The Chronicle Review

The Embarrassment Artist

Wayne Koestenbaum exposes himself

Heike Steinweg

In his new book, Wayne Koestenbaum reveals himself as a connoisseur of shame and humiliation, not least his own.
July 10, 2011

"I have a dirty mind," says Wayne Koestenbaum, poet, critic, and professor of English at the City University of New York's Graduate Center. We're sitting in his immaculate, book-lined office discussing the job talk that helped land him here, in 1996. Titled "Gertrude Stein's Posthumous Porn," it assessed scatological references in love notes that Stein sent to Alice B. Toklas, and included a Nan Goldin photograph of a man masturbating. Retelling the story, Koestenbaum, slight and still boyish in his early 50s, winces: "Was that a little self-destructive?"

Apparently not. But is this? "If I hear a colleague poop loudly, in the school bathroom, I pity him. I feel that I am humiliating my colleague by eavesdropping on his elimination." Or this? "Seventh grade: one night I jerked off for hours without stopping. The next day, my swollen penis looked like a dreidl. Afraid the swelling would never die down, I told my mother that I had an upset stomach and begged to stay home from school, lest I reveal, in P.E., my deformity."

Those vignettes come by way of Koestenbaum's short new book, Humiliation, to be published by Picador next month. Humiliation doesn't push a thesis. It presents a series of digressions and observations—some a few lines, others a few pages—on the topic. As in his previous books—The Queen's Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire (Poseidon, 1993) among them—Koestenbaum displays a knack for clever, pop-intellectual meditations, and a sharp eye for the prurient detail. A connoisseur of shame, he unearths the good stuff from the Internet ("the highway of humiliation"), television ("a manure pond of humiliation"), and The New York Times ("the nearest conduit to the national abyss").

On the day we meet, humiliation is in the air. That morning U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner resigned after admitting to sending photos of himself to women on the Internet. Asked about the scandal, Koestenbaum, who is wearing red wire-frame glasses, a white shirt, jeans, and multicolored sneakers, responds with a deep sigh. "Here goes another guy pilloried because he happens to have a public career and therefore can't engage in behavior that is otherwise quite normal." He says he is disturbed by forced confessions of lewd behavior. "For me it all goes back to Oscar Wilde, where the pillorying was motivated by bigotry, not, as is the case with Weiner, a more benign moral management."

There is no more inspiring figure in Koestenbaum's pantheon of humiliation than Wilde. In 1895, having been exposed and convicted as a homosexual, Wilde, in handcuffs and prison garb, was paraded in front of a jeering crowd at a London train station. In time he came to view the experience as "an inevitable part of the evolution of my life and character." In a posthumously published letter from prison, he wrote: "So perhaps whatever beauty of life still remains to me is contained in some moment of surrender, abasement, and humiliation." Wilde speaks to an old and lovely and maybe even true idea: Suffering is reversible; humiliation is redemptive. Koestenbaum puts it like this: "Humiliation is a kiln through which the human soul passes, and where it receives burnishing, glazing, and consolidating. Humiliation cooks the spirit to a fine finish."

Humiliation can also humanize its victims. Picture Anita Bryant, the anti-gay-rights crusader, moments after a man shoves a pie in her face during a televised news conference in 1977. "At least it's a fruit pie," she jokes. Then she starts to cry. Suddenly, Koestenbaum writes, this "wretched" woman is transformed into a sympathetic figure. "A few seconds ago, she was a wrong-minded, wrong-acting bigot, but now she has become a humiliated woman, crying in public."

Of course, humiliation can also simply be humiliating, an excruciating moment when the private is made public. In his new book, Koestenbaum likens it to having your skin turned inside out. But coming from a man who writes about ill-timed erections at the doctor's office, that strikes a false note. Isn't he immune to embarrassment? Doesn't he embody what T.S. Eliot expressed in his play The Cocktail Party? "I have had quite enough humiliation / Lately, to bring me to the point / At which humiliation ceases to humiliate"?

No, says Koestenbaum, who insists that it is in fact his hypersensitivity to humiliation that makes it such an attractive subject. "I had to write about it," he says, and he could do so only "in a way that humiliates me more." If that sounds masochistic, it's because it is. Here he is describing his writing process: "I extrude my vulnerable inner lining. I purge. And then I examine the contents—my expulsed interior—and begin the bloody interrogation."

