by Wayne Koestenbaum
BIG IDEAS // small books / A Picador Paperback Original
Cover photographs by Jon Shireman
Wayne Koestenbaum considers the meaning of humiliation in this eloquent work of cultural critique and personal reflection.
The lives of people both famous and obscure are filled with scarlet-letter moments when their dirty laundry sees daylight. In these moments we not only witness the reversibility of “success,” of prominence, but also come to visceral terms with our own vulnerable selves. We can’t stop watching the scene of shame, identifying with it and absorbing its nearness, and relishing our imagined immunity from its stain, even as we acknowledge the universal, embarrassing predicament of living in our own bodies. With an unusual, disarming blend of autobiography and cultural commentary, noted poet and critic Wayne Koestenbaum takes us through a spectrum of mortifying circumstances—in history, literature, art, current events, music, film, and his own life. His generous disclosures and brilliant observations go beyond prurience to create a poetics of abasement. Inventive, poignant, erudite, and playful, Humiliation plunges into one of the most disquieting of human experiences, with reflections at once emboldening and humane.
HUMILIATION is not just shame hidden inside you but it's shame that is witnessed by others. Public shame.
So my initial ideas with my talented Big Idea series photographer Jon Shireman was the face covered-up from embarrassment and the Pants with pee stain. I think the rhythm of the fingers looked great but I loved the pee stain idea. Very simple and funny. But it was thought too crass for a book cover. So we went with a diary of guarded secrets that looks like someone is desperately trying to get to.
I remember one of my many public humiliation experiences that involved a Best Man speech I once gave. The night before, I took careful consideration to write down onto four pages of tightly handwritten pages every heart felt, funny anecdotes of my history with my best friend. At the reception with my moment at hand, I got up and took out my pages of notes from my tuxedo inside pocket. Everyone got to their feet and raised their glasses up high and I suddenly realized that this speech was going to be at least 5 minutes long. With everyone staring at me, I had to edit my speech down in real time. I rambled and scrambled and muttered and sputtered incoherently. Stories led nowhere, jokes weren't funny. In front of me I saw glaring faces turn from happy expectation to confusion followed by pained pity, boredom and cocktail arm strain. I finally salvaged it with the only winner I could think of, "And may they have many offsprings!" Hear, Hear! Glasses clinking. I stuck the landing. I slowly slunk backwards to the bar and tried to hide my public humiliation in a Tequila Sunrise. ouch. But I couldn't hide for long. The Bride & Groom sandwiched me in the biggest love hug of happy tears. Hey, I guess that speech wasn't THAT bad.
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