Philip Roth is quick to remind us, right near the beginning of The Human Stain(2000), that Western literature begins with a bitter argument, one that takes place in the midst of a bogged-down war. If “all of European literature springs from a fight,” so does, not so coincidentally, Roth’s pugnacious novel, set in the midst of America’s “culture wars” at the very end of the twentieth century.
Coleman Silk, the book’s protagonist, is a former professor of classics, who spent his entire career, both teaching and in administration, at Athena College, located in the Berkshire hills and mountains of rural Massachusetts. When he was still teaching, before his angry resignation (more about that in a minute), Professor Silk, having taken the roll at the first class meeting of his ancient Greek literature course, would rhetorically ask his students, “You know how European literature begins?” and immediately supply the answer: “With a quarrel. All of European literature springs from a fight.”
To demonstrate his point, Silk would pick up a copy of Homer’s Iliad and read to the class its indelible opening lines, “Divine Muse, sing of the ruinous wrath of Achilles… Begin where they first quarreled, Agamemnon the King of men, and great Achilles.” Looking up from Homer, Silk would ask, “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…”
And we’re off, as countless other Greek Lit in Translation survey courses have been, parsing the details of who said what to whom on the plains of Troy, and what Apollo, Athena, Zeus and other divinities thought and did. Not only does the Iliadbegin with the Greek military leaders quarreling among themselves about sacrificed daughters, wives on the homefront, and girls who are the spoils of war, but, it will be recalled, the whole quagmire of the Trojan War is predicated on an even more sensational outrage, the elopement or abduction (depending on whether you read the blogs or the middle-class news websites) of Helen, wife of a Greek king, by the intemperate Paris, prince of Troy.
The Human Stain, the first great American novel of the new millennium (which I had occasion to re-read recently), opens a couple of years after the professor’s last classroom peroration, with the revelation of a semi-scandalous secret about a woman. As the book’s narrator puts it, “It was in the summer of 1998 that my neighbour Coleman Silk… 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,” one Faunia Farley.
The voice of the narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, will be familiar to readers of Philip Roth. The Human Stain is the concluding volume of an “American” trilogy that Roth produced in his mid-60s, at a time in life when many writers are winding down. It is also the eighth of a nine-novel cycle in which Zuckerman, Roth’s “alter brain,” appears. Zuckerman is, in this incarnation, in his mid-60s, a reclusive, well-known Jewish novelist, now incontinent and impotent (the result of the removal of his cancerous prostate), who has retreated into the New England backwoods, Nathaniel Hawthorne country, to practice his solitary, exacting vocation, one that, as he says much later, is “in professional competition with death.”
But before Roth provides the details of Coleman’s affair with Faunia and the quarrels it engenders, quarrels on the order of those between Agamemnon and Achilles — what were the names of those hapless girls they wrangled over, Chryseis?, Briseis? — Zuckerman launches into a medium- decibel tirade about the broader cultural war in which this particular skirmish will play out.
“The summer that Coleman took me into his confidence about Faunia Farley and their secret,” says Zuckerman, “was the summer, fittingly enough, that Bill Clinton’s secret emerged in every last mortifying detail — every last lifelike detail, the livingness, like the mortification, exuded by the pungency of the specific data.” Perhaps a decade or so on from President Bill Clinton’s fling with a government intern, Monica Lewinsky, the lifelike details of the forensics, including a semen-stained blue dress, and possibly even the ensuing congressional impeachment trial of the libidinous president, will have faded from public memory. But not for Zuckerman.
Ninety-eight in New England was a summer of exquisite warmth and sunshine, … and in America the summer of an enormous piety binge, a purity binge, when terrorism — which had replaced communism as the prevailing threat to the nation’s security — was 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 teenaged 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’… No, if you haven’t lived through 1998, you don’t know what sanctimony is.
Whatever else is going to happen at ground level to Coleman and Faunia (and plenty will), Zuckerman wants us to be apprised of the larger context, the Olympian level, the quarrels of the gods. Not perhaps the magnitude of a war over Troy, but an American culture war over Trojan condoms, identity politics, Viagra, racial righteousness, family values, and sexual propriety. As Zuckerman says, if you weren’t there, you don’t know what sanctimony is.
