In my rereading of Lewis Hyde’s Trickster book, I’m now to the chapter called “Speechless Shame and Shameless Speech” in which he uses the idea of “shame-based cultures” versus “guilt-based cultures” which emerged from the work of Mead, Benedict, Leighton and Kluckhohn. He explains that a society that keeps order by using “shame” is different from one that keeps order by “guilt” and that these theorists thought of a “guilt-based culture” as more developed and “higher” than a shame-based culture, because they considered themselves to be part of a white, protestant, educated guilt culture. He gives as an example E.R. Dodds who places Hellenistic Greece above Homeric Greece, but I don’t know anything about that and my Internet connection is not working at the moment, which is a constant hazard in this part of the world. It will remain uninvestigated when I get back online.
The idea is that a “shame-based” culture is a small community where people know each other face-to-face, as in small town life or a church congregation where everyone is always watching. If you exceed the bounds of their propriety, you will be stigmatized and possibly ejected. Being stigmatized will mean the withdrawal of the kind of support the village gives to the weak, old, needy, and afflicted. Valier is very much this sort of culture and I sometimes forget at my peril. For instance, I was in the village library and saw that a woman I like very much, a cook and comforter of many, was checking out a stack of novels. I was feeling cranky and frustrated and hoping for a little comfort when I asked her, “Have you read the book I wrote about Bob Scriver?”
She was surprised. “Did you write a book?” (There has been publicity and the librarian keeps the book displayed.) I also assumed that she assumed I was talking about a local self-published book, which irritates me since I do have some conceit about my publisher being an academic press. “No, I haven’t read it,” she said.
“Shame on you!” From her face I could see that I’d gone over the line. She will never be my friend again. I had dragged something out in public (local ignorance and personal lack of awareness) that I should not have and I even named it. In a shame culture one does not say “shame on you.” One simply gazes and then shifts eyes away. If she reads my book now, she’ll hate it and interpret all my motives in the book with hostility.
Guilt is a private matter. Guilt, in Hyde’s view, is internalized conscience and will object to things you do that no one knows anything about. (Carter lusting in his heart.) I suspect that those anthros thought it was “higher” because it tends to be rule-based and from some other source than local opinion. This might be an example: if I set a mouse-trap and found a rodent victim in it, I might be moved by the creatureliness of the little animal and feel guilty for killing it, even though no one in this community would blame me for eliminating vermin. I might not even tell anyone about emptying the teaspoonful of carrion into the garbage, although one way to escape guilt is confession. (No thinking in this book links guilt to pity. But maybe I should look around. )
Mead is famous for trying to move the limits of shame about sex, proposing that in Samoa the young women enjoy the activity with no shame at all, nor guilt either. After the missionaries arrived and other white people who held sexual propriety by their standards to be a sign of virtue and civilization, the Samoans changed their story and said they’d just been putting Margaret Mead on, that they were actually very proper. Maybe. Knowing what we do about Margaret Mead’s life, we might guess that she was rather shameless but also a bit guilty about her own sex life, particularly her daughter whom she raised as a single parent with help from friends who took the girl into their families when necessary.
Perhaps sex is meant to be private -- and romance as well on its deepest levels, though some like to boast about it. Intense private relationship has so much potential for disruption because it makes defying village shame worthwhile. But it is also a potent source of guilt, because we don’t always like what is happening in that intimacy and have fantasies only we know about.
But Hyde is talking about tricksters and culture, a subject he enters through the lives of three immigrants: Maxine Hong Kingston, Richard Rodriguez, and Allen Ginsberg, who are not moving from one country to another (their ancestors did that) so much as one internal culture to another. The stakes are high: death/insanity. Kingston speaks of reaching puberty and being told the big family shame-secret, a tale of an ancestor in the old country who became pregnant and drowned herself in the family well. Rodriguez is moving into the “country” of the intellectual and finds himself made ashamed and therefore guilty by his much-loved parents, who are still their warm uneducated selves. He is distinguished by his awareness of this and his boldness in telling about it. Ginsberg was shamed by homosexuality, but more by his insane and repellent mother, whom he loved but who caused much of his life to be hidden. This was broken, again, by telling about it -- witnessing. “I alone escaped to tell you.”
The original “shaming” culture will not recognize the trick of telling as the opening of a door. In order to protect their social order by pressure, they will define the trickster as a psychopath. This is particularly potent when the body is involved, whether because it is the wrong color, the wrong gender, or used in a transgressive way, as in sex or even simple exposure: nudity. Hyde says this powerful thing: “Trickster is . . . the gatekeeper who opens the door into the next world; those who mistake him for a psychopath will never even know such a door exists.”
There has been a lot of talk lately about bullies, who might be interpreted as “shame-based” people who try to force those around them into their idea of behavior, quite possibly because of their own inner guilt about something, probably not measuring up. They throw their guilt -- disguised as self-righteous shaming -- out onto someone else. And Hyde says, “All American high schools are shame cultures; advertising promulgates a culture of shame.” Perhaps shame is the name of Gus van Sant’s “Elephant.”