On Tact

by Joan Harvey

I am deeply convinced that it is tactless to speak of tact (unfortunately that is what I am doing). —Roland Barthes, The Neutral

By Indischer Maler des 6. Jahrhunderts – The Yorck Project 

A married doctor, a relative of the novelist Amitava Kumar, is having illicit sex with a medical receptionist at a gym across the street from the hospital where he works. (It’s hard not to write “hot illicit sex” but of course the quality is unknown). Kumar’s piece from The Baffler is not about the adultery, but about the decision to expose it, as well as a few other incidents also having to do with the uncomfortable outing of other people’s sex lives and bad behavior. Kumar describes how this story (which he overheard while eavesdropping and recorded in his notebook) was first published in a national newspaper in India where that doctor lives, and the subsequent worry of his sister, who read the piece, that the doctor would find out. Kumar’s reasoning was that in publishing his notes about the day, it would be false to omit this particular note.

We’re all interested in the sex lives of others, particularly when they are transgressive. But clearly in writing this follow-up explanatory piece Kumar had some conflicts about what a writer is justified in saying, and on what subjects he should remain silent. (And the Freudian in me couldn’t help noting that in discussing his prior decision to reveal the doctor’s secret sex life, Kumar made sure that an even larger audience was made aware of it, as if somehow he hadn’t exposed it quite enough the first time round.)

Kumar is doing difficult work for us, showing how he came to justify his choice. This is what happened, he writes; this is how I recorded it, I will tell the truth. But if a somewhat throwaway line in a notebook causes unnecessary pain, is it justified? If Kumar had been completely comfortable with his act he would have had no reason to explore it. Kumar writes “ I might sound brazen here, but what I’m actually calling for is greater vulnerability. Even shame…I respect the ethical bent, but am impatient with it. In fact, I see it as a privilege. It is easy to be righteous; much more difficult, but also preferable, in my opinion, to be real.”

When we write about our own experiences, by necessity we must write about other people as well. Our lives constantly brush against and touch and intersect with the lives of companions, friends, strangers, relatives. Unless one writes pure fiction or impersonal or academic prose, there is always the question of how much respect we owe to the secrets and characters of others, and how much we owe to the writing or the “truth.” Kumar’s piece is valuable as it addresses an issue most writers who write from personal experience must struggle with. As some of his work is characterized as a hybrid between fact and fiction, issues of the truth become even more salient, and also more confused.

Kumar tells us his credo is “You must lie to get access to someone, but you must tell the truth on the page.” This statement, however, assumes his truth is the truth. He was truthful to his notes. But it seems an abdication of responsibility for a writer to simply say, well, these were my notes from Journal #X, and I don’t want to censor myself, no matter the effect on others. I just randomly sent the newspaper a few pages that happened to describe someone’s private life—as if at the time he had naively given no particular thought to the matter.

This story of adultery may add color to Kumar’s account of life in the city (just as it served as a good opening to this column) but is it really worth it? Kumar was relieved that his relative apparently had not seen what he wrote, but suppose he had? I was surprised that Kumar didn’t consider the effect it might have had on the man’s wife. Suppose she had read it and through his piece the family had broken up and the children had suffered? Would Kumar’s desire to be faithful to the “truth” then have been worth it? Further on in the piece he discusses a poet, whom he alienated by writing in part about his adultery, but who seemed to have forgiven him. Can we expose people’s dark secrets and get away with it and always be forgiven? For Kumar this has so far been the case, but that seems purely a matter of luck.

To simply out someone cheating on his wife blurs all the complexity that that situation entails. Even if Kumar felt it necessary to mention this clandestine affair in the name of the truth, just reporting what he overheard, he had other choices. He could have used the man’s full name-–and revealed even more. Or he could have not mentioned the doctor’s relationship to his family at all and simply said a doctor is having an affair with his receptionist, without giving enough specifics that anyone in his family would recognize him. Which of these three options is the “truth?” The affair may be quite other than the simple words Kumar reports, but of course we cannot know.

Kumar tells us he is following the advice of Colm Tóibín: “You have to be a terrible monster to write,” as well as Janet Malcolm: “Every journalist…knows that what he does is morally indefensible.” We all have models and influences, people we emulate, but few of us are so transparent about exposing them. But there is something else at work here: a sense that in following the instructions of others Kumar is again shrugging off some responsibility for his choices as well as having to push himself into a mold that makes him somewhat uneasy, with prompts from the outside that perhaps don’t quite fit. On the one hand he is courageous, doing what is taboo. On the other hand, he is potentially unnecessarily hurting people without good cause.

Shortly after I read Kumar’s piece I came across Joan Acocella describing the work of the great food writer MFK Fisher: “Fisher had another great virtue as a writer—an enormous tact, a sense of when to end, when to omit…”   The word tact is derived from a “sense of touch or feeling.” Defined as a “sense of discernment in action or conduct, diplomacy, fine intuitive mental perception,” it is a sense that could not be arrived at from applying a general rule of conduct as Kumar does, but would come from delicately feeling out each situation. Roland Barthes, in the book of his recorded lectures The Neutral, has a section specifically devoted to tact. Barthes contrasts “conflictual types of discourse (Affirmation, Adjective, Anger, Arrogance, etc.) and those relating to states and behaviors that suspend conflict (Benevolence, Weariness, Silence, Tact, Sleep, Oscillaton, Retreat, etc.).” “I would suggest,” Barthes says “calling the nonviolent refusal of reduction, the parrying of generality by inventive, unexpected, nonparadigmatizable behavior, the elegant and discreet flight in the face of dogmatism, in short, the principle of tact, I would call it, all being said: sweetness.”

