Humiliationby Wayne Koestenbaum
Wayne Koestenbaum considers the meaning of humiliation in this eloquent work of cultural critique and personal reflection.
The lives of people both famous and obscure are filled with scarlet-letter moments when their dirty laundry sees daylight. In these moments we not only witness the reversibility of "success," of prominence, but also come to visceral/b>
Wayne Koestenbaum considers the meaning of humiliation in this eloquent work of cultural critique and personal reflection.
The lives of people both famous and obscure are filled with scarlet-letter moments when their dirty laundry sees daylight. In these moments we not only witness the reversibility of "success," of prominence, but also come to visceral terms with our own vulnerable selves. We can't stop watching the scene of shame, identifying with it and absorbing its nearness, and relishing our imagined immunity from its stain, even as we acknowledge the universal, embarrassing predicament of living in our own bodies. With an unusual, disarming blend of autobiography and cultural commentary, noted poet and critic Wayne Koestenbaum takes us through a spectrum of mortifying circumstancesin history, literature, art, current events, music, film, and his own life. His generous disclosures and brilliant observations go beyond prurience to create a poetics of abasement. Inventive, poignant, erudite, and playful, Humiliation plunges into one of the most disquieting of human experiences, with reflections at once emboldening and humane.
“This literary ‘topping from the bottom' is the funniest, smartest, most heartbreaking yet powerful book I've read in a long time.” John Waters
“Humiliation runs like a rash over the body of all of Wayne Koestenbaum's work; here, he directly addresses the feeling, and the result is one of my favorite recent books: psychologically astute, verbally pyrotechnic, bottomlessly provocative, surprisingly funny, and immensely sad. An extraordinary meditation on nothing less than--I don't know how else to say it--the human condition.” David Shields, author of Reality Hunger
A series of meditations on the concept of humiliation.
Poet and scholar Koestenbaum (English/City Univ. of New York Graduate Center; Hotel Theory, 2007, etc) offers a hybrid book. Personal confessions (humiliating in nature, naturally) sit alongside astute analysis of such cultural icons as Basquiat and the Marquis de Sade, and theoretical hypotheses mingle with observations about reality television and erotic Craigslist personal ads. Structured as a series of chapters or "fugues," each consisting of a series of numbered paragraphs varying in length from one sentence to several pages, the book is academic in tone and content but not necessarily in scope or format. What Koestenbaum sacrifices in depth, he makes up for in clarity. For example, in two sentences he dispatches with the distinction between shame and humiliation; excavating the full meaning of this distinction could easily require an entire chapter. Though this brief treatment is appropriate given the length of the book, other distinctions—like that between relatively minor humiliations, like being rejected romantically, and major ones, like being raped or tortured—are merely acknowledged in a sort of hand-wringing way. Yet the book cannot be characterized as shallow. Koestenbaum consistently offers enlightening, well-written insights into the process of abreaction; the way language can be humiliating to the artist, the writer or the illiterate; queer theory; and reality television and voyeurism. The author avoids mistaking unreadable prose for complexity, and though the book may be best suited for academics, general readers interested in the topic will not be lost or frustrated.
Insightful and blissfully free of jargon, Humiliation may not be the last word on the subject, but it's an accessible introduction.
Read an Excerpt
Recently in New York City an arrested man was strip-searched—standard procedure—on Rikers Island. The arraigned man said, “I was put into a cage and told to take off my clothes.” He was ordered—according to The New York Times—“to squat and spread his buttocks.” The accused, who’d been arrested for possession of marijuana, described the strip search as “horrifying”: “Being a grown man, I was humiliated.”
“Humiliation” 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.
Repeatedly I watch clips of Liza Minnelli on YouTube. I want to see her humiliation. And I want to see her survive the grisly experience and turn it into glory.
Being humiliated is an experience, I presume, that you don’t want—unless you’re a masochist. And then your humiliation isn’t dire. It’s pleasure. Humiliation, if passed through the masochistic centrifuge, becomes joy, or uplift—all emotional dissonances resolved.
An oft-repeated legend: the writer Colette was locked in her room by her husband, Willy, so that she’d be forced to produce her Claudine novels. Need I humiliate myself to write this book?
Michael Jackson’s father beat him; MGM fed “uppers” to Judy Garland. The performer must be coerced or brutalized to perform. “Beat It” and “Over the Rainbow” reverse the humiliation, or continue it.
