‘Yes we must die but there is no need to die mutilated by fire – a laughingstock to our enemies! That’s worse than death.’
Euripides, Herakles (416 bce)
‘I approach this vast subject from a limited angle – the angle of fatigue. I am tired, as any human must be, after a life spent avoiding humiliation and yet standing near its flame, enjoying the sparks, the heat, the paradoxical illumination.’
Wayne Koestenbaum, Humiliation (2011)
In Euripides’s play Herakles, first performed in 416 bce, humiliation turns the Thebes-set stage into a snake pit. The titular hero (soon to be antihero) returns to his wife and children after slaying a fantastic bestiary, just as they are about to be humiliatingly murdered by Lykos, who wants ‘blood justice’ for a familiar litany of wrongs. Herakles arrives just in time, whereupon he thoroughly humiliates and kills Lykos. Quickly, the vengeful goddess Hera, still smarting from the humiliation of her husband Zeus’s out-of-wedlock child (Herakles himself), turns Zeus’s heroic demi-god son momentarily mad, during which time he decimates his family. Coming to after the murders, Herakles surveys the familial carnage – his great humiliation. ‘I wish I were stone!’ he weeps, seeing the corpses.
‘So I, a man utterly wrecked and utterly shamed, / shall follow Theseus / like a little boat being towed along.’ Who is audience to this Heraklean humiliation, that which must always have an audience? Along with Herakles’s own consciousness, they are the mortals and immortals of Greece, including Theseus, King of Athens; the Athenian theatre crowd, watching Herakles’s humiliation unfold; and us – an unending parade of future solitary readers, who ensure that his humiliation will be without conceivable end. But such is literature.
An annihilating, amphibious thing, humiliation is. Annihilating because it quickly renders one ‘less than zero’ – in its sudden abyss, one becomes mute, invisible, seemingly extinct – and amphibious because it can live and breed anywhere: land, sea. I also mean it in the Greek sense of the word: amphibios, meaning to lead a double life. Because one of humiliation’s many paradoxes is that it renders us nil, but it also creates the need for a twinned existence. As in (interior voice): ‘This is not happening to me. I am not here. Just act normal. Everything is totally fine. Oh god.’ While humiliation arises from myriad situations – fire, water, rejection, wrathful goddesses – it often results from language, or errors thereof. Spoken language, of course, is the primary suspect, as social situations are its anxious ground of action. But the written word also teems with humiliation, as Euripides underlines. See, too, my reluctance to write the column you are now reading, which might naturally suggest that humiliation is an aspect of my own life, writing or otherwise. (Please don’t infer that. Oh god.)
As the American poet and critic Wayne Koestenbaum bluntly admits in his new treatise, Humiliation (published by Picador in August), ‘Language hurts. Language humiliates.’ In all the talk about abject materials in recent years in contemporary art discourse, one of the most abject – language – is rarely mentioned. How interesting. But this is one of the subjects to which, and the very material with which, Koestenbaum turns in his brief, beguiling book (which joins other succinctly named volumes in Picador’s ‘big ideas // small books’ series, including Time (2009) by Eva Hoffman, and Violence (2008) by Slavoj Žižek). If Koestenbaum’s observation about language’s lauded ability to harm only comes in the eighth vignette of the book’s ninth ‘fugue’ (entitled ‘Fine Jew Linen’ after some self-scorching words of Sylvia Plath’s, that famous poet of exalted humiliation) perhaps it is because he too feels anxious about declaring his sordid personal connection to his subject. First he must skip among humiliation’s present genres par excellence: reality TV and the Internet, as well as its potent subgenres – child stars, war photography, camp. Nevertheless, it is his book’s not-quite-underground subtext – humiliation’s literature – that steals the show.
