The Human Stainby Philip Roth
It is 1998, the year in which America is whipped into a frenzy of prurience by the impeachment of a president, and in a small New England town, an aging classics professor, Coleman Silk, is forced to retire when his colleagues decree that he is a racist. The charge is a lie, but the real truth about Silk would have astonished even his most virulent
It is 1998, the year in which America is whipped into a frenzy of prurience by the impeachment of a president, and in a small New England town, an aging classics professor, Coleman Silk, is forced to retire when his colleagues decree that he is a racist. The charge is a lie, but the real truth about Silk would have astonished even his most virulent accuser.
Coleman Silk has a secret, one which has been kept for fifty years from his wife, his four children, his colleagues, and his friends, including the writer Nathan Zuckerman. It is Zuckerman who stumbles upon Silk's secret and sets out to reconstruct the unknown biography of this eminent, upright man, esteemed as an educator for nearly all his life, and to understand how this ingeniously contrived life came unraveled. And to understand also how Silk's astonishing private history is, in the words of The Wall Street Journal, "magnificently" interwoven with "the larger public history of modern America."
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 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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Read an Excerpt
It was in the summer of 1998 that my neighbor Coleman Silkwho, before retiring two years earlier, had been a classics professor at nearby Athena College for some twenty-odd years as well as serving for sixteen more as the dean of facultyconfided to me that, at the age of seventy-one, he was having an affair with a thirty-four-year-old cleaning woman who worked down at the college. Twice a week she also cleaned the rural post office, a small gray clapboard shack that looked as if it might have sheltered an Okie family from the winds of the Dust Bowl back in the 1930s and that, sitting alone and forlorn across from the gas station and the general store, flies its American flag at the junction of the two roads that mark the commercial center of this mountainside town.
Coleman had first seen the woman mopping the post office floor when he went around late one day, a few minutes before closing time, to get his maila thin, tall, angular woman with graying blond hair yanked back into a ponytail and the kind of severely sculpted features customarily associated with the church-ruled, hardworking goodwives who suffered through New England's harsh beginnings, stern colonial women locked up within the reigning morality and obedient to it. Her name was Faunia Farley, and whatever miseries she endured she kept concealed behind one of those inexpressive bone faces that hide nothing and bespeak an immense loneliness. Faunia lived in a room at a local dairy farm where she helped with the milking in order to pay her rent. She'd had two years of high school education.
The summer that Coleman took me into his confidence about Faunia Farley and their secret was the summer, fittingly enough, that Bill Clinton's secret emerged in every last mortifying detailevery last lifelike detail, the livingness, like the mortification, exuded by the pungency of the specific data. We hadn't had a season like it since somebody stumbled upon the new Miss America nude in an old issue of Penthouse, pictures of her elegantly posed on her knees and on her back that forced the shamed young woman to relinquish her crown and go on to become a huge pop star. Ninety-eight in New England was a summer of exquisite warmth and sunshine, in baseball a summer of mythical battle between a home-run god who was white and a home-run god who was brown, and in America the summer of an enormous piety binge, a purity binge, when terrorismwhich had replaced communism as the prevailing threat to the country's securitywas succeeded by cocksucking, and a virile, youthful middle-aged president and a brash, smitten twenty-one-year-old employee carrying on in the Oval Office like two teenage kids in a parking lot revived America's oldest communal passion, historically perhaps its most treacherous and subversive pleasure: the ecstasy of sanctimony. In the Congress, in the press, and on the networks, the righteous grandstanding creeps, crazy to blame, deplore, and punish, were everywhere out moralizing to beat the band: all of them in a calculated frenzy with what Hawthorne (who, in the 1860s, lived not many miles from my door) identified in the incipient country of long ago as "the persecuting spirit"; all of them eager to enact the astringent rituals of purification that would excise the erection from the executive branch, thereby making things cozy and safe enough for Senator Lieberman's ten-year-old daughter to watch TV with her embarrassed daddy again. No, if you haven't lived through 1998, you don't know what sanctimony is. The syndicated conservative newspaper columnist William F. Buckley wrote, "When Abelard did it, it was possible to prevent its happening again," insinuating that the president's malfeasancewhat Buckley elsewhere called Clinton's "incontinent carnality"might best be remedied with nothing so bloodless as impeachment but, rather, by the twelfth-century punishment meted out to Canon Abelard by the knife-wielding associates of Abelard's ecclesiastical colleague, Canon Fulbert, for Abelard's secret seduction of and marriage to Fulbert's niece, the virgin Heloise. Unlike Khomeini's fatwa condemning to death Salman Rushdie, Buckley's wistful longing for the corrective retribution of castration carried with it no financial incentive for any prospective perpetrator. It was prompted by a spirit no less exacting than the ayatollah's, however, and in behalf of no less exalted ideals.
