Tuesday, July 24, 2012

TO-READ l Humiliation

Poet, critic, scholar and, chances are, supporter of green energy, Wayne Koestenbaum, has written just about every kind of book there is to write. Or was. Because, like Samuel Jackson at his best/worst/consistent, he's concurrently released three books this year alone, including Humiliation, which unlike The Anatomy of Harpo Marx is not strictly an academic study on the subject of embarrassment, nor an eponymous collection of poems like Blue Stranger With Mosaic Background, but rather like a long essay, constructed out of the most lambently radiant shards of personal and social grief. You get the feeling anyone could write this book, familiar as we all must be with depravity and shame, but only Koestenbaum, as far as I'm aware, has had the strength, ripped out like a page of watchful recognition of the volatile nature of humiliator and humiliated (words themselves so bulky I'm humiliated, slightly, to include them here) to do so.

For example, in regard to my reaction to the word itself, the parenthetical; would I have recognized that about me before? My day-to-day, hour-by-hour humiliations and habits of humiliating others? Likely not with the same reverence for how such seemingly, or coercively, "minor" infringements replenish or resist collective measures to constrain or, as Koestenbaum writes, "desubjectify".

I'm uplifted and amazed by this balancing act of a book which somehow leaves no stone unturned, and doesn't take for granted the relationship between our public fears and private knowledge, i.e., our consternation, oftentimes beguiled, as made evident in the following passage, by a self-effacing indolence:

"The humiliation of a derided performer on American Idol is immeasurably different from the humiliation of a Palestinian under Israeli occupation. One plight is chosen, the other is not, But isn't there present, both situations, in the demeanor and behavior of the aggressors, an underlying coldheartedness, a rock-bottom refusal to believe the worthiness of the person whose reputation... is stolen, trashed, occupied, razed? Isn't there present, in both situations, an underlying will to deracinate... this other person?"

This is a book by a writer I trust not to tell you more about. Rather, in service of its brilliance and audacity, I've decided to share openly my top 5 most humiliating moments/perpetual life circumstances.

Top 5 Most Humiliating Moments/Perpetual Life Circumstances 

5. All aboard a train from Strasbourg to Orleans, I decide to put my four years of French in high school to the test by ordering a chocolate croissant from the bar. "Je voudrais un croissant avec chocolate, s'il vous plait," I say, with the confidence and volume of a would-be contestant on Europe's hypothetically beloved game show, Identify the Americans! To which the bartender replies, "That'll be $4.50," and hands me a beer. Rattled, offended, confused and cold, I say, "Un bierre? Porquoi?" "Because," the bartender says, again in English, "this is a bar."

4. Asked by the prettiest, most popular girl in school, Vanessa French, to Turnabout (the dance where girls ask guys), following months of idle chit-chat between Chemistry and Gym, I buy my first, tailored suit, make reservations at McCormick & Schmick's, borrow my dad's car, and after opening its door for her, proceed to say the only thing that I will think to say all night: "It smells like worms out here!"

3. Billy Branham, my short-lived, trouble making "best friend" in the fourth grade, invites me to the mall for an unbeknownst to me crash-course in the art of public vandalism. After setting off two stink bombs in the Woodfield Mall men's restroom, I instinctively lose my nerve, dash our plan of coolly meeting in five minutes in the J.C. Penney Home Furniture section, and begin nervously skipping down the hall toward the first place I can think to hide: the infamously unassuming free sample line at Chinese Gourmet Express. Later, waiting for my mom to pick me up from the offices of mall security, I watch myself on camera as I repeat the process of waiting for a kebob of teriyaki chicken, humbly bowing to the server, and turning to my imaginary friend off screen, as I inaudibly over-annunciate the words, "We should come back here for dinner!" complete with a big smile and thumbs up, ad nauseam. 

2. All four years of French in high-school.

1. And finally, in the grand tradition of talking about books one hasn't read, I recently was asked to recommend a book for a newcomer to mysteries. "Like me!" I might have said. Instead, I nervously skip my way to the first book I can find with the word death or blood or gun in it and blindly hand the customer a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird. "Interpretations vary," I begin, "but as you can see, it's notable for its suspense as well as its being one of the first of its kind to address animal rights so spookily." 

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