The Freud Museum



Kalu Singh

A sense of guilt is a uniquely human experience, and a major theme in explorations of the human imagination, from Greek tragedy to television soap opera. A sense of guilt in the real world of moral transgressions would seem to be necessary to hold society together, but many people experience guilty feelings which cannot be explained in terms of their conscious values. Where do these feelings come from? And what are the effects of neurotic guilt on society and culture?

Most people would say that shame is both a more awful and a less awful experience than guilt. This, again, is because of the 'where' that it is experienced. 'Shame is the Cinderella of the unpleasant emotions, having received much less attention than anxiety, guilt and depression', writes Rycroft, prompting in me the trivial fantasy of what her magical glass-slipper would symbolise. Erikson explains this insufficient attention as arising from the fact that 'in our civilisation it [shame] is so early and easily absorbed by guilt'. But at least he accords it a stage - the second, and taking place in infancy - in his developmental account of the eight dichotomies to be negotiated in a human life. He pairs it with 'doubt', and contrasts them both with 'autonomy', the attainment of a sense of integrity, skill and self-sufficient power with regard to primary bodily functions - eating and excretion. Shame is the sensation consequent upon the exposure of failed autonomy or hubris. The audience is one's mother/parent, one's status reference group, one's Superego, or one's Ego-Ideal. Imagine yourself at a posh dinner, eating pea and tarragon soup. If your hand slips, your bib will turn green and your face red - and red and green must never be seen! But what if a pea falls in your cleavage - oh, Princess, what colour then!

These shameful displays are visible to the fumbler and to the audience. There is a worse humiliation, captured by the common expression 'to have egg on one's face', when the fumbling eater cannot see the debris of his clumsiness, and the shame is worse because the Egg Man must now relive all the possibilities of having been seen, from the breakfast table to the workplace. But the front of the body which hasn't been seen reminds one of the back of the body which can't be seen. It is the literal and metaphoric difficulty of the sense of a behind, to do with faeces, the past, and leaving the unseeable, which inspires Erikson's wonderful aphorism, 'Doubt is the brother of shame' (Erikson p228). A parent's ambivalence about having a child will take one form with respect to difficulties in feeding that child; but a different intensity will attend difficulties with anal training. From the child's point of view, writes Erikson, 'from a sense of loss of self-control and foreign overcontrol comes a lasting propensity for doubt and shame'. (p228)

It is at the next developmental stage that 'guilt' is introduced, forming the negative of the dichotomous pair with 'initiative'. The guilt here is once again the nameless residue of the Oedipal situation. What the child must relinquish is the desire to know its mother's body, transforming it into a desire to know the non-mother world. As Erikson says, 'Visual shame precedes auditory guilt, which is a sense of badness to be had all by oneself when nobody watches and when everything is quiet except the voice of the Superego'.(p227) One's eyes can't see themselves without the mirror of another's eyes, and - tragically - one's lips can't kiss themselves; but one can hear, both with the 'inner' and 'outer' ears, the commands that one speaks to oneself. From this phenomenon, Otto Isakower argued that the Superego derives from the auditory sphere....

The voice of guilt is like a maddening, trashy pop song - unstoppable, a loop, a Laingian Knot.

Jill feels guilty
that Jack feels guilty
that Jill feels guilty
that Jack feels guilty.

He feels that he is unhappy because he is guilty to be happy when others are unhappy and that he made a mistake to marry someone who can only think of happiness.

It can be worse, as Laing knew, for a man with less than 'six degrees of separation' from the Thane of Glamis:

Jimmy McKenzie was a bloody pest at the mental hospital because he went round shouting back at his voices. We could only hear one end of the conversation, of course, but the other end could be inferred in general terms at least from: 'Away tae fuck, ye filthy-minded bastards ...'

What kind of physic, what kind of therapy would help poor Jimmy?

Erikson Erik (1963) Childhood and Society London: Paladin
Isakower, Otto (1939) 'On the exceptional position of the auditory sphere' International Journal of Psychoanalysis Vol 20
Laing, R. D. (1970) Knots London: Penguin p26, 28
Laing, R.D. (1967) The Politics of Experience London: Penguin p146
Rycroft, Charles (1968) A Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis Harmondsworth: Penguin

Kalu Singh came to England from India, and to psychoanalysis via Chemistry, Philosophy, English and Education. He works as a civil servant and as a Sessional Counsellor in a University Counselling Service. This extract is from his book Guilt, part of the Ideas In Psychoanalysis series, published by Icon Books.

Ideas In Psychoanalysis
edited by Ivan Ward Icon Books £3.99

Now available from the museum shop

Speak Up Ye Buggers!
Start Making Sense: Therapy

It was decided at one and the same time to alleviate his distress and ours, by giving him the benefit of a leucotomy. An improvement in his condition was noted. After the operation he went around no longer shouting abuse at his voices, but: 'What's that? Say that again! Speak up ye buggers, I cannae hear ye!'52

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