January 23, 2012

BOOKS: Humiliation, Wayne Koestenbaum (2011)

For 20 years now, Wayne Koestenbaum has been writing books that combine literary criticism, memoir, and essay. His books are all, regardless of their ostensible topic, very much about him and his obsessions; when he hits upon a particularly interesting obsession, the results can be fascinating. I liked, for instance, The Queen's Throat, an exploration of the relationship between gay men and opera; and his book on Jackie Onassis, Jackie Under My Skin, had some intriguing moments.

In his newest book, he shares with us his lifelong fascination with humiliation, both his own and that of others. And because he is now a Prestigious Academic Intellectual Person, and because people will pay him to do things like this, he shares every single fucking thought he has ever had on the subject. Humiliation, I must report, is not a subject that can sustain a reader's interest for 184 pages.

Koestenbaum's style is very free-assocative, which often leads him to make awkward and uncomfortable juxtapositions -- from the sexual abuse of slaves to Alec Baldwin's infamous berating of his daughter, from the tragedy at Chappaquiddick to Koestenbaum's own restroom cruising experiences. To his credit, he is aware of how awkward these moments are, and there is a lot of "am I being overly crass to leap from A to B?" in the book, but if you're smart enough to ask the question, how can you not be smart enough to realize that the answer is yes?

The book's not entirely without merit; there are some lovely insights and beautifully written paragraphs, some thoughts that made me stop for a moment to think. But when your subject is humiliation, and your habit is to relate everything you write to yourself, you will inevitably find yourself writing long lists of your own humiliating moments, as Koestenbaum does (taking up most of the last 20 pages of the book). The book becomes an exercise in creepy oversharing, a highfalutin' academic episode of Oprah, in which we learn far more about Koestenbaum than we have any right (or any desire) to know. It is embarrassing stuff to read, and I can't help but think that it is (what else?) humiliating for him to have it all on display to the world. And that may, in a ghastly masochistic way, be the point of the whole damn book.

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