The many faces of "Humiliation"

A culture critic flashes the world his own personal shame -- and gives us a good look at our own

Published July 31, 2011 6:01PM (EDT)

Clockwise, from top left: Anthony Weiner, Jacqueline Kennedy, Lynndie England. Center: Wayne Koestenbaum
Clockwise, from top left: Anthony Weiner, Jacqueline Kennedy, Lynndie England. Center: Wayne Koestenbaum

Ever since poet and critic Wayne Koestenbaum broke onto the scene with his acclaimed "The Queen's Throat," which theorized about the distinct connection between gay men and opera, his dazzlingly personal approach to his subjects has been known to draw both intense loyalty and furious detractors (his deconstructed approach to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, for example, "Jackie Under My Skin," seemed to draw exclusively either raves or raspberries).

But his subjective approach can, at minimum, offer illuminating deconstructions of his own complex emotions, and also often captures a larger truth about the way we think or feel. When he says, "I don't know if that's true, but I feel it very deeply as fact" -- as he does in the interview below -- it's likely to drive the more literal reader a little bonkers. But Koestenbaum follows his own internal compass of what counts, and it can lead him to sparkling insights about human nature that all those "Tipping Point" knockoffs can't match. He's a master at overthinking a simple subject to both an exhaustive -- and endlessly exhilarating -- degree.

That's what he's done with his  short but potent new book, "Humiliation," a subject he tells us that has left him tired "after a life spend avoiding humiliation and yet standing near its flame, enjoying the sparks, the heat, the paradoxical illumination." He actually explores this lifetime fascination with gusto, and in a wonderfully cringe-inducing final chapter, recounts his most memorable humiliations in short vignettes:

I gave two of my poetry books, warmly inscribed, to a major poet. A few years later, my protege told me that she'd found those very copies, with their embarrassingly effusive inscriptions, at a used-book store.

Koestenbaum, a distinguished professor of English at the City University of New York, spoke to Salon last week about his new book, and what we all can learn about our obsession with those shameful moments.

You identify three key parties in any humiliation: the victim, the abuser and the witness. Why do we relish the role of witness as much as we do?

To be fair, it's probably not just us as a culture, but probably many, many civilizations. I'm not a sociologist or historian, I go on my intuition. But I really imagine that this dynamic is not peculiar to either the West or the contemporary United States. I think it sped up, where it was given a kind of manic fuel by the media, particularly the Internet -- the speed of the Internet and the viral way it moves, the contagion -- echoes the speeding movement of humiliation. It used to be that if your reputation was ruined in the village, you could move to a nearby village and it could take them a generation to hear about what happened to you.

If there's an upskirt scandal now, we know about it instantly.

I also think that now, because of the speed and voracity of the transmission, the victim can acquire a kind of celebrity. In that little village your life was simply ruined, and now [laughs], you know you can become a media figure.

Humiliation has a kind of currency.


If it's the right kind of humiliation.

Right. And I think that's something that courtesans always knew. [Laughs]

And if you can sort of make it through the horrible, baptismal fire of a big humiliation, there's a bigger payoff if you can somehow triumph over it. Which do you think people are more intrigued by, humiliation or the triumph over the humiliation?

Well, in terms of watching it, I think we probably prefer the humiliation. Maybe the fact that we are watching it means that the person has already triumphed, because that person is already exemplary, allegorical, storied, haloed.

As you were talking I was thinking: You know, the way I say it in my book, my theorem is that the aftermath of humiliation is relaxing and that there's some sort of consolation in aftermath. I don't know if that's true, but I feel it very deeply as fact. Even the figure in a Greek tragedy, or a Shakespeare drama like "King Lear," you know he loses his royalty, but then he gets to wander around the storm, and that's sort of relaxing. In terms of Jackie O., you know, it was awful to have her husband assassinated. It was awful. All of it was awful. But then [afterward] you got to relax, finally. And it's sacrilegious to say, but it's always been a deeply felt emotional truth.

In the book, you describe a sort of strange calm that follows  a horrible humiliation.

Yes [sighs], my life is over.

It's the cliché about hitting bottom, no place to go but up.

