Silk’s Iliad


RothStainThe Human Stain

by Philip Roth

Rage – Goddess, sing the rage of Coleman Silk.

Lives unravel.  Threads catch on unforeseen misfortune and the lace of our lives falls apart.  Philip Roth’s novel, The Human Stain, is the story of one such unraveling, that of college classics professor Coleman Silk.  It is also about the unraveling of three other lives: college janitor and Silk’s mistress, Faunia Farley; Faunia’s ex-husband and Vietnam War veteran Lester Farley; and, to a lesser extent, the woman who succeeded Coleman as Dean of Language and Literature at Athena college upon his resignation in disgrace, herself a model of institutionalised intelligence, equipped with the parlance of both the cynical graduate and French gentility, the woman Delphine Roux.  Roth, with his grand irony, weaves together the stories of these unweavings with his consummate hand, building in layers and daedalan braids an intricate web of dissolute threads, reminding us in the end that for the lives of all of us, for the most proud and humble alike, it is Klotho who spins the threads, Lakhesis who measures them out and Atropos who holds the shears.

Like his novel American Pastoral, The Human Stain is narrated by the writer Nathan Zuckerman; indeed The Human Stain is the book that Zuckerman writes after befriending Coleman Silk. The latter novel also has in common with the former the fact that it is the imagined biography of a man, who through his own hard work, constructs the perfect life for himself and suddenly loses it all in a single moment, in a few terrible seconds, in the bang of a bomb blast or the single spoken syllable of one word.

The character of Coleman Silk, as he needs to be, is undoubtedly the triumph of the novel.  Coleman is the intelligent son of a middle-class African-American family whose father loved Shakespeare and whose mother loved her children.  Growing up in East Orange, New Jersey (yes, we are in familiar Rothian territory), Coleman’s childhood is populated by Jews almost as much as it is his own race.  There is Dr. Fensterman, Jewish head surgeon at the hospital where Coleman’s mother works and who boldly proposes that the Silk’s, in return for a large sum of cash and a promotion for Mrs. Silk, see that Coleman drops a grade at school, thus allowing their own son, Bert Fensterman, to graduate as valedictorian, an accolade necessary for Bert’s matriculation at any of the best of universities.  There is Doc Chizner, the man who teaches Coleman not only how to box but also that Coleman can choose to play his life as he sees fit, he can shift his stance from one ideology to another, take the posture of anybody he wanted, that “You’re neither one thing nor the other.  You’re Silky Silk.  That’s enough.”

In his youth, in his days at Howard University, Coleman travels to Washington, D.C., where he has the distinct misfortune of experiencing , perhaps for the first time directly, the blunt force of racism, the dividing knife of segregation in the south.  There he is labeled a “nigger” in a Woolworth’s store – the innocence of black youth lynched over the purchase of a hot-dog – and, with the teachings of his mentor Doc Chizner, he throws his counter-punch: his lifelong refutation of racial inheritance:

“No.  He saw the fate awaiting him, and he wasn’t having it.  Grasped it intuitively and recoiled spontaneously.  You can’t let the big they impose its bigotry on you any more than you can let the little they become a we and impose its ethics on you […]  Neither the they of Woolworth’s nor the we of Howard.  Instead the raw I with all its agility. Self-discovery – that was the punch to the labonz.  Singularity.  The passionate struggle for singularity […]  Self-knowledge but concealed.  What is as powerful as that?”

In this extraordinary passage (found on p. 108 of the Vintage edition) Roth gives us Coleman’s philosophy, he gives us the beginnings of Coleman’s “first great crime,” Coleman’s grand lie, Coleman’s lifelong ruse, a ruse possible not just because of his determined anti-determinism and not just because of they weighty influence of Jewish boxing coach Doc Chizner, but possible largely because, as a black man, Coleman was comparatively pale, because, as a black man, he was little darker than the spooks of the past from which he fled.

We have many ways of identifying people and many of us are not comfortable with someone until we have them “figured out”, until we “get” them, until we can affix a label to them or hang from their necks a sign that reads This Is Who You Are.  Taxonomy provides enormous comfort because it reinforces our illusions of stability and allows us to define the limits of our own self, to mark the boundaries of another person (even if it does require broad, generalising strokes and cuttings) and clearly delineate between I and You, between We and They.  We can not get close to someone until we have identified them as belonging to one social group or another.

Identity is at the core of The Human Stain.  We have many ways of identifying people, a myriad of templates  with which to define them, lens upon lens through which to view them, and Roth makes use of most of them in his novel: social status, class, gender, race, biology, nationality, language.  But, of course, such categorical identification can only at best provide approximations, regardless of how accurate they are: nobody is ever just a pauper or simply wealthy; nobody is ever just an African-American or an Asian or of Anglo-Saxon descent; nobody is ever just another leaf on their family tree.  Nor is anybody ever simply a mix of these things.  These categories are constructs of ours, not us of them, and as such it is impossible to construe a person as belonging solely to one or another of them.  There is always something more, or perhaps not more but other, about somebody that precludes their being totally encapsulated  by any definition that we might construct and it is because of this something else – whether it be our irrationality, our spirituality, our consciousness, our dreams, whatever – that we can only be described with any measure of meaningfulness  under the holistic rubric of “humanity”.  We are always more than the sum of our parts.

