Question 2 (a)

The feeling is not becoming to every age, but only to youth. For we think young people should be prone to the feeling of shame because they live by feeling and therefore commit many errors, but are restrained by shame. 

- Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book IV

Discuss how a sensibility of shame is central to the works of two or more writers you have studied.


I hesitate to call this an essay. The term implies something heavyweight and insightful, though its meaning has lately been cheapened. An essay should never be a hot take or clickbait or self-indulgent, the kind of piece I occasionally write.

But perhaps I am being too hard on myself. My fear of looking stupid is matched only by my fear of looking pretentious. It has reached the point that I cannot go into bookshops anymore: Hodges Figgis on Dawson Street has become a stage for externalised angst. I don’t want to be seen taking anything off the shelves, in case other people judge me. The last time I was there I mispronounced ‘Meeee-chell Whell-beck’, then ran away. I now buy books almost exclusively on Kindle.

But perhaps I am thinking about this too much. You know that scene in the record shop in High Fidelity, where Jack Black shrieks at a customer? He tells them,“Don’t tell anybody you don’t have Blonde on Blonde. It’s going to be ok.” I’m afraid of that happening, but with books. I imagine the assistants will know me on sight as a heathen and a populist, and will judge me for the books I have not read. 

And there are so many of those. At Cambridge, the University Library is a sprawling 1930s thing built in a style Germaine Greer once described as “rationalist-fascist” in The Guardian. It is crowned with a looming, phallic tower, and new parts are added every year to accommodate more books. The library menaces freshers with the prospect of inexhaustible learning. You will never have read them all. You will never have read enough.

I had thought getting into Cambridge would give me confidence. This never happened. So I held on, believing that graduation would do the same. Finally I believed that getting a job, or getting writing published would do the trick. The glittering prizes never delivered. 

Instead I accumulated doubt. The course was one of ego battery, breaking your critical faculties in order to rebuild them like muscles. We’d write an essay every week, occasionally two, then argue their points with the supervisor (invariably an expert on something awe-inspiring and arcane - in first year I was taught by a lady who had spent years producing a 700-page tome on the semiotic value of Elizabethan fountains). The other students were reserved, intimidating. Many of them wore tweed, and those who did not, wore cord instead. They spoke in seminars with cool enunciation, which I now realise might have been meant to mask the accents of their hometowns. 

Neurosis was to be expected: we English students, the ‘Englings’, lived our subject as a way of life. This peaked during the Tragedy paper, where we were encouraged to view not only literature but everyday culture through the framework of epic tragedy. Football became a Nietzschean struggle. The trials of Oedipus were compared to getting blind drunk at the college bop(1). I began to dress in black like Hamlet, but approached my personal life like Ophelia. I fell in an out of love, became depressed, starved myself for a sense of control. Sweets to the sweet, aspartame to the artificially sweet.

Students of subjects like Natural Sciences, Economics or Land Economy(2) were being trained for life outside the bubble(3), but we were being trained for glorious obscurity. Reading should not be meant as a performance, but it was one. Pressured to argue and understand, we read not to enjoy books but so that we could talk about them later. 

There are memories of this time which make me cringe. Being chastised in a practical criticism class for assuming the poet was a ‘he’. Passing out drunk in a cupboard at the Union. Sitting in a supervision on The Birth of Tragedy with my tutor and one other student, Will, who I had hooked up with the week before. Will was the class favourite, and definitely seemed to understand Nietzsche, while I did not. The tutor asked me, “What is the will?”, and Will smirked from his armchair. I muttered, “The will… the Will… the will…”. 

A list of subjects I wrote about in essays but did not understand would include:

  • Ferdinand de Saussure
  • Most of Capitalism and Schizophrenia
  • Shakespeare’s Henriad, the four plays of which we were required to read in one week, and consequently none of which I remember 
  • Mimesis. This seems like an easy concept to grasp, but then you apply it and all your arguments fall apart....