Performers spawn performers, an intergenerational saga of distress. Liza (in the eyes of a shame-hungry public) is humiliated by inability to reach her mother’s pinnacle, or by inability to reach her own former pinnacle. Past triumphs rise up to humiliate the present self.
To prove that humiliation exists, we don’t need to hear from witnesses. Everyone has been humiliated, although the texture of each person’s experience differs—like Tolstoy’s unhappy families, each unhappy in its own way.
Imagine a society in which humiliation is essential—as a rite of passage, as a passport to decency and civilization, as a necessary shedding of hubris.
Any writer’s humiliation I take personally. “I don’t want poets to be humiliated,” writes poet Ruth Padel, about the smear campaign against rival Derek Walcott, accused of sexual harassment. But then the press revealed that she’d helped spread the bad word about Walcott, and she, in turn, was disgraced. Retelling this story, I wince: I’m tainted by the news I leak.
According to feminist Mary Daly (quoted in Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born), “Many would see abortion as a humiliating procedure.” Many would see insemination as a humiliating procedure. Many would see death as a humiliating procedure. Many would see literacy as a humiliating procedure.
I approach this vast subject from a limited angle—the angle of fatigue. 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.
Not merely because I am tired, but because this subject, humiliation, is monstrous, and because it erodes the voice that tries to lay siege to its complexities, I will resign myself, in the fugues that follow, to setting forth an open-ended series of paradoxes and juxtapositions. (I call these excursions “fugues” not only because I want the rhetorical license offered by invoking counterpoint but because a “fugue state” is a mentally unbalanced condition of dissociated wandering away from one’s own identity.) Some of my fugal juxtapositions are literal and logical, while others are figurative, meant merely to suggest the presence of undercurrents, sympathies, resonances shared between essentially unlike experiences. If there is any reward to be found in this exercise of juxtaposing contraries to detect the occasional gleam of likeness, that dividend lies in the apprehension of a singular prey: the detection of a whimpering beast inside each of us, a beast whose cries are micropitches, too faint for regular notation.
When I see a public figure humiliated, I feel empathy. I imagine: that martyr could be me. Even if the public figure did something wrong, I empathize. Even if Michael Jackson slept with children. Even if Roman Polanski raped a thirteen-year-old. When I see the famous figure brought to trial, even if only trial-by-media, especially if the crime is sexual, I’m seized by horror and fascination, by pity, by terror: here again, as if at the Acropolis or the Roman Colosseum, I see the dramatic onset of a familiar scene, an unveiling, a goring, a staining, a stripping away of privilege.
Speaking, I’m on display—a pornographic exhibit. I’m a centerfold, my legs spread. If someone sees my nude photo on the Internet, then I’m humiliated, or else that Web trawler, finding my photo, is humiliated on my behalf.
When I found a student’s nude photo on the Web, and when I jerked off to that photo (I could be making up this fact), I worried that I’d humiliated him. Or perhaps I’m humiliating the student by telling you this story now. Lest you wish to prosecute me for my fantasies, please know that the student was in his late twenties and was advertising his sexual services. In the photo, he smiled with what seemed authentic gladness.
After a fight, an eighteen-year-old boy in Florida sends a nude photograph of his underage girlfriend (she is sixteen) to “dozens of people, including her parents,” according to The New York Times, whose pages I cruise for humiliation. By clipping the news stories, I become a guilty party.
Sexuality, in any of its guises and positions, is potentially humiliating. At least the Transcendental feminist Margaret Fuller thought so. Elizabeth Hardwick, who wrote eloquently about seduced women, quotes a telling passage: when Fuller’s boyfriend or husband forced her to have sex, she experienced “what was to every worthy and womanly feeling so humiliating.” And in Harriet Jacobs’s now-canonical Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself, the writer reserves the word “humiliation” for instances of sexual degradation. The fact of being enslaved she doesn’t refer to as humiliating. What is humiliating is the sexual body itself, its humors and swellings, its pulsations and emissions. Theorist Julia Kristeva uses the word “abject” to describe this fetid, wet, organ-centered process.
The Marquis de Sade piles up humiliations, and I aim to do the same. The pleasure some of us get from watching TV or appearing on TV, or the pleasure some of us get from porn, or the pleasure some of us get from disliking sexual criminals—the pleasure (or call it an emotion more complex than pleasure) some of us get from spectacles of all kinds is connected to what transpires in the torture room.
