I am, I will admit, very susceptible to injury. I don't mean physical injury, but injury ensuing from harshness of tone, sneering, or disrespectful remarks; being treated, in short, with lack of human courtesy. There are a number of incidents over the years, which have lodged firmly in my mind, like little wounds, or scars that can be easily opened and once opened freshly bleed.
I remember very clearly one time, some twenty years ago, I was travelling back from university to Bradford on the train. I had a heavy cold and was sniffing and sniffling, full of phlegm. Across the aisle was a man not much older than me, in an expensive suit, with papers spread out before him. He kept trying to buttonhole me with a bold stare, some sort of high velocity stare he was, doubtless, accustomed to firing at people who annoyed him. "Excuse me," he barked "you're making some disgusting noises. Why don't you get a tissue?" I was very taken aback of course. You don't expect to be addressed in this fashion on public transport. “Thanks for pointing that out,” I replied, with a faintest aftertaste of sarcasm. But of course, he wasn’t just “pointing something out.” He was very far from “pointing something out”, just as most acts of “pointing something out” are also acts of another sort entirely. In this case, the man, to whom I assigned the name Godfrey, wished to posit me as an object of disgust, as the source-object of his disgust. It is clear, and commonly agreed, that “disgusting” objects are of a certain category, thus: things that are excremental, various form of discharge and disjecta, things that have irreversibly exited the body - the guts of a squashed bird, a steaming pile of faeces, or the clot of cold blood I saw this morning in a public urinal near Beak Street. This is what the man was invoking in speaking to me, grouping me with such things, treating me, very precisely, as a piece of shit. What is more, of course, he was asking me to go along with this, as when someone says "pick up the litter, vermin,” where to respond by merely picking up the litter is, by that exact same stroke, to posit oneself as vermin. In my case, to respond with "sorry, yes, I'll get a tissue," would, of course, be to accept my status as an object of disgust, to define myself as such. What sort of person asks another to do this? Only a sadist.
This was, in fact, one of those "micro humiliations" of which I have spoken, the microsadisms that people get away with, or assume they can get away with: inflicting on others the worse kind of indignity by forcing people to collude in their own humiliation. Any such person, a person who posits another as an object of disgust, is the very worst kind of person, and the fact that he (it often is he) operates within the law only makes worse his crimes. For the worst crimes are those committed within the law. This is easily illustrated. The law is a high perimeter fence, beyond which there are acts of murder and theft, fraud, embezzlement and vandalism. The fence has many policemen, guards, sentinels, wardens, beadles, bureaucrats, judges, and so forth. It’s no surprise that few people venture beyond the fence. They are threatened and penned in. But inside the boundary of “What is permitted,” people can do as they please. There is no law against laughing at the beggar who asks for money, blanking the friend in mental distress, meeting someone’s evident pain with cold logic or polite condescension. These are the true crimes, and such a criminal was this Godfrey man on the train. After my brief reply, I blushed and blew my nose. But the barb was still in my side, and after his words had bubbled in my belly for a while, my anger rose and reddened, my skin blushed and tingled, to the extent I could no longer stay seated. I rose and left the carriage
Of course, it was not possible to kick him in the kidneys or break his nose. I walked instead to the buffet car. I ordered a black coffee, "extra hot please, extra large." And, as I returned to my seat, I tripped, or "tripped" I should say, I took a tumble, and the violent coffee darkened his belly, his papers, his crotch. He squealed like one of Circe’s pigs, his face a blazon of Pain against the rushing light. Then, such a furore of shouting ensued, with “You fucking arsehole, for fuck’s sake you idiot” and so on.. So much rage released through his mouth. I rolled out the expected apologies, offered to call for assistance, a few clockwork phrases to serve as an alibi. He was still shouting and balling, something about suing me and so forth.. Just a wall of sound really, I wasn't listening.
He took with him his Mulberry bag to the toilet and returned in tracksuit bottoms and a t-shirt, stripped now of his symbolic integument, de-feathered, ashamed to be merely human. He asked for my address, which was an act of laughable imposture, as if he were the official registering the event, as if it had to be registered by him before it existed, before its meaning solidified. Anyway, I gave him the address of my doctor in Broad Street. When he rang the number, and heard the receptionist, there would be a dawning realisation of the wool pulled over his eyes, which would also be, at the same time, a subtle adumbration of my smiling face looking down on his, as Ali looked down on Liston.
My actions in this anecdote might be thought "extreme", but I had only caused temporary anger and pain. I had scalded his skin, ruined his paperwork and parboiled his bollocks, whereas he had asked that I deny my humanity, which no one can ask, by acceding to my status as an object of disgust. At no point, by the way, did he think my action was deliberate. But when he left the train I knocked on the window and he turned around to see me laughing, as one might laugh with a friend, reminiscing about the old days.