While riding the train back to New Haven yesterday, I finished Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, the second book I’ve read for pleasure as a quasi-college graduate (stay tuned--the Kimes family descends for commencement in two weeks). After reading American Pastoral, Goodbye Columbus, etc., I admit I think Roth is a phenomenal author—undoubtedly, one of the best living novelists—but this novel left me feeling intensely uneasy, and I’ve been wrestling with attempts to explain my dissatisfaction.
The simplest answer would be alienation. At its most basic level, The Human Stain is about an older professor (a classicist, no less) who has an affair with a younger woman; with the exception of Coetzee’s Disgrace, I’ve historically found myself drawn to, yet repelled, by the trope, which practically demands its own shelf at Borders. Contemporary fiction abounds with ambiguously named northeastern liberal arts universities teeming with professor-protagonists (professagonists?) who pursue adulterous or unorthodox affairs, which generally lead to disaster/self-discovery/awkward sex. As a younger, educated, female reader, I can’t help but find myself distanced from such narratives, which tend to demonize female academics, vaunting women who are, for lack of a better idiom, “in touch with nature”—females who have chosen raw sexuality, motherhood, or physical labor over the artifice and faux-masculinity of academia.
In The Human Stain, for example, we have Delphine Roux: a petite, brunette, young feminist scholar with an affinity for French post-structuralist theory (obviously, that hits a little too close to home), whose hated of the professagonist is motivated by sexual desire—Delphine really just wants a man to love her, you know? And on the other side of the campus, we have Faunia Farley, a veritable milkmaid.
Gender-based indignation would justify literary estrangement, to be sure, and a deep distrust of the male pen, but it’s not only males who craft such professagonistic (seriously, the ny review of books should credit the invention of this word to erc) narratives: Zadie Smith, for example, offers a similar plotline in On Beauty, even the unnatural academic/natural mother binary. Which leads me to consider the possibility that it wasn’t alienation that generated my unease upon reading The Human Stain, but identification—identification with a sentiment, rather than a character.
So what is this sentiment--the source of my love-hate relationship with the genre?
The Human Stain purports to be a novel about the pervasiveness of impurity—a “stain” that bleeds across class, gender, and sexual boundaries. The story of the male professor and the female janitor is sandwiched between Roth’s ill-fitting moralizing about the
But this isn’t a novel about sin and forgiveness; it’s a novel about desperation, about the ever-widening gap between the natural and the artificial. It’s about a protagonist whose life is entirely constructed—who has spent his entire adult life pretending to be a different race--and, subsequently, desperately craves an experience that exists beyond the realm of representation, a relation that “just is.” This, I think, is the sentiment we relate to--the fear that the ivory tower shields us from other spheres of experience; that simulacra and cybernetics and semiotics, by destroying our faith in “the human condition," have segregated us from our humanity. The portrayal of this longing is I think, the reason why, as a “student,” I’m simultaneously repulsed and attracted to the existential crises of these “professagonists”: When reading a Robert Frost poem, one can derive great fulfillment from parsing the philosophical questions, but such analysis is inevitably accompanied by the fear that the recognition of the referent—the beauty of what “just is”—is lost in translation.