The Human Stain

by Philip Roth


I started reading The Human Stain from a quote on Twitter. Sadly, I cannot find it as of right now, but it was a pertinent and apt comparison of French and American intellectualism (thanks Uzay).

Aha! Here it is:

. . . and knows something about these ambitious French kids trained in the elite lycées, Extremely well prepared, intellectually well connected, very smart immature young people endowed with the most snobbish French education and vigorously preparing to be envied all their lives, they hang out every Saturday night at the cheap Vietnamese restaurant on rue St. Jacques talking about great things, never any mention of trivalities or small talk—ideas, politics, philosophy only. Even in their spare time, when they are all alone, they think only about the reception of Hegel in twentieth-century French intellectual life. The intellectual must not be frivolous. Life only about thought. Whether brainwashed to be aggressively Marxist or to be aggressively anti-Marxist, they are congeintally apalled by everything American . . .

But in America, no one appreciates the special path she was on in France and its enourmous prestige. She’s not getting the type of recognition she was trained to get as a member of the French intellectual elite. She’s not even getting the kind of resetnment she was trained to get . . . Her fellow foreign graduate students tell her that she’s too good for Athena College, it would be too déclassé, but her fellow American graduate students, who would kill for a job teaching in the Stop & Shop boiler room, think that her uppityness is characteristcally Delphine.

Foils make or break narratives. Delphine Roux—a young intellectual heiress who grew up fed by a silver spoon—is the perfect counterpart to Coleman Silk, an old boxer always an outsider to the circles he traveled in. Both are not quite a part of the American academic elite: Delphine is too French and Coleman is Black and light-skinned (and functionally a Jew). Yet they manage to find themselves on opposite sides of a cultural divide. Professor Silk is an archetypal Tyler Cowen classic ‘conservative’ (as is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), a professed believer in meritocracy and fair and equal consideration. Professor Roux is an ardent anti-racist and feminist, and while the two are not inherently opposed to each other, in practice (and as described) those who possess such beliefs are predisposed to clash.

Says Silk to Roux:

“Providing the most naive of readers with a feminist perspective on Euripides is one of the best ways you could devise to close down their thinking before it’s even had a chance to begin to demolish a single one of their brainless ‘likes’. I have trouble believing that an educated woman coming from a French academic backbround like your own believes there is a feminist perspective on Euripides that isn’t simply foolishness. Have you really been edified in so short a time, or is this just old-fashioned careerism grounded right now in the fear of one’s feminist colleagues? Because if it is just careerism, it’s fine with me. It’s human and I understand. But if it’s an intellectual committment to this idiocy, then I am mystified, because you are not an idiot. Because you know better. Because in France surely nobody from the École normale would dream of taking this stuff seriously. Or would they? To read two plays like Hippolytus and Alcestis, then to listen to a week of classroom discussion on each, then to have nothing to say about either of them other than that they are ‘degrading to women,’ isn’t a ‘perspective,’ for Christ’s sake—it’s mouthwash. It’s just the latest mouthwash.”

(Silk is a classicist)

When Silk called a pair of chronic absenteers ‘spooks’, an uproar was raised and he resigned from his faculty post at Athena College. Subsequently, Roux took one of the victims, Tracy, under her wing for a while, but she subsequently failed out of all of her classes and moved out of the city to stay with a half-sister in Tulsa, Oklahoma. When she finds out of his affair with the believed illiterate, divorced, janitor Faunia Farley who just had her two children die in a tragic fire, she labels Silk a predator and attempts to destroy his reputation.

It is important to note that Silk, at this point in time, has invented a Jewish background. His deceased wife was a Jew, and his newfound family never knew of his Black ancestry. He has been cut off from his ancestral family as a result of his successful attempts to ‘pass’ as white. It is perhaps for this reason that the attempt to oust him based on his perceived racism succeeded, and also a great source of dramatic irony.

Farley is brilliant. She is strong-willed, independent, yet broken from the deaths of her children. She blames herself for the death of her kids because she chose to save her boyfriend from the flaming fire first. She is old, much older than her years of thirty-four would indicate, and potentially older than Coleman.

“I see you, Coleman. You’re not closing the doors. You still have the fantasies of love. You know something? I really need a guy older than you. Who’s had all the love-shit kicked out of him totally. You’re too young for me, Coleman. Look at you. You’re just a little boy falling in love with your piano teacher. You’re falling for me, Coleman, and you’re much too young for the likes of me. I need a much older man. I think I need a man at least a hundred. Do you have a friend in a wheelchair you can introduce me to? Wheelchairs are ok—I can dance and push. Maybe you have an older brother. Look at you, Coleman. Looking at me with those schoolboy eyes. Please, please, call your older friend. I’ll keep dancing, just get him on the phone. I want to talk to him.”

Her ex-husband, Lester Farley, also blames her for the death of his kids. He’s a Vietnam war veteran, and we get some fun segues into a VA therapist’s attempts at curing him of his PTSD by repeatedly taking him to Chinese restaurants as exposure therapy. Ultimately, he likely murders the couple of Silk and Farley by driving a car into theirs, sending them toppling over a cliff.

I cannot do justice to the multiplicity of narratives Roth weaves throughout this book. Silk’s journey from Black to Jew, Zuckerman’s (the narrator, the entire book is framed) realization of Silk’s past, Farley grappling with the loss of her children, the other Farley grappling with the demons of Vietnam, digressions into intellectualism through Roux as below:

Narrative structure and temporality. The internal contradictions of the work of art. Rousseau hides himself and then his rhetoric gives himself away. (A little like her, thinks the dean, in that autobiographical essay.) The critic’s voice is as legitimate as the voice of Herodotus. Narratology. The diegetic. The differences between diegesis and mimesis. The bracketed experience. The proleptic quality of the text.

Above all, it is fun to read. At one point Coleman is a crow.

The title, from Silk’s funeral:

“That’s what comes of being hand-raised,” said Faunia. “That’s what comes of hanging around all his life with people like us. The human stain,” she said, and without revulsion or contempt or even condemnation. Not even with sadness. That’s how it is. . .