I’m not being coy by pretending not to know (though I have done that in the past, sometimes to trap people, usually men, into patronising hubris)(4). I remember during those years giving up far too easily: turning in essays without formatting, turning up to supervisions without having read the text. In each case I’d decided I’d never be good, so why try?

But doubt is time-consuming. I remember contemplating the ordered horror of my inbox, staring at emails for hours unable to reply or even open them. At Cambridge emails are written with particular formality: some tutors are referred to by their first names, others by ‘Professor’, others by ‘Mr’ out of wilful self-effacement. Add to this the pressure of knowing how to sign off, and the correct way to explain “I’m sorry but I’ve not managed to read ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, though I have watched the Kenneth Branagh film from 1993, and found it dated, and kind of unbearable...

Finally, one of my supervisors decided to drop me, because I left it too long to reply. I messed up not out of failure, but out of fear of failure instead. 

Seneca wrote “It is pleasant at times to play the madman”.  By year two I concluded that I would never have the right answer, so I set about trolling the faculty instead. I aspired to adoxography, elaborate writing on trivial subjects, and wrote essays on Bald Britney and Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads. I tried to annoy the librarians with deliberately strange book orders, including Pornocracy (Breillat, Catherine, 2006), Boys Boyz Bois (Harris, Keith, 2006), I Love Dick (Kraus, Chris, 1997) and a book about Lacan and Patricia Highsmith, the title of which I forget, but the cover of which had a photograph of two snails fucking.

Was it rebellion, or obnoxiousness, or a refusal to take myself seriously? Why couldn’t I see doubt as something human? Shame is an element of epic tragedy, one I took to heart. Shame for having got in, when I was so patently a fraud. Shame for not knowing, and not being brave enough to ask.

Imposter Syndrome is - fittingly - not really a clinical disorder, but is a collection of consistent symptoms. The term was coined in 1978, following a study by clinical psychologists Dr Pauline R Chance and Suzanne A Imes. They examined the feeling women often experience of being a ‘fraud’ after achieving success, and their pervasive fear of being exposed.

What lies behind this ‘syndrome’? Perhaps the shock of getting what we want. Will and I graduated with the same mark, in the end. But I refused to believe Cambridge students were mortal, and therefore refused to believe I was one of them. Later studies have shown Imposter Syndrome to affect men too, though personally I believe women have a greater tendency towards it. Pretension is a game for life, one dominated by men (5). It is hard to think of a woman ‘holding forth’, but it is easy to think of one ranting. 

On the Tragedy paper I argued that shame is a metatextual conceit, in that it allows characters to question to how they will be treated by history. But shame is not just for demigods like Medea and Ajax: shame is what makes these characters relatable. It’s a human trait, one which can be blown up to epic proportions.

Lately I have accepted shame as part of the process of learning: in order to improve we must first acknowledge where we fall short. Shame fades: it morphs into the memory of only having been very young. The past becomes a place where you belonged, while outsider syndrome moves on and attaches itself to the present. 

At a supervision near the end of my time at Cambridge, I arrived too early and found myself drinking tea with my supervisor, a sixty-something Chaucer scholar. He asked me how I was getting on, and I told him I still didn’t know what I was doing. He replied “Neither do I. I’m making it up as I go along.” 

This might not have been meant as advice, but it’s what I have chosen to take with me. There is no right answer: ask, and you shall receive only more questions. 

1.A twice-annual college disco, usually meriting the consumption of Bop Juice.

2. lol

3. A cast iron lamppost located on the bus route out of Cambridge called ‘Reality Checkpoint’ marks the divide between Cambridge and the outside world. Which side is ‘reality’ depends entirely on personal preference. This is an actual thing. Look it up on Google Maps.

4. I flirt by following a girl around a bookstore and insulting every book she picks up. Works every time.”-@GuyInYourMFA

5. “Never ought words to have outweighed deeds in this world, Agamemnon. No! … There are, it is true, clever persons, who have made a science of this, but their cleverness cannot last forever; a miserable end awaits them.” Euripides. Hecuba. Trans E.P. Coleridge. Ed. Whitney Oates and Eugene O’Neill, Jr. Random House. 1938. Print.