The Abu Ghraib photos made torture topical. A U.S. Army reservist—Lynndie England, joined by leering peers—posed beside a “pyramid” of stripped Iraqi men; humiliating them, she turned herself into an internationally maligned object. Her pose—her apparent gladness—seemed to epitomize the sportive nature of U.S.-style humiliation: we’re cheerful decimators. (Whenever I bring up torture, a depressed sense of never being able to sound the depths of this dismal subject assails me.)
Why do people want to appear on reality TV shows in humiliating guises and situations? (Displaying a fat body. Singing badly. Stuttering.) You’d think they’d want to hide their humiliation rather than parade it. Display, evidently, is considered healing—steam released, trauma canceled. The psychoanalytic word “abreactive” describes what we achieve by undergoing humiliation or by not making a secret of it. Abreaction, according to my trusty Oxford American Dictionary, is “the expression and consequent release of a previously repressed emotion, achieved through reliving the experience that caused it.” Writing is abreactive—I release the emotion of humiliation by replaying it.
To avoid humiliation, which is the feared and inevitable outcome of most writing, especially if it knows itself to be writing, I need to speak from a position of wisdom, omniscience, authority. I can’t merely pile up the sordid, nude examples. I acquire mastery by stating an argument. Here are its splayed elements.
Humiliation involves a triangle: (1) the victim, (2) the abuser, and (3) the witness. The humiliated person may also behold her own degradation, or may imagine someone else, in the future, watching it or hearing about it. The scene’s horror—its energy, its electricity—involves the presence of three. An infernal waltz.
Humiliation, a topsy-turvy regime, involves a reversal: from top to bottom, from high to low, from exalted to degraded, from secure to insecure. The reversal happens quickly. Someone must be there to watch it happen, and to carry the news elsewhere.
Humiliation involves physical process: fluids, solids, organs, cavities, orifices, outpourings, ingestions, excrescences, spillages. Humiliation demands a soiling. Even if the ordeal is merely mental, the body itself gets dragged into the mess.
Humiliation involves the classic trio of social markers: gender, race, class. Humiliation depends on what you look like, what you sound like, how much money you make, how you walk, how you smell, where you put your garbage. Humiliation hits us where we live, on the confusing, inexorably determining grid of blackness, whiteness, maleness, femaleness, in-betweenness. If we dwell in limbo, in transition, that homeless location, too, is humiliating.
Humiliation has its rewards. Among them: the privilege of being seen as exemplary. The pleasure of being a spectacle. The perk of visibility, of becoming legible.
Another reward: identification with the downtrodden. If you humiliate me, I enter a new community, a fellowship—across history—of sufferers and outcasts. Jesus, once a Jew, is more than a bit player in this bloody drama.
The person doing the humiliation—aggressor, tyrant, bully, monolith, petty soldier, priest, poet—is humiliated by the act. (Even Jesus knew how to dish it out: he told Mary, Mother of God, “Woman, what have I to do with thee?”) And so the humiliator (the instigator) is besmirched, reflexively, by the act—if only in the eyes of the victim and the witness.
Humiliation comes with its own proscenium—a ready-made orchestra pit, curtain, audience, lights, ticket booth. Humiliation contains an entire theatrical apparatus, even if only in the minds of the soiled parties (tyrant, victim, witness). Or in God’s mind. God, we assume, sees every humiliation; He may not create or approve of the humiliation, but He sees it happening. Humiliation is a frame for making sense of reality. Such a frame we might call an “optic”—a way of seeing.
Humiliation is external, though it registers internally. Shame, on the other hand, can arise simply internally, without any reference to outside circumstances. Humiliation, I believe, must arise (if only in imagination) from outside. Humiliation is an observable lowering of status and position. One can be humiliated without being ashamed, or even without being sad. Humiliation pertains not merely to internal affect but to external climate, context, scenario. We can say a room is cold, but that does not necessarily mean that the people in the room feel cold.
From some points of view, womanliness or femininity is a humiliated quality. Or else “femininity” is something that can be ruined, impeached, reproached, poached upon—a capacity or endowment vulnerable to smear and stain and scar. Similarly, “masculinity,” however questionable a property, and however much women also possess it, is something that can be seen as humiliating (it is humiliating to have a penis, it is humiliating not to have a womb) or as something that can be taken away by humiliation (a man who is humiliated has less of a penis than he did before the humiliation occurred). In Freudian terms, humiliation is a castration. A sweet thing gets swiped, stolen—and what remains of “me” is a mockery.