I've had a decently happy and privileged life, I suppose. I've never been tortured. But I know that when I look back at my most humiliating moments, I noticed there was a shiver of a hot-cold feeling, a sense of inhabiting a terrible physiological paradox, almost. There was a kind of stillness at the center of the moment, that I could even then understand to be a kind of ground or rock.

I think we are all familiar with that sense of stillness. Is it just because it is such an intense moment that it makes you more aware, more -- forgive the New Age  lingo -- present?

No, I love being New Agey! I give you permission to. [Laughs] I would say that all the fictions and scaffolding that you call your personality have been shattered, and something is still left. And it may be embers, but it's still glowing. And that sensation that it's the bare residue, that sort of Spartan kindling that's left – I just have a sense that when all the striving is over, you could say I'm ruined now, it's over, "this catastrophe of my personality," as Frank O'Hara once put it, the comedy is ended, but I'm still here, and I have now a new story to tell.

You interpret humiliation very broadly in the book, and you include perpetrators whom I think we usually think of as sadistic. Someone like this woman -- who loomed large in my life, growing up in Indiana – Gertrude Baniszewski.


I never really thought of her as someone who  humiliated anyone else . She just seemed like a sociopath and a monster.

No, I agree. Except, for me, the fact that a crime took place in a suburban home  and the victim was a neighbor girl, surrounded by all the trappings of family. And this inhumane mother also included her children in the act and she was the ringleader of the family of torturers. Yes it is  torture rather than humiliation. But some of the stage props of the torture were humiliating.

I think it was also that Jim Crow Gaze [a term Koestenbaum uses in his book to suggest the expression of an extreme, unrelenting abuser], it was the look in her eyes, the completely devastating absence of empathy that I could almost recognize in the face of, say, a judge. Any excoriator has that look in their eyes. So I really picked her as a sort of talisman out of context and also because I think I just have this feeling. I always see those eyes. I know that face. That sick alter ego.

What you recognize is this fine line between torture and humiliation. Especially when you write about Lynndie England and Abu Ghraib.

[Torture] kills a person's sense of self and sense of pride. What was so emblematic about and concerning about those photos was the weird amusement, the party atmosphere, the festive gaiety that surrounded the poses.

They looked like they were having a great time, like there was something fun going on behind the scenes.

Yes, and that's why, you know, I'm afraid of crowds, I'm afraid of bars, I'm afraid of people having a good time together, because it always seems like Lynndie England's somehow hovering over such scenes. I'm a little phobic, perhaps.

Phobic about, specifically, a big party atmosphere?

Yes. Like, you know, there are these stories -- a girl was dancing at a bar and then she was raped -- that kind of frat house mentality.

That Jodie Foster movie, "The Accused"?

Yes, exactly. That feeling that I get when -- you know if I'm staying in a hotel and there's loud carousing at the bar, I always feel like I'm going to be gay-bashed at any moment.


It's true, though! And Abu Ghraib is a far cry from that, but it's a look of morally deadened amusement. And togetherness.

You make a point about how seeing a man being humiliated seems to be less bothersome, more just, than when a woman is being humiliated.

 It's a terrible generalization, I know, but -- I talk about Anita Bryant, and you know, even if I don't like Anita Bryant, when I see her with a pie thrown in her face, it seems very cruel to humiliate someone you already hate. I think that's the difference for me, in that I've already committed distinct acts against her in my imagination, so when I see it, I feel that I did it.

But, for me, I feel like I have a grudge against men in power. I just do. Call me an anarchist or something, or a May '68 kind of guy. So that when I see the shallowness and shabbiness of male power revealed, I get a kind of thrill.

How much of that has to do with being a gay man.

Probably a lot.

Gay men internalize humiliation a lot.

I think, at least in my generation, being gay involved traveling a long, often illegible, and very badly marked trail of shame. Really without signpost, except for knowledge of what to avoid. So that just to arrive at anything close to a salvageable identity is to experience that hot-cold shiver of humiliation along the way. And I also think that, at least in my aesthetic sensibility, we've made an art out of finding humiliation sometimes reparative. I'm thinking of John Waters very specifically, and I think that what I just said was a little too formal. But, you know, in terms of enjoying watching a man deposed, watching a many deprived of his power -- what happens in John Waters' movies is the trappings of normality get removed and [the people in power] turn out to be filthy. And that there's some sort of poetic justice in that reversal, relishing that seems like a kind of gay sensibility that I espouse.

