Self and Other, Fiction and Fact: Philip Roth’s novels Indignation and The Human Stain

By Daniel Garrett

Indignation by Philip Roth
Houghton Mifflin Company, 2008
233 pages
ISBN-10: 054705484X 
ISBN-13: 978-0547054841

The Human Stain by Philip Roth
Houghton Mifflin, 2000
352 pages
ISBN-10: 0618059458 
ISBN-13: 978-0618059454

Indignation is the story of a smart Jewish boy whose father’s worries alienate the boy and drive him away from their New Jersey home to an Ohio college. There the young man meets a crazy, sexy blonde and has his first sexual experience. His conflicts with others, including authority figures, leads to moments of self-affirming anger—that are also self-endangering.

Indignation is a coming of age story, a college novel, a Jewish family story, a war story, and a tale of American individuality—the kind of individuality that leads to both brilliance and self-destruction. It is easy to conclude that Roth has an easy mastery of his material—and is able to anticipate and fulfill (or defeat) a reader’s expectations. I found myself having a reservation about the book—thinking the story too small, or too conventional, only to have the story explode that reservation in the next few pages. I thought the students too insular, too self-involved, and then they indulged themselves in a panty raid and the college president offered a scathing analysis on the real context of their lives, on all the important facts and values they were ignoring, thereby addressing and vanquishing my reservations.

Indignation, about learning and sex and life and death, is a good book: it has its value, and its resonance. However, I wonder about the use of a crazed, precociously sexual young woman in fictions depicting the 1950s, as a symbol of both experience and experience repressed. (The lead character becomes involved with such a woman.) Books tend to represent these women as exceptional—and yet there seem to be so many in books. Is that a male misunderstanding of female sensibility—or a cliché writers cannot let go?

The Human Stain considers individuality versus collectivity, secrecy versus disclosure, and social constraints versus freedom, and its author Philip Roth has a sense of invention equal to his ideas: the invention not only illustrates his ideas, it fulfills a view of humanity. Every novel recreates the world, and The Human Stain is a book written out of Philip Roth’s full intelligence, observations, and sympathy, a book, entertaining, rich, wise, that both accepts and protests human society. Philip Roth questions society with a persistence that indicates a genuine radicality. In The Human Stain, Philip Roth depicts the failure of intelligent professionals to use reason and morality when it matters most: in a real situation occurring on campus. A man who has helped to make the reputation of the college in which he works, Coleman Silk, is ruined by an obviously bogus charge of racism. Colman Silk, a professor of the classics, of Greek tragedies, has a life that is both strangely and believably complex (charged with racism, he is actually a light-skinned African-American passing for white; and he is having an affair with a woman half his age, a woman who claims to be illiterate). Coleman’s life demonstrates a variation of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, being the life of a man living in the world without full notice. Roth’s novel, as well, uses the Clinton administration and the Monica Lewinsky scandal as one frame, allowing the writer—through that and Coleman’s late life affair—to explore the madness and refreshment of sex. Good fiction always seems to fight the fact that it is fiction, drawing on power from dynamic, real world sources, while taking flight with human imagination, as this one does.

The human stain is blood, semen, skin; it is fundamental fact and what is made of it. I wish James Baldwin were here to read such a book: I imagine he would applaud Roth’s claiming the character, the subject, and showing, once more, how confining and crazy a matter race is, and the resources of American personality—while dynamically dealing with masculinity and sexuality. Depiction of Coleman Silk’s early life presents women who are vivid and embody different aspects of experience, different values, teaching Silk something about himself and the world. So many people’s values and interpretations are less complex than human experience, compelling them to reject what they cannot comprehend (instead of modifying their values and interpretations, they reject experience). Sophistication, like a genuine education, involves mastering many things that are important and difficult because they are real, and not just if and when they please. Faunia, the college custodian and farm worker who becomes Coleman Silk’s last lover, calls the human stain the trace that humans contain and leave behind.

Roth, as a writer, renews his (our) sense of who and where the characters are as the novel continues. Faunia does a dance for her lover and her body is described in terms of what has marked her body (work, lovemaking). She, who has been mistreated in other relationships, requests nothing more than a sexual relationship from Coleman, but she is not simply a body, she is a mind and spirit and she seems to know more than people who are better placed. Faunia thinks of how the charge of racism is not simply an event, but how it works backward to taint an entire career and life. Roth imagines what is beneath the surface of a woman who has been abused and who is often dismissed by others, showing her depth and her limitation. Yet there remains the human stain. Both Coleman and Faunia are threatened by her former husband, who is himself traumatized by his experience in the Vietnam war.

Philip Roth seems to want to enrich our sense of the present by increasing our knowledge of the past—the pagan Greek roots of western civilization, the rigorous intelligence too: we must accept complexity, contradiction, multiplicity, plenitude. Roth captures perfectly the petty, imperceptive judgments of the politically correct (such as of feminists who judge without knowing a French woman intellectual, their colleague, a woman whose surface is glamorous and whose exile is profound and whose flaw is dangerous: a woman whose mind is her gift and her trap). Roth allows every character her/his story, with understanding and fulfillment, fulfillment in acceptance of knowledge or ignorance, in acts of love or hate; and he dramatizes demonology, how individuals are interpreted as villains by communities. He is carrying on an American tradition—the critique of American ethical thinking.

The ability to take moral offense is the only power some people have—but they rarely take offense at the workings of institutions or communities that have power over them or in which they participate: rather, they take offense at individuals, often strangers. Their moral sense is rooted in self-interest, and in weakness. I am tempted to call this a bitterly wise book.

Daniel Garrett is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, AllAboutJazz.com, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, Film International, Hyphen, IdentityTheory.com, Muse-Apprentice-Guild.com, Offscreen.com, Option, PopMatters.com, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, WaxPoetics.com, and World Literature Today. He has written fiction, poetry, drama, journalism, and criticism; and his comment on the work of Philip Roth previously appeared on his web log at Blogger.com, focused on culture and society, “City and Country, Boy and Man.” Contact: D.Garrett.Writer@gmail.com and dgarrett31@hotmail.com

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