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.” Read more »