On Humiliation

27 February 2018 Comments Off on On Humiliation


We leave behind trails of people we have hurt irreparably. Most of them have hurt us back. The larger and less tolerable of these injuries are not usually concrete; they’re not events, not solid things, but instances of full and cutting rejection – the display of a naked wrist or eye without prompting, an intimate explanation never returned, the handing over of the body’s cells to someone who leaves. Here it is not only the great rupture of being alone – of realizing one is alone – of how alone one is. It is the full and shocking knowledge that something has been bared; that a limb or a thought or an intention is now known, and the other person has seen it in all the nudity with which it was proffered, a big, thick, conscious trust, and they have turned away from it, as if it were nothing, and walked away from you, untouched.
The purpose of this particularly insidious kind of humiliation is to unsettle anyone who dares not to be indifferent. It is a swift social punishment dealt to those who care, who care about engagements, vulnerabilities, who very unsocially and very unusually want what they see, and who attempt to take it even if it involves long hours spent talking to their bones, even if they crawl on their hands and knees. Every tender word not received, every look not returned is a bite in the face of the humiliated; I am speaking not of the natural reluctance of the object of unwanted attention, but of the immediate human repulsion from naked want. I mean to describe society’s insistent association of weakness with openness, with readiness, with the desire to give more than the other person will take. It is our closed and lonely community’s way of dealing pain. It is a deterrent that hurts deeply and unacknowledgeably. It hurts because it results from love.
The hurt is very complex, and it goes on very oddly for a number of years. It is at first the questioning of one’s own self, a process of deconstruction that always burns: the rejected goes around taking apart old fixations and pretensions and strikes hotly, repeatedly, at the inner pool of what he is and has ever been, and finds fault with the coldness of it, or the softness, or the innate impassiveness for which he must also resent himself. He repents for not having been less accessible; he associates his disposability with the ease with which the other person has seen his heart. Then it is a sequence of going back and forth finding new things to make one’s own, of resisting the greater humiliation of making contact with the other human: there is a reason these things have been exposed, and it is usually some sort of love. It is a closeness one seeks and seizes upon sight, and the loss of it is the loss of its provider, for whom is felt a very serene, very private affection. The most intense shame comes from the recognition of this person’s power; it comes from knowing that they are able to hurt you, and that they do so without compunction, almost deceptively, that they are not straightforward, that the pain comes from being casually overlooked. It ruins one’s togetherness and understanding of oneself. The greatest serenity results from knowing that there is no togetherness after all, that there is no inherent absolute worth, and so no act can quite completely debase it: we are who we are, and who we are is somewhat unclear, defined only by our interactions, our actions and the reactions they meet, and so the things we see can only harm the things we are if they make us withdraw from the world, or change our reactions to it, our functionality, our openness. To be vulnerable is to let others see what we are, and at its most intense it is to let ourselves care. The terror in it is that it sometimes forces us to turn away from what we need, afraid of being shunted aside again: it hurts our pride to be misunderstood. The cycle ends once those feelings are acknowledged, and begins again when they are set aside in preparation for yet another companion.
This does not mean that vulnerabilities should be avoided: it is never clever to learn indifference. People look to others for intimacy and fail to completely receive it; the looker-away will always miss beauty. To keep oneself deliberately open, to rub away the blotches of a fear irrational, entirely social, the fear of being pushed aside, and to be infinitely, unhesitantly capable of reaching out and touching what one needs to see, what carries a body’s fill of life, is the freest and largest way to live. It is the means of the solitary to avoid isolation to know that it will always be possible for him to surface from his own self and shake newness out of the closest bystander, to know that the person need only see how he is to be able to touch him, because he will be naked as milk, delicate, complete, his skin raw and shining like a whole mesa of sand in the light of someone else. The only other option is to close up with suspicion, depriving oneself of the delight of being seen. There is no way for the world’s eater to escape hurt. The most one can do is understand that some people are the way they are, that a lot of things are given to unwilling companions, and that the complete bloodless shame of rejection is conceptual and acceptable, if not avertible. For the hurt inflicted on the transgressor of norms, there is no sense or cure. Groups have rules, and they like enforcing them. There is little room for the tender.