Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Human Stain - Philip Roth

**** Minor Spoilers contained here.  I give away the fate of the main characters.  I say that this is minor because it is revealed a little more than halfway through this book anyway. ***

The Human Stain is another Philip Roth book that I loved.  Once again, this is a story that is part of the Zuckerman series and, like the previous two entries, Zuckerman mostly narrates and interprets the tale. He is only a character of moderate importance in this book.

Roth and Zuckerman tell the story of Coleman Silk.  Silk is an African-American who grows up in New Jersey during the 1930’s and 1940’s.  Silk is a strong willed, brilliant student as well a talented boxer.  Encountering only occasional racism in his very early years, he is shocked by the hardcore ethnic bigotry that he confronts when he first attends college in Washington D.C. Intending to live life his way, Coleman, who is very light skinned and possesses many Caucasian features, simply decides to pass himself off as a white man.  After serving in World War II, Silk returns to civilian life and meets Steena Paulsson, who seems destined to become his wife. Coleman hides, or at least does not reveal, his ethnicity to Steena for several years.  When he finally surprises her with a visit to his family, providing her with no foreknowledge that they are African-American, Steena flees from Silk.  After this incident our protagonist cruelly severs ties with his family and completely takes on the identity of a Jewish-American.

Silk later marries another white woman and has children, but never reveals to his family his true past or ethnic background.  Professionally he becomes a Professor of Classic Literature and rises to the position of Dean of the fictional Athena College. As a dynamic reformer, he puts Athena on the academic map.  Along the way he makes numerous enemies as he eliminates the dead wood and non-working members of the faculty of the college.

In his seventies and upon retirement from the position of Dean, Silk decides to stay around and continue to teach a few undergraduate courses.  In an ironic twist of fate, one day while taking attendance in class he casually refers to a couple of students, who have never shown up to class and are just names on the attendance list, as “Spooks”.  It turns out that the students in question are African-Americans.  A firestorm erupts as Silk is accused of making a racist statement.  His friends abandon him as his enemies descend upon him and he later resigns in fury.  Afterward, he blames the ensuing death of his wife on the scandal.

The heart of the book concerns itself with events that occur several years after the above events.  Silk meets Nathan Zuckerman, whom he implores to write the story of his persecution. He also begins an affair with Faunia Farley, a woman less than half his age who has been abused throughout her life and who is apparently illiterate.  Members of the local community as well as Silk’s children condemn the relationship as inappropriate.  The lovers are hounded by Lester Farley, who is Fauna’s abusive and psychotic ex-husband, as well as by Professor Delphine Roux, a self-righteous professor at Athena College.  Lester Farley eventually murders both Coleman and Fauna. I am not really giving anything away, as the events of Coleman’s death are mentioned relatively early the novel, whose timeline is only partially linear.  Next, Zuckerman proceeds to piece together the story of Coleman’s life and demise.  The last months of Coleman’s life take place concurrently over the backdrop of the Bill Clinton–Monica Lewinsky scandal, which is referenced again and again.

The Human Stain is a work of great thematic and philosophic complexity.  Multiple strains of ideas run concurrently and are intertwined.  As is true of every other Roth novel that I have read, the issue of identity and its shifting permutations dominate the narrative.  The idea of an African-American taking on the ethnicity of a Jewish-American, and eventually being persecuted for being a racist, is prime material for these explorations.  Since I explored this multi–novel train of thinking in my commentary on Roth’s “I Married a Communist”, I will instead focus here on another related aspect of this novel, what Roth calls the “Ecstasy of Sanctimony”.

Roth takes humanity to task for our tendency to judge and attack individuals for personal behavior that is not really the business of the public, is ultimately trivial and sometimes accompanied by gross mistruths.

As mentioned earlier, the Clinton sex scandal and subsequent impeachment plays prominently in the words and thoughts of the book’s characters.  Pondering the events, Zuckerman points to the incongruity of the fanatical piety that many people were projecting over both Clinton’s and Silk’s liaisons, while paying minimal attention to a twentieth century world full of suffering, war, genocide and insane ideologies.  Zuckerman deplores this unsophisticated and small-minded tendency of certain Americans to obsess over such trivialities and ignore what is truly momentous in the world.  He compares such reactions to the Muslim extremists who supported the Fatwa by calling for the murder of Salmon Rushdie.  Roth ties such thinking to a strong anti – intellectualism and racism prevalent in America.  Many of the characters who express disgust with both Clinton’s and Silk’s sexual activities accompany the comments with anti–education, racist and anti–Semitic comments.

This is a train of reasoning that I must admit appeals to me.  I am often appalled by what seems to me the simplistic phony righteousness expressed by some of my fellow Americans.  I remember distinctly the discussions that I engaged in with self-described pious persons during the self same scandal.  One needs only to listen to the ridiculous and hateful rhetoric engaged by many of our current politicians and commentators speaking against access to birth control to understand what I mean.

Just when you think, however, that Roth is going to confine his point to the puritanical anti- intellectual thinking that a segment of America engages in, he throws us a curveball. He proceeds to aim his sights on the over intellectualized and often politically correct thinking left wing.