More specifically, The Human Stain is a novel about identity as secrecy.  Roth, as he did in American Pastoral, tells us that we can never truly know somebody, that “our understanding of people must always be at best slightly wrong.”  The reason Coleman Silk fulfills his role as the novel’s protagonist so well, why he works so well as a character, is because his essence is secrecy – he is, essentially, unknowable.  It is because Roth has already established this axiom of fundamental mystery, because he is so careful in teaching us how to read the novel, that the mystery and the secrecy and the “blizzard of details that constitute the confusion of a human biography”, because of Roth’s meticulous craft, that Coleman is ironically defined by his very indefinability.

It was necessary, as a young man, for Coleman to disown his family in order to maintain his secret: that he is in fact a black man and not a Jew.  But what does harbouring a secret – a secret kept from family, kept from friends, kept from colleagues, kept from everyone; a secret kept for over four decades – what does this do to a man?  How does it shape him?  And if that secret is about the very nature of the bearer’s identity?  What then?  What mark does it leave on one’s soul?  On one’s psyche?   What stain?  These are all questions raised by Zuckerman, the novel’s narrator, but not answered.  One must recall that, as mentioned above, Coleman is his secret.  How does it shape him?  He shaped it.  The secret is not about Coleman, it is Coleman’s identity.  Coleman’s pretending to be a Jew, his decades of deceit, are exactly in keeping with his determined (called Mr. Determined by his sister, Ernestine) nature.  His adoption of Judaism is nothing more and nothing less than his playing his own role, him being himself, him doing something that Coleman would do.  Coleman calling himself a Jew, Coleman’s self-exile from his family, Coleman’s severing of his black roots, no more makes him a Jew than it abnegates his African-American heritage.  Curiously, although Coleman adopts Judaism from his wife, Iris, as a matter of practicality, of expediency (more a reflexive association than a thoughtful selection), he never once stops to consider that his original motivation for obfuscating his black heritage is rendered void because he has simply traded one miserable history for another, one “we” for another “we,” traded the corn field for the concentration camp, enslavement for a pogrom, white supremacy for anti-Semitism.  Regardless, as Roth puts it in a beautifully Quasimodean sentence, Coleman, “As a heretofore unknown amalgam of the most unalike of America’s historic undesirables, he now made sense.”

Beside identity, language is also very important to this novel.  It is what people say and what people write (especially in the case of Delphine Roux) that provides the motivation and momentum for action – language drives the plot.  It is the “nigger” thrown at Coleman in his college days that sparks his racial emancipation and it is Coleman’s own “spooks” (meant in the context of a specter or ghost but construed as a racial pejorative), said in class one day in reference to two black students who consistently fail to appear, that precipitates his downfall.

Language, however, provides more than this for the novel: it is another way for Roth to show how it is that we get people wrong; it is another method of identifying people.  From Coleman and his siblings we have the careful elocution enforced by their father, a devotee of Shakespeare, and from Coleman himself, “a man replete with the vocabularies of two ancient tongues.”  From Delphine Roux we have a native speaker of French, someone for whom speech in America is not about speaking English (which she took careful pains to learn intimately) but about speaking “American” and so is identified as a foreigner, an outsider.  From Nelson Primus, Coleman’s solicitor, we have a mixed vernacular of the hipster and the educated, a high and low diction whose patronising, pedagogical tones goad Coleman into spitting out his own racist remark that launches us into the extraordinary second chapter, “Slipping the Punch.”  And from Faunia Farley, we have as an illiterate woman the embodiment of nihilism.

Everything in this novel is contrived.  Everything is invented.  Everything is a fiction.  More: it is a fiction about fiction – it is metafiction.  The larger framework of the novel, the story that encompasses Coleman’s own, is the imagining of his life by the writer Nathan Zuckerman.  Here, Roth is brilliant.  This kind of metafiction is, arguably, Roth’s metier and, more so than American Pastoral before it, The Human Stain excels at it.

Throughout the novel there is the leitmotif of classical drama and mythology, particularly Greek mythology, a motif reinforced by Roth’s word choice (his characters “enact” their lives) and by the names he gives to his characters (Delphine is like “Delphic” and Faunia like “Faun”; Coleman even worked at Athena College until he resigned, leaving wisdom behind for the rage of Achilles.)  It is this running motif coupled with the hugest of the novel’s contrivances – Coleman’s Great Lie – that reminds us it is all indeed a fiction and that we still don’t know Coleman.  Even the characters of the novel don’t know Coleman, but perhaps the closest any of them gets to knowing him is Faunia Farley, thanks to her stripping, taxonomic nihilism.  Coleman’s careful construction is deconstructed; he escapes his secret and thus himself.  He becomes with Faunia in bed not Jewish nor black.  He is neither black nor white.  He is not a septuagenarian, nor is he the enlightening Prometheus of Athena.  Faunia dissolves the categories by which he can possibly be identified, she discards the tinted glasses and looks at him with the naked eye and they become the biological binary, but a man and a woman:

“A man and a woman in a room.  Naked.  We’ve got all we need…”

“There’s no one like you.  Helen of Troy.”

“Helen of nowhere.  Helen of nothing.”

Although Coleman’s death comes at the end of the novel, he achieves an immortality beyond the final page because he remains essentially unknowable.  Nathan Zuckerman, in the form of the novel, gives his best attempt to unravel the skein of Coleman Silk’s life but, while admirable, is at best still a fiction.  Coleman is never solved.  He is an irrational number that can only ever be rounded off, never stated with mathematical finality.  It is this quality about him that allows his Houdini escape from death, from the closing of the book, from the inky pit of the final period, it allows his escape from the confines of fiction and thus ensures, paradoxically, his palpable reality as a character


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