It was the summer in America when the nausea returned, when the joking didn't stop, when the speculation and the theorizing and the hyperbole didn't stop, when the moral obligation to explain to one's children about adult life was abrogated in favor of maintaining in them every illusion about adult life, when the smallness of people was simply crushing, when some kind of demon had been unleashed in the nation and, on both sides, people wondered "Why are we so crazy?" when men and women alike, upon awakening in the morning, discovered that during the night, in a state of sleep that transported them beyond envy or loathing, they had dreamed of the brazenness of Bill Clinton. I myself dreamed of a mammoth banner, draped dadaistically like a Christo wrapping from one end of the White House to the other and bearing the legend A HUMAN BEING LIVES HERE. It was the summer whenfor the billionth timethe jumble, the mayhem, the mess proved itself 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.
Sometimes on a Saturday, Coleman Silk would give me a ring and invite me to drive over from my side of the mountain after dinner to listen to music, or to play, for a penny a point, a little gin rummy, or to sit in his living room for a couple of hours and sip some cognac and help him get through what was always for him the worst night of the week. By the summer of 1998, he had been alone up herealone in the large old white clapboard house where he'd raised four children with his wife, Irisfor close to two years, ever since Iris suffered a stroke and died overnight while he was in the midst of battling with the college over a charge of racism brought against him by two students in one of his classes.
Coleman had by then been at Athena almost all his academic life, an outgoing, sharp-witted, forcefully smooth big-city charmer, something of a warrior, something of an operator, hardly the prototypical pedantic professor of Latin and Greek (as witness the Conversational Greek and Latin Club that he started, heretically, as a young instructor). His venerable survey course in ancient Greek literature in translationknown as GHM, for Gods, Heroes, and Mythwas popular with students precisely because of everything direct, frank, and unacademically forceful in his comportment. "You know how European literature begins?" he'd ask, after having taken the roll at the first class meeting. "With a quarrel. All of European literature springs from a fight." And then he picked up his copy of The Iliad and read to the class the opening lines. "'Divine Muse, sing of the ruinous wrath of Achilles . . . Begin where they first quarreled, Agamemnon the King of men, and great Achilles.' And what are they quarreling about, these two violent, mighty souls? It's as basic as a barroom brawl. They are quarreling over a woman. A girl, really. A girl stolen from her father. A girl abducted in a war. Mia kouri-that is how she is described in the poem. Mia, as in modern Greek, is the indefinite article 'a'; kouri, or girl, evolves in modern Greek into kori, meaning daughter. Now, Agamemnon much prefers this girl to his wife, Clytemnestra. 'Clytemnestra is not as good as she is,' he says, 'neither in face nor in figure.' That puts directly enough, does it not, why he doesn't want to give her up? When Achilles demands that Agamemnon return the girl to her father in order to assuage Apollo, the god who is murderously angry about the circumstances surrounding her abduction, Agamemnon refuses: he'll agree only if Achilles gives him his girl in exchange. Thus reigniting Achilles. Adrenal Achilles: the most highly flammable of explosive wildmen any writer has ever enjoyed portraying; especially where his prestige and his appetite are concerned, the most hypersensitive killing machine in the history of warfare. Celebrated Achilles: alienated and estranged by a slight to his honor. Great heroic Achilles, who, through the strength of his rage at an insultthe insult of not getting the girlisolates himself, positions himself defiantly outside the very society whose glorious protector he is and whose need of him is enormous. A quarrel, then, a brutal quarrel over a young girl and her young body and the delights of sexual rapacity: there, for better or worse, in this offense against the phallic entitlement, the phallic dignity, of a powerhouse of a warrior prince, is how the great imaginative literature of Europe begins, and that is why, close to three thousand years later, we are going to begin there today . . ."
