Friday, Nov. 8, 1996
Many of the things that humiliate me, I do to myself. By and large, they are clumsiness or excesses of phrase or gesture, and I find after I have committed them that they recur, shamingly, over and over in my mind, like a film played again and again. With each repetition, the humiliation bites down harder. Sometimes I explain too much, or else apologize too much; sometimes, without realizing it is happening, I embarrass other people, and then, when I see how this has come about, I am myself embarrassed into the ground.
But mostly, humiliation comes from outside the self. There are the rougher forms of humiliation, and there are the subtler. What I am reflecting on now belongs, I think, to the subtler.
A long time ago, when the future was longer and life seemed lighter, dinner parties used to include a going-round-the-table quiz called “Open and Closed.” It required all of us to tell whether we regarded ourselves as having an open or a closed temperament. “Open” meant you babbled out whatever was in your head; “closed” meant you were … well, closed. It was only a game, and it was conducted with giddy hilarity. On one occasion, the wives agreed that they never told their husbands all their inner thoughts; it would be injurious to the husbands’ pride. I recall being the only one in the room who admitted to spilling out every single thing I could think of, husband’s feelings notwithstanding.
I know it is not an admirable trait. Silence is golden. Or, to fiddle a bit with a Yiddish saying, what’s within your lung (read: “heart”) shouldn’t be on your tongue. “Have some reserve!” my father used to scold me.
But the truth is that other people’s calculated reserve both frightens and humiliates me. One always senses, in any serious conversation, when something is being withheld. It implies that you, the listener, are a source of danger; you are under suspicion of envy or resentment; you are taken to be a kind of evil eye–in telling, the teller will be vulnerable to your desire to do harm or despoil or undermine. I felt this last week when, in the most natural way, I asked a successful young writer what the title of her just-completed new novel was. “I can’t tell you,” she said. “I can never tell anything. All writers are like that. You must be the same.” I was pierced by a small and humbling shock. No, I am not the same!
A trivial moment, a trivial anecdote–but it has more significant parallels. To withhold or hide plausible information is to render it uninnocent, to turn it into a wand or lance of power or privilege. Secrecy hurts; and when it is taken to be a means of self-protection, it hurts all the more.
I don’t understand secretive people; they seem to me to be another species. Secretiveness is itself never a secret; it is always fully evident. The act of hiding exposes. We feel it when people keep secrets; we feel the unkindness in it, the narrowing eyes, the touch of ill will, the touch of put-down, the huddling circle of sovereign selfdom being drawn, and ourselves outside it.