The genius of The Human Stain

Would they have given Philip Roth a Pulitzer prize for such an indictment of the state of America as his great novel, The Human Stain, turned out to be? It wasn’t published until 2000 but maybe it was in gestation when Roth collected his award for American Pastoral (1997).

Pastoral, a patriotic epic, though hailed a masterpiece, is not my favourite Roth. It seemed to me to have a strange chronology, reaching back into the 1960s, when the small-town life of craftspeople and tradesmen still provided America with a moral focus, but otherwise to have the feel of ‘now’. Roth’s study of a middle-class daughter turned terrorist, against this good America, was a puzzled, negative meditation. Why? And why, in her father’s and in the narrator’s eyes, destroy her femininity, when she had been such a lovely little girl? From a writerly point of view I suspected then that Roth was melding old, unused material with a new idea and the two sources didn’t quite mesh to create a novel of the late 1990s.

Stain is quite different. I recently re-read it in tribute to Roth who died in May 2018. Setting aside one small quibble it strikes me as that one novel of his that will indeed be read in years to come. In 2011 the writer and feminist publisher Carmen Callil objected to Roth winning a lifetime Booker Prize. She thought him an inferior artist, unmade to last, though many thought, criticizing her, that she rejected him because of his attitude to women.  Either way her intervention seemed like just the kind of ideological partisanship Roth was satirizing in Stain.

Stain tells the story of the fate of Roth’s intellectual and culturally liberal but still male-dominated generation; essentially how that European-minded golden age of the 1950s/1960s, and which had such great hopes of a liberal America, came to an end; and it tells it magnificently.

Roth, born in 1933, from the outset wanted to write American literature informed by the Jewish-American community in which he grew up in New Jersey. But the influence of Thomas Mann, and of the Greek tragedians, was so strong, and was so much part of the culture of secular emancipation that came his way by virtue of family and education, that they had to become part of his work. The European influence was complex, pessimistic and Freudian. The writer Erica Wagner recently quoted Roth in an interview with her in 2009 as saying that the novelist as an artist must ‘not deny…the tormented human being’ but ‘allow for the chaos…otherwise you produce propaganda.’ Of course there were other literary influences, Jewish and Russian above all, but it was Mann and the Greeks who delivered the high-minded vitalist pessimism at work in the Stain.

My 2000 book on Freud

What is ‘The Human Stain’? It’s racism, to be sure: ‘the great American menace’ (The Human Stain, Vintage Books edition 2001, p.106) But it’s also ‘nothing to do with grace or salvation or redemption.  It’s in everyone. Indwelling. Inherent. Defining. The stain that is there before its mark. …the stain so intrinsic…that precedes disobedience… and perplexes all explanation and understanding. It’s why all the cleansing is a joke. A barbaric joke at that. The fantasy of purity is appalling. It’s insane. What is the quest to purify, if not more impurity?’ (p.242) Link that with the novel’s epigraph from Sophocles and you have the genesis of a plot in which America finds a scapegoat for its racist stain. Because of America’s obsession with purity, Athena College sets about finding it in a man of Roth’s generation, a man born in the same east coast state as Roth, Coleman Silk.

Silk is a Harvard-educated professor of classics and a humanist. He belongs to that generation which looked to its European-minded elders, like the literary critic Lionel Trilling and the art critic Meyer Schapiro, for its culturally inflected individualism. Of that secular religion of private intellectual responsibility Silk recalls: ‘Not the tyranny of the we and its we-talk and everything that the we wants to pile on your head. Never for him the tyranny of the we that is dying to suck you in, the coercive, inclusive, historical moral we with its insidious E pluribus unum. Neither the they of Woolworth’s nor the we of Howard [Howard college, c 1950, for black students only]. Instead the raw I with all its agility. Self-discovery – that was the punch to the labonz. Singularity. The passionate struggle for singularity. The singular animal. The sliding relationship with everything. Not static but sliding. Self-knowledge but concealed. What is as powerful as that?’ (p.108)

It’s not how most people understand individualism today, alas, bamboozled as they are by a kind of harmless neo-socialist communitarianism which sanctifies fitting in. But fifty years ago it meant something quite different and quite worth emulating. Roth makes its ancient philosophical value as self-scrutiny plain: self-scrutiny in the face of all markets and all fashions.  Moral and political fashions above all.

