Portal Site for Russellian in Japan
Most people, at any rate most young people, know the feeling of a sudden humiliating recollection, when one goes hot all over and stops breathing for a moment. If in company I have told a story which was too long and failed to raise the expected laugh, or which was tactless in view of some person's presence, I am apt to wake up in the middle of the night with a hot feeling of shame, of which the cause for a moment escapes me and then suddenly rushes back into memory. The same sort of thing happens when one has been ignorant of something one ought to have known, and more particularly if one has failed to recognize a person who is hurt at being forgotten. I suspect that Lord Rolle, who rolled down the steps of the throne at Queen Victoria's coronation, could never after hear about rolling without a blush. I still remember with a profound sense of guilt an occasion on which I forgot a dinner engagement and remembered just as I had finished my own dinner. I rushed round, arriving very late, and tried to eat a second dinner, which I found to be an agonizing torture. To the young and shy the recollection of social faux pas is a misery which makes society much more painful than solitude.
I think the feeling that most people have about serious sins is essentially of the same kind. Those who commit a murder - so, at least, I gather from the books - feel little remorse so long as they are sure that they will not be found out, but begin to wish that they had not done it as soon as discovery becomes imminent. I doubt whether there is any real difference, except in degree, between the remorse of a murderer and the humiliation of the shy man when he has behaved awkwardly. In each case one has the feeling 'If only it were to do again, how differently I could act,' combined with fantasies of a wiser behaviour which may in time completely falsify one's memory. I suspect that nine people out of ten, if they had committed a murder at the age of twenty and had never been found out, would by the time they were seventy have become convinced that they had never done any such thing. I am sure that eminent plutocrats who are self-made have quite forgotten the tricks and twists of their early days. Public exposure of crimes committed long ago, when it occurs, probably causes genuine surprise to the criminal. I read a novel once in which a man and woman, who had both committed serious crimes, married each other in ignorance of each other's past and were both genuinely pained when they discovered the sort of person they had married. I think remorse is essentially a social phenomenon which occurs when we realise (realize) that, owing to something we have done, we cannot make other people take the favourable view of ourselves that we should wish them to entertain. It is, of course, essential that we should accept the standards from which our social condemnation springs. If we do not, our reaction is quite different, being one of indignation and self-assertion.
Some fortunate people never experience the sense of being in the wrong, either in great matters or in small. I remember once asking an eminent lady whether she had ever felt shy. She replied: 'No. Whenever I have felt any tendency that way, I have said to myself "You are the cleverest member of one of the cleverest families of the cleverest class of the cleverest nation in the world - why should you feel shy ?" ' I heard this answer with awe and envy.