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 circumstances―in 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.
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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.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved. :
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 d...
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