s divorce a few years after the axe incident. Splintering furniture, shattering china and the exhausted, bewildered rage of a bull unable to de-code the matador’s intricate choreography—easily mastering the various tasks he had engaged in life—musician, conductor, carpenter, scholar—my father had met his match in a crisis he could not comprehend, much less surmount. I watched his dissolution from an uncomfortable remove; winning the Oedipal contest, analysts would always tell me, is among the worst fates for a young man, and until recently I would not have argued.

The effort to redress imaginary lacks, and to hide from equally unreal failures, particularly the failure to attain the groundedness sensed in others—while my case might have had a certain intensity, these are fundamental mechanisms of individuation, and they are rooted in shame affect (aka lack, original sin, alienation). And if shame affect is the inner seam of the separate self, ressentiment is its outer, social skin. Coined by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, the term ressentiment is often translated into English as “cold jealousy,” but this feels reductive in the extreme. One way to view our challenge as a species, in fact, is to see the operation of ressentiment as a dire threat to our survival. Sigmund Freud, in his important late textCivilization and Its Discontents uses different terminology to describe our basic pickle—how to derive social rules without triggering the kind of shame-based repressions that lead toward a calamitous “return of the repressed.” When Freud published the book, his readers would have instantly identified the two world wars as precisely this kind of calamity, wars that together claimed close to 90 million lives, and left millions of others, like my father, deeply scarred. The Victorian era that produced that series of crisis seems like remote history now, but, in fact, we have arguably entered a second Victorian era—a neo-Victorian age, if you will—and the oligarchs who have seized control of our political institutions are searching for ways to renovate shame andressentiment as active social instruments. Sometimes this attempt at shame infusion is cartoonishly ineffective —witness the tone-deaf clumsiness of America’s religious right. But other efforts are more effective and much harder to track. In many ways the competition-infused neoliberal culture organized around corporations, such as Jeff Bezos’s Amazon, run on shame and ressentiment. In an insidious mechanization of ressentiment, the company’s Orwellian “Anywhere Feedback” function, which has been getting some press lately, encourages Amazon employees to denounce each other on a real time basis. This is only an extreme version of values infusing our culture since the 1980s.

And yet I also join with those who find the Freudian account of development and history over-determined. In many ways Freud is the child of Nietzsche—so much so that he once commented that he needed to stop reading the German philosopher in order to have ideas of his own. But somewhere in the transmission Freud dropped a crucial point—for Nietzsche ressentiment is the affect that, through its prodigious capacity for negation, delivers most effectively the delusory sense of ourselves as psychic unities, separate and apart from all others and continuous in time. It is as if, in order to promote the fledgling science of psychoanalysis within a repressive Victorian culture, Freud had to reconcile Nietzsche’s deeply anarchic view of the self with a set of common sense delusions about the fixed and permanent nature of identity. In Freud’s account of individuation, the Oedipal construct starts to seem like a trap without escape, a view that, among other things, caused his split with Carl Jung.

Interestingly, a very different view of common sense is seeded into the theatrical source of Freud’s signature theory—the tragic drama Oedipus, Tyrannus, by the Athenian playwright Sophocles. This remarkable tragedy recounts the confusing fate of the king of Thebes, who, investigating a curse wrecking havoc with his kingdom, discovers himself to be the culprit. Through his actions, Oedipus unwittingly gives rise to the shameful calamity he had devoted his life to avoid. In a flawless gem of dramatic construction, Sophocles challenges us to locate the moment at which Oedipus can be held culpable for his actions. Told as a child that he is fated to kill his father and marry his mother, Oedipus promptly leaves home—no fault there. Later he responds appropriately— at least according to the honor-based values of his age—to an insolent stranger who threatens him on the road, and unwittingly kills a man he had no way of knowing was his dad (the king Laius). Then, surviving the challenge of the Sphinx, he arrives in Thebes hailed as a hero, and naturally enough, marries the recently widowed queen, the beautiful Jocasta. It turns out that Oedipus’s real moment of hubris arrives when he curses the unknown villain who killed Laius (i.e. he, himself, Oedipus), though doing so seems justified according to common sense versions of morality. In Greek tragedies, common sense normative judgments of this kind— what the Greeks would call doxa—are the common flaw of the tragic heroes, and the calling card of the tyrant. (Think of this next time you hear Donald Trump pitch his common sense brand of authoritarian politics and you’ll feel a cold tickle along your spine.)

