For Shame

by Rafaël Newman

I had a colleague, a great reader, whose favorite material was mid-century Japanese short-form realism. Frequently epistolary and often featuring at least one frame narrative, these novellas typically have as their narrator someone captivated, not to say obsessed, by a memory; and that memory, it seemed to me when I read the works my colleague lent me, is almost inevitably fed by an erotic or romantic encounter, as well as by its often calamitous sequelae.

When I asked her about this preference, my colleague explained that what she admired in such novellas was the fact that they were—and here she paused briefly to seek the appropriate English term: for she was a native francophone, and read her Japanese literature, for the most part, in French translation—“pudique.”

Now it was my turn to consult a mental lexicon. Pudique? I was reminded of the anatomical term “pudendum,” meaning the human genitals, derived from the Latin gerundive and meaning “that about which one ought to feel ashamed”. I remembered a TV news clip, viewed during a sojourn studying in Paris years ago, in which a certain politician, accused of corruption (I no longer recall whether fiscal or sexual), was seen escaping in his limousine and admonishing the reporters hounding him for a statement: red-faced with indignation, he called for the paparazzi to exhibit “un peu de pudeur”—for shame, his expression suggested, and as an Anglo-American politician in the same situation might have said. Could this really be what my colleague valued in her bedside reading: a sense of shame, of the shameful, of being ashamed, especially as regards intimate affairs?

In fact, as she then explained, French has two words for shame: there is “la honte,” for the affective penalty meted out by society to an individual in cases of outrageous, unacceptable behavior, akin to shunning; and “la pudeur,” for the sense of propriety arresting such behavior before its eruption, the discretion that prevents an excessively overt or explicit discussion of certain feelings, or states, or acts. Something like shyness, or good manners: or that highest, most socially acceptable form of hypocrisy, politeness. A “sense of decency,” in the words of Joseph Welch to Senator McCarthy during the Army—McCarthy Hearings: “At long last sir, have you no sense of decency?”

And of course, there are in fact two forms of human inhibition, whatever their particular local names: a heteronomous variety, imposed from the outside by social forces (parents, authorities, peer groups); and an autonomous variety, evolved internally, in response to nurture, environment, and cultural conditioning to be sure, but regulated thereafter in the service of the ego. And although that secondary form of shame may be enacted prophylactically, to prevent the initial, external form of shaming, which was likely first experienced on the changing table as a parent held their nose and made noises of disgust (“Look at the mess you’ve made!”), it soon shades into a wholly positive process, constitutive of the self in its vital association with one’s indispensable human surroundings.

Naturally, the boundaries that define what is shameful are not constant, and shift with historical period as well as with cultural context; and so too, as a consequence, is individual inhibition elastic, since despite its idiosyncratic, identity-constitutive force it depends on the input of data from the individual’s social environment. Nevertheless, some categories do remain essentially unchanged, despite significant alterations in content. When Settembrini, the liberal humanist voice of Thomas Mann’s post-WWI Magic Mountain, chides the novel’s protagonist for slipping unbidden into a more intimate mode of address—using the informal pronoun “du” rather than the formal “Sie”—during a carnival encounter, the infraction is presented as a veritable attack on European culture; a century later, one can expect the same tone of affronted dignity from a radically different interlocutor for the improper use of pronouns: except that the battle line is now drawn around the self, rather than around an entire “civilization”.

In a recent article, Judy Berman suggests that we are witnessing an aesthetic transvaluation, “an era of exuberant, even apocalyptic, bad taste”, a challenging and indeed dismantling of the “taste hierarchy” and “low-high spectrum” and the celebration of “a value-neutral style that revels in schlock, camp, and raunch for their own sakes”. Berman presents this paradigm shift as a para-political movement on the part of a generation oppressed and dispossessed by the tenets of an allegedly self-evident “good taste” imposed by a hypocritical superstructure; and she maintains the ethical dimension of what might otherwise seem merely sensationalist shilling for market share by pointing to the boundary still in effect between riotous “bad taste” and a “poor taste” that continues to be placed under censure for its unethical, injurious, or defamatory intentions (and consequences).

Such a distinction is not the same as that drawn by the established arbiters of taste, between an alleged “high form” of art and its bemusedly tolerated “popular” counterpart, but it is instead a mirror of the line between the two kinds of shame, between pudeur and honte. What my colleague evidently prized in the Japanese epistolary novellas she favored was their tact and elegance—their pudeur—in the treatment of intimate material, the stuff that would be subject to the truly toxic variety of shame—to honte—under other circumstances. What she prized was their maintenance of standards of “good taste” even as they attended to episodes and facets of human experience whose disclosure might otherwise invite accusations of “poor taste”. The interest exhibited by these texts in the inner workings of desire, secrecy, and melancholy obsession is not prurient but humane; they are marked, not by prudery, but by what might be dubbed pudery. They are respectful of the very characters whose private lives they are laying bare. They deploy proactive inhibition in the name of avoiding shame post facto.

