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Wayne Koestenbaum: The Horror and Fascination of Humiliation

Wayne Koestenbaum: The Horror and Fascination of Humiliation

Author: William Johnson

April 29, 2012

“If you stumble upon negative comments concerning your body or your personality, remember that the online universe equalizes every utterance, and that negative or humiliating comments concerning your body or your personality weigh no more than a feather.  Imagine the feather blowing away.”

Last year, I was asked by  Band of Thebes to name my favorite book of 2011.  Without hesitation, I picked poet, critic, and author Wayne Koestenbaum’s Humiliation (Picador).  I wrote:

The universal experience of mortification has rarely been critically examined and never with the wit, candor, humanity, and intelligence that Koestenbaum displays in this slim volume. Koestenbaum’s book is partly a postmodern accounting of his own humiliations, partly a pop cultural survey of noted public embarrassments, and partly an anecdotal fireside chat. He smartly lends his dissecting eye to an emotional experience that all of us want to forget, but unfortunately can not escape, and by doing so makes the lonely experience of being humiliated not so lonely.

Koestenbaum recently released a new book of poems, Blue Stranger with Mosaic Background (Turtle Point Press), and a critical examination of Harpo Marx, The Anatomy of Harpo Marx (University of California Press).

Koestenbaum took some time to talk with me about the process of writing about humiliation, Harpo Marx, and how poetry informs his cultural criticism.

How did the idea of writing a book about humiliation come about?

I’ve always been riveted (with horror and fascination) by scenes of shaming, and these scenes have been the secret fuel for my poems and essays; finally it seemed time to confront the emotion analytically (rather than lyrically or narratively) and to frame it as not merely “my problem” but as a dynamic that governs, distorts, and contaminates public life.  To prepare for the writing of the book, I taught a seminar (at the CUNY Graduate Center) called “Humiliation,” in which we sampled the canon of humiliated literature, from Shakespeare (and Euripides) to Dodie Bellamy and Elfriede Jelinek.

Other than being an astute cultural and personal analysis on the meaning of humiliation—your book became this sort of self-help book for bookish nerds like me. Did you realize this when you were writing it—that you were creating a book that was helping people deal with various aspects of public humiliation?

I love the notion that I’ve inadvertently reached out (via this book) to comfort “bookish nerds”!  That phrase perfectly describes me.  And I long for camaraderie with other bookish nerds.  But honestly, when I was writing the book, I was sunk (as I always am while writing) into a private muck of emotions—a swamp of conflicts, remembered agonies, imagined perils, through which a tiny searchlight of consoling logic occasionally gleams.

There is a chapter in your collection Humiliation where you list a litany of your own personal humiliations— was that a cathartic experience for you?

Writing, for me, is always cathartic;  that chapter was not more cathartic than usual.  If anything, the experience of writing that litany of humiliations felt like a formalist escapade—an attempt, in the manner of Georges Perec, to turn miserable experience into controlled (and laconic) arabesque.

Were there any experiences you found almost too embarrassing to include?

There were plenty of experiences I didn’t include!  Or:  I may have mentioned embarrassing incidents, but I didn’t dwell on them, didn’t enlarge or amplify the emotions accompanying the shameful actions.  I described snot on my hand, but I didn’t describe the emotional experience of snot-on-the-hand.  I left the emotional fallout unspoken—and therefore placed the burden of elaboration on the reader.  Snot-on-the-hand becomes (comfortingly) imagistic, like Pound’s petals on a wet, black bough, minus the tawdry, soiling, scarring emotion.

Online social networks and technology have increased our connection, but privatized much of our lives as well. Online life broadcasts our humiliations and at the same time provides us no support to deal with the humiliation. What recommendations would you give—if any—on navigating this bold sometimes personally humiliating online world?

Use aliases.  If you circulate a nude photo of yourself, make sure that your face is hidden.  (Unless you love being nude in public.)  I guess this advice is obvious.  Don’t read what people say about you.  If you stumble upon negative comments concerning your body or your personality, remember that the online universe equalizes every utterance, and that negative or humiliating comments concerning your body or your personality weigh no more than a feather.  Imagine the feather blowing away.

You write that acts of humiliation have a humanizing effect on its victims—their extreme embarrassment draws your empathy. Have you ever run up against a humiliated public figure in which your antipathy ran so deep that no empathy could be mustered?

Maybe Mussolini?  (Suddenly I’m picturing his upside-down corpse, and I’m not awash in empathy.)

On a more local front:  so far, I don’t have much empathy for Senator Santorum.  Dan Savage humiliated him, but The New York Times is remarkably silent about the true (or newly coined) meaning of the word “santorum.”

I wanted to talk about the format of your two recent books. Your musings are presented as a series of heady snapshots—similar in form to David Shields’ work (Remote, Reality Hunger). How has David’s work and theories inspired you?

I love David’s work.  His boldness and iconoclasm are inspiring;  and I admire his prose’s succinctness.  He finds ingenious ways of constructing book-length essays—through fragment, collage, assemblage.  He concocts innovative frames to house disparate textures and idiolects, and thereby transforms monologue into polyphony.  Simply knowing that David is in the world, writing his books, spreading the good news about the joy of strange essay writing, makes me happy.

Are you—like Shields—bored with straight ahead traditional narrative styles?

I wouldn’t say “bored.”  Or, I don’t consider boredom a bad thing.  “Boredom,” like “perversion,” is one of those words I like to see transvalued.

But I will say that, in prose, I like interruption, parataxis, jump cut, confession, rupture, digression, omission, excess, embroidery, fatigue, shock.

In The Anatomy of Harpo you comment on how you are drawn to the physicality of the comedic actor Harpo Marx.  Were you surprised by how much more Harpo spoke to you than, say, the more cerebral (and often more celebrated) Groucho?   

Not surprised.  Groucho slightly disgusts me—maybe because he reminds me of me, the talky me, the me who compensates for melancholy with bony speech.  Harpo, however, brings me back (or hurtles me forward) to nonverbal pleasures:  the joy of elbow, thigh, nose, foot, stomach, forehead, curls.

After deconstructing so many of Harpo’s films did you come away with a favorite—a movie you feel everyone should watch? 

I’d start with Horse Feathers, if only for the pleasure of seeing Harpo play football, score a touchdown, bite a quarterback’s finger.  (He decides that the hunky quarterback’s finger is a hot dog.)

Are there any current actors whose engaging physicality you find yourself responding to?

Sacha Baron Cohen.  He likes to take off his clothes in public.  I suppose he reminds me of Groucho Marx—but a sexier Groucho, with a better body.  A tall Groucho.  A British Groucho.  A Groucho with some of the pizazz of Mark Spitz.

You have been very prolific of late; you also have a new poetry collection out. Do find your cultural criticism informing the poetry you produce?

I’d say the opposite:  my poetry informs my cultural criticism.  My attention, in poems, to syllables, to minute juxtapositions, to eccentric arrangements, to autobiography’s inappropriate eruption in analytic contexts (or culture’s’ inappropriate eruption in confession’s context), filters into my criticism, which also promiscuously inserts autobiography where it doesn’t belong, enjoys odd juxtapositions, and boils ideas down into bite-sized phrases, like Tupperware for treasured leftovers.

William Johnson photo

About: William Johnson

William Johnson is the former Deputy Director of Lambda Literary.

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