On Craigslist this morning I found: "hairy italian wants to humiliate a generous bitch." This hirsute supplicant is "looking to rub my feet all in your face. Sit on your face, spit on you, slap you around." Will he find a "bitch" willing to pay for the pleasure of being mistreated? Another ad: a man wants a man to humiliate him over the phone: "i have a 5 inch skinny dick and i need a big dick man to tell me what a loser and pussy i am, you must be very verbal and very degrading and humiliating." Humiliation, like a pigeon, travels in every conceivable direction: guy ⇒ guy, guy ⇒ girl, girl ⇒ girl, girl ⇒ guy. But because, historically, women have been (let's generalize) more often the recipients of bad treatment—that's the way patriarchy's cookie crumbles—I detect more radical frisson in situations when a man grovels. A bloke asks any chick, on Craigslist, "Humiliate me and my small, bald weenie." Candidly he places his take-out order: "What I need is a woman to make fun of my small, shaved weenie. I need you to tell me how tiny and pathetic it is and how I'll never please any woman with it. I need you to laugh at me as I play with it and try desperately to make it bigger. I need to be told how worthless I am and how no woman would ever be satisfied with my sad excuse for a cock." This chap's a good writer. I'm tickled and impressed by the phrase "my sad excuse for a cock." The search for humiliation, as a leisure sport, is humorous, from a distance, though for its players, up close, the recreation is in deadly earnest.
The Marquis de Sade would have had a field day on Craigslist. His epic chronicle, The 120 Days of Sodom, regales the reader with a surfeiting anatomy of humiliations and tortures and ecstasies incomprehensible and beyond the ken of science. Like staring into the sun and going blind, reading Sade's litany of so-called pleasures deadens the imagination by overstimulating it. After reading about the thousandth fuck, the thousandth outrage against the flesh, the hectored traveler can no longer imagine that the human body is an actual apparatus; instead, it seems a fictional battleground, on which any violation can occur, without emotion or consciousness. I give one sample: "He has himself whipped by an old woman, fucks an old man in the mouth, and has the daughter of this aged couple shit into his own mouth, then changes so that, ultimately, everyone takes his turn in each role." Sade's tempo is stately, like a garden-party game of croquet. Each player takes his or her turn; he who humiliates becomes, in a trice, the humiliated party. Death leaves the narrator, and, presumably, Sade's ideal readers, unmoved. Unspeakabilities are poised somewhere between the Spanish Inquisition and Buchenwald, but the Sadean proceeding strikes the tone of Max Ophüls's La Ronde—an amoral frolic, without consequence. Beyond the pale of speech, nearly, are Sade's unvisualizable antics. "He cuts off a young boy's four limbs, embuggers the trunk, feeds him well and allows him so to live; as the arms and legs were not severed too close to the body, the boy lives for quite a while. And the surgeon embuggers him steadily for approximately a year." Josef Mengele meets Jeffrey Dahmer: Sade's fictional experiments on the limits of the human may seem remote from the humiliations requested by masochists who post ads on Craigslist, but the continuities are unavoidable, even if Sade's tortured boy, and Sade's heartless surgeon, seem to be mere postulates—figures in a literary farce rather than ingredients in a murderous recipe for the extinction of humankind. I'm not amused by the Marquis de Sade, but I can't deny his clairvoyance, his merciless accuracy about depravity's flora and fauna. A taxonomist of the unendurable, he never reaches his expiration date: the material, though awful, stays fresh.
And why do I spend time reading the Marquis de Sade and the postings of Craigslist humiliation-seekers? Why repeat the words of a guy who says, to the void, to anyone on Craigslist who happens to be listening, "I want to be your bitch"? "I'm looking," this ghostly figure asks, "to be the willing victim of anything a woman has to dish out. Whether you want someone to abuse, or someone to berate and humiliate, or someone to pamper you, or service you, or even just someone to do some chores you've got no interest in doing for yourself, I'm up to it." Armchair psychologist, I'd classify this fellow (how do we know the advertiser is actually male, and not merely masquerading online as male?) as engaged in an abreactive action, a scenario of reparation. He wants to let off steam, to exorcise a lingering demon. Like the consumption of the host in a Catholic mass, the act of humiliating himself allows this communicant to return to an earlier, sacred time, a time that might have involved crucifixion and other tortures, but that nonetheless represents what T. S. Eliot serenely called "the still point of the turning world." The humiliation point—silent, timeless—never changes; we can only reenter it, registering again at this strange hotel, signing the guest book, eating the thin wafer, drinking the familiar glass of wine. The host is always available. Humiliation's gate never shuts, and there might be (for those who believe in humiliation's creed) a salvific power in the return to the known, abominable quarters.
