Wayne Koestenbaum isn't the Marquis de Sade. He hasn't experienced any more shameful events than the average person (or inflicted them on others) and doesn't enjoy obsessing about them. "Humilation is a hard thing to write about. I'm not a connoisseur of it," he says, "even though I pretended to be one to sell this book." This book, Humiliation, is a multi-faceted examination of human degradation in all its forms, from American Idol auditions to Abu Ghraib torture, and our morally conflicted societal appetite for as much of it as we can handle. Humiliation is generally considered to be a wholly negative state, but Koestenbaum thinks there may be some value in it. "People often want to relive the most shameful and humiliating experiences of their lives," he says. "Some psychotherapists say that by doing so it is possible to achieve something called abreaction, which helps them heal from their trauma. I don't know whether I agree, but it does seem true that people are drawn to repeat these experiences." Koestenbaum is a poet, critic, and academic, and his book can get pretty heady, with extended discussions of Antonin Artaud and Ludwig Wittgenstein and opera singer Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. But Koestenbaum isn't afraid to go lowbrow—Liza Minelli, John Waters movies, The Swan, and www.tinypenishumilation.net are just a few of his subjects—or personal, as when Koestenbaum describes masturbating to nude images of one of his students, or attending a screening of the porn film Hustler White ("I saw an amputee use his leg stump to penetrate his lover's anus (Am I misremembering this scene?)"
His final chapter, in fact, concludes with a nearly unbearable litany of Koestenbaum's own minor and not-so-minor scenes of embarrasment. When asked if he has found this public revelation of his own humiliation cathartic, Koestenbaum replies that this is nothing new for him. "I have been writing about this in my poetry for years. The difference is that no one reads poetry, so no one ever asks me how I feel about them." Humiliation is more essay than self-help guide, but in a series of promotional web videos, Koestenbaum offers advice to victims of social embarrasments ranging from witnessing witnessing a colleague entering an adult bookstore to farting in yoga class. Not all of his counsel is very practical, and most of it is meant at least partly tongue-in-cheek, but Koestenbaum claims that there is a kernel of truth underlying all of it: that it is healthy not only to acknowledge but to embrace our own human frailty, and to reclaim our flaws as sources of strength. "Obviously, there are some scenes that can never be reinterpreted, but some can be reinterpeted eternally," he says. "Farting in yoga is one of those scenes that can be reinterpreted eternally."
Humiliation by Wayne Koestenbaum, $14 at booksellers and www.amazon.com
—By Timothy Holder