Some time ago in HDEO I wrote about “La Honte”, which I thought meant simply “shame”, or “embarrassment”. I used it in a pub in front of a crowd of French football fans when Thierry Henry deliberately handled the ball to allow his team to score and grubbily shatter any dreams Ireland had of playing in the world cup finals. It’s also been on my mind today with the “shame” of the alleged affairs of Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife, and the equal shame pertaining to the alleged hoaxers. (The Henry affair also inspired, during those haunted days, another HDEO post which reflected on more gallant times when the French fought for Ireland).
I’ve been thinking and reading about the word, and it means a lot more than I thought. It has an incredible range of meanings, with positive and negative aspects, and tells us much about the French as a race, their complex inner turmoils, their often destructive passion, their schizophrenia (think Vichy vs Resistance), their cowardliness and bravery, and their enigmatic, sometimes confounding souls.
I find it thrilling that a nation could come up with such a word, five short letters, to describe such a smorgasbord of tantalising emotional trends.
The true meaning of honte is hidden in layers of nuance. It seems to be most often used, or distinguished by its secret, social, narcissistic dimension, in both spiritual and physical terms. It is not blame, although it has aspects of that, nor is it fear, although it can appear in social phobias.
It’s simple on one hand: rage, fright, sadness, but also deeply complex and disturbing: impotency, withheld rage, despair, and emptiness. It’s older than blame, in that it’s less verbal and more sensory. It’s emotional; disinterest, malaise, fear, but its Janus face is exuberance and aggressiveness. And it’s physical: head lowered (or raised), eyes lowered, red flushes. It’s cognitive (illustrated by aggressive or demeaning internal dialogue) and manifested by swings between inhibition and exhibitionism, paralysis or wild ambition.
Some synonyms (translated from the French, so missing some nuance perhaps) show the extent of this superb word’s ambit, and apply so well to what must have gone through Henry’s mind when he was, knowingly, screwing the Irishmen for his own personal gain, dragging his (many noble) team-mates into the midden with him. It also reflects what his countrymen felt about him afterwards, the inability to rejoice, as loathsome cheating and disregard for fair play brought progress to his agenda, rather than the valour, the romance that the French are oft famed for.
Here we go: humiliation, dishonour, ignominy, infamy, turpitude, affront, snub, withering, abjection, callow self-reproach, fuss, bother, blame, repentance, shame, modesty, scruple…
On the plus side, la honte regulates social relations. It lays out limits. It exists in other cultures too, northern races use la honte to teach children not to cross icefields. The anthropologist Ruth Benedict says that cultures can even be classified in how they use la honte to regulate members of society. Asian countries use la honte, while modern European and American cultures are more cultures of blame. In ancient Greece and Japan “being caught” was more significant than what people thought of you.
When used as a restraining or inhibiting factor la honte is positive. It gives us limits without altering our personality. It prevents us from being the victim or from being either rescuer or persecutor.
La honte can save victims of humiliation and violence from descending in their turn into barbarity and chaos. Many victims of savagery have told how they managed to live the great principle of humanity thanks to their knowledge of the power of honte which kept them from succumbing to their animal instinct. La honte prevents – or should prevent - you from doing violence once you have tasted the pain of violence.
Too much honte is a bad thing. It leads to introspection, solitude, in short, a lack of trust leading to lack of friends. The opposing blades of bad honte are secret-keeping, mockery, contempt, social regression, obsessive rivalry, lying or, on the other side pride, ambition, desire. This sort of honte can destabilise and weaken a human being. It ploughs a deeper and deeper furrow into the soul, spiralling the subject ever downward to the bottom of the pit (broken ego, loss of worth, inability to love oneself, submission) or on the contrary towards dizzying heights (excessive narcissism, egomania, desire to dominate, kneejerk self-defence).
Honte doesn’t come from “doing a bad thing”. It’s far deeper, it comes from doing something unworthy, shameful. Once it forms, and becomes encysted in the personality la honte burrows into the ego, or overwhelms it with instinctive and paranoid self-defensiveness.
In David Lynch’s early film, the Elephant Man does nothing wrong but suffers from la honte. He lives hidden, humiliated, and famously cries “I am not a monster, I am a human being.” La honte makes the subject feel he has “something wrong”, like when Gainsborg sings “je suis l’homme a tete de choux" (I am a man with the head of a cabbage). La honte can lead to low self-esteem, even self-hatred.
La honte has a purely physical dimension too, manifested in the flesh and personal hygiene. Being French (!), la honte is often associated with the sexual identity of the self in the body. La honte changes the bodily image and anchors it in the false sentiment of being dirty, ugly, monstrous, deformed.
La honte, when taken to extremes (hidden or over-exposed) signifies a deep narcissistic wound. It shrouds the body like a pimple that reddens, empties itself and sets, swelling in self-defence.
La honte is often associated with other troubles: alcoholism, addictions, depression, social phobias. Persistent honte can lead to depression and even suicide. Excessive honte sucks out the energy, replacing it with a strong sense of despair. In such a case, the subject is urgently recommended to retreat form society and receive professional help.
The psychologist Michele Larivey says: “you don’t ever experience honte only by, or via, yourself. It’s always lived in front of others and subject to their judgement. It comes from the humiliation fed out by others and the negative judgement you carry yourself. Even if we think we cannot make la honte, we can identify the feeling, and this verification is difficult to accept. Finally, it shows us the importance, or otherwise, in our lives of people who we know see us living this shame.”
Honte spreads easily, communicated by a superiority/inferiority vertical logic. It falls on us from contact with others, and leaves us through others.
La honte shows us our true value and our place as humans in the human family. It’s about dignity, identity, and relative justice for all of us in our common humanity.