Kai Ryssdal: There are a lot of people out in this country who feel a bit more broke than they did, say, in early 2008 before Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers and the last three years of a stuck economy. And when you can’t pay for stuff — be it your mortgage or that ice cream your kids — it’s hard to admit it to yourself, much less other people.
Today on our series Art of Money — what artists and others see when they look at the economy — we are going to explore the idea of humiliation as it relates to the cash we have on hand — or don’t have on hand. For that we turn to critic and poet Wayne Koestenbaum. His new book is a compact little volume full of painful, cringe-worthy revelations called — yes, of course — Humiliation. Welcome to the program.
Wayne Koestenbaum: Glad to be here.
Ryssdal: Take a minute and give me the difference between humiliation and shame.
Koestenbaum: I think shame is a private feeling. It may feel lacerating and terrible, but nobody necessarily sees it. I would say that humiliation requires a scene. It usually requires some act of cruelty or some catalyst from the outside, from some oppressor or tyrant. Let’s say, a boss who fires you. And it requires the specators who see you lose your job, the bill collectors who come knocking.
Ryssdal: To turn it to the economics of all this, there has been a lot of anger and fear over losing jobs. Is humiliation a part of that experience, as well?
Koestenbaum: Oh, absolutely. I think even fearing for the security of one’s job is humiliating. The feeling of being watched or judged. Certainly, losing a job leads to concrete suffering and hardship, but also to a sense of loss of status and self-esteem, a sense of how you appear in others’ eyes. All the markers of identity and dignity are trashed, in a way, when you lose a job.
Ryssdal: In the final analysis, it comes down to this very complicated relationship we have with our professional selves, right? Our identities as people in the workplace and our status and the loss thereof.
Koestenbaum: Everybody wants, in life, legibility and recognition. From infancy on, you want to be seen by the important other person. And you want to matter. As a grown-up, one big way that we matter is that we have enough money to live and that we have a professional identity. And when that vanishes, we’re just left with our bodies and our histories, and that can feel like nothing.
Ryssdal: Why is this relationship we have with money so difficult?
Koestenbaum: You know, Freud said a lot of weird things, but he also said a lot of profound things. One of the profound things he said was that money was metaphorically allied to excrement. Money was filthy. And so money is something that we are unconsciously ashamed of. Much as we treasure it, we are ashamed of filthy lucre. So those connected to money or to the absence of money, paradoxically, are liable to scapegoating.
Ryssdal: Let me turn that idea of money being dirty back on you for a second. You have a story at the very end of the book. You’re about to go into a high-end restaurant. You see a guy begging for money, and you give him a couple of dollars, and your hands touch in a very slight way. And you admit that you had to wash your hands afterward.
Koestenbaum: Yeah. I guess I wouldn’t say so strongly that I had to wash my hands afterward. And I’m a little compulsive. I remember the sequence of events very vividly. Here I was entering this fancy restaurant. I was wearing leather pants. I was with friends. We had taken a taxi there. It was an expensive restaurant, more expensive than I am comfortable going to.
Outside of this restaurant, there was this guy begging. We were all, in my little group, white. He was not. you could say this guy was humiliated that he had to beg. I felt, in a way, shamed by my economic privilege. But on the other hand, why bother making a story out of it? That may have to do with the secret alchemy of humiliation and of writing. We seek absolution or reparation by repeating, by narrating. And also, as a writer, how could I generalize about the humiliations of others if I didn’t step into my own life and tell a few stories honestly?
Ryssdal: The book is called Humiliation, by social critic, poet and author Wayne Koestenbaum. Wayne, thanks a lot.
Koestenbaum: My pleasure.
Ryssdal: Read a little bit of Humiliation here (PDF).
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