In place of the interpretation of intrapsychic conflict, Nathanson offers a mechanistic theory, derived from the work of Sylvan Tomkins, in which affect acts as an “amplifier,” informing the organism of unruly appetites in need of intelligent management. Shame, an essential component in our “basic wiring pattern,” protects the organism “from its growing avidity for positive affect.” By forcing us to “know and remember our failures,” it acts as a “teacher.” Just what it teaches remains a little unclear: to modify our expectations? to pursue more realistic goals? Whenever his prose veers too close to clarity, Nathanson interjects an explanation that defies explanation: It [shame] is a biological system by which the organism controls its affective output so that it will not remain interested or content when it may not be safe to do so, or so that it will not remain in affective resonance with an organism that fails to match patterns stored in memory. In plain English, shame keeps us from taking ourselves too seriously.
This seems to be the gist of it. Whereas Wurmser pleads for the “heroic transcendence of shame” through love and work, Nathanson recommends a kind of inoculation against shame—a healthy dose of shame in manageable amounts, such as we find in the therapeutic comedy of Buddy Hackett, that keeps it from becoming lethal. What he finds appealing, I take it, is the lowering effect of Hackett’s bathroom humor. The reminder that no one escapes “the call of nature,” as our grandmothers used to put it so delicately, serves both to deflate self-importance and to mock false modesty—all the more effectively, Nathanson seems to think, when it is couched in coarse, uninhibited language. Hackett’s “comedy of acceptance” reconciles us to our limitations, according to Nathanson. I think it merely encourages us to lower our sights. There is a crucial difference between the acceptance of limitations and the impulse to reduce everything exalted to its lowest common denominator. “Acceptance” becomes shameless, cynical surrender when it can no longer distinguish between nobility and pomposity, refinement of taste and social snobbery, modesty and prudery. Cynicism confuses delusions of grandeur, which call for moral and therapeutic correction, with grandeur itself.
Cynicism, of course, is the last thing Nathanson intends to promote. He wants only to replace shame with what he calls pride—a sense of accomplishment based on acceptance of our limitations, but his vaccine is worse than the disease. By recommending the deflation of ideals as the prescription for mental health, he proposes, in effect, to cure shame with shamelessness. This is itself a well-known defense (and, as such, hardly a cure)—the strategy cogently identified by Wurmser as the “lifelong reversal” of the “‘shameless’ cynic,” the transvaluation of values by means of which “narcissistic grandiosity and contemptuousness defend against a fatal brittleness and woundedness.” As Wurmser points out, this defense now sets the tone of our culture as a whole: Everywhere there is an unrestrained exposure of one’s emotions and of one’s body, a parading of secrets, a wanton intrusion of curiosity.... It has ... become hard to express tender feelings, feelings of respect, of awe, of idealization, of reverence. It almost belongs to the “good tone” to be irreverent. It is no accident that in German and Greek, words for shame are also words of reverence. The culture of shamelessness is also the culture of irreverence, of debunking and devaluing ideals. Trust in life carries the risk of disappointment, so we inoculate ourselves with irreverence.
Even the most obtuse students of shame understand, in principle, that shamelessness is a defensive strategy, not a real solution. In No Place to Hide, Michael Nichols warns that “shamelessness is a reaction formation against shame, a defiant, counter phobic attempt to deny and overcome a profound inner fear of weakness.” But Nichols and his like recognize the affinity between shamelessness and shame only in its most blatant form. They can see shamelessness in “defiance” but not in their own ideology of “acceptance,” The deflation of “extravagant expectations”—Nichols’s favorite remedy for the oppressive sense of failure—amounts to a milder version of Nathanson’s strategy of existential distrust. Thus he warns against religion, which purveys “oversimplified messages about right and wrong” and holds up impossible standards—”a vision of righteousness that remains forever out of reach.” The old religions preached the sinfulness of sex and divorce, discouraged “understanding and acceptance.” Fortunately “today’s enlightened ministers and rabbis are preaching a humanistic acceptance of the self and the body.” Indeed, they are “more attuned to humanistic concerns than most psychiatrists”— surely a backhanded compliment, though Nichols intends it as high praise.
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