Guilty Pleasures: David Corbett

Guilt, Shame, Secrets & Pleasure: A Kind of Inner Heat

I know most guest authors who comment on this issue discuss delightful obsessions with the tacky, pulpy, retro or just plain bad. I’d like to take a slightly different approach, if I may. Sex will be discussed, if that’s any consolation.

Why should any pleasure be guilty? What’s wrong with being pleased—or “pleasured?”

The nuance dividing those two words gives the thing away. To be pleasured—note the decline in music, as Wallace Stevens might quip. (Did Wallace Stevens quip?) Even my Uncle Jit from Wisconsin can be pleased. I shudder to picture him pleasured.

Confessing our so-called guilty pleasures almost always involves a wink at the listener, an admission we don’t really feel guilty at all. We feel, at some level, in the know.

It’s the guilty pleasures we don’t confess that are interesting. Not because saying them out loud will make us feel guilty—or guiltier—but because they will make us feel ashamed.

We cherish the enjoyment of that pleasure so much, it arouses such a delicious ambivalence—“a kind of inner heat” as John Hawkes put it (see below)—that we dare not confide it. Not only will people look at us like the freaks we are, the pleasure itself will now bear the taint of humiliation. Confession kills the thrill.

Don’t worry. I’m no more going to share with you my truly guilty pleasures than anyone else does in this column. Those, by their nature, must remain secret. But I will share an illustrative anecdote, which involves Laura Lippman.

We were talking at the bar outside the pool area at Bouchercon in Las Vegas, and she brought up that she’d found a copy of the book 9 ½ Weeks in a used bookstore some years back.

I told her she’s the only person I know who’s read the book other than me. (The movie is unwatchable, but the book is haunting.)

I then attempted to express an idea I’d had for some time, that Americans find refuge in sentiment or the old nuts-and-bolts whenever anything suggesting real feeling rears its ugly head. That fact, especially in conjunction with the ironic jadedness that pervades our media-saturated lives, has rendered us unable to express real erotic or romantic abandon without seeking shelter in bodice-ripping bloviation or the whips-and-leather argot of S&M. The whole premise of 9 ½ Weeks is the power of sexual abandon, and how it can go tragically awry.

However, what I said was: “S&;M is about romance.”

Laura looked at me quizzically—though, to her inestimable credit, not judgmentally—then leaned close and whispered: “I wouldn’t put that in a personal ad if I were you.”

I laughed so hard I couldn’t catch my breath. I also turned beet red.

A shameful pleasure differs from a pleasure that arouses shame. As in “pleased” versus “pleasured:” Interesting, how much words and their meanings go on holiday the closer they get to sex.

When I teach character I find that many of my students are hazy on the difference between guilt and shame. Guilt implies a moral wrong. Shame, on the other hand, involves being stripped bare, a loss of face, a sudden dissolution of status that makes us feel as though our standing among others has been devastatingly compromised, perhaps forever. Whether we know it or not, someone is laughing behind our back.

Nakedness is the fundamental condition of shame. And yet, as early as the banishment of Adam & Eve from the garden, the lesson was: Nakedness is not just humiliating but wrong—they covered themselves. Were they ashamed? Before whom? No, they felt guilty, but it’s never really clear why. And that confusion, that ambiguity has proved far more poisonous than the apple they left behind.

Feeling ashamed of nakedness, literal or figurative, makes perfect sense. Exposure elicits vulnerability. We’re seen without the disguises and masks with which we normally protect our more shadowy selves. But why feel guilty at the same time—what real sin have we committed beyond being imperfect?

Parents invoke both shame and guilt—while they represent the moral order of the home, they’re also are a major source of love. To do something they consider wrong means not just facing their judgment but being exposed as less than they expect, risking the alienation of their fondness. We don’t share our porn with mom and dad. Unless we intend to kill them afterward.

The same is true with friends and peers, but absent the guilt. Here it’s shame alone that enforces decorum. (And we needn’t kill them. We can always just find new pals.)

I think a lot of the so-called guilty pleasures discussed in this column are instead pleasures that elicit shame, making us feel as though we’re betraying our better—or more acceptable—selves, and therefore risking ridicule, when we tastelessly, unintelligently or luridly give in to watching that film, listening to that band, reading that book, whether it’s Invasion from Mars, Depeche Mode or Arkansas Hooters.

Which segues (somewhat clumsily) to the quotation from John Hawkes I promised earlier. It’s from his novel Travesty, which is something like a shotgun wedding between Albert Camus’ The Fall and John Fowles’ The Collector. The book was one of my guilty pleasures in college. Hawkes was a respected if obscure literary novelist who, in his later novels—including The Blood Oranges, and Death, Sleep & the Traveler—began to fuse the mythic with the blatantly erotic. I went back to read him recently and found him insufferably arch, but this section affected me then and still resonates. It goes to the heart of guilt, shame, pleasure and secrets, albeit in a skewed way.

The narrator is at the wheel of a sports car traveling at top speed through the night along a winding island road. He intends to kill himself and his two passengers—his daughter (in the back seat) and his best friend beside him, a poet who has been the lover of both the daughter and her mother, the driver’s wife:

I do not believe in secrets—withheld or shared. Nor do I believe in guilt. At least let us agree that secrets and so-called guilty deeds are fictions to enhance the sense of privacy, to feed enjoyment into our isolation, to enlarge the rhythm of what most people need, which is a belief in life. But surely “belief in life” is not for you, not for a poet. Even I have discovered the factitious quality of that idea.

No man is guilty of anything, whatever he does. There you have it. Secrets are for children and egotists and sensualists. Guilt is merely a pain that disappears as soon as we recognize the worst in us all. Absolution is an unnecessary and, further, incomprehensible concept. I am not attempting to justify myself or punish you. You are not guilty. Never for a moment did I think you were. As for me, my “worst” would not fill a crooked spoon.

And yet there are those of us, and I am doing my best to include you among our select few, for whom the most ordinary kind of daily existence partakes of the contradictory sensation we know as shame. For such people everything, absolutely everything, is eroticized. Such a man walks through the stalls of a butcher in a kind of inner heat, which accounts for his smile.

David Corbett
David, in addition to having a handsome bald noggin and being a great guy, is the author of four acclaimed novels, most the recent of which is DO THEY KNOW I’M RUNNING. His first book, THE DEVIL’S REDHEAD, was nominated for the Anthony and Barry Awards for Best First Novel of 2002.

In a previous life, David was a private investigator. That is right, David actually lived the life that most authors simply write about. While there has been no confirmation as to whether or not he wore a trench coat, he worked out of San Francisco so I think there is a good chance he donned one at least once in a while. For more info, head on over to his website.