Thursday, April 15, 2021


The Human Stain

It's a towering work, really, of Philip Roth, written late in his career, and published at a particular American political and cultural moment -- after the impeachment of Bill Clinton but before the atrocity of Sept 11, at the very turn of the millennium.

There must have been a towering arrogance in its conception.  Roth must have asked himself "How can I top all of this?" and set himself an intriguing conception that seemed almost impossible to execute well, and therefore was all the more alluring.

Spoiler alert.  It's about a man, a senior academic at a small but apparently prestigious college in the Berkshires, who is ruined by one word choice that he makes in class, and not even the choice of a word that was "wrong," in context.  He is not allowed to take context into account.

Irony is a word that is often misused.  The irony is that, drummed out of the academy for using a smidgeon of racist lingo, Coleman Silk is in reality a black man who has been masquerading as a Jew ever since he enlisted in the Navy, before college.  In fact he comes near to having his cover blown for the first time when he is kicked out of a whore house in Norfolk for his skin color.  At that moment in the book that word, the word that is as taboo among us as "Yahweh" was to the most observant of the Jews, is used against him.

Coleman's life comes apart because of his academic transgression.  His wife has a stroke and dies; his own children, the ones not already distant, fall away from him.  In a fury he writes a book about his ordeal, but as soon as it is done he realizes that it is junk and abandons it.

A saving grace at the near end of his life is Faunia, a 34-year-old with whom he has a passionate affair when he is 71.  She is an inappropriate choice in the eyes of the world not just because of her age; she works as a janitor on campus and a milk maid at the organic dairy and apparently she has never learned to read, never really overcome a childhood inability to distinguish certain consonants one from the other.  Having lost her two children in a house fire for which she has been blamed, for negligence, and having been seriously and serially abused by various men, she is damaged goods in every way except that her mind is acute and her body is beautiful, in the eyes of Coleman at least.  She calls him back, body and soul, to the yet more beautiful Icelandic Steena, whom he meant to marry in his youth, who indeed loved him back but could not marry a black man.

If the plot line is audacious, Roth's constantly shape-shifting stylistic approach and his crafting of particular pictures are more audacious still.

  • Faunia dancing naked before Coleman's bed, exhorting him to stay in the moment, reminding him what a disaster will befall if he makes the young man's mistake of falling in love with her.
  • A flashback in which Coleman remembers when he interviewed the young French academic Delphine Roux for a junior faculty position at the school.  He hired her against his better judgment, alarm bells going off in part because of the transparent way that she used her great legs and a coquettish skirt to grease the deal.  The flap in the plaid miniskirt parts during the interview.  She closes it, but not immediately.  You get the picture.  And Delphine takes it for granted that she is slumming by taking the position on Coleman's faculty once offered, she having gone to the finest of French schools, not so much by dint of ability but because she followed the highly-scripted path that is owned and occupied by the French elite.  And Delphine has wormed her way into a chairmanship, and so she is the one who wielded all institutional power over Coleman in his late moment of crisis.
  • Coleman never tells Steena that he is black; rather, he decides to invite her to dinner with his quite obviously black mother and sister in East Orange, New Jersey.  She will realize that he is black only when she walks through the front door of the home in which he grew up.  In the event, all navigate the dinner splendidly.  Things threaten to go south only when the subject comes up of how tall Steena is, particularly in relation to Coleman.  This said very casually, but are there other differences between them that might be more fraught than this?  Steena rests her head on Coleman's shoulder on the commuter rail and subway ride back to Greenwich Village after dinner but, once above ground, she literally runs away.
  • Faunia in her role as milk maid.  The carnality of it.  Her femaleness and that of the cows.
  • Faunia identifies not with the cows but with crows.  She goes on a monumental riff, an extended internal monologue, about the crows, as she sits on the lawn of the big quad after her lunch with the janitor boys.  The crows.  They are aware of the beautiful songs of the other birds, but they think that they are stupid.  Our great, loud, ugly, supremely utilitarian caw will do just fine, and it's not an affectation like the songs of the robin and the wren.  The crows relieve us of the sight of all of those dead and rotting animals by eating them.  They are not squeamish about it.  And they are so smart that they learn to time their little flights above the two-lane blacktop, undertaken to avoid being squashed themselves, to the green/yellow/red of the signal lights in the distance.
  • The despair into which Coleman coldly plunges his mother by disowning her, solely for the sake of keeping his masquerade intact, even in front of his own wife and children.
But I want to talk about how ill-timed was Roth's choice of his subject.  The book of course is about cancel culture, among other things, as it existed at the turn of the millennium.  But I don't think that Roth foresaw that in a mere 20 years time a tsunami of similar thinking would take apart his entire artistic reputation, nor that a growing hostility to his project in narrow critical circles on campus would bust out into the culture at large, as it lately has.

The very title of the book is a grave offense.  Is it really a "stain" to be a black man?  Roth's defenders would say that it is after all a human, a universal stain, an original sin, that he is talking about.  But why must he remind us that dark things (red wine and blood) are more likely to stain than white things (white wine and milk)?  He must have had a sinister motive in this.

And the gravity of the cultural appropriation.  How can an aging Jew be so presumptuous as to try to portray, from the inside out as it were, a black man pretending to be a Jew?

And what kind of man, in this day and age, watches the lover of his friend milking Bessie and giving her her feed, and sees lover and cow as physically "of a piece?"

No, this man had his brief moment in the sun, but the zeitgeist shifted in an unfortunate direction for him, and with breathtaking speed.  He has nothing to teach us.  He should be mentioned, if at all, only in juxtaposition to the lived experience of his victims.  Irony there is in that.

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