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The Human Stain
Philip Roth
Our Review
The Human Stain

Phillip Roth's The Human Stain is full of outrageous events and outraged people. Its main action takes place during a season of outrage: the summer of 1998, during which Monica Lewinsky was at last induced to testify as to the nature of her relationship with President Clinton; a time, as Roth writes, "when -- for the billionth time -- the jumble, the mayhem, the mess proved more subtle than this one's ideology and that one's morality. It was the summer when a president's penis was on everyone's mind, and life, in all its shameless impurity, once again confounded America." It happens that Roth's hero, Coleman Silk, who is having an affair with a woman half his age, is being persecuted for reasons arguably similar to those that roused the Republican congress against Bill Clinton.

But Coleman has already once been a political scapegoat. He has been driven from his position as Dean of Faculty at a small New England liberal-arts school called Athena College because of a remark willfully misconstrued as racist. Coleman, a professor of classics, wonders why he has never seen two of his students in class. "Do they exist or are they spooks?" he asks his class. The absentees are, of course, black, and a decorous mob of the politically correct immediately launches itself at Coleman's throat, despite his honest protests that he had used the word only in its primary signification, as a synonym for "ghosts." The leader of the mob is one Delphine Roux, a frailly sophisticated Parisian gamine and professor of French literature who has it in for Coleman -- as Roth later suggests -- because of her unadmitted desire for the powerful older man. One feels, in reading of Coleman's downfall at Athena, that Roth is not playing fair: even the false sensitivity of political correctness is usually not quite so false or so sensitive as this, and as for Delphine Roux, she is mostly a straw-woman, a necessary counter in the easy oppositions Roth wants to set up between the classical canon and the pop-gun of fashionable theory; between sexual honesty and sexual repression; between heroic individualism and hysterical censoriousness.

The Human Stain succeeds much better in depicting Coleman's other transgressions. After he has resigned bitterly from Athena and his wife has died (at least in part a victim of her husband's ostracism), Coleman, at 71, takes up with a damaged, illiterate woman of 34, one of the college's cleaning staff. If Coleman is the novel's hero, Faunia Farley is its saint. She has survived abuse at the hands of her step-father and her ex-husband and the death, in a fire, of her two children. She has emerged from these ordeals purged of all sanctimony and sentimentalism. It is in their mere copulating animal selves that she and Coleman take solace. When he says to her, "This is more than sex," she replies, "No, it's not. You just forgot what sex is.... Don't fuck it up by pretending it's something else." Steeped in Greek epic and tragedy, Coleman has already gone a long way towards abandoning Judeao-Christian moral perfectionism: he reflects that a course on " 'Appropriate Behavior in Classical Greek Drama'...would be over before it began." Illiterate Faunia completes his education. Lustful moral realists on the far side of shame, Faunia and Coleman -- the latter taking Viagra -- go at it like unsupervised teenagers. The affair only reinforces Coleman's ostracism from the burghers and burgheresses of Athena, who find it unsavory, but nothing can force Coleman to give up this late-life happiness. One imagines that Roth would concur with the philosopher E. M. Cioran's remark: "I shall never utterly admire anyone except a man dishonored -- and happy."

Loosened into candor by his delighted dishonor, Coleman confesses to Faunia his one truly transgressive secret. Coleman Silk is in fact a light-skinned black who has been passing as a Jew since his bohemian days in Greenwich Village. Ruthlessly estranged himself from his black family, he never even revealed his race to his Jewish wife or his children. That a black man who concealed his origins should be brought down by a remark falsely construed as racist might strike some as an appropriate comeuppance. To Roth it seems like an instance of the gods' sense of humor, which his tragedy -- complete with epigraph from Sophocles -- means to protest. (According to LukÀcs, the central function of tragedy is to protest fate, rather than indicate its appropriateness.) At the funeral following Coleman's untimely death (the result of a car accident incurred while receiving fellatio from Faunia) the black eulogist does not know how truly he speaks when he praises Coleman as "an American individualist par excellence." Such an individualist was Coleman Silk that he not only rejected "the tyranny of propriety" but the confinements of race as well.

Yet in this hymn to freedom, Roth has constructed a trap for himself. The phrase "the human stain" is Faunia's, and she pronounces it "without revulsion or contempt or condemnation." She understands the words, as we are meant to, as a kind of tautology: to be human is to be stained: "Impurity, cruelty, abuse, error, excrement, semen -- there's no other way to be here." Faunia considers that "the fantasy of purity is appalling," yet Roth's novel, and Faunia especially, is a fantasy of purity. Faunia and Coleman have so thoroughly cleansed themselves of misgiving and remorse, of moral meliorism, that they seem impossibly pure. They are no less saintly for being inverted saints. In escaping his race, Coleman becomes a creature of fantastic solitude and therefore equally fantastic purity. He is not sullied by belonging to a group. Faunia's capacity to live without apology is also troubling: Are there not deeds for which we must apologize? If all is cruelty and abuse, aren't some abuses nevertheless much worse than others? And what if they are committed by Delphine Roux?

The great irony of The Human Stain is that Delphine Roux, schooled in deconstructionism, might be its best reader. It was the cardinal tenet of deconstruction that all systems of rhetorical opposition -- such as that between the stained and the immaculate, between purity and impurity, or freedom and subjection -- were self-contradictory and therefore self-dissolving. They were no sooner constructed than they desconstructed themselves. So it is with Roth's novel, purist in its insistence on impurity, dogmatic in its resistance to dogma, angry in its plea for tolerance. But to say so is only to confirm that The Human Stain is indeed stained and impure, the main exhibit in its own passionate case.

No one needs to be reminded at this stage that Phillip Roth is one of our finest and most intelligent novelists, and if one argues with him more persistently than with his contemporaries, it is largely because -- as Theodor Adorno said of Proust -- he spares the reader the embarrassment of believing himself more intelligent than the author. The Human Stain may not be a perfect novel, but so much of what is centrally anguishing about American life forces its way, shouting, onto its pages, that it is impossible not to consider it the work of a great writer. Whether its arguments need to be assented to, or its prejudices indulged, I doubt; but more than any other novel of the season, it demands to be read.

--Benjamin Kunkel

Benjamin Kunkel is a writer living in New York City.

About the Author

After many years of teaching comparative literature -- mostly at the University of Pennsylvania -- Philip Roth retired from teaching as Distinguished Professor of Literature at Hunter College in 1992. Until 1989, he was general editor of the Penguin book series Writers from the Other Europe, which he inaugurated in 1974 and which introduced the work of Bruno Schultz and Milan Kundera to an American audience. His lengthy interviews with foreign authors -- among them Primo Levi, Ivan Klima, and Aharon Appelfeld -- have appeared in The New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books, and The New York Times Book Review. Roth was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1933 and has lived in Rome, London, Chicago, and New York. He now resides in Connecticut.

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