The same cannot be said of the novels I offered my colleague as my part in our exchanges, books by the French contemporary author Virginie Despentes. I have written elsewhere about Vernon Subutex (2015—2017), Despentes’s brilliant, three-volume account of life in millennial France, in which she illuminates the power structures at work in institutions as disparate as the film industry, heterosexual reproduction, and cult spirituality. Notorious for her 1994 début novel Baise-moi (literally “Fuck Me”, although prudently—prudishly?— translated as Rape Me), whose depictions of sexualized violence make Clockwork Orange read like a psalter and whose film version was banned in France, the home of libertinage, Despentes unfurled a grander, more self-consciously “literary” canvas for her 2015 triptych; and yet Vernon Subutex still contains scenes of such vivid and idiosyncratic raunchiness that they make the translator blush as he clicks on Urban Dictionary (as well as a scene of childbirth so thoroughly desacralized that it rivals the “sodomitic” motherhood of Maggie Nelson’s Argonauts). And the prolific and activist Despentes has used this same willingness to offend in other publications, among them King Kong Theory, her 2006 feminist study of rape, sex work, and pornography, as well as in her (semi-)private life, by appearing in the most intimate fashion as a recurrent figure in Testo Junkie, by Paul B. Preciado (her sometime lover and a roman-à-clef character in her own trilogy), in his 2008 account of the role of hormones in the construction of a new biopolitical regime.

Despentes has stayed for the most part on this side of the line separating bad taste from poor taste, with the notable exceptions of a hair-raisingly cold-blooded infanticide in Baise-moi, and her excruciatingly hard-core takes on body dysmorphia, self-harm, and necrophilia in Mordre au travers, her execrable 1999 collection of short stories. More recently, although a clear voice for the prosecution of colonialist racism, she has nevertheless proven capable of critical empathy with the ranks of disaffected white voters moving from the extreme left to the extreme right, like her younger colleague Edouard Louis; she has also played a prominent role in France’s #MeToo movement, as a pioneer of a sex-positive critique of the patriarchy. In a widely noted article in France’s Libération newspaper following the award of a prestigious César to Roman Polanski in 2020, for his film about the Dreyfus affair, she published a “J’accuse” of her own, aimed against the powerful French film industry—the same one she had lampooned in Vernon Subutex—in its rhizomatic interconnection with the other systems of state power, calling for a comprehensive boycott. Since these systems, and their various actors, are evidently incapable of being shamed—“Vous n’avez décidément honte de rien” (“You are clearly ashamed of nothing”)—she abjures them:“On se lève et on se casse. C’est terminé. On se lève. On se casse. On gueule. On vous emmerde” (“We get up and we leave. That’s it. We get up. We leave. We shout. We piss you off”). For shame!

Despentes’s final words in that article—” On vous emmerde”—, more recently and controversially used of anti-vaxxers by the French president, signals the formal abandonment of “good taste”—and thus of pudeur—in the name of progress. And indeed, sometimes it is necessary to overcome one’s inhibitions in order to protest an injustice, particularly one committed by the powerful, particularly if one is oneself relatively powerless. Bad taste, after all, according to Berman, was “invented by the rich to shame the plebes”. And it may be necessary to live with the subsequent shame, or worse, as the price to pay for speaking out. Be Kent unmannerly, when Lear is mad.

Despentes’s next book, due out mid-August this year from Grasset, will be a return of kinds to the polyphonic character of her celebrated trilogy. Cher connard, which might be translated “Dear Asshole”, will evidently feature a trio of friends grappling with problems involving social media, addiction, and precarity, and will thus draw the line of conflict closer to the individual self than in the author’s previous work. It will also, as it happens, take the form of an epistolary novel, deploying a kaleidoscopic first-person narrative technique that will presumably allow Despentes to vividly stage the dynamics of pudeur and honte, inhibition and shame, secrecy and disclosure, which are integral to social change, and to the progress of the self. In Cher connard, one imagines, Despentes will thus limit the scope of her public sphere to its minimal degree, to the confidential realm of intimate personal correspondence, in which the risk of shame, although still present, has been radically reduced, while the necessity for inhibition has been concomitantly restricted.

I wonder what my Japanophile colleague will make of it.


NB: The illustration above is taken from a review of Yasushi Inoué, Le Fusil de chasse, where it is used without credit.