ENGL 291: The American Novel Since 1945
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The American Novel Since 1945
ENGL 291 - Lecture 21 - Philip Roth, The Human Stain (cont.)
Chapter 1. The Engine of Desire: The Structure of Roth’s Language [00:00:00]
Professor Amy Hungerford: All right. So, today I’m going to give my second and final lecture on The Human Stain. My first lecture focused on identity, and my final argument about the novel in relation to the question of identity is that the first half of the novel comes down on the definition of identity through secrecy, that what makes you who you are–anyway what makes Coleman the person he is–is his secrecy. “Who he really was was his secret.” So, I did that little reading of that phrase. Today I want to talk about what happens in the second half of the novel to the question of secrecy, and how that relates, then, into the question of desire and narrative. So, that’s where I’m going today. If you’ll recall, on page 47 (and I don’t think we need to turn to this), desire is said to be generated by the human discrepancies, the difference between Faunia, with her illiterate vocabulary, and Coleman, with the vocabularies of two ancient languages and his language of English. So, discrepancy, difference, is understood as the engine of desire. So, this shouldn’t be surprising, when you think about what desire is. Many psychological theories of desire agree on one thing, and that is that desire is reaching towards a lack. Desire is generated by lack, so you can think of difference as one version of what it means to lack. What you are not, you then desire; what you have not, you then desire. So, you don’t desire that thing which you already have. So, it’s just a simple structure of desire that I want you to keep in mind.
Now, I want to note, in the second half of the novel, something that you probably noticed. At the beginning of Chapter 4, we are plunged back in to Nathan’s first-person voice. So, that “I” of Nathan comes back very strongly at the very beginning of that chapter. We haven’t seen it for a while. We’ve been embedded in Faunia and Les and Delphine and Coleman, inside all their minds, using that technique of free indirect discourse, where the narrative voice just, sort of, seamlessly allows you to look at the world through that character’s eyes and in that character’s mind. So, that technique is highlighted as a technique in Chapter 4 when we are reminded so suddenly that this is all being written by Nathan, that the illusion of these characters’ voices is just that; it’s an illusion. The second half of the novel, then, sets up the source of the story–how does Nathan know all that he knows to give us that story–sets up the problem of that source, and then it finally answers it in the person of Ernestine Silk. Ernestine, Coleman’s sister, answers some of those basic questions about Coleman’s background, first of all revealing his racial secret simply by her presence at the funeral and her resemblance to his daughter, Lisa. So, her body is a kind of revelation to Nathan, and then she fills in some details that we can see recapitulate material that has come in an imaginative form, different imaginative form, earlier in the novel.
So, I would note (and I will come back to this point), Ernestine is kind of a stock character. There are some characters in this novel–Delphine, to some extent Les, and Ernestine– who are stereotypes of one kind or another. There are various ways of thinking about this problem in Roth’s fiction, but the critical way of thinking about is that his fiction is uneven, that he cannot somehow truly inhabit the complexity of some kinds of characters. And he has said about his own work that he writes novels about the lives of men, very clearly masculine fiction, so that should come as a surprise to none of you. So, that’s one way of understanding the sort of clichéd quality of characters like Ernestine. I’m going to offer a slightly different way of understanding that by the end of the lecture, so be looking for that. But, for now, I just want to focus on the structure of the second half of the novel, setting up the problem of knowledge and then producing a part of an answer to it. But, even though you have that partial answer, there is still a residue of fictionality within the logic of the novel. Of course, it’s all fiction. But, within the logic of the novel, we know that there is a lot that Nathan is making up. So, Ernestine’s story doesn’t get you Steena dancing at the end of Coleman’s bed, for instance, a very important scene in Nathan’s construction of Coleman.
So, there are scenes like that, that are purely the product of Nathan’s imagination. You have the final spasm of this kind of imagining when Nathan stands at Coleman’s grave and asks him to speak to him one last time and tell him the story of telling Faunia his racial secret. So, you have that last scene where we enter fully in to the minds and voices of those characters. One question that you want to ask, here, is how we should understand this move. Is there something, perhaps, duplicitous about the way Nathan suggests he’s related to this enterprise of imagining? We’re told on page 337, right before that graveside scene, that it was Ernestine’s speaking to him that caused him to be seized by his story. This is in the middle of the page: “I was completely seized by his story, by its end and by its beginning, and then and there I began this book.” So, we get an account of its start. So, he’s “seized” by the story. It puts him in a position much like he is at the very beginning of the told story that you’ve just arrived at the end of, when Coleman shows up at his door demanding that he write the story of the unjust dismissal from Athena College. So, there are two moments when Nathan claims to be seized by Coleman and his story. It puts Nathan in a very passive position. It suggests that he’s not the active party here, that somehow he has been drawn into this enterprise, into this narrative, maybe against his will.