The Buddha's first noble truth was humiliation. (I haven't yet met the Buddha, though I've sent out an invitation; one place where I eavesdrop on his teachings is Mark Epstein's book Thoughts Without a Thinker: Psychotherapy from a Buddhist Perspective.) The human situation—our captivity to a body—necessarily thrusts us into humiliation. Epstein writes, "Birth, old age, sickness, and death are distasteful not just because they are painful but also because they are humiliating." I don't think the Marquis de Sade encountered the Buddha; the marquis had his hands full with Christ. And yet Sade, devoted to agony's plurality, gives us an inkling that humiliation is inescapable. Masochists seek it; nonmasochists can't avoid it. Intimacy with humiliation is part of our corporeal inheritance. Emergencies arise, however, when humiliation heaps up and becomes not the counterpoint to pleasure but the totality. I don't want to imagine the sensations of a tortured prisoner—in, for example, Iran, where some prisoners (according to The New York Times) said "they had their fingernails ripped off or were forced to lick filthy toilet bowls." In the face of that atrocity, I won't invoke abreaction: nothing salvific about being tortured. Licking filthy toilet bowls is a detail out of Sade; a true Sadean might consider it a mosaic tile in a revolutionary, playful edifice. But on July 29, 2009, this detail is not figment. It is fact.
And from that fact I extract what meaning? You have a right to wonder why I'm drawn to report such details to you—a right to wonder why humiliation is worth contemplating, worth discussing—a right to wonder whether, instead of expatiating on its features, we should simply run away from it, silently.
We assume that the prison guard who demands that the prisoner lick the filthy toilet bowl receives some reward, pleasure, or satisfaction from the demand. We assume that the system of punishment, the state, the structure of power, achieves or believes it achieves results (aggrandizement, entrenchment, consolidation) by such an action. And I presumably achieve results—rhetorical, intangible, egotistical—by repeating the awful story to you.
As an oblique way of addressing the question of why humiliation is worth discussing, I'll tell you another story. But first, please understand that the only reason I'm meditating on humiliation is that I recognize its worth, its indelibility. Humiliation is worthy not because it is good, or enjoyable, or desirable; humiliation may be execrable and unendurable, but it is also genuine. And in a world that seems increasingly filled with fakeness (is this an age-old complaint against the incursions of the New?), humiliation at least rings true.
The story relates not to prisons but to classical music. When I think about humiliation, I keep returning to classical music; we don't need to revisit Michael Haneke's The Piano Teacher, with Isabelle Huppert as the sadistic, erotomaniacal pedagogue, to understand how classical-music training builds not merely upon delight and aesthetic transport but upon humiliation, whether forestalled or endured. I return to the subject of classical music because that is where I began my life, my serious life, the life I still recognize as mine; and it is in the realm of classical music that I learned how high the stakes could be when a person wanted to try to make something beautiful, and how perilous the fall and the humiliation could be when the attempt failed.
A fellow piano student, at a summer music school, told me this story. One of the school's teachers, a beloved instructor, whose specialty was "relaxation" (I approached her, once, to ask for special advice on how to relax my shoulders when I played, because my shoulder tension was a terrible problem, oft- mentioned by onlookers, sometimes charitably, sometimes mockingly)—this teacher, whose specialty was "relaxation" (I'm not sure how I figured out this fact, except through the school's rumor mill), made her debut playing the Schumann Piano Concerto with an orchestra in London. Or at least she tried to make her debut. She arrived onstage, bowed to the clapping audience, sat down at the piano. And then (or so the horrified student told me) she threw up on the keyboard. That was the end of the performance. And that was the end of her career as concert pianist.