The point of all this is the subtle link between normative judgment and ressentiment. It is as if, in his play, Sophocles had identified for us the dangers of an essentialist, unity-based version of identity, an version of the self that can only be attained through an embrace of shame and ressentiment. Well, you might hear yourself say, what’s wrong with a little shame now and then? Don’t we rely on normative judgment to punish the guilty and reward virtue? The problem with normative judgments is not that they are wrong, it is that they are onlypartially true. While normative judgments ratify the notion that the world is composed of distinct entities, they deny the equally valid way in which the world is defined at every turn by continuous change and interdependence. Even modern physics is bedeviled by an inability to describe light as composed either of separate particles or of interdependent waves. Your microwave oven and your I-Phone run on the fact the answer to this question is not either/or so much as both/and, contradictions be damned. Like the proverbial lie that circulates the globe before the truth gets its boots on, the reign of doxa is based on a false and beguiling simplicity.

While normative judgments are seductive, the alternate truth that shadows them is subtle and difficult to see, much less talk about. To understand why, consider how this bias in the direction of form and separation is seeded into the way we are forced to communicate about these issues. The symbolic system of language itself, after all, is based on pinning stable names onto discrete entities whose boundaries actually shift and change according to context, within a world in constant motion. We arrive here at the very different picture of identity that arose East of Greece, in the awareness traditions of Asia, a tradition I know most about in the form of dharma practice. Here, rather than doxa we find a picture of identity based to one degree or another on paradox (paradoxa) and contradiction. Viewing the normative modes of being as shot through with dhukka or suffering, dharma provides a way to sidestep common sense fantasies about the nature of existence, and to engage instead, breath by breath, with the mystery of our incommensurable connection/separation from each other and from the world.

Surveying the current cultural scene I’m struck by how this fundamental opposition—doxa or paradoxa— underlies so many contemporary conflicts. As the world gets smaller it becomes more difficult to ignore the ways we are interconnected with each other, and with the living systems in which we are embedded. The common sense appeal of living as isolated beings, separate and apart from all others, begins to lose its luster. Compassion, the opposite of ressentiment, begins to merge into enlightened self-interest. Recognizing that your suffering is, to a large extent, also my own, it makes sense to ameliorate your suffering. The collapsive, unitary intonements of shame begin to recede into a multitude of voices, reminding us that Oedipus’s story does not end with his moment of bloody self-punishment. The shame that confronts Oedipus in his moment of self-recognition turns out to be a doorway; the wound at the root of yourself is what turns you toward the path. Blinding himself, Oedipus begins a life of wandering, tracing the seam by which he is bound to the world, as if it were a thin red line only he can see, and becomes finally a protective being for those who harbor him.

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Tagged With: Bushmasters, Friedrich Nietzsche, Guy Zimmerman, Sigmund Freud, the 158th Infantry Regiment, The Thin Red Line








dov rudnick says:

September 1, 2015 at 2:33 pm

ooooh, lots of ideas here! Love and affection breeds a threatening sense of vulnerability, especially
to those who have trained and practiced the art/act of killing, such as your father during the war. I recently read “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien, and strongly recommend to you as an exploration of the multiple personalities a soldier creates and has to live with. But what happened to you and your dad? How did that moment with the head-gashing grow in significance? (You loved your dad and at the age of five had an awareness of mortality, the piquant spice of emotion-based loving.) You leave these questions unanswered, instead seeking out the ancients for guidance, i.e. Oedipus. Did you feel a sense of guilt because perhaps secretly and silently you wished your father’s violent demise? Tough questions, but interesting that Oedipus rears his eye-less head in the discussion. (Incidentally, “Gospel at Colonus,” re-opens Sept. 18 at the Nate Holden, you MUST attend, a masterpiece of twentieth century avant-garde theater, brilliantly staged by Lee Breuer himself.) Lastly, what captures my interest in this piece, Guy, is the suggestion that there are certain truths that are “both/and,” not in a lazy “religious-dogma-and-science-are-compatible” way, but in a way far more mysterious. This piece gives birth to deeper and more challenging questions.


Janet Sternburg says:September 23, 2015 at 8:29 am

Guy — this is a wonderful one. So beautifully written. So beautifully intertwining — congratulations!