Prior to his semi-forced resignation, Coleman Silk had been a paragon of academia, “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.” Moreover, for all those decades, he’d been an ostensibly orthodox family man, married four decades to his wife, Iris, and father of four children. While reconstructing Silk’s c.v., Zuckerman notes in an aside that a few years earlier Jews had been a rarity in those parts; indeed, the only Jew around Athena had been E.I. Lonoff, the all-but-forgotten short story writer, to whom, back when Zuckerman was a newly published apprentice, he had paid a “memorable visit.” Faithful readers of Roth will get the little in- joke here, a reference to The Ghost Writer(1979), the first of the Zuckerman cycle, in which that memorable visit to Lonoff is recounted.
Not only was Silk a prominent professor, he was also the first and only Jew ever to become dean of faculty at Athena, and as dean, “Coleman had taken an antiquated, backwater, Sleepy Hollowish college and not without steamrolling, put an end to the place as a gentleman’s farm…” Then, in 1995, after stepping down as dean, in order to round out his career back in the classroom before full retirement, he resumed teaching in the newly combined languages and literature department, which had in postmodernist fashion absorbed “classics,” run by the stylish French-born Professor Delphine Roux.
It was back in the classroom 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 Athens, and the word that, as Coleman understood things, directly led to his wife’s death.” Like profs everywhere, Silk had taken attendance at the beginning of the semester, partly to learn the names of his students. But there were two names that failed to get a response five weeks into the semester. At the next class, Coleman opened the session by asking, “Does anyone know these people? Do they exist or are they spooks?” Spooks.
Later that day, Professor Silk 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.”
Impatiently, Silk tells 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 a totally meticulous…” Though he goes on (and on, as all of Roth’s characters do), given the moment in American cultural life, whatever he says is going to be too much and not enough.
In due course, Silk angrily resigns from Athena, his wife Iris unexpectedly dies of a stroke in the middle of the dispute (which is why Coleman thinks of her death as a direct casualty of the bizarre incident of political correctness), and Coleman goes a little crazy — which is what brings him into contact with Zuckerman, with whom heretofore he’d had only a nodding acquaintance.
Then, it’s two years later, the year of Clinton’s fling and impeachment. The retired Silk has managed to right himself and is in the midst of his age-defying affair with Faunia, when trouble comes again. This time, it’s double-barrelled: first, there’s an anonymous letter that says, “Everyone knows you’re sexually exploiting an abused, illiterate woman half your age,” penned, it turns out, by no one other than the Fury-driven Professor Delphine Roux, who also had had a hand in the “spooks” incident. Second, there’s Les Farley, the ex-husband of Faunia, a damaged Vietnam vet still suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder a quarter-century after the war that gave rise to it, who’s prone to stalking his ex-wive and her elderly Jewish lover. As Roth sets it up, there’s no shortage of quarrels, no lack of elements of tragedy in an era “when some kind of demon had been unleashed in the nation and, on both sides, people wondered ‘Why are we so crazy?’”
The high-tide waters of academic “identity politics,” though they left vestigial flotsam in the form of campus “harassment officers” and “speech codes,” considerably receded in the interim since Roth’s book appeared and, say, 2010. But they’ve returned, with a vengeance, and so has the broader cultural war in America. Readers coming belatedly to The Human Stain may wonder if there really was a time when a misconstrued word on a college campus could lead to a witchhunt, or a cross-generational romance could excite the Furies, feminist or warrior, to a wrath equivalent to that depicted in Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter. But maybe readers today will find the scene of Roth’s campus novel perfectly recognizable in a new era of “Social Justice Warriors,” “rape culture” and “unwanted advances,” to say nothing of new guru professors and furious fights over “free speech.”
The year before Roth’s novel was published, Richard Rorty (1931-2007), the most interesting American philosopher of the latter part of the century, discussed the country’s ongoing ideological confrontation in an essay in his Philosophy and Social Hope (1999), one of the defining books of the era. “At the moment there are two cultural wars being waged in the United States,” Rorty observes. The first war, he says, is the important one. It’s the one between “decent, humanitarian liberals” and fundamentalists of various stripes, promoting everything from born-again religious revivalism to faith-based opposition to abortion, homosexuality, gun control and even government itself. The outcome of that cultural war, says Rorty, “will decide whether our country continues along the trajectory” of everything from the Bill of Rights to the New Deal to the civil rights, feminist, and gay movements of our own era. “Continuing along that trajectory would mean that America might continue to set an example of increasing tolerance and increasing equality.” Rorty sees the fundamentalists, “the people who think hounding gays out of the military promotes traditional family values, as the same honest, decent, blinkered, disastrous people who voted for Hitler in 1933.” Rorty sees the humanitarian liberals “as defining the only America I care about.”