Humiliation is a process of evacuation or depletion. The Greek word askesis nobly (if obliquely) implies this rigorous exercise of winnowing away, this shredding and disappearance. Supposedly, energy (the alias of matter) can’t be destroyed. But humiliation represents the destruction of matter. Something once present—an intactness, a solidity, a substantiality—turns into tatters. Humiliated, one grows less and less. I succumb to a starvation diet. Or, to make the best of it, I become a hunger artist.
Humiliation, however, is also a process of accretion, of accumulation. Humiliated incidents add up; one grows more and more humiliated. Humiliation is a growth, a blooming. Pile up the rottenness. Stacks of it.
Or else (as a combination of the previous two principles) one is eaten away by humiliation, and grows more and more spectral—and yet within oneself, a hard kernel, a nugget, a bit of ore, a deposit (like plaque on teeth) settles. That nugget is humiliation: the particle, the remainder.
“A group of lowlifes at a Tea Party rally,” according to New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, whom I trust to report the dismal truth of this nation, “taunted and humiliated a man who was sitting on the ground with a sign that said he had Parkinson’s disease.” Debilitating illness shatters the human body and turns it into a pit stop for the urinating dogs, be they Nazis, lynchers, or paying customers.
Humiliation happens only in relation. It is a transitive, interpersonal process. One is humiliated only in other people’s minds, according to other people’s lights.
The physiology of humiliation is at least metaphorically acidic, related to bile, turmoil, roiling, suppuration. For humiliation’s soundtrack, conjure a churning stomach. Dry heaves.
Is there more humiliation nowadays? Is it escalating? Although humiliation, as a cultural quality, might have changed, at least in recent memory, I hesitate to make historical arguments, or to spot a trend. It is safer to assume that humiliation is historically a constant, its core always the same, the root experience unchangeably, miserably unitary.
Therefore I can’t say, “These days, with reality TV, and in the wake of Abu Ghraib photos and Guantánamo prisoners, there is more humiliation.” Wrong. The Middle Ages, or prerevolutionary America, I trust, saw plenty of humiliation. To defend this point I can’t subpoena two dead witnesses whose reported torments gave me early inklings of this subject’s awful magnitude: Joan of Arc, Tituba of Salem Village.
About this timeless fact of social and psychological life, I simply admit: humiliation colors the way I see the world. Furthermore, humiliation colors the way other humiliation-prone people see the world. Humiliation is a pair of filth-speckled glasses. Can we invent a word (“humiliation-radar,” “hum-dar”) to describe this tendency, this susceptibility to sensing the humiliation of others, or of fearing one’s own future humiliation, or of rehearsing (in memory and imagination) bygone degradations?
And must we demand that an economy of transposition and transcendence turns humiliation into a good, a pleasure, a profit, a positive? Must we insist on alchemizing humiliation?
But are there not certain circumstances where humiliation is not just horror, but is a route, a passageway, toward something else, something tranquilizing?
Theorem: the aftermath of humiliation can be paradoxically relaxing. Tranquilizing, to have undergone humiliation and then emerge on the other side. And so humiliation leads to the cessation of humiliation. And this stoppage, this reduction of terror, is experienced as pleasure. “After great pain, a formal feeling comes,” Emily Dickinson wrote—words that have given consolation to many sufferers. My mother recited them to me over the phone from the hospital when she was recovering from a stroke. The formal feeling—cessation, pause, interregnum, cease-fire—is the payoff for hours of pillory.
Funny fact: when I google “humiliation,” number five on the list of hits is the website www.tinypenishumiliation.net, a convenient site “designed for men and women who are into tiny penis humiliation.” Evidently there thrives a subculture of men and women who find “tiny penis humiliation” a satisfying, arousing sport—or an activity worth proselytizing for.
In his 1909 novel Jakob von Gunten, the Swiss writer Robert Walser (who specialized in literary miniatures) described the bliss of being small: “How fortunate I am, not to be able to see in myself anything worth respecting and watching! To be small and to stay small.” He meant not the bliss of having a tiny penis, but, I think, the bliss of being minor, disqualified, forgotten, ignored—the bliss of being downtrodden. You need to be a connoisseur of mixed blessings to endure downtroddenness with equanimity.
