Critic and poet Wayne Koestenbaum has written a new book that is not what I’d call a “feel-good read.” I could call it some other things instead, like “queasy” or “discomfiting,” or I could take Koestenbaum’s sentiments and try to protect myself from the inherent humiliation of the written word by not writing anything about it at all. Except if I didn’t write anything it would make for a very boring Bibliobitch post, so I guess I’ll take a deep breath, aware that I’m risking exactly what this book discusses, and tell you a little bit about Koestenbaum’s Humiliation.
In this book, part memoir, part cultural criticism, Koestenbaum sets out to explore the experience and the significance of humiliation. The book is written in “fugues”: short segments, a paragraph or two, that reflect and build off of each other as the book progresses. It’s an interesting and merciful choice, considering the content. You know that feeling when you’re reading a particularly difficult (or particularly boring) book, and upon reaching the end of a chapter you feel relieved that at least that part’s over and it’s time to move on to something else? That’s a feeling I experienced often while reading Humiliation, only it wasn’t because I wasn’t interested or because I couldn’t comprehend his meaning—it was because the book is a series of descriptions and close-up examinations of the humiliation of individuals and groups, and in reading it, as Koestenbaum points out many times, I was implicated: I felt humiliated too. Koestenbaum writes, “I am tired, as any human must be, after a life spent avoiding humiliation and yet standing near its flame, enjoying the sparks, the heat, the paradoxical illumination.”
Humiliation is in part about Koestenbaum’s experiences as a gay man, as a Jewish man, and as a person with a body: someone who’s been told that his biceps are puny and his ass is flat. He discusses the sometimes-pleasurable humiliation of sex in public bathrooms and the humiliation of repeatedly being told he looks like Woody Allen. The chapter “Eavesdropping on Elimination” is particularly powerful in its descriptions of the everyday humiliations that Koestenbaum has experienced and witnessed, because each experience is so relatable. He was hung by his belt loops from a doorstop by a bully. His book got a bad review. He watched someone else pee their pants. Peeing and vomiting and ejaculating are brought up over and over again, as a way for Koestenbaum to point out the shame that our culture inflicts upon people merely because we have bodies, and those bodies are different shapes and sizes and they sometimes release fluids.
Koestenbaum also discusses popular culture and the humiliation of being famous: he tours us through the spectacle of Liza Minelli and Michael Jackson, the debacle that was Alec Baldwin’s voice message to his daughter, the penitence of a number of scandalized politicians, the absolute horror of that thankfully long-canceled show, The Swan. The list goes on. In each section, a new humiliation. It begins to feel like we’re all surrounded by humiliated people all of the time, and it occurs to me that that is Koestenbaum’s point.
This isn’t a pleasant book (though it’s sometimes darkly funny), because it doesn’t feel good to read about feeling bad for 184 pages. But Koestenbaum’s discussions of the most vulnerable moments of others and of himself can be both sharp and gentle, and this is clearly because he is all too aware of how humiliation feels, and he knows that the experience is universal. In our culture, people humiliate other people because of their race, or their gender, or who they like to sleep with, or how much they weigh. It’s a terrible, disgusting thing, but Koestenbaum points out that when we bring others low, we bring ourselves low as well. Nobody wants to feel like they’re nothing, and nobody should, but at some point, everyone will be humiliated, and that makes it a kind of awful equalizer. I’m not sure whether this is a helpful thing to point out.
Because Humiliation is a meditation and not a manifesto, Koestenbaum doesn’t offer a solution, some way that we can keep ourselves and others from humiliation. But after reading about this universal feeling, one that the president and my next-door neighbor and the author himself all experience, and one that I am capable of inflicting, I felt that it was very important to be kind.