Perhaps it’s that bravery, that hold-your-chin-up attitude, which allows Koestenbaum the courage to delve so deeply into the shame, guilt and suffering of others.
“Humiliation” is the latest book by Koestenbaum who will appear on Thursday at the University of Albany in an afternoon seminar and evening reading, sponsored by the New York State Writers’ Institute. As the title suggests, his new book explores the humiliating moments of a wide range of historical figures, up to and including the sex scandals of American politicians. He also throws in plenty of moments from his own life.
Degradation may seem like a surprising departure for the author whose six previous books of nonfiction include highly personal, almost loving biographies of Andy Warhol and Jackie Kennedy Onassis (“Jackie Under My Skin”) two of the great, glittering icons of the 20th century.
Yet in a recent discussion Koestenbaum points to the pivotal importance of a shaky self-image in the lives of the first lady and the pop artist. He also suggests that it’s the most troubled part of their lives that made them appealing topics to him.
“Jackie was a queen and a mistress of ceremonies and very imperial in manner. But then there was the bad press she received for defection (to marry Aristotle Onassis) and the footage that weirdly records the bloodied suit,” says Koestenbaum. “And Andy Warhol was spat upon as a child and always an outsider. His sense of having a bad body, bad skin, bad hair gave him a profound sense of being untouchable. That was the M.O. of his mature career.”
Okay, everybody hurts. But is Koestenbaum, who’s a distinguished professor of English at the City University of New York, just an intellectual version of a tabloid reporter, spinning out books of scandal for the high brow set?
Actually, Koestenbaum elevates the discussion by regularly making statements like “Humiliation is the kiln through which the human soul passes and receives a burnishing and consolidation.”
“By repeating a traumatic episode, you release it’s toxicity, you convert it. It’s repeating the acts of shame to get cheerful,” he explains. “Writing the book had an abreactive effect for me, and before that so did teaching a course called ‘Humiliation.’ We were all in a good mood and didn’t talk about personal things. But it was a personal subject and we realized that one could be very cheerful discussing humiliation if you had a supportive group.”
Being an author isn’t easy on the psyche though. Whatever healing may have come to Koestenbaum through the writing about humiliation was at least somewhat jeopardized by the publishing process, fraught with editing, interviews and especially reviews.
“Publishing itself is so weird and elating and depressing, such a mixed bag,” he says.
Besides his non-fiction books, Koestenbaum has also written five books of poetry and a novel. He made his first mark on the cultural map in 1993 with “The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality and the Mystery of Desire.” A brash and daring treatise on the passionate connection between gay men and opera, it includes chapters on “opera queens,” record collecting, and the cult of soprano Maria Callas.
Humiliation, it seems, is a thread that’s laced throughout classical music, especially the worship of opera divas, and the gorgeous prolonged deaths, night after night, of Violetta, Mimi and all the other tragic female characters.
Koestenbuam says that he just didn’t use the h-word in writing “The Queens Throat,” thinking it too extreme at the time.
“There’s a deeply felt connection between the shame of a flawed public performance and the mercilessly rigorous and perfectionist standards in classical music interpretation,” he says.
Perhaps the only realm where there are higher, even more unattainable standards is that of masculinity.
“Many gay men’s narrative is about failing in masculinity. But everyone does. It’s impossible to ever succeed at masculinity,” states the 53-year old author. “As a gay man, I have a complex, very particular understanding of the melodrama of masculinity. As someone my age, it’s taken for granted there’s shame in the package. That’s why a straight man could not have written this book.”
Originally appeared in the Times Union.