Friday, May 18, 2007

on the appeal of the academic novel

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 Clinton scandal; their fate isn’t an allegory, however, but an indictment, a narrative finger pointed at those who don’t believe in fallibility, who refuse to accept the universality of sin.

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.


Dash said...

I have to say that I really enjoyed your reading of "The Human Stain." Roth is one of the main people I'm working with for my PhD, and one of my favorite writers, so I'm always glad when someone who I think has good taste enjoys his work. It's also refreshing to hear someone talk about a Roth "novel"; I've spent the past semester busying myself with the autobiographical tetralogy (or "Roth Books" as they used to be called), so it's nice to see a straightforward novel being talked about.

What do you think of Nathan Zuckerman as narrator? The shift toward Zuckerman as narrator is now one of my major research questions.

Basically, I'm just happy to read an honest reaction to the Human Stain instead of the published articles which remove the joy of reading.

marville said...

I enjoyed your take on the struggle for real experiences. I blame Descartes... the idea of a mind/body distinction has become so widespread that those in academia who focus on their minds find the simple experience of life and truly visceral experience difficult to fathom. Many academics take the mind/body distinction so seriously that they are comfortable living life in obese bodies.

Michaelangelo's David used to be the ideal man, but more recent history has given us busts of often obese individuals, without the irrelevant sack of skin and bones beneath the neck. Busts are the giant disembodied heads of Descartes' shift in focus.

Marx took the other extreme, thinking that a good day of physical toil was the best thing for the human soul. This line of thinking still pervades the fitness club set.

I don't disagree that the ivory tower can ruin some experiences... It can even ruin literature and poetry by turning them into more than just something to be experienced by the reader. The Red Badge of Courage is a book that I think is often ruined for people. I was fortunate enough to read it during 7th grade math class... safely detached from the world of literary criticism.

My question is, why should intelligence and erudition do anything but enhance experience? Smell the rose and let its scent trigger a thousand sense memories and then a few milliseconds later recall the beauty of a certain sonnet. All you have done is been human in your initial inward breath and memories and then even more human when you recalled words that had meant enough to you to commit them to memory.

elmrockcity said...

The Zuckerman question is interesting (I should interject that the only other Zuckerman novel I've read it "American Pastoral"). Before arriving at the realization that I was identifying with the professors rather than the female characters, I was looking at the efforts Roth devoted towards fleshing out--or skimming over--certain figures, having come to the conclusion that Zuckerman was a decoy for the author's real autobiographical projection (Coleman).

I suppose writing oneself "into" a fictional work always reeks of deliberation: Since novelists (perhaps even memoir-writers) aren't indebted to represent themselves faithfully, their intratextual avatars express their anxieties, hopes, fears. In the "Human Stain," the characters who surround Zuckerman signify ideas of sex, race, class pushed to absurdity, while the narrator himself is the narrative straight man.

He is, of course, a straight man who is implicated in the plot--who demonstrates biases and hatreds on the basis of identification and admiration, who "sides" with Coleman because he has met him first, and because he looks up to him (one of my favorite parts of the novel is where Zuckerman compares his feelings for Coleman to those of a boy meeting "the new boy" on the block). So it might be possible that inscribing Zuckerman--rather than feigning a transparent narration--into the story is Roth's admission of his own implication in the issues that arise in the novel--an attempt to confront his own identification/alienation with the actions and attitudes of a character like Coleman.