Humiliation by Wayne Koestenbaum; Picador, 192 pages, $14 paperback original. There was, to be sure, nothing deliberate about it. But there is no question that because of the nature of our era, we are getting two and even three books published contemporaneously that seem to be extraordinary companions to each other, if not fraternal twins or direct answers. This book, by the singular critic Wayne Koestenbaum is almost perfectly congruent -- in the Euclidean sense -- with Maggie Nelson's justifiably lauded recent book "The Art of Cruelty."
Koestenbaum -- the author of "The Queen's Throat" (in which the subject of humiliation was hardly a stranger) -- told Publishers Weekly recently "I've always been haunted by scenes of punishment, dressing-down, abasement, defrocking, delegitimation. Three national spectacles, in particular, sent me down the garden path to 'Humiliation' the book: a) the Michael Jackson scandal. b) the Bill Clinton scandal and c) Abu Ghraib. I wanted to figure out how the U.S. could engender, disseminate, consume and be horrified/titillated by these three disparate spectacles."
His book is a series of brilliant, occasionally transgressive notes, jottings, and pensees, some as short as "Imagine a society in which humiliation is essential -- as a rite of passage, as a passport to decency and civilization, as a necessary shredding of hubris." Because "sexuality, in any of its guises and positions, is potentially humiliating" much of Koestenbaum's book is unseemly in its self-abasement, as he admits piling up humiliations for the "sportive nature of U.S.-style humiliation: we're cheerful decimators."
He's a man who admits not being able to finish watching Michael Haneke movies, but by the time he's finished traversing everything from Liza Minnelli to Richard Nixon to Teddy Kennedy to Artaud and Basquiat, you can't help thinking he may well know more about the humiliating innards of the society we live in than almost anyone else living. For certain, one of 2011's most extraordinary books.
-- Jeff Simon