Shame and Fortune: Wayne Koestenbaum is Simply Mortified

The Observer had been waiting in the metallic ground-floor lobby of the Times Square restaurant Mars 2112 for twenty minutes

The Observer had been waiting in the metallic ground-floor lobby of the Times Square restaurant Mars 2112 for twenty minutes when we began to get impatient.

“Excuse me,” we asked the hostess, who doubled as the gift shop cashier. “I’m meeting Wayne Koestenbaum, the poet, cultural critic, and distinguished professor of English at the City University of New York. Have you seen him?”

“The blond guy by himself? He’s already on Mars,” she said. “He was looking for you.”

Underground, we apologized to the slight man in the fedora, who was texting furiously.

“When I couldn’t find you I actually experienced panic,” he said, removing his hat.

Like an attraction at Disneyland or nearby M&M World, lunch at Mars 2112 is a themed experience. The mazelike space, much of which is underground, is evidently designed to derail adult communication and complicate rendezvous. Or perhaps neighbor planet Mercury was in retrograde? Mr. Koestenbaum, a Virgo, also reads his horoscope.

We were seated beside a rusty rock column, facing away from the 10-foot-tall screen playing videos from Mission Control on the adjacent wall. Mars smelled like disinfectant.

“Does this place not frighten you a little bit? Like you’re about to be kidnapped and taken to a coerced childhood?” Mr. Koestenbaum asked. His diction is appropriate to his Harvard training, but he retains the elongated vowels of his California upbringing.

Reading Mr. Koestenbaum’s latest book, Humiliation, it’s easy to understand why a return to childhood makes him anxious. Humiliation begins as an exploration of shame in its various forms—through pop-literary topics like the life of Michael Jackson and Shakespeare’s mastery of language—and ends with a 74-point list of humiliations Mr. Koestenbaum experienced or witnessed. His critical eye and poetic voice burrow beneath the veneer of nostalgia, reminding us that childhood offers some painful prep work for the daily humiliations of adult life.

His humiliation No. 5 reads, “In a Buick station wagon my mother yelled at me in front of my debate partner, a girl with a perennial tan.”

Mr. Koestenbaum is not the Mars 2112 type. He never really was.

“All I remember about Disneyland is a small Romeo and Juliet book I got there that I loved,” he said. “I don’t mean to make myself seem bookish but I think I just would have rather been at a movie or…”

He was interrupted by our captain, a heavy-set, goateed waiter with a thick Russian accent. The man wore a uniform meant to evoke the USS Enterprise, though the look landed somewhere closer to  High School Marching Band. His nametag said Alex Skywalker.

We told Mr. Koestenbaum that while The Observer waited for him in the lobby, a tourist family had approached us thinking we worked for the restaurant.

“Do you think she would like it?” the mother asked us, pointing to her daughter.

The girl offered a morose look, hiding under a pinstriped fedora of her own, earbuds firmly lodged in ears. We estimated she was 14 years old.

“Sure,” we said, with silent apologies to the teenager.

Mr. Koestenbaum compared her humiliation to a more universal one—receiving a gift one doesn’t like.

“The wrong gift has a slap-in-the-face-quality—that the person who gave it to us has incorrectly recognized our desires,” he said.

“This is what is supposed to give me pleasure? How can I deal with the fact that other things than this give me pleasure? Things that I can’t even mention and that maybe I can never mention.”

Mr. Koestenbaum never came out to his parents. He took a shortcut by publishing books, he said, adding that his poetry is more revealing than his conversation.

“I don’t want to be misperceived as a compulsive divulger,” he said.

There are biographical details about Mr. Koestenbaum that could serve as his humiliation bona fides–he is a gay, Jewish, poet–but they are beside the point of Humiliation, which concerns something much more universal and basic than identity politics.

“Identity germinates from humiliation’s soil,” he writes in the opening chapter. “Humiliation isn’t merely the basement of a personality, or the scum pile on the stairway down. Humiliation is the earlier event that paves the way for ‘self’ to know it exists.”

Mr. Koestenbaum’s pop-culture fluency and tendency toward self-disclosure is a reliable formula for cult academic celebrity (the filmmaker John Waters blurbed the book). The bit about the humiliation of masturbating to internet pornography is made more memorable, for example, by the fact that the masturbator is the author and the pornography he has come across on the internet happens to star one of his students. But Mr. Koestenbaum is sensitive to the cheapening effect of confession for confession’s sake, the humiliation-as-entertainment quality of reality television. In Humiliation, he aims for more literary ends.