Coleman was one of a handful of Jews on the Athena faculty when he was hired and perhaps among the first of the Jews permitted to teach in a classics department anywhere in America; a few years earlier, Athena's solitary Jew had been E. I. Lonoff, the all-but-forgotten short story writer whom, back when I was myself a newly published apprentice in trouble and eagerly seeking the validation of a master, I had once paid a memorable visit to here. Through the eighties and into the nineties, Coleman was also the first and only Jew ever to serve at Athena as dean of faculty; then, in 1995, after retiring as dean in order to round out his career back in the classroom, he resumed teaching two of his courses under the aegis of the combined languages and literature program that had absorbed the Classics Department and that was run by Professor Delphine Roux. As dean, and with the full support of an ambitious new president, Coleman had taken an antiquated, backwater, Sleepy Hollowish college and, not without steamrolling, put an end to the place as a gentlemen's farm by aggressively encouraging the deadwood among the faculty's old guard to seek early retirement, recruiting ambitious young assistant professors, and revolutionizing the curriculum. It's almost a certainty that had he retired, without incident, in his own good time, there would have been the festschrift, there would have been the institution of the Coleman Silk Lecture Series, there would have been a classical studies chair established in his name, and perhapsgiven his importance to the twentieth-century revitalization of the placethe humanities building or even North Hall, the college's landmark, would have been renamed in his honor after his death. In the small academic world where he had lived the bulk of his life, he would have long ceased to be resented or controversial or even feared, and, instead, officially glorified forever.
It was about midway into his second semester back as a full-time professor that Coleman spoke the self-incriminating word that would cause him voluntarily to sever all ties to the college-the single self-incriminating word of the many millions spoken aloud in his years of teaching and administering at Athena, and the word that, as Coleman understood things, directly led to his wife's death.
The class consisted of fourteen students. Coleman had taken attendance at the beginning of the first several lectures so as to learn their names. As there were still two names that failed to elicit a response by the fifth week into the semester, Coleman, in the sixth week, opened the session by asking, "Does anyone know these people? Do they exist or are they spooks?"
Later that day he was astonished to be called in by his successor, the new dean of faculty, to address the charge of racism brought against him by the two missing students, who turned out to be black, and who, though absent, had quickly learned of the locution in which he'd publicly raised the question of their absence. Coleman told the dean, "I was referring to their possibly ectoplasmic character. Isn't that obvious? These two students had not attended a single class. That's all I knew about them. I was using the word in its customary and primary meaning: 'spook' as a specter or a ghost. I had no idea what color these two students might be. I had known perhaps fifty years ago but had wholly forgotten that 'spooks' is an invidious term sometimes applied to blacks. Otherwise, since I am totally meticulous regarding student sensibilities, I would never have used that word. Consider the context: Do they exist or are they spooks? The charge of racism is spurious. It is preposterous. My colleagues know it is preposterous and my students know it is preposterous. The issue, the only issue, is the nonattendance of these two students and their flagrant and inexcusable neglect of work. What's galling is that the charge is not just falseit is spectacularly false." Having said altogether enough in his defense, considering the matter closed, he left for home.
Now, even ordinary deans, I am told, serving as they do in a no man's land between the faculty and the higher administration, invariably make enemies. They don't always grant the salary raises that are requested or the convenient parking places that are so coveted or the larger offices professors believe they are entitled to. Candidates for appointments or promotion, especially in weak departments, are routinely rejected. Departmental petitions for additional faculty positions and secretarial help are almost always turned down, as are requests for reduced teaching loads and for freedom from early morning classes. Funds for travel to academic conferences are regularly denied, et cetera, et cetera. But Coleman had been no ordinary dean, and who he got rid of and how he got rid of them, what he abolished and what he established, and how audaciously he performed his job into the teeth of tremendous resistance succeeded in more than merely slighting or offending a few odd ingrates and malcontents. Under the protection of Pierce Roberts, the handsome young hotshot president with all the hair who came in and appointed him to the deanshipand who told him, "Changes are going to be made, and anybody who's unhappy should just think about leaving or early retirement"Coleman had overturned everything. When, eight years later, midway through Coleman's tenure, Roberts accepted a prestigious Big Ten presidency, it was on the strength of a reputation for all that had been achieved at Athena in record timeachieved, however, not by the glamorous president who was essentially a fund-raiser, who'd taken none of the hits and moved on from Athena heralded and unscathed, but by his determined dean of faculty.
