Cultural critic talks work, inspirations

Wayne Koestenbaum, author of “Humiliation,” is a visiting professor at the Art School.
Wayne Koestenbaum, author of “Humiliation,” is a visiting professor at the Art School. Photo by Creative Commons.

Dr. Wayne Koestenbaum is a visiting professor at the Yale School of Art; he is also a noted cultural critic, author and poet. His most recent book, a reflection on embarrassment called “Humilation,” was published earlier this summer in August. He sat down with the News to answer a few questions about Yale, his work and his inspiration.

Q: What initially attracted you to Yale?

A: I was lucky enough to get a job as an assistant English professor in 1988 and I taught until 1996. I’m now with the Department of Art as a visiting professor and core critic.

Q: What has been your experience here with your students?

A: I have limited but very intense contact with the painting students whom I visit to critique three times a semester. The intensity of the process creates a strong bond and a satisfying sense of affinity. I am consistently impressed by their genius and talent, their precocity and willingness to break out of fixed codes.

Q; You are also well-known author. In your book, “The Queen’s Throat,” you explore a unique topic: the link between homosexuality and opera. How did this idea occur to you and why do you think that it’s important to explore?

A: I was involved in the late ’80s to ’90s in the burgeoning movement in lesbian and gay studies, so my work was at that time quite solidly centered in that field. It struck me that a neglected subject was this affinity between gay men and opera. I played the piano as a child, and some of my most intense emotional experiences came from music. I yearned to articulate the connection between this and my sexuality, and no one else was doing it! The simplest answer is that I felt a yearning to do it.

Q: You have been called one of the most eminent cultural critics in the field of lesbian and gay studies. How is it being at the forefront of this emerging field?

A: I have to say I don’t consider myself at the forefront; there are hundreds of incredible scholars in the field. I started early because my scholarship coincided with an effervescent burst of study, but the field has continued to proliferate and grow, becoming more varied and complex. I think of myself less as a queer theorist but instead a writer who pays attention to eroticism and aesthetics.

Q: Your most recent book, “Humiliation,” deals with the topic of embarrassment both on a personal and universal scale. What inspired this work?

A: The concrete inspiration was that I was teaching a course at [the City University of New York] called “Humiliation.” Shame has been a center of thinking in queer thought, and I was probably drawn to pay attention to humiliation by the rich literature on shame. I was also inspired by Oscar Wilde, who said that experiencing humiliation led him to transform his life.

Q: One of the most striking quotes in this work is “Humiliation cooks the spirit to a fine finish.” Can you explain further what you mean by this?

A: I would call this a species of optimistic thinking. My hope is that these awful experiences focus consciousness the way sunlight on a magnifying glass focuses light to make flame. The sense of being absolutely trapped in one’s body forces one to really live in the awful present, and there is something about that which can quicken insight and lead to a kind of grim spiritual maturity.

Q: You conclude “Humiliation” with illustrations from your own life; how did it feel to reveal such intimate experiences to a literary audience?

A: Several answers to that. Firstly, when I’m writing, I’m alone; I don’t know I will have an audience. The second answer would be that I have always exposed myself in my writing. My first book, “Double Talk,” was about homoerotics; some people would consider this painful self-exposure, but to me it is normal. The final answer would be that my tone in the book remains somewhat lyrical, ironic and comic, and my attempt is to hold these experiences from my own life in a kind of irony, to take them and fix them in a literary amber that mutes their force.

Q: Congratulations on your release of “Humiliation.” At this time, are you working on anything else?

A: Two new books are coming out next year. “The Anatomy of Harpo Marx,” a study of Harpo’s film performances, to be published in February 201, and “Blue Stranger with Mosaic Background,” a new collection of poems, to be published in fall 2012.

Comments