Humiliation is bliss if the experience of largeness or magnitude has become overwhelming and unpleasant and you need relief. When magnitude hurts, humiliation (or demotion) qualifies as remedy. For Shakespeare’s querulous King Lear, humiliation provides the bonus pleasure of being exiled on the heath, after his venomous daughters kick him out of their castles; at last, after kingship’s ordeal, he can enjoy the aftermath balm of wandering with fellow madmen in the storm. Bliss, to be disqualified from power! (Bliss? Perhaps not. But at least Lear relaxes, and rediscovers language, and redefines the meaning of internal sovereignty.)
Humiliation may provoke activism, uprising. The people whom Frantz Fanon called “the wretched of the earth” can reconceive degradation as prelude to (or catalyst for) revolution. The Rosa Parks Principle: years of humiliation lead to epoch-making revolt. Revolt, however, is not always quiet. Choosing homicidal martyrdom as a response to historical humiliation, I become a suicide bomber.
Humiliation—as experience—resembles a fold. From José Saramago’s novel The Gospel According to Jesus Christ: “In self-abasement his soul shrinks into itself like a tunic folded three times.” (Why three times? Three appears to be the magic number where humiliation or holiness is concerned.) The self-abased soul undergoes an inner contortion. Or perhaps any strong feeling resembles a fold, a doubling-up of psychic tissue and terrain, when the self’s forward march halts. Imagine folding a napkin, or folding a piece of pasta dough to make a dumpling. I don’t know why I’m convinced that humiliation resembles a fold, but I can’t erase this conviction. Through the action of folding, the outer and inner realms change places. Think of a defendant, in a trial, seeing his or her underwear presented as evidence by the prosecutor. An object that should be private and unseen is suddenly visible. An accessory appears in the wrong place. My unseen experience has been forcibly ejected—thrust outside. The judge hears my secrets. My inner rottenness lies exposed. My skin has been turned inside out. This fold (the self become a seam) is the structure of revulsion.
Humiliation, an educating experience, breeds identity. In Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (a novel that taught me, when I first read it, in seventh grade, to understand that humiliation strengthens character), the heroine’s identity is formed from her early experience of being locked as punishment in a red room. Her crime? Reading a book that wasn’t her property. Jane’s identity as unlovable outcast evolves in response to this first humiliation; and I’ll hypothesize that, in general, identity germinates from humiliation’s soil. (Why am I confident that this is true? Do I know what “identity” is? A molten enterprise, it consists, I suppose, in that bewildering and half-inaudible chorus of inner fantasies and memories that builds the illusory sense of ego.) Humiliation isn’t merely the basement of a personality, or the scum pile on the stairway down. Humiliation is the earlier event that paves the way for “self” to know it exists.
I presume that as moral individuals we should work toward minimizing humiliation, toward not inflicting it. We should practice an ethics of abstention. Vow: I abstain from deliberately humiliating others. When I find myself involved in this abhorrent practice, I will immediately desist and try to reverse the process and remedy the crime. And yet is a world without humiliation possible? It’s disenchanting to write about a horrible situation. About this subject, I can’t rhapsodize.
Employment is humiliating. Who hasn’t heard—or told—a story about workplace humiliation? My boss is a monster. My employees call me Fatso behind my back: I’ve read their emails. In the TV show The Office, the smarmy boss cheerfully humiliates his staff, and the show is a hit, because any working person wants to reinterpret daily indignities—the pus-filled blister of functioning within a bureaucracy—as farce, a style of theater that, as political catalyst, may be more effective than melodrama.
Writing is a process of turning myself inside out: a regurgitation. I extrude my vulnerable inner lining. I purge. And then I examine the contents—my expulsed interior—and begin the bloody interrogation. I ask whether it is filthy or clean, valuable or deplorable.
Is it humiliating to be a prostitute? (Not always, I’d like to believe.) In a TV interview, Eliot Spitzer’s paid companion was forced to describe herself as a “prostitute,” though she prefered the word “escort.” The person who urged the escort to call herself a prostitute was Diane Sawyer, who, like all good TV hosts, combines sangfroid, sympathy, and sadism. Some of us specialize in visiting unclean places; like Diane Sawyer or Barbara Walters or Larry King or any of my fellow broadcasters, I aim smiling questions at my guest’s open wound. The instrument of humiliation—or merely its sheath—is geniality.