A man standing well over six feet tall approached our  table and waved. He was dressed in a green Spandex alien costume and a loin cloth. Even extraterrestrials have shame.

“Hello, there!” the author  said. “We were marveling at your costume.”

The alien continued waving dumbly for another three seconds—Could he hear us through his massive, velour mask?—and then walked away.

“He actually—we assume it’s a he—looks a lot like the drag queen panhandling outside my building last night.”

Mr. Koestenbaum lives in Chelsea, where he has watched 8th Avenue change over the last 15 years, more noticeably since the erection of the High Line, which he can see from his apartment.

“I want to get binoculars,” he said.

Mr. Koestenbaum has not spotted any of the supposed exhibitionists rumored to be performing regularly in the glorious windows of The Standard hotel, though he said he would like to. He looks up expectantly when he walks by. And in kind, he noted, he doesn’t bother much about closing his own curtains.

“The one thing I worry about when I walk around naked is that I’m skinny,” he said, lowering his voice. “I’m happy to be skinny but maybe from a distance that registers as invisible. Maybe to be skinny from a distance is to be nonexistent.”

Fully dressed, Mr. Koestenbaum registers as ageless. A dorsal thatch of his curly hair had been peroxided blonde, giving him the  look of a post-collegiate New Wave kid. He wore a blue Peter Pan collar, a striped repp tie, and white sneakers—the uniform of a boy about to outgrow themed restaurants.

His one adult accessory was a gold band on his ring finger. As a “radical queer activist,” he wants the state kept out of our erotic lives; his vague plans to wed his longterm boyfriend were made with the children in mind. Not that they intend to have any of their own, but so that the ones already in the world could grow up thinking a homosexual partnership was a legitimate adult path.

Alongside Humiliation’s many scatological and sexual embarrassments are a fair number of professional humiliations—a “violently negative review” invading his office through the fax machine, an essay commissioned and then killed, the student in the audience at an important academic conference who pointed out that Mr. Koestenbaum had few writers of color on his syllabi—to the applause of other attendees.

Was it possible that writers took perverse pleasure in that sort of humiliation, even subconsciously? Why else would they relentlessly bare themselves before strangers?

“To be loved,” he said. “When I get bad review I want to quit. I think that it would have been better just to shut up.”

It is fortunate, then, that Humiliation has been positively received. This owes, in part, to its timeliness. The book’s publishing coincided with a spate of elected officials humiliated by revelations of the details of their sexual lives.

The day before our lunch, Mr. Koestenbaum filmed a segment with Dylan Ratigan to discuss  humiliation as it related to the public shamings of Anthony Weiner and his bare-chested brethren. Mr. Koestenbaum was, to The Observer’s knowledge, the first queer theorist poet to appear on The Dylan Ratigan Show.

“It took four wet paper towels to get all the makeup off,” he said.

It reminded The Observer of a recent humiliation of our own. We had been alone in an elevator with an attractive man. He looked at us and said, “The lighting in here is terrible.”

“There was no mirror in the elevator,” The Observer told Mr. Koestenbaum.

“Mmm,” he said, disapproving.

“Perhaps he spoke without thinking?”

“That’s a bit of masculinist privilege,” Mr. Koestenbaum replied. “Although he was probably just speaking an internalized self-criticism.”

The Observer felt better.

Humiliation was not written to be high brow self-help, according to Mr. Koestenbaum, but because he seems to sincerely believe that humans are morally improved by the climb up from humiliation’s rock-bottom, the book has a redemptive effect. The confessional last chapter leads by example.

So, too, does the series of advice videos he produced in conjunction with the book’s release, entitled,  “Dear Wayne: I’ve Been Humiliated.”

When it was time to go, Mr. Koestenbaum backed out of his chair and into the 14-year-old, who was at that moment in the middle of a forced photo opportunity with the alien. Mr. Koestenbaum crouched behind the alien’s bulky figure and lowered the brim of his hat until the camera stopped flashing. It was a close one.

The next day The Observer watched a video of Mr. Koestenbaum’s appearance on The Dylan Ratigan show. Mr. Ratigan barked simple and moral questions at him across his glossy studio table.

“Is there a lesson for us in all that?”

“Don’t make fun of somebody when he or she is down,” Mr. Koestenbaum said, his voice a little higher and shakier than we remembered. He had told The Observer that filming live interviews gave him the sensation of falling through space.

“Now you sound like my first grade teacher,” Mr. Ratigan said.

We felt embarrassed for him and wondered if he had humiliated himself by vulgarizing his own ideas like that for the mass audience.

He’d been through worse, we thought. Shame and Fortune: Wayne Koestenbaum is Simply Mortified