How strong the moral detergent should be to wash away the stains of individual sins? Philip Roth’s THE HUMAN STAIN exposes the culpibility of human nature that leaves a scar on the face of civilization. A perpetual scar that never leaves. Shouvik Banerjee examines it closely…
A silvery grey cover with a black lower-body silhouette followed by a full-length shadow of a man done in blood red; as if the pitch black darkness of the soul has spilled into a shadowy pool of human blood and stained it. Nice, minimalist, evocative cover for a book titled The Human Stain— routine stuff in the world of book marketing. But I should have known better. I should have noted with far more care the four-lettered author’s name almost bulging outward from the otherwise inconspicuous cover— ROTH— done in black: regal, authoritative. But I was a newcomer to Roth’s fiction back then. I knew his name, heard about him a few times from people who held him in good regard, and that was that. As book lovers know very well, authors and readers resemble young lovers— you never know whether you like each other until you spend some time— recommendations can only set up a meeting, that’s all.
So, a couple of days before the scheduled class on Roth, I started with the novel— half-curious, half-serious. And what initially seemed like a 360-page gruelling task for dearth of time, turned out to be a labour of love, waking me up early next morning from sheer excitement. I was in for a ride from the very first line actually.
It was in the summer of 1998 that my neighbour Coleman Silk— who, 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 faculty — confided 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.
Meaty and promising once you get hold of the rhythm of that typically lengthy-yet-perfectly-balanced Roth sentence: consummate craftsmanship of a master artist.
Coleman Silk has a secret and he feels he has mastered it, until his life is capsized by something as tiny and as fluid as a word. A single word which he spilled in the class almost unintentionally — ‘Spooks’: imaginative, ghostly yet so real, so very concrete in its implications. He feels wronged. As events unfold, his wife dies and with passing time, Coleman gets into an affair with Faunia Farley, a janitor at his college. Conceived in the wake of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, it is hardly surprising that the novel revolves around this odd pairing of Coleman and Faunia. But what is odd? To entertain virility even at senescence? To enjoy sexual experience even after one has lost his wife? Or, is it the wide gap along financial lines— the valley that exists between individuals from different classes? What is this utter need to be politically correct, asks Roth of his fellow Americans. This political correctness, this mad propensity to get things right is not only limited to the sexual, but extended to the academic sphere as well. The theoretical turn that has come to dominate academic curricula in recent years has led literature to conform to that almost scientific exactitude of getting things right, which stands in exact opposition to how literature operates. Literature follows its own discursive logic, inscribing the erring human in all his foibles and idiosyncrasies. And that is what Roth’s book so brilliantly brings out. As I read through with bated breath, I could not help but take sides with each of the finely detailed characters that people the narrative. They are as powerful as they are flawed, and hence human.
Part of Roth’s post-war American trilogy, this novel also has the recurring figure of Nathan Zuckerman who is the narrator, the ‘I’ of the story. His presence lends the story an interesting perspective. His apparent detachment to active involvement in the story is a journey in itself.
Coleman Silk, a classics professor at fictional Athena College in western Massachusetts, is a neighbor of Nathan Zuckerman and ”was also the first and only Jew ever to serve at Athena as dean of faculty.” Jewish identity crises are, of course, Roth’s signature subject: his fictional portraits tend to be of Jewish men discovering independent ways of being Jewish; authenticity and existential freedom are his themes, and his narratives generally proceed by argument, often in the form of dialogue. But Silk’s Jewishness contains a secret. As it turns out, he is not actually Jewish. Roth has presented us a man struggling with a truly independent way of being Jewish: pretending to be Jewish.
Such an experiment is unparalleled judging by its perfectly laid out scheme and the consequences. For Coleman Silk, being Jewish is being white. Silk is actually a very light-skinned black man, who in his early 20’s, seeing he could pass for white, decided to go ahead, disown his family and pass. ”To become a new being,” thinks Zuckerman, ”(is) to bifurcate. The drama that underlies America’s story, the high drama that is upping and leaving — and the energy and cruelty that rapturous drive demands.” When Silk tells his mother his decision, her stoicism is heartbreaking. To see her future grandchildren, she says, she’ll just sit quietly on a park bench if Coleman will walk them by. ”You tell me the only way I can ever touch my grandchildren is for you to hire me to come over as Mrs. Brown to baby-sit and put them to bed, I’ll do it. Tell me to come over as Mrs. Brown to clean your house, I’ll do that.” Call it a filial crisis or moment etched in words of denial, it truly shows how far Roth had succeeded in capturing the existential struggle with its mask torn open.
His keen eye for finesse holds the narrative in one composite whole, never letting the gullible reader know when he has swapped allegiance from one character to another. That’s the beauty of this novel. In one fell swoop, Roth beheads the monster of righteous vigilantism, and beckons us to revel in the human love for power. Where that overshooting ambition takes you…. Well, I leave that for you to find out, dear readers. But to enjoy life, or to enjoy fiction— it’s cognate power— let yourself immerse in the power of the moment, just as Faunia says to Coleman in an intriguing episode of sexual encounter,
But that’s all it is. I’m dancing in front of you naked with the lights on, and you’re naked too, and all the other stuff doesn’t matter. It’s the simplest thing we’ve ever done— it’s it. Don’t fuck it up by thinking it’s more than this. You don’t and I won’t. It doesn’t have to be more than this.
So, it’s it, ladies and gentlemen. Get started. Keep an eye for the odd ironical jest that’s never far from you. And while I sign off, read the title again and think if the human in The Human Stain is an adjective in itself.
Title art by Trinamoy Das
Next post on 1st June