Embarrassment is shame’s awkward cousin. At least, that’s the story told by many theories of emotion. Shame is a feeling that floods our whole being, that colours us to the core. Embarrassment is skin deep. Sweats, stutters and blushes – these bodily discomforts declare sharp but fading blows to our public sense of self. Where the shameful act marks us for life, a gaffe can be laughed off or lived down.
But it’s an inexact formula to say that shame attaches to essence, embarrassment to accidents. Rekindling itself in memory, embarrassment can have a mortifying afterlife. And for all its rootedness in social missteps, it may be the outward sign of an unexplained or objectless angst. This often-overlooked seriousness has implications for our understanding of self-conscious negative emotions in healthcare settings, explaining why some are more prone to avoid these settings than others.
Samuel Beckett, I suggest in my forthcoming book, was a writer particularly adept at signalling the embarrassments caused by the body’s everyday failures. Worn down by various ailments (cysts, corns, dermal and dental problems) in his late-twenties, Beckett responded to his physiological frailties by looking for their psychological roots. To get at the ‘puddle’ beneath the ‘bubble’ (Letters 259), as Beckett put it, he underwent analysis with the influential English psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion and buried himself in books of contemporary psychology. His work and his letters of the 1930s bear witness to this self-education. But they also provide us, his readers, with lesser known signs of embarrassment, and with strategies to deflect its obviousness – if at the cost of sociability.
Beckett’s psychoanalytic reading gave him a framework to understand some of the anti-social behaviour he had already fictionalised in his awkward anti-hero, Belacqua. In writing his first collection of stories, More Pricks than Kicks, it’s clear that Beckett transferred many of his own frailties onto Belacqua. What’s more, he made them play a prominent, even flagrant, part in the stories, turning embarrassment from an unwanted into an intended experience. A good example occurs in ‘Fingal’ (1934). Afflicted by the same skin condition as his creator, Belacqua doesn’t attempt to shrink from the repulsed gaze of his girlfriend, Winnie. Unfazed, he names the condition (impetigo) and defiantly volunteers too much information: ‘you see it on slum children’ (18). Far from placating his Winnie, Belacqua’s words are primed to drive her away.
But why exhibit what you would hide? Why flag what’s likely to cause a cringing withdrawal? One reason is that a deliberate flaunting of the thing that’s embarrassing reduces its obviousness, or at least reduces the obviousness of one’s embarrassability: Belacqua’s impetigo is dwarfed by his apparent indifference towards it. Another reason would be that embarrassment, when actively magnified, can preserve autonomy. Inverting embarrassment’s usual social dynamics, Belacqua turns Winnie’s imminent departure from an unexpected event into a premeditated outcome. He uses his own mortification to transform disappointment into a desired consequence rather than one to be suffered passively. The cognitive structure of embarrassment is essentially overturned. Where it usually implies loss of face, of power, and of self-possession, embarrassment is now refashioned into something that retains these things.
The letters Beckett wrote around this time perform similar pre-emptive exposures. Addressing a would-be lover in a most self-thwarting letter, he offers this diagnosis: ‘I obviously suffer from the acutest paraesthesia to all that is said and written to and of me. When I hear a small boy giggle two liberties off I redden to the rotten roots of my white hair.’ Apart from the body-flooding blush, ‘paraesthesia’ gives a clue to embarrassment’s dreadful indeterminacy. Beckett discovered the term in Ernest Jones’s early work, Papers on Psycho-Analysis (1912), where it’s described as a prickling sensation (formication) of unknown cause. Paraesthesia features among the symptoms of morbid anxiety or anxiety neurosis, which in turn is linked with embarrassment: ‘[Morbid anxiety]…varies greatly from, on the one extreme, a slight abashment, awkwardness, embarrassment, or confusion to, on the other, a degree of indescribable dread’ (159).
Though Jones designates embarrassment as a less severe form of anxiety, Beckett clearly saw these affective states as deeply entwined. In his later works, he would dramatise embarrassment as an existential rather than accidental condition, turning impropriety into the proper expression of human exposure. We see this in Waiting for Godot’s closing scene. Estragon’s trousers drop down to his ankles in Chaplinesque fashion, but only because he removes his belt to test it out as a suicide weapon. Beckett was only too happy to have audiences erupt in laughter at the tragic-slapstick. Nothing funnier than unhappiness, he thought.
So, populated by figures deeply aware of their flesh-locked existence, the Beckett canon reads as a primer on embarrassment’s degrees of severity and seriousness. Familiar to a larger audience are those existentially exposed figures in the drama: the half-naked Estragon, Winnie stuck ‘up to her diddies’ in the sand, Nagg and Nell peeping out of their ashcans. But the lesser known early work adds something else. It expands our understanding of the disabling acuteness with which bodily embarrassment may be felt. It also shows how embarrassment might hide in plain sight as it adopts the postures of indifference, indignation or even power. The important thing, Beckett teaches, is not to take such posturing at face value. The puddle beneath the bubble can be very deep.
Beckett, Samuel. The Complete Dramatic Works. London: Faber and Faber, 2006.
—— The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Volume 1: 1929-1940. Edited by Martha Dow Fehsenfeld, Lois More Overbeck, Georg Craig, and Dan Gunn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
—— More Pricks than Kicks. Ed. Cassandra Nelson. London: Faber and Faber, 2010.
Jones, Ernest. Papers on Psycho-Analysis. London: Baillière, Tindall and Cox, 1913.
Rick de Villiers is a lecturer in the Department of English at the University of the Free State, South Africa. His first monograph, Eliot and Beckett’s Low Modernism: Humility and Humiliation (Edinburgh University Press) will be published in October 2021. For more, visit www.rickdevilliers.com.