Professor Delphine Roux is the diametric opposite of the American anti-intellectual.  She is a young, attractive, stylish and sophisticated French woman descended from aristocracy who can be described as a super intellectual.  Educated in the finest French schools and possessing a brilliant mind, Roux has mastered the intricacies of complex literary theories that few of her colleagues even understand.  She has awed her peers and students with her cerebral prowess and engaging charisma.  She describes herself as living for books and for art.  At twenty- nine years of age she rises to become chairperson of the language and literature department at Athena College.
Roux is, however, emotionally immature and unstable.  She leads a hysterical sanctimonious attack against Silk, first for the innocent “Spooks” comment and later for what she incorrectly imagines to be an abusive and misogynic affair.  Even after Silk’s death she continues to pile on the slander.  Here, Roth presents us with self-righteous attacks from a different source altogether.  Like the assault on Clinton, real truth concerning private human weakness, is combined with outrageous lies that further smear the victim.
Though Roth clearly despises the excesses epitomized by Roux, from what I know of him, he is intellectually, socially and politely much closer to the intellectualized international literary left that is occupied by Roux.  To Roth’s credit, he has turned his literary glare close to home.
Faunia Farley is the true opposite of the reprehensible people who engage in the vicious moralizing.  She condemns no one.  In one passage, she seems to see that human imperfection, or “the Human Stain,” as all pervasive and simply accepts it as part of the world.  Later Zuckerman, writing in Silk’s voice (yes, perception and point of view get really complicated with Roth!) describes her,
 “She's not religious, she's not sanctimonious, she is not deformed by the fairy tale of purity, whatever other perversions may have disfigured her. She's not interested in judging—she's seen too much for all that shit.  “
Raped and abused all of her life, and in the end murdered, for me Faunia Farley is the noblest and most admirable person in this story.
This tale made me think about a book that I read a few months ago, Nancy Issenberg’s Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr . This work details the life of America’s third vice president, who Issenberg contends was the victim of outrageous lies and character distortions that continue to be perpetuated to this day.  My commentary on that book is here.
My thoughts here only represent a small fraction of what a reader will get out of this book. There is so much that I have not even mentioned.  Aside from a great story and characters, Roth weaves a tale that is a thinking person’s delight.  Since once again Zuckerman is only interpreting a story, a reader unfamiliar with the other works in the series can jump right in. This is a great work, though not quite as great as the incomparable American Pastoral.
I have one last Zuckerman book to go.  That is Exit Ghost.  I believe that the main narrative returns to Zuckerman’s life and, I fear sadly, his death.  I will get to that one soon and share my thoughts with everyone.


Violet said...

I have never read Roth, but you have piqued my interest with your insightful comments on this book, so I am going to check it out. There is an Australian writer who identified as an Aboriginal man, but found out his father was actually an African-American GI who visited Australia during World War II. There was a huge debate (one of many in an ongoing debate) about race and identity when the newspapers got hold of his story. He still publishes under his Aboriginal name, because he had identified as Aboriginal all his life, I guess. Identity is such an interesting and difficult subject.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Violet. That is an interesting story and it would be great fodder for Roth to fictionalize!

Roth really digs deep and is a little obsessed with the identity issue in all the books that I have read thus far. Though as far as I know this is the only one where he tackles race, he explores ethnicity (among European and Middle Eastern groups), religion, political affiliation, class, etc., in the other Zuckerman books.

Caroline said...

How odd. I've read this but have forgotten that this was also a novel about "passing". I read Nella Larsen's novellas last year and the topic of Afro-Americans with very light skin and Caucasian features as passing for whites is key.

Brian Joseph said...

I had never heard of Nella Larsen before. Thanks for the reference. I just read a little bit about the Novel "Passing" online. It is amazing that it was written in 1929. What did you think of Larsen's books?

Caroline said...

I liked them very much, especially "Passing". The writing isn't too sophisticated but it's amazing to get an inside look. Both books are novellas really. I think they are important testimonies. Well worth exploring.

Brian Joseph said...

Sometimes when an idea seems new it is really old!

Sarah said...

My experience of Roth has been limited to Sabbath's Theatre. I may have started in the wrong place...

I recognise Roth's interest in rooting out petty prurience, but it sounds a little more subtle here.

Roth tends to turn up quite frequently in second-hand book shops so I will keep an eye out for this one.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks for the comment Sarah - I do not want to mislead here, I would say Roth tends not to be subtle in this book. His characters do a lot of philosophizing and even lecturing about the issues that he tackles. Nevertheless what they have to say is interesting.

LMR said...

I loved this novel because of the premise; but the more I think about it, and especially after having read the excellent The Counterlife, the more I find Nathan Zuckerman redundant as a narrator.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Miguel - I must admit that after having read eight Zuckerman books, in certain aspects, the character are wearing a little thin. Zuckerman has however evolved and changes overt time. Therefore I will say that I am glad that Roth has gone this far with these works.

If Harry Potter can go for seven books I am OK with Zuckerman having nine ☺.

LMR said...

I was just thinking that the difference between 'Bound' Roth and 'American Roth is that the former had a family to ruin. There was so much (hilarious) drama out of his family predicaments: he grows estranged from his father, mother and finally brother.

'American' Roth is just a narrator, it's not really about him. The novel could be, I think, in the third person and nothing would be missed.

I'm anxious to read Exit Ghost next.

Brian Joseph said...

The "American" Zuckerman seems to be very world weary, tired and nostalgic as compared to his younger self.

Lets see how it pans out in Exit Ghost!

joyce said...

My book group read The Human Stain a few years ago and it created quite the dialogue. It's amazing how Philip Roth can create such turmoil in our group. I personally am a huge fan and have read all of his books..but your comments are so inciteful that I wish I had them for our book group meeting!!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Joyce - Thanks for your kind words.

Roth does incite some controversies. I know that some have accused him of sexism, self indulgence, taking pot shots at real people, and who knows what else!

On the sexism issue. He does create quit a lot of unsympathetic female characters. However, in the Human Stain the character of Faunia Farley is so admirable, in a realistic way, that I think he makes up for it a bit.

Anonymous said...

It appears to me that this web site doesnt load up on a Motorola Droid. Are other folks getting the exact same issue? I enjoy this blog and dont want to have to skip it whenever Im away from my computer.

Brian Joseph said...

It seems to load OK on my Android device. If anyone still has problems please email me. My address is under my profile and on the "About" page.