The second cultural war, he argues, is being waged primarily in the universities and its attendant intellectual journals. “It is between those who see modern liberal society as fatally flawed (the people handily lumped together as ‘postmodernists’) and typical left-wing Democrat professors like myself, people who see ours as a society in which technology and democratic institutions can, with luck, collaborate to increase equality and decrease suffering. This war is not very important,” Rorty declares. It is, he says, “just a tiny little dispute” within the ranks of “upmarket progressives.”
People on the harsher postmodernist left, says Rorty, operate from the perspective that the U.S. “is not so much in danger of slipping into fascism as it is a country which has always been quasi-fascist. These people typically think that nothing will change unless we get rid of ‘humanism,’ ‘liberal individualism’ and ‘technologism.’ People like me,” the social democratic Rorty admits, “see nothing wrong with any of these -isms, nor with the political and moral heritage of the Enlightenment.”
The identity politics of the 1990s that raged in the corridors of academia were far removed, in tone and temperament, from the earlier counterculture campus politics of the 1960s, a now legendary time of turbulence frequently and falsely cited by conservatives as the source of all of America’s subsequent ills. Though the New Left student politics of the 1960s were not short of foolishness and self-inflation, they were interestingly utopian, sometimes imaginative, and even playful. By contrast, the left-wing campus politics of the 1990s were rather a grim-lipped affair, humourless for the most part, and possessed of a self-righteousness reflective of an academic left that was powerless outside the precincts of its own committee rooms, lacking influence in a world where the real inequalities reigned. Since absence of power is proportionally inverse to the savagery displayed in its own bailiwick, the excesses of political correctness were predictable, if not of primary importance.
Though Rorty regards most of what got to be called “political correctness” and “identity politics” in the 1990s as “politically silly,” and quickly picked up on the early-warning signs of academic tribalism, he nonetheless also saw that many of those attacking postmodernism were prone to a sort of “Blimpishness.” They tended to ignore the criticisms of injustice that had motivated the postmodernists in the first place. Overall, Rorty demonstrates a level-headedness when it comes to the less important academic disputes, a cool demeanour not shared at Athena College. As for the important cultural war with the fundamentalists, whom Rorty believes to be “philosophically wrong as well as politically dangerous,” that’s the one to pay attention to, he insisted.
At the time of Rorty’s essay, the first signs of calm on the turbulent waters of identity politics were about to appear, but the flood waters of the important cultural war continued to rage. It’s the genius of Roth’s Human Stain to inextricably intertwine both aspects of those culture wars that Rorty delineated.
The point is that Roth isn’t making it up, even though he’s writing satire. By happenstance, as a faculty member myself, at a backwater post-secondary institution not all that different from Roth’s Athena College, I was one of the people who “lived through it,” as Zuckerman says, and thus got an intimation of “what sanctimony is.”
The discussion of “sexual harassment” on campus, and corollary issues involving discrimination against people of different ethnic and racial identities, as well as those of differing abilities and sexual orientation, began plausibly enough. When the problem of sexual harassment was called to our attention, I and others were prepared to raise our hands at the appropriate time to vote for the resolution to stop that sort of thing.
The appropriate moment and the resolution soon arrived. But from the beginning, there was something curious about the issue for which we were devising preventive mechanisms. First, there already existed an extensive process of monitoring and evaluating the performance and behaviour of teachers and students, which included the acts now called “sexual harassment,” and provided penalties up to and including expulsion. Second, our school, and similar ones, were already in the intellectual forefront of criticising sexism, racism, and homophobia in our society. But, on the other hand, maybe a proverbial “ounce of prevention” was worth the effort, we thought, to capture some acts lying between Criminal Code offenses and institutional regulatory codes.
In the end, the policy we (and many others) adopted, included, among much else, the notion that sexual harassment isn’t just unwanted touching and threatening come-ons, but also “comment of a sexual nature when the comment has the effect of creating an offensive [classroom or campus] environment, and it may include the expression of sexist attitudes.” It didn’t take much foresight to envision that the policy’s virtues might be outstripped by its potential excesses.
I probably would have thought Coleman Silk’s “spooks” incident rather farfetched if I hadn’t seen a “decent, humanitarian liberal” professor at a neighbouring university get caught up in the cogs of the academic machinery. Protesting a graduate student’s thesis defence at which male faculty and students had been barred, the professor penned a memo in which he described the dissertation examination as an “orgy of self-congratulation.” He was promptly charged by the student and her faculty advisor with sexual harrassment — the use of “orgy” was construed to mean an outbreak of lesbian sexuality on campus — and for the next two or three years his career was entangled in the coils of various human rights’ tribunals and commissions. There were other such incidents, but perhaps not as many as conservative professors and commentators liked to claim. Eventually, the fuss died down.