Monica Lewinsky, Hillary Clinton, and their ilk—betrayed women, seduced women, wronged wives, traduced mistresses—excite my empathy. By imagining what they feel, or might feel, I learn something about what I already feel, what I, as a human being, was born sensing: that we all live on the edge of humiliation, in danger of being deported to that unkind country. Whether wife or mistress, I know that the scandal-consuming public sees me as degraded. By talking about this feeling, or writing about it, what do I hope to prove? Do I expect to excite myself into a rhetorical froth by invoking examples of humiliated people? Do I want to confess my own perverse pleasure in watching their drama? Do I want to tell stories about my own descents into hell? Are these disasters distinct from yours?
I’ve often feared that the result (if not the intention) of my writing has been to humiliate its human subjects—singers, stars, artists, intimates. My conscious aim was to celebrate them, but sometimes I’ve been shocked to discover afterward that my unconscious wish was to humiliate them and thereby to grant myself the humiliated identity of traitor, exposer, ingrate, tattletale, usurper, soul-catcher, reputation-despoiler, thief.
And so a theorem arises, applicable to certain writers, researchers, collectors, information-assemblers: to study a subject is to humiliate the subject and to humiliate oneself by the process of studying it.
Contemplating a humiliated subject is a form of religious worship. Simone Weil, the anorexic Jew whose self-lacerating ardors inspired Susan Sontag, and who therefore seems a paradigm of the thinker who sees humiliation as pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, found nourishment in meditating on Christ’s wounds. In a 1942 letter, Weil attested, with exultant austerity, “every time I think of the crucifixion of Christ I commit the sin of envy.”
In today’s mail a brochure from the Smile Train arrives, soliciting a donation. On the envelope: a photo of a child with an excruciating, unrepaired cleft palate. (Excruciating to whom? To the viewer, and, we presume, to the child, whose mouth is evidence of a humiliation that the brochure urges me to redress.) Looking at the photo, I experience shock—a spasm containing guilt, anguish, and desperate, fearful identification: if I don’t help that child, I will become that child, or I will have retroactively caused that child’s suffering. The same magical logic assails me when I behold someone untouchable, or dirty, or homeless, or vomiting, or crying, or shaking, or bleeding, or undergoing an abject physical ordeal. Watching, I sense, first of all, that person’s humiliation, and I’m struck by horrified commiseration. Next, I feel an urge to eject that person from my sight: get away from me, you vomiting freak. But then a memory appears (I, too, was once a vomiting freak), followed by a presentiment (if I don’t help this vomiting person, then I will become a vomiting person again sometime in the future). And yet I don’t want the vomit to land on me. And what if, at the very moment of beholding the vomiting person, I immediately become identical to the vomiting person, whether through paranoid identification or tender empathy? This afternoon, contrite, I write my first check to the Smile Train, if only so I can tell you that I am writing the check. Simone Weil, from her essay “Human Personality”: “The only way into truth is through one’s own annihilation; through dwelling a long time in a state of extreme and total humiliation.” I am not yet an old hand at Weil’s art of contemplating defilement.
Google is an instrument of humiliation. I google a rival to see if I can discover unflattering tidbits. And the very process of googling is humiliating to the rival (in magical form), but also humiliating to me. Any time I exercise the privilege of “googling for the hell of it” I am humiliating myself. Much of what I do on the Internet is humiliating. I’m not alone; the Internet is the highway of humiliation. Its purpose is to humiliate time, to turn information (and the pursuit of information) into humiliation. I’d say the same for much of TV, especially reality TV. Many forms of entertainment harbor this ungenerous wish: to humiliate the audience and to humiliate the performer, all of us lowered into the same (supposedly pleasurable) mosh pit.
The newspaper, too, is humiliating—a viper’s den, a circle of hell, alive with lamentations. The victim, a prominent socialite, a chemistry student, a working mother, a drug addict, an accountant, a morbidly obese boy with severe mental disabilities, a jogger, an underpaid au pair, a chauffeur, a hotelier, a diet doctor. Photo of a suspect, with hoodie, with Down’s syndrome features, with a face like the young Sean Connery’s, with a scar above the lip, with a face like the young Jennifer Jones, with a beard, with surgically augmented lips, with a shaved head and radical fringe tattoos on the skull, with a yarmulke, with a charity-gala coif. The accused killer’s shocked family, congregating outside the house. Embarrassed or depleted eyes of the murderer’s mother, in the courtroom, after the verdict.