So here’s something else Koestenbaum says about language’s capacity to humiliate that conjures Euripides’s Heraklean shame fest: ‘I’ve often feared that the result (if not the intention) of my writing has been to humiliate its human subjects – singers, stars, artists, intimates. My conscious aim was to celebrate them, but …’. His human and situational subjects, discussed in the numbered vignettes that stud and comprise each chapter, are either gleaned from humiliation’s virtual world – from YouTube, Google and Craigslist’s corner on the masochism market (an emblematic ad: ‘I want to be humiliated today. Tell me what you want to do to me. In detail. Thanks’) – or headlines: the Abu Ghraib torture photos, Michael Jackson, Monica Lewinsky, Eliot Spitzer. But his most loved subjects, limned for their long cultural contribution to the field of humiliation, are experts like Antonin Artaud, Samuel Beckett, the Marquis de Sade, Elfriede Jelinek, Julia Kristeva, Liza Minnelli, Robert Walser and Simone Weil, all of whom deftly deal with the vagaries of abasement (self and other) in their work.
There is a long legacy of writing about the failure of language, about its humiliations and omissions. See Ludwig Wittgenstein’s oft-quoted Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) or postwar writers like Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachmann, for whom the German language became polluted or untenable, even as they used it, humiliated, to voice that fact. As Koestenbaum writes, philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive (1998) ‘connects the experience of shame with the peculiar tendency of poets to erase their own subjectivities under the guise of intensifying them. Referring to John Keats, Agamben claims that “desubjectification” – becoming no one – is a “shameful and yet inevitable” part of poetic experience.’ This obviously extends to non-poets too: take the Swiss master Walser’s heartbreaking humility (and its mirror of Modernist cunning). ‘Becoming no one’ could be the sly subtitle to each brilliant and sweetly self-abasing Bildungsroman that he wrote.
Likewise, contemporary literary greats like Anne Carson – she of the regal rigour delineating humiliation’s role in desire – and David Foster Wallace, who put his alarming virtuosity in the service of the desperately and blindly addled, both wittily build worlds where humiliation is the fee one pays to survive with dignity and curiosity intact (paradoxical as that may sound). Which is not even to broach the self-mutilating, scatological speech of Beckett and Artaud, for whom humiliation was a cut-throat game in which the stakes could only go higher and higher: ‘fail better’ or ‘god / sat down on the poet, / in order to sack the ingestion / of his lines, / like the head farts / that he wheedles out of him through his cunt’.
If it is clear how such writers use humiliation’s contingencies to their own brilliant ends, what is less crystalline is what attracts readers to such literature. The intimacy of reading books inspires an empathy and identification largely missing when scanning the aftermath of a car accident or an atrocious headline in a newspaper. Why would a reader want to identify with the very thing that ‘in real life’ one avoids at all costs? That is a real question. It is by no means rhetorical. I was taken aback reading Koestenbaum’s book, not for his own recited litany of personal humiliations (which he self-consciously calls himself on: ‘Not that I want to reduce every statement to autobiography – that humiliated genre’) but because so many of the writers he cites are those that I value the most. Bachmann, Beckett, Carson, Walser – these are the writers I cherish, whose humanity seems untarnished in direct proportion to the tarnish the world has heaped upon their characters or speakers.
At one point Koestenbaum touches on the humiliation and inequality built into linguistic and semantic structures, recalling Kristeva’s point that in the hierarchy of the ‘sign’ or word, the letters and their sounds stand above the lower, more abased meanings they connote. Suggesting this hierarchy, and his position along it, Koestenbaum writes, ‘I prefer literature and art that seems to have been humiliated – where the material texture attests to a robbed or lowered condition.’ And, going further: ‘I don’t like confident literature, or literature that seems immune to self-incrimination; literature should bear witness to the fact that the writer was humiliated by the very process of writing the work.’
I, too, prefer it. Yet I don’t quite believe this last italicized line to be self-evident, that limning humiliation in literature attests to a humiliating act incurred in its writing. Humiliation can be a performance, like much else enacted in art. Yet for Koestenbaum himself this observation holds true. Here’s how he describes his writing process: ‘I’m nailed and buggered and stabbed by incubi and succubi. And each stab, each penetration, each pullulation, is a phrase I try to turn into a complete sentence.’ While Koestenbaum clearly feels kinship with and takes inspiration from Artaud in these fervent, fetid lines, still they seem, within the book’s packed perimeters, true to their (self-flagellating, self-illuminating, self-negating, self-glorifying, self-performing) word.