In the end, a sort of sanity, or maybe only exhaustion from unreason, prevailed, and most of the circumstances that Roth sends up in The Human Stain have simply become an historical memory, along with “the persecuting spirit” Hawthorne detected in The Scarlett Letter.
About a quarter of the way into Roth’s novel about identity politics, another far deeper secret about identity, with barely a hint of forewarning, is suddenly revealed. Silk is consulting his ambitious, young lawyer in Athena, Nelson Primus, about getting a restraining order against the possibly psychopathic Les Farley. Instead, Primus subjects Silk to an overbearing lecture about the foolishness of such a course of action and primly advises the elderly academic to simply drop his scandalous affair with Faunia. Silk is enraged. He tells Primus, “I never again want to hear that self-admiring voice of yours or see your smug fucking lily-white face.”
A little aside here. The cameo characters, like Primus, who appear throughout The Human Stain, are never cut-outs, never mere caricatures. Rather than simply dispatching the smug lawyer, as he might have done, Roth gives us the subsequent scene in which Primus goes home that evening and explains to his wife how he totally blew it with old Silk, perhaps as a result of some combination of intimidation (“the man is a force… Somebody’s there when he’s sitting there.”) and a “wrong-headed attempt to be taken seriously by him, to impress him.” That is, Roth is sufficiently attentive to the nuances of human personality to show us that Primus is not just a self-righteous jerk. But Primus is left with a lingering question. “No, I don’t fault him for unloading on me like that. But, honey, the question remains… ‘Lily-white’? Why ‘lily-white’?”
With no more than that bare hint, Zuckerman begins a lengthy, richly detailed account of the youth of “Silky” Silk, growing up in a small New Jersey town, not unlike the one in which Zuckerman himself was raised, as the favourite son of a middle-class “model Negro family” of the late 1930s. They’re middle-class enough to be shocked to discover that the adolescent, athletic Coleman has successfully taken up the pugilistic arts at the local boxing club. (How Zuckerman acquires all this deep background is only revealed near the novel’s end, but as is typical of Roth’s storytelling skills, the intricate plot is woven with adamant confidence.)
The revelation that Silk is a light-skinned black man who could and did pass as white (and Jewish), for most of a lifetime — and what about his kids? what if they display a recessive gene? (they don’t) — only adds ultimate irony to his downfall, based as it is on a false accusation of uttering a racially derogatory remark. The improbable story of a man who reinvents himself at the cost of severing almost all ties to his past, and breaking a mother’s heart, is Roth’s daring reversal of every celebration of “roots.” If cultural politics is what the American left and right want to battle over, Philip Roth is prepared to lace up his gloves and take on America’s deepest cultural shame, the “human stain” of skin colour itself.
The Human Stain was, for the most part, not only favourably received, but listed as one of the New York Times’ “10 best books of 2000,” and it picked up a couple of lesser literary prizes, the Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction and Britain’s W.H. Smith Award. It didn’t receive any of the bigger American prizes (the Pulitzer, National Book Award, or the National Book Critics Circle Award), and one critic, who otherwise praised the book, complained that the novel’s weakest parts were the “hatefully rendered interior monologues” of Delphine Roux and Les Farley.
Well, it’s true that Roth is less than fair to the French-born postmodern Fury, Delphine Roux, but it’s also true that identity politics spewed up its share of unfairness as well. However, the charge about the portrait of Les Farley is false, I think. Fairly early on in the story, Roth enters the Vietnam vet’s tortured mind, and what ensues is a by now classic Roth full-rage riff that runs on for 6, 7 riveting pages. Here, and in subsequent chilling set pieces Roth recreates the burnt out psychopathology of a permanently damaged warrior, presented with no more squeamishness than the ancient bard’s portrait of battlefield carnage at Troy. By the time we get to the final scene, which finds Les ice-fishing at a remote pond and brandishing a sharp-bladed auger before Zuckerman’s eyes, we are persuaded that such spectral casualties of war are afoot in the land.
Indeed, Roth’s consummate mastery as a writer is repeatedly displayed in what I think of as the filigree work of the novel. As with the secondary character, Nelson Primus, the lawyer, all of the lesser figures of the book — Coleman’s children; or the first black professor that Silk hired at Athena; or the testosterone-fuelled ex-football star who now runs the college’s maintenance department; even a cameo encounter with a cautious young policeman — are all drawn with full-bodied nuance, as Roth reveals their hypocrisies, strategic moves, their admirable strengths, in short, human complexities no less than those of the warriors in the old epics. Even the novel’s presiding muse, Faunia, improbable and wounded as her life may be, is believable.
