Book Talk: Thus Spake Wayne Koestenbaum

Humiliation is “unspeakably horrifying” but it is also wonderful when it’s over, when we have survived it — as countless high-profile victims can attest.

Anyone holding in hand Wayne Koestenbaum’s little book Humiliation — at once shameless and shame-full — owes it to the author to recall one’s own squirmy moments of humiliation before opening its harrowing pages.

So, here goes. Working on a wall-map project in elementary school, I wrote “Bering Straight” in bold letters; the whole class chortled. This happened about 50 years ago, but the humiliating sting has stuck with me. More recently, I was giving a short eulogy at a CUNY event celebrating a famous, recently deceased poet. Apparently it was not short enough: The moderator cut me off, and I had to slink from the podium. Ouch!

Koestenbaum has produced a serendipitous unflinching exploration of his own life’s experience of humiliation, observed in himself and voyeured in others. He even refers to autobiography as “that humiliated genre,” confessing at the outset that his book was written to figure out “why humiliation is, for me, an engine, a catalyst, a cautionary tale, a numinous scene, producing sparks and showers.” It is “unspeakably horrifying,” he adds, but “it is also exciting.” It is also wonderful when it is over, when we have survived it. Emily Dickinson’s “After great pain, a formal feeling comes” is quoted.

“Humiliation colors the way I see the world,” the author tells us. Varying the familiar notion of gaydar, he boasts of his “hum-dar.” It is almost an aesthetic for him: “I prefer literature and art that seems to have been humiliated.”

A Distinguished Professor of English at the Graduate Center and author of several books of poetry and nonfiction works on popular culture (notably The Queen’s Throat, Andy Warhol, and Jackie Under My Skin), Koestenbaum is also a visiting professor of art at Yale. He casts his book in the form of Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, with numbered aphoristic sections, mostly brief but occasionally as long as three pages. He calls his 11 chapters “Fugues,” apt for the brisk counterpoint of his fanciful rhetorical jetés. One aphorism makes a lexical point: “‘Humiliation’ means ‘to be made humble’ To be made human? . . . in Latin the two words — humanus and humiliation — suggestively share a prefix.”

Along the way, some “philosophy” of humiliation is introduced, concepts like desubjectification and anhedonia; Giorgio Agamben, Walter Benjamin and other philosophers are cited. But by some miracle Koestenbaum never once uses that splendid word so pertinent to this subject: schadenfreude.

He pauses to wonder, “Is education possible without humiliation? Can we imagine a classroom in which no humiliation, however accidental, ever takes place?” Later on, he recalls some notable academic embarrassments of his own: “I wrote a commissioned essay about politics for a magazine. The editor told me, ‘Everyone here agrees that your piece won’t fit in our issue.’”

The arena of sexual humiliation looms large, as in the sex ad that requests, “you must be very verbal and very degrading and humiliating.” The Marquis de Sade of course figures here. The author concludes, “Intimacy with humiliation is part of our corporal inheritance.”

Several times Koestenbaum suggests the writer’s life is no fun at all. “The process of making art — no party — has the atmosphere of an internal crucifixion.” A few pages later: “Language hurts. Language humiliates. . . .” This, Koestenbaum says, is Jean-Michel Basquiat’s point in employing written language in his raucous paintings.

Koestenbaum pounces on several red-letter days for humiliation — Abner Louima’s, Larry Craig’s, Eliot Spitzer’s, the soldier Lynndie England’s photos in the Iraqi prison, and Susan Boyle magnificently foiling it with her splendid voice. Alec Baldwin’s enraged voicemail to his daughter and Michael Jackson’s treatment by Santa Barbara sheriffs are also analyzed.

Attention is drawn to what Oscar Wilde said was the worst day of his life: Nov. 13, 1895, when he was jeered by a mob on a train platform during transfer to a new jail cell. Nixon’s worst day is also served up. “My primal scene of spying on someone else’s surrender was watching Richard M. Nixon resign the presidency.”

Some hum-theory is also offered: “humiliation is always a triangle: tyrant, victim, witness.” Perfect photographic examples of this, Koestenbaum observes, are the publication of Annie Leibovitz’s images of Susan Sontag’s death-spiral and corpse and the grisly genre explored in a book titled Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America.

But the pulse of Humiliation lies in the gems of fearless self-revelation the author scatters in his wake. The “price of writing this book,” he says, is “the need to incriminate myself, to establish my bona fides as a humiliation expert.” And so, when a teacher in second grade says “Wayne is a Jew. He can explain Chanukah to us,” he admits, “I couldn’t explain it. I didn’t even try.” Then he adds, “From a bad case of internalized anti-Semitism I’m slowly recovering.”

The last “Fugue” begins with the assertion that “humiliation is always personal,” and then one final long “litany of small humiliations” is unfurled. “Making this list,” he says, “I am torn between joy and disgust.” Among them: “A violently negative review of my book started rolling out of my fax machine”; (when this happened again years later, we are told, “I threw away my fax machine”).

Koestenbaum, however, also slyly reminds us now and again that humiliation can be a good thing. “Shakespeare humiliates the prior body of language, lackluster before he came along and renovated it.” (He aptly notes how Sonnet 29 shows the bright side of humiliation.) He also pays poignant homage to his late colleague Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick as a pioneer of “shame studies,” quoting her remark apropos Henry James, “Shame is both peculiarly contagious and peculiarly individuating.” He adds, “I would not be writing this book if she had not introduced shame as a sexy, redeeming, unbashful spot in contemporary intellectual life.”

Humiliation, in fact, “can metamorphose … into redemption.” Koestenbaum believes, “along with Jean Genet, Jesus Christ, and Oscar Wilde,” that “humiliation is a kiln through which the human soul passes, and where it receives burnishing, glazing, and consolidating.”

He tells of his last visit with Eve, when she was paralyzed and (her words) a “full-fledged crip.” She joked about navigating the city legless. “Thus again she proved herself an expert at turning humiliation — or suffering, or depression — into an imaginative, loving enterprise.” That clearly is the impetus behind Humiliation.

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