The Many Uses (and Abuses) of Shame

Jennifer Szalai in The New York Times:

When we experience shame, we feel bad; and when we inflict shame, we feel good. Those seem to be among the few points of consensus when it comes to what the historian Peter N. Stearns calls a “disputed emotion.” Unlike fear or anger, shame is “self-conscious”; it doesn’t erupt so much as coil around itself. It requires an awareness of others and their disapproval, and it has to be learned. Aristotle thought of it as fundamental to ethical behavior; Confucius saw it as essential to social order.

But it can also be harmful, even ruinous. Recall children in dunce caps, perjurers in pillories, adulterers branded with scarlet letters. Last fall, Vivian Gornick published an essay in Harper’s Magazine that described the most extreme experiences of shame as tantamount to annihilation. “Humiliation lingers in the mind, the heart, the veins, the arteries forever,” she writes. “It allows people to brood for decades on end, often deforming their inner lives.” No surprise that it’s such a rich subject for novelists. In addition to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter,” Gornick lists many others, including George Eliot’s “Daniel Deronda” and Richard Wright’s “Native Son.” There’s Lily Bart in “The House of Mirth,” snubbed to the point of addiction and suicide.

More here.