But there's also a pretty well-documented fetishization of humiliation, too, with a pretty intense, sexual subtext. And I don't mean porn, but religion.

Yeah, you know, lick my wound. Totally. See my scars. Martyrology.

I mean, I'm not a churchgoer, so it's a little hard to -- I know that churches are not very comfortable. I mean, I think there is something about church that involves coercion and forced attendance and power and flagellation. I kind of get off on Christ in a way. I know I perhaps refer to Christ too often, in this book and as a whole. Even though I'm not in the least Christian, I use Christian iconography. It's perhaps the gay icon of Christ that I respond to, a kind of Saint Sebastian. Oscar Wilde's Jesus Christ, which is a kind of attractive poster boy for the reparative side benefits of humiliation.

You seem to reveal a lot about yourself in this book. Did you think that this was a dangerous book for you to write in any way?

I actually didn't; well, let me be honest, let me think about this. The kind of stuff I published in this book is stuff I've written about for years in poetry, in essays. They had a different kind of circulation and audience ... It's all the same stuff there. I wrote my very first book of poems in 1990, I talk about all those childhood themes of being afraid that I look like a girl, alienation from my body. I wrote a long poem about my mother as tyrant in 2004 called "Model Homes." It's not really about my mother as a tyrant but I felt like I really exposed my family. So there's nothing that different in this book, it's just that it circulates differently. In a way, I worried about getting published before I wrote this book, because getting published is hard, and in a way finding a handle for my material that makes it attractive to others has been a blessing for me. Because I mean, like, you're interviewing me. I found a way to frame one of my life issues, to frame it in a popular way and to generalize about it in a way that speaks to others.

You describe how, when overhearing people laughing, you assume they are laughing at you, triggering a deep humiliation. I think we all experience that; if you're feeling particularly vulnerable, there's nothing more alienating than hearing laughter. Have you always had that?

Yes. I don't have it quite as vividly as I used to, but in New York it's hard to feel that; people are always laughing, and there's so much noise, so it's kind of hard to take the laughter of others seriously. But in a smaller town, the suburbs, I used to feel it. But yeah, I do. I love gossip, in a way, but I don't like to talk about even strangers within earshot. I'm terrified that I will inadvertently wound someone in some way. It's not that -- I don't mean to brag about how super-sensitive and nice I am either.

Though you write about being the victim and witness to humiliation. Are you ever the perpetrator?

I do mention that pedagogy includes humiliation. Here I say: "I wonder if my students ... were ever to detect in my face those tell-tale traits of amoral indifference that mark the Jim Crow gaze. I wonder if when my students look at me, they see, if only for an appalling millisecond, a cold, deadened mask." Like that Gertrude Baniszewski face, I fear that unconsciously, when I'm not fully recognizing somebody else's existence—whether it's because it's a homeless person I'm walking by, or a student I'm not paying attention to or I'm responding to with inappropriate snideness—I feel that my face could take on, in their eyes, the Gertrude Baniszewski deadness.

But it wouldn't be deliberate, which is what I think of when you write about the Jim Crow gaze. To me, you're describing someone who is deliberate about their actions.

It's interesting. In another book I have coming out in February called "The Anatomy of Harpo Marx," I mention hitting my baby brother with a wet towel in the bathroom. All my books have it, but no one's going to notice it because it's in a book about Harpo Marx.

Were you snapping the towel?

I was snapping the towel. I don't remember if it really hurt him that much, but I remember doing it. When and if anything ever went wrong in my brother's life, I always felt like it was the cause. And I talk a lot about the primal scenes of witnessing my siblings being punished. I don't even remember them consciously that much, but the feeling of these scenes is with me and it's one I take with me to my role of spectator of suffering.

I'm still evading your question of whether I'm ever the tyrant. Let's just say I hope I'm never really the tyrant, but that there is a kind of unhappy slippage between the spectator, the inadvertent tyrant and the deliberate tyrant.

Because you don't do anything to stop it.

Right. I don't do anything. Just to snub is a form of tyranny. To erase, to not respond, to cause others to feel shame.