Roth can deliver a pitch-perfect filthy conversation (overheard by Silk) between three college employees on lunch-break lasciviously discussing the shenanigans between the American president and the smitten Monica Lewinsky. “She was talking to everybody,” says one of them. “She’s part of that dopey culture. Yap, yap, yap. Part of this generation that is proud of its shallowness. The sincere performance is everything. Sincere and empty, totally empty… The sincerity that is worse than falseness, and the innocence that is worse than corruption.”
Roth’s characters talk and talk. No other American novelist so lets his characters ramble on, whether in interior monologues or aria-like orations. For all their loquaciousness, our attention seldom flags, so supple is Roth’s grasp of the American conversation.
In almost every really first-rate novel, there’s a moment or a scene where you know you’re inside the story and are therefore prepared, as a reader, to let it carry you. That scene occurs early on in Roth’s Human Stain. Silk first met Zuckerman by barging into the writer’s cabin the day after his wife’s death, demanding that Zuckerman write up the outrageous mistreatment that led to Silk’s downfall and his wife’s “murder.” “All the restraint had collapsed within him, and so watching him, listening to him — a man I did not know, but clearly someone accomplished and of consequence now completely unhinged — was like being present at a bad highway accident…” Ever since Zuckerman declined the proposal, Silk had been “at work on a book of his own about why he had resigned from Athena, a nonfiction book he was calling Spooks.”
It’s some time later. A friendship of sorts has grown, and Silk has gotten into the habit of inviting Zuckerman over to his place on a Saturday night for a drink or a game of cards while they listen to the radio playing old tunes from their youth. They’re sitting in the screened-in side porch Coleman uses as a summertime study, Silk’s notebooks stacked on his desk, and there’s an epiphany.
“Well, there it is,” said Coleman, now this calm, unoppressed, entirely new being. “That’s it. That’s Spooks. Finished a first draft yesterday, spent all day today reading it through, and every page made me sick… That I should spend a single quarter of an hour at this, let alone two years… But I read it and it’s shit and I’m over it. I can’t do what the pros do. Writing about myself. I can’t maneuver the creative remove. Page after page, it is still the raw thing. It’s a parody of the self-justifying memoir…”
Now, most writers who are brought to a standstill after rereading two years’ work — even one year’s work, merely half a year’s work — and finding it hopelessly misguided and bringing down on it the critical guillotine are reduced to a state of suicidal despair from which it can take months to recover. Yet Coleman, by abandoning a draft of a book as bad as the draft he’d finished, had somehow managed to swim free not only from the wreck of the book but from the wreck of his life … he appeared now to be without the slightest craving to set the record straight; shed of the passion to clear his name and criminalize as murderers his opponents, he was embalmed no longer in injustice… I’d never before seen a change of heart transform a martyred being quite so swiftly.
And then later that same evening, as the first bars of Frank Sinatra singing “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” ooze from the radio, Coleman says to Zuckerman, “I’ve got to dance. Want to dance?”
I laughed. No, this was not the savage, embittered, embattled avenger of Spooks, estranged from life and maddened by it — this was not even another man. This was another soul…
“Come, let’s dance.”
“But you mustn’t sing into my ear.”
“Come on, get up.”
What the hell, I thought, we’ll both be dead soon enough, and so I got up, and there on the porch Coleman Silk and I began to dance the fox trot together. He led, and, as best I could, I followed… One would have thought that never again would this man have a taste for the foolishness of life, that all that was playful in him and light-hearted had been destroyed and lost, right along with the career, the reputation and the formidable wife. Maybe why it didn’t even cross my mind to laugh and let him, if he wanted to… place his arm around my back and push me dreamily around that old bluestone floor was because I had been there that day when her corpse was still warm and seen what he’d looked like.
“I hope nobody from the volunteer fire department drives by,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said, “We don’t want anybody tapping me on the shoulder and asking, ‘May I cut in?’”
On we danced. There was nothing overtly carnal in it, but because Coleman was wearing only his denim shorts and my hand rested easily on his warm back… it wasn’t entirely a mocking act. There was a semi-serious sincerity in his guiding me about on the stone floor, not to mention a thoughtless delight in just being alive, accidentally and clownishly and for no reason alive…
Once you’ve seen those two old men dancing across the porch of a rural cabin on a summer Saturday night, you’re willing to hear whatever Roth has to tell you about — to echo the final word of his novel — “America.”