That story might be apocryphal. Maybe she didn't throw up. Maybe she wiped up the vomit with a handkerchief and continued with the performance. But, like the Buddha's first noble truth, the story, in its received form, told me something important about performance, about classical music, about failure and success, about ambition, and about bodies. Bodies vomit—even in concert halls, far from the cloistered sickroom. Classical music demands repeatable, foolproof perfection. Expressivity, playfulness, spontaneity—these virtues, too, have a place in classical music performance. But perfection—or a level of professional competence so high that very few can achieve it—is required. Standards of that intensity and rigor leave most of us by the wayside. Nerves sabotage the cult of perfection. The body humiliates us, or threatens to, just at those moments when we wish to come across as bodiless, immune to failure. The pianist wanted to play the Schumann Piano Concerto as if she were not a person with a stomach and a digestive tract. But her gut, and her nervous system, spoke more loudly than her ambition. Her nausea—and her unconscious—asserted itself as more important than her aesthetic aims, her love of Schumann, or her technical prowess. A piano keyboard is a sobering object. The keys, especially if made of ivory, are clean and shiny. Vomit, however, is ugly and smelly. Vomit is the epitome of an abject substance—a material that should remain unseen and inward, but that ejects itself, is thrust outward, into the public, visible realm. Vomit on the keyboard—that image symbolizes, for me, the always possible danger of the body speaking up for its own rights, against the stringent demands of the mind's wish to construct a plausible, attractive, laudable self for other people to consume.
Performance's First Noble Truth: you may wish to play the Schumann Piano Concerto, but you might vomit instead. And therefore do not count on the performance to go well. Do not expect to be admired. At bottom you are capable of ejecting—thrusting outward—vile matter that the audience will interpret as equal to your body. You are the vomit you've spewed onto the keyboard. And that vomit will never leave you; it will mark you for the rest of recorded time.
Once, ill-advisedly, when I was sixteen, my trumpet teacher got me a gig, despite my mediocre attainments: he arranged for me to be the soloist in "Fantasy and Variations on 'The Carnival of Venice'" with a local band at a public park. In preparation for the first rehearsal with the band, I met the conductor—an Italian man whose name sounded like Arturo Toscanini—for a coaching session. The maestro, after hearing me play, diagnosed my problem: "You have no knowledge of bel canto. You're not playing melodically." My breathing was spastic. Soon after this disastrous session, the bandleader fired me. My teacher broke the news: "You wouldn't want to be the worst soloist of the summer, would you?" I didn't tell my parents that I'd been bumped. I lied: "The concert got canceled." The worst soloist of the summer: I escaped that humiliation. But I earned, instead, the humiliation of knowing that I would have been the worst. That's a polite way of saying "I was the worst." I'm not trying to pose as the world's most wounded ex-trumpeter; I'm simply bearing witness to an insult's unstoppable reverberations. I'll wager that most human beings on earth—those of us who are not enlightened and may never become enlightened—hear such phrases, such humiliating refrains, every day, as the background music to our lives.
A succinct request appears on Craigslist. The subject heading is "humiliate me." The ad itself: "I want to be humiliated today. Tell me what you want to do to me. In detail. Thanks." The guy sounds polite. His application for abuse is genial. Another man, a twenty-six-year-old Italian, wants to be humiliated to the extreme. He offers the applicant specific suggestions: "tease and torment me without relief"; "piss all over me"; "make another guy fuck you and make me eat his cum out or drip it on me"; "have your friends come by and tease and make fun of me." He weighs 245 pounds. He says, "I am looking for utter humiliation and loss of all control." I'm still uncertain why I consider it necessary—and cathartic—to report to you that there are men who seek humiliation as a form of reparation, of sexual stimulation, and of psychological bookkeeping. Humiliation, within the masochistic economy, cancels a prior debt. The pursuit of humiliation—as sport, as mental hygiene—is a slow, regular practice; we do it again and again, our technique improving with every rehearsal, every audition. Freud would have called this behavior a repetition compulsion; he acknowledged that the compulsion to repeat the same thing, even a painful thing, satisfies an instinct greater than the will to pleasure. And although the advertiser on Craigslist who begs to be teased and tormented may seem to be obeying his own will, Freud argued that none of us are entirely in control of our performances. There may be nothing volitional about our return—whether in the name of abreaction, salvation, anesthesia, or "kicks"—to humiliation's infernal region.