The writing of Humiliation was so difficult, he says, that he was convinced it would be his last book. (It won't be. In February, the University of California Press will publish The Anatomy of Harpo Marx, followed in September by a book of poetry, Blue Stranger With Mosaic Background, to be published by Turtle Point Press.) "I was just so tired of all the self-examination and self-exhibition. I mean, why can't I be private? Well, I'm a writer, and to write I have to do this," he says, fidgeting with his chunky, bright blue wristwatch. "I only feel authentic when I'm writing something that surprises and scares me."

Koestenbaum's first book, Double Talk: The Erotics of Male Literary Collaboration (Routledge, 1989), established him as a hot property among queer-studies types. Suddenly lumped in with a movement, he felt uncomfortable. He recalls a party that Routledge threw for him, Judith Butler, and Diana Fuss. Both of them had books coming out around the same time (Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity and Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature, and Difference, respectively). "I felt like such an impostor," he says. "I didn't have the long, punishing bath in theory. I wasn't steeped in the idiolect of upper-level graduate students. I hadn't read Marxist stuff"—he gestures at the bookshelves. "It never even occurred to me. I had read a little Derrida, but I didn't care about Hegel. I was too busy reading Frank O'Hara and watching movies."

He was also at work on The Queen's Throat, a study of opera's place in gay culture. He delivered a large, heavily footnoted manuscript to editors at Routledge. They agreed to publish it, but Koestenbaum decided to cut the manuscript in half and remove all the footnotes and transitions. He also added personal stories about his own relationship to opera. Poseidon, then an imprint of Simon & Schuster, bought the book. "I was ambitious," Koestenbaum explains, noting that he had received his M.A. in creative writing from the Johns Hopkins University back in 1981; The Queen's Throat came out in 1993. "Twelve years is a long time in a young person's life." And with the AIDS crisis mounting, he says, it felt even longer. Death seemed like an imminent possibility.

"I had a sense of urgency. I had to write the books I wanted to write"—even if they were unlikely to aid his bid for tenure at Yale, where he was then an associate professor in the English department. In 1995, Farrar, Straus and Giroux published Jackie Under My Skin: Interpreting an Icon, a spirited riff on celebrity culture. Later that year, Koestenbaum was denied tenure. Yale never even formally considered his candidacy, he says, instead offering him a writer-in-residence position. He turned it down and decamped for CUNY.

He was soon joined there by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, doyenne of queer studies. New York magazine hailed the arrival of the "troublemaking scholars" as a major infusion of intellectual capital into the city. For Koestenbaum, working alongside Sedgwick, who died of cancer in 2009, was formative. He speaks of her with reverence: "She was not that much older than I am, but I've always considered myself her student." He credits her with shaping his thinking about humiliation. In a series of essays—many of them collected in Shame and Its Sisters: A Silvan Tomkins Reader (Duke University Press, 1995)—Sedgwick "introduced shame as a sexy, redeeming, unbashful spot in contemporary intellectual life," Koestenbaum argues.

He was also moved by her example. The last time he saw her, Sedgwick was confined to a wheelchair. He remembers that she proudly declared herself a "full-fledged crip" and said she was determined to learn to navigate New York City despite not being able to walk. Reflecting on the encounter in Humiliation, he writes: "Thus again she proved herself an expert at turning humiliation—or suffering, or depression—into an imaginative, loving enterprise."

Humiliation is Koestenbaum's most intimate work of prose. The last chapter is a litany of personal embarrassments. (He won't confirm if they're true.) Self-incrimination, he explains, is the price of establishing his bona fides as a humiliation expert. But what's the price of having such a confessional style? At the least, a severe bout of prepublication anxiety. "I feel genuine, unreality-tested panic that I've transgressed against decency, or accuracy, or good taste, or propriety," he says.

Perhaps as a diversion, he's taken up painting. This seems to please him. "I've turned myself into a visual artist with a shocking level of absorption and intensity," he says, turning to the wall behind him. "I plan to hang a piece of my art here." He considers this for a moment. "Actually, my paintings are kind of dirty. Maybe the thing I should not do is bring my art here."