Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Human Stain by Philip Roth

Philip Roth, The Human Stain
Houghton Mifflin, 2000

The Human Stain considers individuality versus collectivity, secrecy versus disclosure, and social constraints versus freedom, and its author Philip Roth has a sense of invention equal to his ideas: the invention not only illustrates his ideas, it fulfills a view of humanity. Every novel recreates the world, and The Human Stain is a book written out of Philip Roth’s full intelligence, observations, and sympathy, a book, entertaining, rich, wise, that both accepts and protests human society. Philip Roth questions society with a persistence that indicates a genuine radicality. In The Human Stain, Philip Roth depicts the failure of intelligent professionals to use reason and morality when it matters most: in a real situation occurring on campus. A man who has helped to make the reputation of the college in which he works, Coleman Silk, is ruined by an obviously bogus charge of racism. Colman Silk, a professor of the classics, of Greek tragedies, has a life that is both strangely and believably complex (charged with racism, he is actually a light-skinned African-American passing for white; and he is having an affair with a woman half his age, a woman who claims to be illiterate). Coleman’s life demonstrates a variation of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, being the life of a man living in the world without full notice. Roth’s novel, as well, uses the Clinton administration and the Monica Lewinsky scandal as one frame, allowing the writer—through that and Coleman’s late life affair—to explore the madness and refreshment of sex. Good fiction always seems to fight the fact that it is fiction, drawing on power from dynamic, real world sources, while taking flight with human imagination, as this one does.

The human stain is blood, semen, skin; it is fundamental fact and what is made of it. I wish James Baldwin were here to read such a book: I imagine he would applaud Roth’s claiming the character, the subject, and showing, once more, how confining and crazy a matter race is, and the resources of American personality—while dynamically dealing with masculinity and sexuality. Depiction of Coleman Silk’s early life presents women who are vivid and embody different aspects of experience, different values, teaching Silk something about himself and the world. So many people’s values and interpretations are less complex than human experience, compelling them to reject what they cannot comprehend (instead of modifying their values and interpretations, they reject experience). Sophistication, like a genuine education, involves mastering many things that are important and difficult because they are real, and not just if and when they please. Faunia, the college custodian and farm worker who becomes Coleman Silk’s last lover, calls the human stain the trace that humans contain and leave behind.

Roth, as a writer, renews his (our) sense of who and where the characters are as the novel continues. Faunia does a dance for her lover and her body is described in terms of what has marked her body (work, lovemaking). She, who has been mistreated in other relationships, requests nothing more than a sexual relationship from Coleman, but she is not simply a body, she is a mind and spirit and she seems to know more than people who are better placed. Faunia thinks of how the charge of racism is not simply an event, but how it works backward to taint an entire career and life. Roth imagines what is beneath the surface of a woman who has been abused and who is often dismissed by others, showing her depth and her limitation. It is Faunia who thinks of the human stain as what the human being contains and leaves behind, the human trace. Both Coleman and Faunia are threatened by her former husband, who is himself traumatized by his experience in the Vietnam war.

Philip Roth seems to want to enrich our sense of the present by increasing our knowledge of the past—the pagan Greek roots of western civilization, the rigorous intelligence too: we must accept complexity, contradiction, multiplicity, plenitude. Roth captures perfectly the petty, imperceptive judgments of the politically correct (such as of feminists who judge without knowing a French woman intellectual, their colleague, a woman whose surface is glamorous and whose exile is profound and whose flaw is dangerous: a woman whose mind is her gift and her trap). Roth allows every character her/his story, with understanding and fulfillment, fulfillment in acceptance of knowledge or ignorance, in acts of love or hate; and he dramatizes demonology, how individuals are interpreted as villains by communities. He is carrying on an American tradition—the critique of American ethical thinking.

The ability to take moral offense is the only power some people have—but they rarely take offense at the workings of institutions or communities that have power over them or in which they participate: rather, they take offense at individuals, often strangers. Their moral sense is rooted in self-interest, and in weakness. I am tempted to call this a bitterly wise book.