…maybe. I’m rereading Mill on the Floss for orals right now, and it’s a book that hits close to home in lots of ways, so close that I can’t bitch about it, which is pretty rare. Partly it’s due to literary identifications (does it reveal too much about me that on my first reading I identified with Maggie Tulliver, and her dad, to some extent, but this time I’m identifying more with Philip Wakem?). Maybe Anne will be able to help me out with some bitching.

In a recent post, I blockquoted a few temporality-related passages, the first of which was ethically oriented:

It is not pleasant to give up a rat-catching when you have set your mind on it. But if Tom had told his strongest feeling at that moment, he would have said, I’d do just the same again.” That was his usual mode of viewing his past actions; whereas Maggie was always wishing she had done something different. (Pt. 1 Ch. VI)

Now that I’m reading for it, I’m seeing the past’s problematic relationship to the present on a whole bunch of levels: on the historical level (it takes place just before the beginning of the Victorian era, and recalls far older rural traditions); on the individual level (constant reflections on childhood vs. adulthood, Maggie’s young adulthood vs. her childhood); on the economic level (obsessions with loans, debts, interest); on the natural level (the river); and, as the block quote suggests, the ethical level.

Reading the second half of the book, I was reminded of that old orientalist contrast between shame-based and guilt-based cultures, started by Ruth Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. Basically, the idea is that shame societies socially undesirable behaviour is prohibited through the threat of shame in the eyes of others, while guilt societies prohibit them by instilling guilt within the individual, regardless of what others think or know. Benedict’s idea was that Japan was shame-based, and western culture guilt-based. According to wikipedia, her book, translated into Chinese, was popular in 2005 when Sino-Japanese relations soured, but from an orientalist western perspective, Eastern cultures in general are shame-based–in China, in reference to the concept of saving or losing face. I haven’t really been thinking about the shame/guilt contrast in relation to China and Victorian England, but Eliot’s book might not be a bad place to start, although there’s not even a link to China that I can scare up.

In my little explanation above, I contrasted the terms using the society/individual binary. If poor Maggie always wishing she’d done something different exemplifies the concept of guilt, her family, the Dodson sisters especially, operate almost exclusively through shame. It’s disgrace that they fear, repeatedly, whether it’s the result of financial ruin, or Maggie’s bond with Philip:

“Well,” said Tom, with cold scorn, “if your feelings are so much better than mine, let me see you show them in some other way than by conduct that’s likely to disgrace us all.” (“Wheat and Tares,” Ch. V)

Ouch. Maggie’s aunts’ obsession with the china and linens with “Elizabeth Dodson” auctioned off to strangers is a less painful example.

In this post, though, I’ll just point out that you can differentiate shame and guilt through their temporalities. Shame is primarily experienced as the fear of a future unpleasant condition or consequence; guilt, primarily the regret of a past unfortunate action or intention. Or, in grammatical terms: shame is like the perfect tense, i.e. the present condition as a result of a past completed action, while guilt is some past tense (e.g. the passé composé of French or the Greek aorist–an action completed in the past; the imperfect–a continuous, habitual, or repeated past action; or maybe, most appropriately, the historical present). The feeling of guilt–specific guilt, not some kind of generalized Catholic/catholic guilt–involves a painfully intimate experience of the past within the present. And I wonder if this experience is relevant to those other levels of past/present relations outlined above.

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