We’ve all been there: The outburst that drew unwanted attention, the embarrassing revelation, the shameful joy of schadenfreude, the lash of the cutting remark. “Humiliation is always personal ...,” Wayne Koestenbaum writes in Humiliation his meditation on the subject. “Humiliation’s wounds are always intimate, pointed punctures.”
For Koestenbaum, that’s why it appeals and why it discomforts, the way it connects us at the deepest level even as it tears us apart. “‘Humiliation,’” he observes, “means ‘to be made humble.’ To be made human? ‘Human’ and ‘humiliation’ do not share an etymological root, but even in Latin, the two words — humanus and humiliatio — suggestively share a prefix.”
This sort of interpretive wordplay has long been a hallmark of Koestenbaum’s writing, whether as poet, essayist or self-styled social critic. A professor at New York’s CUNY Graduate Center and the Yale School of Art, he has written a dozen or so books of poetry and nonfiction, the most trenchant of which explore the connections between our obsessions and how we live.
His two best-known efforts, The Queen’s Throat (1993) and Jackie Under My Skin (1995), parse the complex relationship of art, iconography and what he frames as a kind of pop fetishism, the first by examining the place of opera in gay culture and the second by deconstructing the role of Jackie Onassis as public avatar, the object of a collective fantasy defined by memory, transference and style.
Koestenbaum’s perspective is relentlessly personal — which does not mean it’s confessional, at least not as we commonly use the word. “Not that I want to reduce every statement to autobiography — that humiliated genre,” he explains. “... And yet: I’m writing this book in order to figure out — for my own life’s sake — why humiliation is, for me, an engine, a catalyst, a cautionary tale, a numinous scene, producing sparks and showers.”
Here Koestenbaum articulates the essential tension of Humiliation which he has constructed as a series of 11 “fugues” that, he notes, are both metaphorical and practical, for “a ‘fugue state’ is a mentally imbalanced condition of disassociated wandering away from one’s own identity.”
That description has a lot to do with the way Koestenbaum regards humiliation: as a break, a split, a guilty secret, whether in the public or the private sphere. Throughout the book, he invokes celebrities such as Liza Minnelli and Michael Jackson and politicians such as Bill Clinton and Eliot Spitzer to examine the elusive balance between shame and empathy, between the face we show the world and who we really are. “When I see a public figure humiliated,” he writes, “I feel empathy. I imagine: that martyr could be me.”
It’s a radical notion in a culture such as ours, which thrives on blame and recrimination, on the idea that we are better than those we judge. Yet Koestenbaum repeatedly puts the lie to that convenient bit of fiction, implicating us not only in our own mortifications but also those of everyone. “I hate group laughter. It is always smug and certain of its position,” he declares, linking the humiliation-as-entertainment aesthetic of a show such as American Idol with the more profound humiliations of an Abu Ghraib.
“Lynndie England’s smile, and the laughter of the audience at American Idol,” he continues, “display a callous, morally deadened joviality” — which is, in turn, representative of a phenomenon he calls “the Jim Crow Gaze,” a reference to the inexpressive stares in all those old photographs of lynchings, in which bystanders expose themselves as “archetype(s) of moral imbecility, of living-deadness” that are fundamentally inhumane.
That’s terrific stuff, with its expansive vision, its sense that the trivial and the tragic are linked. As Humiliation progresses, however, Koestenbaum falters in places — at times by reaching too far and at others by not reaching far enough. Interestingly, both failings have to do with distance: The more theoretical he gets, the less effective the book becomes. This emerges most vividly in his discussion of art and writing as a process that relies on humiliation: the humiliation of language, the humiliation of self-exposure, the humiliation of not being able to communicate exactly what you feel.
There’s a valid argument to be made to this effect, although Koestenbaum overstates the case when he invokes literacy as a humiliating process, in which the alphabet is first and foremost a controlling structure, enforcing certain modes of interpretation that are exclusionary to those who cannot adequately master the code. If so, where does that leave someone such as James Castle, a deaf artist who never learned to read or sign yet created small, one-of-a-kind books?
“The words he copied but couldn’t understand,” Koestenbaum writes, “were agents of humiliation pressing down upon him; he pressed back, in tender humiliation.”
Maybe so, but there’s no indication, here at least, that humiliation entered into it, nor that Castle’s art was anything more than a victory of creativity over circumstance.
To be fair, all this comes with the territory, for Koestenbaum is after a set of impressions, a series of riffs. Hence, the fugue structure, and within that, the decision to frame his chapters in numbered sections, some as brief as a line or two.
This is not a treatise, in other words, but a sketchbook that moves from the personal to the philosophical, evoking Koestenbaum’s own humiliations (the book ends with a long list of them) as well as those of the wider world.
“I love to slip,” he writes, “and I have a noble aim: to urge you to be kind when you see someone humiliated, even if you think the shamed person deserves punishment.” We are all in this together, confronted not just by each other’s judgments but also by the final humiliation of decay.
“Death,” he writes, “is humiliating because in its pond we disappear.” In that sense, humiliation may be most important as a way for us to see each other, since “in a world that seems increasingly filled with fakeness… humiliation at least rings true.”