You've been very cagey about whether or not the personal humiliations you recount in the book are true or not.

I don't want to be in some kind of James Frey position -- I don't want that kind of scandal -- but it is a book of nonfiction and I'm not making anything up. Nothing is fictionalized. In the last chapter, I changed the scene a little bit so that a person's identity is protected. But I use real names. The childhood bully? That's the real name. The kid who got punished in third grade? That's his real name. I've written about it before and I used a made-up name before, it's true.

The reason I'm cagey is that I have a certain style when we write -- we all do -- but I think that in my writing, the style is more forward. One of the first things that catches a reader's eye is that there's a higher level of artifice or constructedness or self-conscious manner in my writing. It comes from being a poet and having certain literary tastes, and from being aware that when I'm writing, I'm writing. It isn't just speaking the truth. I'm making these sentences and it's a complicated act of artifice ... It's not fictional, but it means that I don't think it's the same as just blurting out my secrets on a talk show. It's a constructed act that comes from a certain literary taste.

I don't want to sound pretentious, but I think what inspired me to write like that was a book my Michel Leiris called "Manhood." He should be more famous. He's long dead. I love him. He's a French writer. This book is in these little fragments and it's about weird things that happened to him. One of the sections is called "Bitten Buttock," and when I read that in 1985, it totally changed my life as a writer. When I do something like this last chapter [in "Humiliation"] the technique is to find the really embarrassing, weird thing and just say it in a couple of sentences like a haiku, with no emotion, and move on. When I do that, it is an act of literature. The scenes are true. I know that was a wordy explanation, but I think it's an important point.

OK, with that in mind, there was another very personal anecdote early in the book when you describe stumbling upon a nude photo of a former student and becoming extremely excited by it. What I thought was interesting is that you not only described the humiliation you felt by the experience, but also his. Now, he of course would have no idea that you ever saw the photo or reacted to it. How can someone be humiliated if he's unaware of the act?

That would be analogous to what I say about Susan Sontag's corpse being photographed by Annie Leibovitz. Even though her son and other people say that she was humiliated by this act of exposure, I say: "But she's dead. How can she be humiliated?" Humiliation floats around her as this kind of assumption or speculation or an atmosphere. Similarly, with this student, you're right, he doesn't know -- until he reads the book. I've had several students who have appeared nude on the Web.

How will they know which one they are?

What are these kids doing over at CUNY?

I don't even know. Some of them were Yale students. I don't even remember which one I was talking about. Let's just say for me, that the atmosphere of humiliation, or what a pretentious Derridian would call "always already humiliated," is hanging over him.

From my terrain of humiliation, if a writer gets a really bad review, but the writer doesn't read it, is the writer still humiliated? Let's say my book gets translated into Chinese and gets panned. Would people in China think, "My God, that pretentious, American writer has been so humiliated," if I never read it?

I think that's what I mean about the student. I also mean that I am really aware of having stepped into the proscenium of the tyrant, the witness and the victim. I think, in fact, the student would be proud to have been seen by a teacher. Not necessarily this teacher, or that student, but I would speculate that there's some kind of weird triumph involved for the person who puts a nude photo on the Web knowing that all sorts of people can see it.

It's a dramatic act asking for a response.


You've started putting up Web videos where you offer advice to the humiliated. I'm wondering, are you getting a lot of these letters now, and are you seeing any trends on what other people feel shame and humiliation about? 

I'm not surprised by anything that anyone is ever humiliated by, whether it's being fat, having a pimple, being a divorcee, being disfigured, wearing white after Labor Day, whatever. When it comes to clothing, I have a heightened sense of both pride and shame. For example, with something like publishing a book, I'm much less concerned about reviews, or having exposed too much of myself, than I am about whether the collar of my pink shirt will sit flat when I'm on TV. That's an inadvertently evasive answer to your question. The point is I'm not surprised by anything that people are humiliated by. In terms of trends, the only trend I can see is that there's more payoff for the humiliated person who is willing to weather the spotlight and appear in public. More perks. 

If you live in Seattle, you can  have your own humiliation workshop with Wayne Koestenbaum at this Aug. 4 event put on by the Stranger. 

By Kerry Lauerman

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