From his oeuvre as a whole we know one of Roth’s alter egos was an academic, and another was a writer, Nathan Zuckerman. Here in The Human Stain the two possible Roths come together again, individualists both. Zuckerman, we are told, writes Coleman Silk’s story. In fact Zuckerman’s involvement is the only quibble I have. It shows up the raw stitching of the novel in a way that Silk’s thrilling story does not. The polite outsider voice of the friend is forensic and detached, so much in contrast with Silk’s.  In narrative terms Zuckerman is just a means to tidy up the stray ends after Silk dies. He’s not a character but the author. Yet I can imagine Roth, described by Erica Wagner as lonely in his old age, insisted on including himself hardly disguised.  Feeling already like a visitor in a messy world approaching the millennium, he issued this last plea to America not to give in to its primeval desire ritually to punish and to purify, by force, any transgressor.

The scapegoat of course is an old Jewish theme, and the way Coleman Silk, having risen to the height of his profession, is overnight cast out of the community of Athena College for alleged racism, is a story of a mightily wronged black America, but also one heavily inflected with age-old Jewish woes. In fact Silk is Jewish through his father, though he has been able to conceal it, through a contraction of the family name (Silberzweig two generations earlier) and a fashion among secular Jews around the time of his birth not to circumcise their sons. But more important what he has also been able to conceal is that he is black. His mother, sister and brother are black. The Silks are a black family, not a Jewish family, but among them Coleman was born looking white. Nature made him such that he could create his cultural self as a white self, and so he did, and his success was vast.

So that when a college rival accuses him of racism towards the end of his stellar career it’s not just a matter of politically correct fashion seeking a public victim. It is a private, Sophoclean story of hubris and nemesis.

There are marvellous pages in this raging, capacious novel which hymn the value of Greek tragedy in teaching us how thin is the line between success and catastrophe; how apparently accidentally the course of a whole life can be made and unmade in a moment; how we can do nothing about what the gods have in store for us. Coleman Silk’s suppression of all those outer marks of racial distinctiveness that might have made him a victim of twentieth-century America is a paean to the individualist and secularist dream. His whole life long he seems to thrive on a secret which ought to make him vulnerable but over which he triumphs, out of the strength of character he has made his own. Add to that self a powerful educated charm, an athletic body, long-lashed green eyes. Coleman Silk, like the dream he embodied, had an almost infallible attractiveness.

Delphine Roux, a French academic making her career stateside, falls for him despite herself. She’s twenty-six to his seventy-one and in her creator’s view she’s so wedded to post-humanist deconstruction  that she can’t see where her true passions lie. Roth has some charitable fun speculating on her want of a good-enough man to match her soaring Parisian education, her Ph.D from Yale, her petite figure and fine dress sense. He seems to like her and she is perhaps the most likeable character in the book, from the pen of a writer who rightly doesn’t care whether we warm to his human inventions or not. Delphine’s crime against herself, and the gods, is to have become so confused about the values underlying her work that she falls for a stupid tale of victimhood. Silk, calling the register, wonders where two absent students are. They’ve never attended his class. He’s never seen them and knows nothing about them. He wonders out loud whether they are ghosts. Or, to use the word that kicks off the plot, spooks. When the absentees learn what they have been called they insist on an obscure meaning of spook to mean ‘black’ and with Roux’s help Silk is undone. Colleagues deny him as surely as Peter denied Christ. The cock crows, it turns out, whatever the religion.

Ousted, excluded, excommunicated, Silk wanders in his wounded state through what turn out to be the last two years of his life. You can almost picture him as Oedipus the King, driving through New Jersey. At the same time Roth invites us to picture him as Thomas Mann’s Gustav von Aschenbach in his novella Death in Venice. In that multi-layered tale the Apollonian forces that have enabled Aschenbach the writer to shape his disciplined life, and to make of himself a paragon of morality, fall prey to their Dionysian counterweight. The personality of a resolute and moderate self-reflective man serving a vision of beautiful civilized order is engulfed by irresistible sexual passion. It was Nietzsche’s insistence in The Birth of Tragedy, despite the long German classical tradition of believing in the Greeks as noble and harmonious, that Dionysian frenzy underlay the Apollonian vision and barely kept it at bay.

Vintage cover of a German edition of Death in Venice

Think again then of the chaos that in 2009 Roth told Erica Wagner no writer worth his or her art should exclude from the human narrative. That other humanizing value, of chaos, is what Roth learned from Nietzsche and Freud and Mann. You have to acknowledge it. It is also our human existence. Silk engages in a two-year orgy of physical love with Faunia Farley, a college cleaner. It is most certainly a redeeming love they have for each other, though the choice doesn’t fit his college self at all. The cultural hallmark of Faunia, repeated over and over, is her illiteracy. I want to write about that lack of basic learning separately so I won’t dwell on it here. But in Stain illiteracy may be the punishment of the gods for the way America has re-formed itself since the Vietnam War. It has not acknowledged the chaos but hidden behind its monuments.

