Thursday, July 17, 2008

Musings on Phillip Roths "The Human Stain"

I am reading The Human Stain by Phillip Roth. I have never read anything by him before but judging from the acclaim that's anounced on the cover, I guess this isn't his first or even his best.

Roth certainly is erudite. But he can aslo be vulgar, which sometimes is an affront to my (by Roth's standards) repressed sensibilities. Yes there is a lot of influence from the classics, but there is equal influence from the real, raw world of today.

I enjoyed reading about the fearless attack that Coleman Silk launches against the "eminences" at the college where he is dean. How he does a proper cleaning out of the dead stock, even if it was their grandpa who built the library. At first Coleman Silk is this guy you respect and you believe that his life adds up to a great deal.

Roth then slowly peels off the layers that cover the true Coleman Silk. Will I eventually find a wholesome kernel or a rotton wormy middle that's fit to be thrown away? Is Coleman just a naughty old man just getting his groove on with the helpless Fauna? Or is he worse than that? Or is there more to him than that? Is Faunia really as helpless as she wants us to think she is?

I'm curious now about Delphine Roux. There is a whole lot of sexual tension there too. At first I thought she was an old bag, but now I'm getting to see that she is fairly young.

But the novel is not about the trysts of Coleman Silk.

It's about the Secret he's carried all these fifty something years. This secret is the key to his individual freedom in the context of a society in which one iota of blackness could make the difference between whether you mopped the floor or something else. But this secret also traps Coleman. For example, he is alienated from one of his sons, he senses a connection between this alienation and The Secret. He can't let the cat out of the bag, but he wants his son back.

I laughed out loud at the point where Delphine works herself into a huge knot while struggling over the wording for a personal ad. This is about a twenty page read that takes you back to her early years in France and how she flees France to escape the shadow of her family. She wants to be herself. No ancient, priveledged folk restrictions to define her. She goes to America and carves a name for herself and is doing quite well for herself, inspite of the people who would prefer to see otherwise, like les trois glaces (the three greaseballs, three female coworkers of hers that she can't stand- and that can't stand her).

Anyway, here she is, ten o'clock at night when every other beautiful, successful woman is out on the town or at home with the significant other (or whatever), but here she is at her office, sitting at her computer feverishly typing, erasing, typing again, backspacing etc. etc. the words for a personal ad. The irony is compounded because she unconciously forms the picture of Coleman Silk- the man whom she loves to hate, her archenemy, against whose carreer she led an attack and ultimately succeeded, the man against whom she has defended many 'helpless' female students etc. etc. But now her description of the mate she wants suits Coleman Silk exactly.

But the ultimate irony is that she sends this message not to the newspaper where she wants to place the ad, but to the members of her department (who all hate her guts)! She will be a laughing stock, people will see her zeal to defend the students against Coleman's racism and sexism, for what it is. She will lose the respect of her colleagues and students. She will lose her job even. Her running off from France will end in degrace, not glory. Just as how Coleman lost everything he built with one word- she is about to lose everything with one click.So I laughed out loud.And I began to think back about how Phillip Roth uses irony throughout "The Human Stain". Here is a list I made.
  1. Delphine claims that 'everyone knows' about Coleman and Fauna- actually nobody, not even Zuckerman the omniscient narrator knows. In fact Delhine doesn't even begin to 'know' about her own self, let alone anybody else. Roth thinks that what we don't know about ourselves and other people is greater than what we do know.
  2. Faunia, ostensibly the most ignorant, helpless, morally depraved, is probably the most enlightened, strongest, purest character in the story.
  3. The university is a 'hotbed of ignorance'.
  4. The setting is New England, the home of individualists such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Thoreaux, but the people a set of conformists.
  5. Coleman seeks freedom to control his destiny, to live life on his terms. He does this by renouncing his blackness. But he actually lives a life of servitude to that lie. He dies in the prison of his rage. In the end he has no control over anything - one little word, 'spook' (supposedly a racist slur) unravels his whole life. Similarly, Delphine tries to construct herself outside 'the orthodoxy of her family's given' but ends up in a 'drama beyond her control'.
  6. Coleman ends up as Delphine's Saviour - his death provides an escape from disgrace. Coleman is also Athena's saviour. It's hard to imagine Coleman, who lives only for himself (I agree with Walt), Coleman, who turns his back on his own mother the way he does and for the reason he does, as anybody's saviour. What an unlikely Messianic figure.
  7. Zuckerman says that Coleman's death is ironic. I haven't figured why.
  8. Coleman breaks down racial barriers at the university by hiring and promoting people from various racial backgrounds. These same people keep silent when the charge of rasism is brought against him. What lends the irony of Coleman being charged with racism an extra twist is Coleman's dark little secret - he is black.

I noticed that sometomes the irony was actually a paradox, but then what is a pradox but irony dressed up in evening wear?

Roth does an interesting thing with narrative perspective. He constructs a narrator who is an author, then he has this author meet and get to know and love Coleman, then he has this author write Coleman's story. In reading the story it feels like you are being told the story by someone who was there.

But Roth loses me at times because after having gone through the trouble of constructing such a real-ish narrator as Zuckerman, Roth makes the narrator omniscient. A real person cannot know what's going on in another person's mind. (If that were so, I'd be scared to think!) Sometimes the story is being told by Zuckerman. But as the action intensifies, or as you get deeper into the psyche of the chararacter you will find that the story is being told by Coleman himself, or Faunia herself, or Les himself, or Delphine herself. Then it reverts to Zuckerman as story teller.

Inspite of this, I actually like Zuckerman. He makes me want to read the rest of the trilogy.

I wonder if the movie does justice to the novel?

1 comment: said...

Jack Mandora,

I,too, am a great fan of Roth and _The Human Stain_ in particular.