Not as bad as 1777, when Ann Marrow was pilloried at Charing Cross (according to the Newgate Calendar, a crime chronicle, otherwise known as Malefactors’ Bloody Register) for “going in men’s clothes and personating a man in marriage.” When she was placed in the pillory, “so great was the resentment of the spectators, particularly the female part, that they pelted her to such a degree that she lost the sight of both her eyes.”
Pedagogy can’t do without humiliation. Elfriede Jelinek’s novel The Piano Teacher—and the movie version, directed by Michael Haneke and starring Isabelle Huppert—contains multiple humiliations; repeating them here might not be fruitful, so I will abstain from giving a complete list. The worst: Huppert hides broken glass in a piano student’s jacket pocket; the pupil, reaching into the pocket, bloodies her hand. That’s an extreme case of teacherly sadism; nonetheless, any student, no matter how sane and obliging the teacher, structurally occupies the position of the object in danger of being sacrificed. Conservatory pedagogy, even when it trickles down to grammar school sing-alongs, has military aspects: a student trained in classical music—or ballet?—knows the pain of getting it wrong, and acquires a gut knowledge of strict standards. Any attempt to teach how to practice an art—even experimental poetry, or performance art, or conceptual art—can easily humiliate, if the teacher isn’t careful.
Freud had some silly ideas, although he had remarkable insight into humiliation, which he considered (in his commentary on Dr. Schreber) to be “to the fore” in causing neurosis, especially “in the case of men.” What about women? In the case history of Dora, not the climax of Freud’s career as a reliable narrator, he opined, with a preposterousness that might be an antecedent of my own, which I hope you will forgive, and which I invite you to see as an echo of your own foolishness (who among us is not a fool, and, as a fool, liable to be the butt of jokes and pillorying?): “Women take a special pride in the state of their genitals; if these succumb to illnesses which seem likely to prompt distaste or even disgust, women’s self-esteem is injured and humiliated to a quite incredible extent.”
The word “humiliation” gives me pleasure to repeat. It will function, in the fugues that follow, as an incantation. May its repetition, like a swaying thurible, diffuse an atmosphere of forgiveness and solace in the drafty sanctuary. Every time I use the word, I’m striking a bell; its ping announces the momentary cessation of suffering.
I’m more interested in humiliated men than in humiliated women. When I see a humiliated woman (in literature, in life, on the screen, in a dream), I’m horrified and saddened—or indifferent. When I see a humiliated man (on trial, on the street, in jail, in a hospital), I’m horrified, too, but not necessarily saddened; I feel that his maleness has received a necessary puncture. And yet that collapse of maleness fills me with horror. Correction: I’m interested in humiliated women, too. But the spectacle of a man’s humiliation has a special ripeness. I may always be wanting revenge on men. And I may, as a consequence, always feel on the precipice of meriting someone else’s vengeful attack. A strip search, buttocks spread.
And now I’m making a terrible mistake. I’m speaking in the fictional voice of someone who relishes the humiliation of others—someone who poses as a connoisseur, sampling and savoring humiliation, collecting memories of it. This isn’t true. I turn my face, in horror, away from the humiliation of the teenager who sees, on a cruelty-dishing website called Formspring (according to The New York Times, my nearest conduit to the national abyss), that a classmate has anonymously written to her, “Everyone knows you’re a slut,” or “You’re ugly,” or “You look stupid when you laugh,” or “You’re not as hot as u think u are.”
If my voice seems to assert that the other is humiliated but that I am never humiliated, that’s a lie. The reason I’m writing is to silence the deep sea-swell of my humiliated prehistory, a prologue no more unsettling than yours.
An iota of sexual excitement—reparative, compensatory—surrounds the subject of humiliation. By talking about it, I guard against its return. Everybody has cause to identify with Saint Sebastian, whom arrows exalted, if only in hindsight.
To speak after humiliation: this is the voice of the survivor, who, according to philosopher Giorgio Agamben, speaks an impossibility. The person who was humiliated—he, or she, can’t speak. But I, as the survivor of humiliation, can speak on behalf of that person, now absent, now gone. I speak, in these fugues, as witness and guarantor of the humiliated “I,” the one who is necessarily silent. But that statement is too serious, too pontificating. And it’s too early in the book to bring up the Holocaust.
Copyright © 2011 by Wayne Koestenbaum
Meet the Author
WAYNE KOESTENBAUM has published five books of poetry, one novel, and six books of nonfiction. A graduate of Harvard and Princeton, he is a distinguished professor of English at the CUNY Graduate Center and also a visiting professor in the painting department of the Yale School of Art.
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