Book Review: Humiliation by Wayne Koestenbaum

Title: Humiliation
Author: Wayne Koestenbaum
Publisher: Picador USA
ISBN: 978-0-312-42922-5
Pages: 184
Genre: Non-Fiction
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

Wayne Koestenbaum’s, “Humiliation” is a unique book. At first I did not know what to expect from it, however the more I read and finished it, the various aspects of humiliation became clearer and I came to realize the very core of being shamed in public. The way I look at it, Humiliation has at one point or the other been a part of everyone’s life. We have all been humiliated, sometimes intentionally and sometimes unintentionally. From a simple aspect of asking one’s salary in public to commenting on someone’s clothes when surrounded by friends, is also an act of humiliation. As Wayne Koestenbaum talked and discussed Humiliation through the book, the more I cringed, laughed and empathized at the same time.

Humiliation is a collection of 11 fugues and all of them but of course are connected by the one theme. Humiliation is an interesting account of Koestenbaum’s mind and his perceptions of the topic and there are times that the book illuminates us on the very concept of it. Why do some people take pleasure in humiliating another human being? And more so, why do some people take pleasure watching or being witness to that? What is it within us that leads us to enjoy another person’s misery?

The most interesting part of the book for me was the “Jim Crow Gaze” which is about the indifferent stare that people give the ones who are being humiliated. The fact that they do not care, the indifference of it all, makes it even more humiliating as you cannot see one friendly face in the crowd. That hit home like no other part mentioned in the book and I guess that is because we have at some point either taken on the Jim Crow Gaze or have seen it upon us.

Humiliation also speaks of the act in different cultural contexts as well, however I wish more was written on it, however it was not. Koestenbaum discusses the Holocaust, the act of insulting a man in a wheelchair in the washroom and the concept of Pride being attached to the act.

The book successfully managed to bring out the anger within me at various points. While the author recounts and as the reader goes along, the reader cannot help but react or think strongly – that is one of the side effects of writing about a topic which everyone has been party to – directly or indirectly. Koestenbaum has touched on the day-to-day instances of the common man and also spoke of humiliation from a celebrity’s perspective – Michael Jackson, Judy Garland, Prisoners of War, Lynndie England and Nixon.

Humiliation also has strong undertones – of sex, politics, power, office politics and school politics alike. It does not shy away from touching on any topic. The book is frank and Wayne does not believe in mincing words. The book is not something that can be read on a beach, neither it is a flight read. Humiliation requires time and patience and more time after finishing the book, to think about it.

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