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Making cultural theory more outrageous: Wayne Koestenbaum

May 21, 2012

At times, it seems that cultural theorists strive to make their theories as outrageous as possible.  Wayne Koestenbaum (CUNY Graduate Center) is certainly a particularly controversial example of this.  I’ve read only one of his books – his book on opera, which was incredibly self-indulgent, over-the-top, offensive, but also very funny and original.

Koestenbaum writes largely about a certain self-satirizing, particularly affected, urban gay creative-intellectual subcultural in America as we may be most familiar with from public figures such as David Sedaris or John Waters.  As an example, in his book on opera, he talks about deliberately exaggerating his lisp when speaking.  He is the clownish counterpart (imagine a narcissistic gay Woody Allen) to the more serious faces presented by public figures such as Tony Kushner or Barney Frank. 

Koestenbaum holds a title of “Distinguished Professor of English” but one would not know it from his writings or videos.  For example, he is happy to have a web video in which he wears a pink shirt, checkered plaid tie (the checkers being set at diagonally), bright red eyeglass frames, with the hair on the very top of his head (but not on the sides) made curly and peroxided blond.  In this video, he offers advice-column style feedback to someone who accidentally insulted an author at cocktail party:

I would right a really, really, really long letter of apology to this writer.  I’d say fifteen pages, single-spaced.  I’d make it a rhetorical tour-de-force, highly constructed, Nabokovian.  intricate, self-reflexive, utterly abject.  This author that you shamed will understand how perversely and in how high regard you hold him.   You will be do penance in such a spectacular and self-mortifying way that you will erase all memory of your crime.  I would, I would really seriously recommend dedicating your next book to this person you humiliated, naming your next child after this person, and/or tattooing the person’s name on your first child – like on the third day of the child’s life.  Go to some sort of florid extent of exhibitionistic repentance.

In a review of Koestenbaum’s latest book, Joe Queenan (who is a clown himself), writes:

There comes a moment in every book-lover’s life when he stumbles upon a passage so strange or troubling or preposterous that it compels him to say: “I’m sorry; I’ve given it my all, but now I’m throwing in the towel. The rest of you will have to go ahead without me.” In the case of Wayne Koestenbaum’s very strange, very original, but mostly very strange book The Anatomy of Harpo Marx, the passage in question appears on Page 68, where the author writes:

“This point may not be popular. It may not win me friends. But I must make it. Harpo, like most men, has a symbolic vagina, somewhere on his person. Harpo, a starry man, has many vaginas. One is his wig. Another is his silence.”

It is, to be sure, an unconventional, and perhaps indefensible theory. Especially the part about the wig. But it is by no means the only offbeat theory in this book. No siree Bob. Indeed, given that the passage occurs a scant one-fifth of the way through the book, this is a clear-cut case of hold on to your hats, loopy metaphor buffs, because it’s gonna be a bumpy ride. In The Anatomy of Harpo Marx, Koestenbaum, who teaches English at the City University of New York Graduate Center, attempts a deeply personal, highly idiosyncratic, shot-by-shot exegesis of the work of the one member of the famous comedy team the Marx Brothers who never spoke. He certainly never spoke about his vagina.

What is one to make of books like Wayne Koestenbaum’s?  They are not really about their purported subjects – rather they use cultural theory as an attempt to explicate a particular subcultural – one that most of us are not very familiar with, and that we even find repugnant. 

On the one hand, as I read Koestenbaum, I think:  This is a parody of academic writing.  This is a parody of the gay subculture.  It seems as distasteful as the exaggerated representations such as blackface standing in for African-American subculture, or as Charlie Chan standing in for Chinese-American subculture.  And clearly, Koestenbaum’s point was to get a rise out of his audience – to be the center of attention. 

On the other hand, as I read Koestenbaum, I think:  this is a man who has mastered the art of subversive commentary; this is a man who is providing insights (even if caricatured and exaggerated in Koestenbaum’s self-declared role of “radical queer activist”) into a parallel community that we interact with but remains largely invisible to us.

To me, I think of Koestenbaum not as a literary critic, but as a type of memoirist – writing his books merely as an excuse to make his autobiographical asides.  Sure his writing is self-indulgent, but we live in a self-indulgent era.  What if Tristram Shandy really did exist and was a Jewish gay New Yorker English professor in 2012?  Well, he would probably write like Koestenbaum.

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