In his book Humiliation Wayne Koestenbaum “aims to pile up humiliations,” his own and others’, public and private, sexual, racial, anti-Semitic, class-based, professional, scatological, emotional and physical. In less than 200 pages there is no aspect of humiliation left untouched, from the Biblical (“[Mary] was a Jewish mother”) to the oh-so-contemporary (Google, reality television, Craigslist, You Tube). In the interim Koestenbaum scrutinizes some of the most notorious penitents and punishers in history: the Marquis De Sade, Oscar Wilde, Michael Jackson, Jean Genet, Liza Minnelli, the Venus Hottentot, T.S. Eliot, and Eliot Spitzer, to give a Whitman’s Sampler of his subjects. Yet he saves his most vitriolic and penetrating insights about humiliation for himself.
It might be inescapable in a book about humiliation to slip into the confessional, but Koestenbaum alternates between stumbling into admissions which startle the reader (one suspects by design) and immersing her in his abjectness in order to prove that humiliation “involves a triangle: (1) the victim, (2) the abuser, and (3) the witness…someone must be there to watch it happen, and to carry the news elsewhere.” So when English professor Koestenbaum writes about masturbating to a student’s nude picture he happened upon on the Internet, he worries that he humiliated the student. But he adds that the student had been advertising his services on a sexual website, and “in the photo, he smiled with what seemed authentic gladness.” Plus, before he told us, was there a witness? Had this really been a humiliating incident?
Koestenbaum is aware that these confessions can be transcendent, that coming out the other side of humiliation can be “paradoxically relaxing.” As many of his examples involve losing bodily control in public — children urinating at school, a concert pianist vomiting on stage, his own inability to keep his penis from getting erect at inappropriate times — this paradox seems inextricable from physical release. Humiliation is when the body takes over: by losing control of our basic functions we break the social contract.
Koestenbaum admits he finds the humiliation of women more debilitating but the humiliation of men more interesting. He loosely ties this to his queer sexuality — he feels the need to stand up for men who are publicly humiliated, while he is coolly fascinated by the experiences of women. He defends his “disgraced triumvirate of politicians,” Larry Craig, Bill Clinton, and Eliot Spitzer, hotly with the claim, “If this book has an ulterior aim, however disreputable, here it is: I want to stand up for those who are publicly shamed for sexual conduct.” Cigar innnuendos and hiring escorts and cruising public restrooms are unacceptable forms of public humiliation in Koestenbaum’s taxonomy.
Yet he’s decidedly more ambivalent about watching videos of anti-gay activist Anita Bryant getting a pie in the face: “Anita Bryant put her orange-juice fame to noxious uses, but when the pie hits her face she becomes a horrifying, human spectacle, a white body smeared with white crap. During the awful instant when Anita Bryant breaks down crying, I suddenly feel guilty for my own aggression against her.” It is the same feeling he remembers from listening to his siblings being punished, one he identifies with Freud’s essay “A Child is Being Beaten.” He’s uncomfortable in the role of witness, that point on the triangle which is most helpless and also, somehow, most responsible.
We often find humiliation funny, of course. Koestenbaum mentions Sasha Baron-Cohen and The Office, but every time someone slips on a banana peel humiliation is the engine of comedy. This is a underexplored avenue in the book; Koestenbaum is much more interested in the drama, or the melodrama, of humiliation. Rather, he describes his relation to humiliation as follows:
Although humiliation is unspeakably horrifying, it is also exciting, and I keep wanting to approach it, intellectually, to figure out its temperature and position. Any topic, however distressing, can become an object of intellectual romance.
The most romantic part of Humiliation is not the discussion of De Sadean perversions or the litany of Craigslist requests for debasement but Koestenbaum’s description of watching clips of Liza Minnelli on YouTube. “Mere quotations can’t reproduce the grain of her voice, its occupancy of pleasurable interstices between word and cry.” He clearly loves Liza, whom he can’t quite bring himself to call the h-word: “Liza Minnelli is not really humiliated; she just seems endearingly, embarrassingly uncomposed for the camera, too loose and sloppy in her locutions, too earthy, too untrimmed.” He goes on to describe the pleasure of seeing her in concert, always on the point of flailing, of falling, not wanting to fail but — and this he doesn’t say — not caring if she did. Caring is at the center of romance, and at the center of humiliation. If we didn’t care, it wouldn’t hurt.