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That Wayne Koestenbaum is a formidable talent is evident within the first few pages of his short book of literary criticism, Humiliation (Picador). In it, Koestenbaum thinks through the concept of humiliation in many different contexts, personal and political. What emerges is a poetic and often profound theoretical work of both academic and cultural import.
Roughly the first two-thirds of the book are its strongest. In these, Koestenbaum sets up a compelling discussion of humiliation. We spend our lives, he says, laboring to avoid humiliation, walking in its shadows and climbing out from under it.
The book is both straightforward and self-conscious. The writing often gives the impression of dogged attraction to the subject matter marred by constant flinching away. “I am tired, as any human must be,” Koestenbaum writes, “after a life spent avoiding humiliation and yet standing near its flame, enjoying the sparks, the heat, the paradoxical illumination.”
Above all else, this is a deeply humane reading. If “we all live on the edge of humiliation, in danger of being deported to that unkind country,” that must open the way for some kind of human solidarity. Koestenbaum extends a bit of grace to us all, weaving all victims together, from the murdered Holocaust casualty to the child bullied at school.
This is not to suggest that the book has no flaws. Koestenbaum at times draws sweeping conclusions that do not ring true. Noting that “[humiliation] involves a triangle: (1) the victim, (2) the abuser and (3) the witness,” he argues that all three parties are humiliated by the spectacle of humiliation. So, the witness and the abuser share the experience of humiliation with the victim. Koestenbaum erases the distinction between abuser and victim in ways that do not always ring true. It is not clear how humiliating another equals humiliation. It might signal corruption or loss of compassion. The abuser may humiliate another in order to avoid humiliation himself. But do these things really humiliate us?
Second, Koestenbaum too readily characterizes writing, art and other acts of creation as activities that engender humiliation. He describes writing as an act of purging that facilitates catharsis, and claims that this is identical to a sort of purging that takes place in the moment of humiliation—a sort of burnishing by fire. Perhaps this is true for some, but it’s hard to imagine that everyone responds in this way, even part of the time. Or that writing is an act of emotive ejection for us all.
Neither do I buy Koestenbaum’s case that language itself humiliates us. Sometimes words behave as signs, as Adorno and others suggested, that fail to capture anything true—or specific—about human experience. And sometimes, as Foucault pointed out, language renders “innocent” what is not really innocent. But too often in this book, complex concepts are elided to make the author’s more general case for humiliation.
Despite its faults, Humiliation is ultimately a glorious, fresh and redemptive approach to an old problem.
By Wayne Koestenbaum
Paperback, 9780312429225, 192pp