Embarrassment

Is everyone like that? “I don’t know how long to look, or what to say,” said the man in the art gallery. Look if you are captivated, look away if you are uninterested, “say what you feel, not what you ought to say”. I imagine him trying to think what others who knew more than he would say, getting it wrong, and being laughed at. If you say what you feel, it is not wrong- at least, not in a gallery. “Normal is what everyone else is and you are not.” It’s hard to imagine other people trying to think what the cognoscenti would say, and trying to imitate it, and failing. It’s only me that could possibly do that. It’s only me, that anyone would ever laugh at.

And yet, there he is, saying he does not know, and pride has stopped him learning. Or self-effacement. His wife’s an artist! Would she never have told him what she saw in art? The horror at appearing not to know, that embarrassment, stopped him asking. Perhaps she never thought he would listen to her, because that would mean appearing not to know.

I went to art galleries because I knew that was the cultured thing to do, and it was good to appear cultured, then more and more I went to galleries because I love them. I don’t care what to say. Sometimes, “Wow” does. Possibly, “That smile looks enigmatic because the eyes and the mouth are expressing different emotions”. I have ticked off the Mona Lisa from my list, while I was going round galleries from an idea that I ought to, that that was the cultured thing to do.

Needing to appear to know makes doing the work to know unbearable. Curators know the power of some images, and will give a vista: you look through an opening, it catches your eye on the far wall of the next gallery, and you have to go and look- a bit like love at first sight. Art galleries can do that. You know so little about art you don’t even know what you like, and then you are captivated.

It’s easier to write this post when I think- other people might be like that too. Not everyone, around every situation- sailors know ships, artists know art, parliamentarians know parliament- but around most situations where there might be expertise, some people will know, and some will be uneasy, because they don’t, and imagine everyone else does. I’ve tried bluffing and been caught out.

There must be a sensible thing to do in this situation and I don’t know what it is, and when I do something else, people will laugh at me, or despise me, or exploit me. Who? Well, the Normal people, that is every single other person. But if only I felt like that there would be no word for it, and there is. It’s called embarrassment. I understand the oldest use of the word is for a debtor, who is embarrassed when they cannot pay. Pause to look it up. No, apparently: that use is “L19” and the play “Embarras de richesse” was performed in 1753. But the definition “perplexed” does not capture the harsh pain of it. “I will be found out!”

Embarrassment is the obverse of false pride, never wanting to be seen wanting. If I can admit ignorance many will be willing to teach me. I might give an exchange, teaching them something, or might accept the gift.

Fear of Embarrassment is one reason I fear to go out. The normal people- everyone else- will see me, and despise me. Pride, shame, stop me taking action, for fear of embarrassment. I think I inherit it from my mother, with her fear of her weird sexuality being found out.

That thing I could do is good enough. No-one will see it and despise it, because they won’t know the details or care enough to try to puzzle them out. What if it does not work? It will work well enough. It will be over soon enough.

I know a bit about art, enough to bother reading that Paolo Caliari, painting in Venice, was known as Veronese, the man from Verona. But who could not look up at this and see drama in it? It may help to know the cherub with a bow is Cupid, not necessarily to know it was commissioned by the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II for Prague Castle. If your response is simply, “Wow”, your friends will not feel the scorn you fear from them, and no-one else will care.

I have been wrestling with the thought of this post all day. How can I express the pain of embarrassment, and not write something which is unbearable to read? By dancing round the pain, and making a joke of it.

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