In the very first month he was appointed dean, Coleman had invited every faculty member in for a talk, including several senior professors who were the scions of the old county families who'd founded and originally endowed the place and who themselves didn't really need the money but gladly accepted their salaries. Each of them was instructed beforehand to bring along his or her c.v., and if someone didn't bring it, because he or she was too grand, Coleman had it in front of him on his desk anyway. And for a full hour he kept them there, sometimes even longer, until, having so persuasively indicated that things at Athena had at long last changed, he had begun to make them sweat. Nor did he hesitate to open the interview by flipping through the c.v. and saying, "For the last eleven years, just what have you been doing?" And when they told him, as an overwhelming number of the faculty did, that they'd been publishing regularly in Athena Notes, when he'd heard one time too many about the philological, bibliographical, or archaeological scholarly oddment each of them annually culled from an ancient Ph.D. dissertation for "publication" in the mimeographed quarterly bound in gray cardboard that was cataloged nowhere on earth but in the college library, he was reputed to have dared to break the Athena civility code by saying, "In other words, you people recycle your own trash." Not only did he then shut down Athena Notes by returning the tiny bequest to the donorthe father-in-law of the editorbut, to encourage early retirement, he forced the deadest of the deadwood out of the courses they'd been delivering by rote for the last twenty or thirty years and into freshman English and the history survey and the new freshman orientation program held during the hot last days of the summer. He eliminated the ill-named Scholar of the Year Prize and assigned the thousand dollars elsewhere. For the first time in the college's history, he made people apply formally, with a detailed project description, for paid sabbatical leave, which was more often than not denied. He got rid of the clubby faculty lunchroom, which boasted the most exquisite of the paneled oak interiors on the campus, converted it back into the honors seminar room it was intended to be, and made the faculty eat in the cafeteria with the students. He insisted on faculty meetingsnever holding them had made the previous dean enormously popular. Coleman had attendance taken by the faculty secretary so that even the eminences with the three-hour-a-week schedules were forced onto the campus to show up. He found a provision in the college constitution that said there were to be no executive committees, and arguing that those stodgy impediments to serious change had grown up only by convention and tradition, he abolished them and ruled these faculty meetings by fiat, using each as an occasion to announce what he was going to do next that was sure to stir up even more resentment. Under his leadership, promotion became difficultand this, perhaps, was the greatest shock of all: people were no longer promoted through rank automatically on the basis of being popular teachers, and they didn't get salary increases that weren't tied to merit. In short, he brought in competition, he made the place competitive, which, as an early enemy noted, "is what Jews do." And whenever an angry ad hoc committee was formed to go and complain to Pierce Roberts, the president unfailingly backed Coleman.
In the Roberts years all the bright younger people he recruited loved Coleman because of the room he was making for them and because of the good people he began hiring out of graduate programs at Johns Hopkins and Yale and Cornell"the revolution of quality," as they themselves liked to describe it. They prized him for taking the ruling elite out of their little club and threatening their self-presentation, which never fails to drive a pompous professor crazy. All the older guys who were the weakest part of the faculty had survived on the ways that they thought of themselvesthe greatest scholar of the year 100 B.C., and so forthand once those were challenged from above, their confidence eroded and, in a matter of a few years, they had nearly all disappeared. Heady times! But after Pierce Roberts moved on to the big job at Michigan, and Haines, the new president, came in with no particular loyalty to Colemanand, unlike his predecessor, exhibiting no special tolerance for the brand of bulldozing vanity and autocratic ego that had cleaned the place out in so brief a periodand as the young people Coleman had kept on as well as those he'd recruited began to become the veteran faculty, a reaction against Dean Silk started to set in. How strong it was he had never entirely realized until he counted all the people, department by department, who seemed to be not at all displeased that the word the old dean had chosen to characterize his two seemingly nonexistent students was definable not only by the primary dictionary meaning that he maintained was obviously the one he'd intended but by the pejorative racial meaning that had sent his two black students to lodge their complaint.
Meet the Author
In 1997 Philip Roth won the Pulitzer Prize for American Pastoral. In 1998 he received the National Medal of Arts at the White House and in 2002 the highest award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Gold Medal in Fiction. He has twice won the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. He has won the PEN/Faulkner Award three times. In 2005 The Plot Against America received the Society of American Historians’ Prize for “the outstanding historical novel on an American theme for 2003-2004.” Recently Roth received PEN’s two most prestigious awards: in 2006 the PEN/Nabokov Award and in 2007 the PEN/Bellow Award for achievement in American fiction. Roth is the only living American novelist to have his work published in a comprehensive, definitive edition by the Library of America. In 2011 he received the National Humanities Medal at the White House, and was later named the fourth recipient of the Man Booker International Prize.
- Date of Birth:
- March 19, 1933
- Place of Birth:
- Newark, New Jersey
- B.A. in English, Bucknell University, 1954; M.A. in English, University of Chicago, 1955
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