The poet Eileen Myles, in an essay boldly titled "Everyday Barf," remembers saying "vomit" in class—as provocation—and being punished by the teacher. Myles recalls "the raucous sound of the classroom laughter. Even I joined in, feeling entirely out of control, humiliated, but the enormous release the one word had triggered still made me snort and gag with pleasure." I doubt that the pianist whose botched debut consisted of vomiting on the keyboard enjoyed the same release that Myles achieved by saying "vomit"; but drawing near to an awful experience, without actually undergoing it, can feel cathartic. Playing with matches isn't the same as enjoying a burn. Thus, we may perversely entertain ourselves by watching spectacles of other people's humiliation, or by dwelling on our own past disasters; or we may experiment by committing a new disgrace. I may blurt out the word "vomit," even though the class guffaws in scorn—or maybe in envy. Some of us admire outcasts and outlaws; humiliation qualifies an applicant for membership in either tribe. But we don't choose to become outcasts, even if we repeat the behavior that led to our expulsion, and even if, with each repetition, we embroider the scene with showy cadenzas.
Two years in a row—third grade, fourth grade—I threw up in school. Both inadvertencies occurred midautumn, in the morning. Each time, seized by dizziness and malaise, I'd walk (nearly passing out) to the teacher's desk; unable to speak, I'd vomit into her wastebasket. I remember the look of the basket's interior, as I leaned over; some puke landed on her desk and on the floor. I don't remember other students laughing. But I remember thinking that someone—teacher, janitor?—would be forced to mop up my mess. After each accident, a classmate led me to the principal's office, where a secretary telephoned my mother to come pick me up. Those episodes—far in the past, and not catastrophic—marked me, however momentarily, as a vomiter, as a boy who couldn't keep his sickness away from the public eye and who ruined the classroom with his filth. Therefore—in the world as I see it, to this day—the possibility of vomiting in public remains (symbolically) an awful imminence, which casts, over civilized life, a shadow. I'm worried not only about my own collapse; I'm worried about everybody's. I'm worried about all of us losing control; our civilized veneer—the illusion that we are decent and clean—might, at any moment, crack. And such a breakdown, for any of us, would be humiliating—for the person collapsing, and for those of us forced to watch the expulsion, the dreck. If Kafka were to rise from the dead and ask me to describe my personality in the most general terms, I would oblige the master by telling him that I am a person who exercises care with respect to his fluids and solids, his ingestions and expulsions. I place a high premium on not ever again letting myself explode in public, on not ever again letting myself be lowered in public to the level of a body out of control, expelling foul matter. I'd rather crawl into a hole and vanish, like a nearly voiceless specter from the world of Samuel Beckett: "Throw up and go. Where neither. Till sick of there. Throw up and back. The body again. Where none. The place again. Where none. Try again. Fail again." Here, in his novella Worstward Ho, and elsewhere in his work, too, Beckett's credo is basic black: "Try again. Fail again. Fail better." A grim victory, that one word, "better," and I don't know if I believe its spartan consolation. There is no better. We try again and again to escape humiliation. And then we are thrust, with a shudder, back into our bodies, a place where the script never changes: the script says fail, says die, says foul. No escaping the wastebasket.
Wayne Koestenbaum is a poet, biographer, cultural critic, and author of the new book Humiliation. A humiliation-themed cabaret produced by The Stranger on August 4 at Chop Suey features Koestenbaum along with the musical acts Tacocat and Jose Bold, stand-up comedian Solomon Georgio, writer Nate Quiroga (also known as Buffalo Madonna of Mad Rad), the artist Derek Erdman, and DJ Porq. Click here for tickets.This is an excerpt from Koestenbaum's new book, Humiliation, copyright 2011. Used by permission of Picador.