The Lion King, walt Disney Pictures, 1994
“When nude/ I turned my back because he likes the back. /He moved onto me. // Everything I know about love and its necessities/ I learned in that one moment/ when I found myself/ thrusting my little burning red backside like a baboon/ at a man who no longer cherished me.” I’m on a bus coming home from Wildwood, New Jersey, reading this section of Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay” in Wayne Koestenbaum’s Humiliation. I somehow got a sunburn on my ankles and near one shoulder. I have a bag of books — Antonin Artaud’s The Peyote Dance, Nabokov’s Pnin, a book of essays on infinity and the sublime, Snakes with Wings & Gold-Digging Ants by Herodotus, Mark Kurlansky’s What? — but I didn’t read on the beach at all. I didn’t even think. I just stared at the alien surf and smelled the salt, a good smell, a reason people have always come to beaches for healing.
I’m reading the Wayne Koestenbaum, which talks about Michael Jackson and Eliot Spitzer and Artaud’s awful shock treatments, and ejaculating when you don’t want to, and The Swan and the Holocaust and African women with fistulas, and ends with a short run-down of his humiliations — sexual, scatological — stories of insults, rejected essays, failures, begging. Some of them are other people’s shames, and he is only a witness. Humiliation is complicated — it unites us and divides us. I’m thinking about what, if anything, I’ve learned about love and its necessities. On the beach, I was trying to tell my friend about being at some lake in Bavaria as a teenager, and a woman there who was friends with the people I was with, how she was topless with drooping breasts and hairy armpits, how her face was starting to look old, and how now I want to be like that woman, my body lolling around for the world to enjoy, happy and shameless. But I didn’t feel like talking. I drifted into the horizon.
Camus — according to my Mark Kurlansky book, which is illustrated by dark, beguiling woodcuts — defined charm as “a way of getting the answer yes without asking any clear question.” And I think maybe the opposite of being humiliated isn’t being proud or unashamed — maybe it’s being charming. Maybe it’s being cherished, unabandoned, getting a yes instead of a no, even without asking for anything. My catalogue of humiliations has changed over the years. Now the one that keeps getting to me is hope. In Donna Leon’s Handel’s Bestiary: In Search of Animals in Handel’s Operas, a book I couldn’t wait to read, with illustrations of the twelve animals and an accompanying CD, there’s a beautiful aria from Admeto about love reborn, like a phoenix rising. (“Like the phoenix,/ Reborn from the flames/ In me slowly, slowly,/ Love is reborn./ My heart tells me/That my beloved/Is coming happily to me/And will cast away my pain.”) But the shrieking soprano’s heart is wrong, because it turns out that over the time she’s been agreeing to die in his place, he’s hooked up with someone else. That’s opera. Then there’s poetry — it uses humiliation, plays with it, exposes it, manipulates it, releases it, without actually being humiliating. Or, maybe poetry is humiliation itself. Are those lines by Anne Carson humiliating, or an un-humiliating exploration of humiliation, or something entirely different? After all, she’s always calling things essays that aren’t essays, autobiographies that aren’t autobiographies.
“Tell it to me, Anne!” writes Koestenbaum. “Which is more humiliating — the action, or its repetition in a poem? Carson becomes an artist… because she has the nerve to put her little burning red backside like a baboon into a poem that is nominally an essay. Carson isn’t humiliated. She is elevated…”