Political correctness over race, and patriotic lies covering the tragedy and the terrifying futility of defeat by the Vietcong, are intertwined in the Coleman/Faunia story as surely as their limbs are threaded together, and their ecstasy is the only antidote. She doesn’t care whether he’s white or black. He doesn’t care whether she’s a whore, whether she can’t read, whether she caused the death of her children in a fire. Faunia’s victimized life is almost impossible to lead, but, like Silk’s after his ousting,  its redeeming quality is it’s not a lie.

So Coleman Silk, Harvard educated professor of classics, joins the millions of victims of American society. ‘These are people whose fundamental feeling about life is that they have been fucked over unfairly right down the line.’ (p.80) Yet it’s a comparison that makes Silk almost land a punch on his ‘lilywhite’ lawyer, for it buries the tragedy in sententious moralizing.

Roth’s contempt is for an America driven by ‘what the Europeans unhistorically call American puritanism, that the likes of a Ronald Reagan call America’s core values…it’s not as though Marx or Freud or Darwin or Stalin or Hitler had never happened… it’s as though not even the most basic level of imaginative thought had been admitted into consciousness to cause the slightest disturbance. A century of destruction unlike any other in its extremity befalls and blights the human race…and here in America either it’s Faunia Farley or Monica Lewinsky!…This, in 1998, is the wickedness they have to put up with.’ (pp.153-54)

The distant background to the novel is the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, but that’s not what leaves Roth aghast.

Bill Clinton’s portrait by artist Nelson Shanks contains a shadow representing Lewinsky’s semen-stained dress

He surely was a difficult and not always likeable man, indelibly stained. His sometime Anglo-Jewish wife the actress Claire Bloom was evidently coy and submissive but did him no favours in portraying him as an egotistical misogynist in her memoir Leaving a Doll’s House (1996).

But this essay is not about a man but about a magnificent work of literature. I’ve talked about the potential historical resonance of The Human Stain in an America that even now is troubled by the perverted political uses of victimhood.  This novel exposes that manipulation of cultural values as emanating from the once liberal universities themselves.

As for the novel’s literary texture I can do no more than answer the accusation of my friend, the novelist and critic Gabriel Josipovici, in What Ever Happened to Modernism? (2010), that Roth was ‘a false friend of modernism’ by quoting from Roth’s essay on his fellow great American writer Saul Bellow in 2000:

Now Bellow’s special appeal, and not just to me, is that in his characteristically American way he has managed brilliantly to close the gap between Thomas Mann and Damon Runyon, but that doesn’t minimize the scope of what, beginning with Augie March, he set out to do: to bring into play (into free play) the intellectual faculties that, in writers like Mann, Musil, and him, are no less engaged by the spectacle of life than by the mind’s imaginative component, to make rumination congruent with what is represented, to hoist the author’s thinking up from the depths to the narrative surface without sinking the narrative’s mimetic power, without the book’s superficially meditating on itself, without making a transparently ideological claim on the reader, and without imparting wisdom, as do Tamkin and King Dahfu [characters in Bellow’s novels Seize the Day and Henderson the Rain King respectively], flatly unproblematized. (Philip Roth ‘Saul Bellow’ in Shop Talk A Writer and His Colleagues and Their Work (2001), p.149)

Now, not only is this a sentence, in English, of Mannian proportions. It seems to describe and almost physically to evoke, with that sustained metaphor of what must be dragged to the surface and interwoven with the unintellectual quotidian, the task Roth set himself as an American writer mindful of the most powerful European literary heritage. Writing ostensibly of Bellow in the year in which The Human Stain was published, and when his own great trilogy meditating on American life was complete, Roth seemingly got so carried away by his own literary passion that his description of it almost failed to cohere. I still have trouble with that ‘flatly unproblematized’ every time I read it. Yet I think  it refers to ‘making transparently ideological claims’ and therefore repeats the point Roth made in that 2009 interview, that the literary art cannot be a matter of propaganda but must let in the chaos from the nasty human depths. It is almost a sociological reading of Nietzsche and Freud and Thomas Mann, and a European modernist must see that as a deviation. It is a travesty for the European modernist literary product, in which the agony is formal, and a matter of individual consciousness, to be democratized into an American epic where the tensions are puritanical and racial. And yet one might say that in the year 2000 Roth re-embodied the Apollonian-Dionysian tension in a great novel for the first time in decades, and so enabled that tradition to live on, like the great-grandchild of one of Hitler’s long ago German exiles, like Mann himself, on the other side of the Atlantic.

Thomas Mann 1875-1955

Author Philip Roth sitting at typewriter seen through panes of window, at Yaddo artist’s retreat. (Photo by Bob Peterson/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

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