Roberto Calasso also mentions tact in relation to the inimitable and sometimes mad Swiss writer Robert Walser. “Tact,” Calasso writes, “which [Walser] pushed to an extreme, kept him from assuming solid convictions. Over the impassive surface of this void, Walser furtively unleashed language, his only confidant, with a lack of scruples seldom equaled by his more eager and aggressive contemporaries.” The lack of scruples here does not involve exposing the lives of others, but rather with language itself. Interestingly Barthes too sees tact as a practice of language. “Tact is consubstantially tied to the power of metaphorizing, that is of isolating a feature and letting it proliferate as language, in a movement of exaltation.” As if, perhaps, tact, that sensitive touch, brushes against reality, but lets the ripples, the sensations, the feelings, travel in a whole different plane; not that of pinning down reality, but of skirting it, metaphorizing it, dancing round it, bringing it into some other form of play. For Barthes, tact is excessively marginal, more tied to the feminine than the masculine, valued in the East, in haiku and the tea ceremony.

Oddly, subject matter isn’t necessarily a factor in tact–Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts comes to mind. Nelson’s book opens with her pleasure in anal sex, and describes her relationship to her lover very closely, but she has discussed it with her partner, she has permission, and she is disclosing things about herself that aren’t going to hurt others. There is something about the thought and consideration she puts into her writing that is a form of tact. In Nelson’s earlier book The Art of Cruelty, she does not dismiss the complexities of truth telling, but she reminds us that “one might see ‘brutal honesty’ not as a more forceful use of honesty itself, but as one possible use of honesty. One that doesn’t necessarily lay truth barer by dint of force, but that actually overlays something on top of it—something that can get in its way. That something is cruelty.” This is not meant to suggest that Kumar was being cruel, but rather that our impulse toward or excuse of “truth” and “honesty” or “being real” needs also to always be questioned. Interestingly both Nelson and Barthes also rail against frankness. Nelson quotes a Tennessee Williams character “All cruel people describe themselves a paragons of frankness.” Barthes links frankness back to Augustine and a certain dogmatism and intolerance of others. He wrote “each time that in my pleasure, my desire, or my distress, the other’s discourse (often well meaning, innocent) reduces me to a case that fits an all-purpose explanation or classification in the most normal way, I feel that there is a breach of the principal of tact.”

Of course one’s style of frankness, openness, volubility, silence, or tact may be in part culturally determined. Atul Gawande describes “a native Minnesotan’s tendency to avoid confrontation or overintimacy.” Some families are closed and silent, others loud and public. Paul Theroux writes, “You come from a family as from a distant land.” Kumar speaks of an ethical bent as a privilege, but Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, which is all about racism and blind white stupidity, is to my mind, a model of tact. Instead of making the racism less horrific, the subtlety of her exploration, her very personal response to shocking remarks, her questioning and sensing, makes it even more horrible. She records the racist remarks she has received, but she is not reductionist in the way that those who both see and don’t see her reduce her to the color of her skin.

In a conversation with Ezra Klein on July 23, 2018, the Yale psychologist Jennifer Richardson discussed the fraught situation on campuses, and the debate about free speech and safe spaces. “What does it mean to be kind and respectful in these spaces?” she asks. “That’s not even part of the conversation. It’s not what you have the right to say and do; that’s almost irrelevant. Of course you have the right without the state coming down on you, but should you? Is that who you want to be?” Though I must confess, when politics are involved, any tact I may possess goes right out the window.

This not to say tact is the only way. Tact may be a style, and only one style among many. Barthes opposes tact to the trope of virility. It may not be a coincidence that the writers I’ve mentioned, Barthes, Fisher, Nelson, Rankine, and Walser are either female, queer, or in Walser’s case self-effacing to the point of madness. And, with Kumar, we also need to hear about the secrets of others, we need our monsters. We need the exposure of the dark shadow side of the world. Tact could be confused with the need to protect those who should be exposed—#MeToo, for example, is not about tact. I recently bought Paul Theroux’s Motherland precisely because it is a thinly disguised autobiographical novel about a large family with a dominant mother, just the kind of family I’m from, in order to read a scathing exposé of difficult family dynamics. As Stephen King writes: “Theroux ends up assassinating all of his characters, but I still enjoyed the play.”

And yet, sometimes it is more important to be sure we aren’t hurting people than to expose something that really doesn’t need exposure. Perhaps the reader gets a better picture of life in the city of Patna knowing that a doctor is having an affair, that it is gossiped about and the gossip is eavesdropped on by the visiting native son writer. It is no doubt a form of honesty to give the newspaper his notebooks verbatim, without cutting. But Kumar’s impulse to discuss his act shows his own ambivalence about being the “monster” he has chosen to be. His scruples, his transparency, his questions are valuable to us, because in this tell-all day, most of us frequently have to consider what to reveal, what to conceal. There are no rules, and Kumar is brave to explore publicly the difficulties he has had to work through. I wouldn’t say Kumar’s piece is a form of tact, but the need for him to write it may have to do with the discomfort he experienced in “truth” telling.

I found myself interested, admiring, and suspicious of Kumar’s choices all at once. Just as, like him, I spread more news of this doctor’s indiscretion here (though to a much smaller audience), I reduce Kumar to his words in one piece without taking into account his much larger body of writing. I open this column with his relative’s adultery, a tactless way to begin. My tactlessness may be perceived as an attack, but I hope it is also understood as a salute to Kumar for his thought in being open and addressing this at all. Though I also have to say, I hope he doesn’t create class after class of students who think that being monstrous is the only way to write.