I think you can see this as duplicitous, so I want to look a little bit at how this is duplicitous, and this is where desire comes back into the braid of my argument. There is a sentence on page 164 I want to direct your attention to. Desire, that urge to inhabit or fill the lack of whatever it is, has a structural relation to language in Roth’s work. So, desire has a structural relation to language. And I think there is no better example of it–and there’s perhaps no better example of Roth’s ecstatic sentence structure–than this sentence on 164, and I will read the whole of it. It starts “The kid.” You see it about a quarter of the way down, halfway through a line, “The kid.” This is about Faunia.
Wow. That’s quite a grammar. What you see in that sentence is language trying to embody desire by its very excess. It’s acting out, formally, just how far Coleman has to reach from where he was, to arrive at Faunia as his object of love and desire. And you see that missing lack is thematized in the middle of this sentence: “because of all he has missed by going in the opposite direction.” She embodies everything he isn’t–and the grammar of that sentence relentlessly tries to fill in, to reach towards who she is. And that’s why I think it’s–it’s a repeated noun phrase; that’s the grammar of his sentence, a repeated noun phrase. So, you just have piles of descriptions of Faunia, and–now let me see if there is, no–there is no verb. This is a sentence fragment. People, this is a sentence fragment. You can’t find a verb for the subject. So, it’s quite a remarkable feat of grammar, and it embodies the formal quality of language as desire.
But, it’s more than just at the level of grammar, or at the structural level of language, that desire and language coincide. It’s also there in the way sex is imagined as anti-metaphorical, if you look on page 203. This is when Faunia is dancing for Coleman, and she insists, when Coleman wants it to mean something–I guess she is just about to dance for him–when he wants their sex to mean something, she says, “No. It’s just what it is.” “He said to her, ‘This is more than sex’ and flatly she replied, ‘No, it’s not. You just forgot what sex is. This is sex all by itself. Don’t fuck it up by pretending it’s something else.’ ” What Coleman’s urge is, is to use language to make sex into something other than it is, to make meaning out of it. That’s a fundamentally linguistic enterprise. By insisting that it can’t be made into something else, it puts sex not so much outside of language, as it elevates sex to the equal of language. So, just as the grammar of the sentence reaches out to fill that lack, sex does that, too. But it doesn’t require the resources of language to be successful, so you don’t need the language. Really, all you need is sex to produce that human connection that desire seeks. So, it elevates sex.
Sex is the analog to writing in other ways, too. On page 37, Nathan talks about sex as “the mania to repeat the act,” and he also talks about the language tasks that go along with it. This is on the top of 37, when he is talking about why he withdrew from life:
So, sex always comes along with those meanings, and Nathan could not separate out the two in the way that Coleman succeeds in doing with Faunia, in finding an illiterate woman. I think it’s her illiteracy, in a sense, that enables the separation of sex from language. But that “mania to repeat the act” looks a lot, actually, like Roth’s writing. Roth is an extremely repetitious writer, across his novels. His novels often engage the same kinds of characters, sometimes the same character: lots of Nathan Zuckerman novels. Even the ones that are not Nathan Zuckerman novels look like Nathan Zuckerman novels. You usually have someone who looks like Nathan. The women often look the same. They often rant in similar ways. So, there is something about Roth’s writing that is close to that mania to repeat the act; so, there you get that parallelism again.
So, the distance between one person and another is crossed by language and by sex in two equal tracks. But it’s also crossed, in this novel, by the imagination. And this is where the entering into Coleman’s story comes into play. Now, you will have noticed, at a few jarring points, that suddenly you’ll be in free indirect discourse, in the third person, and suddenly the “I” of that character appears. And there’s an example on 165. This is Faunia, at the bottom of the page. She is thinking about the crow.
You see that “I” coming very suddenly there. So, why does it appear? Well, this is a moment when Nathan, as the writer, takes an unusual liberty, makes an unusual claim on us as readers, by entering directly into the first person of this character, violating what has been the formal habit of the novel, up until that moment, or the formal habit of that scene. It happens on a few occasions. So, he becomes the eye of Faunia. Now, you might say that this is just to emphasize the imaginative work that’s required for Nathan to tell this story.
Chapter 2. Homoerotic Desire: The Danger of Overcoming Difference [00:17:32]
But I want to suggest that there is a structural relationship between Nathan and Faunia that we have to attend to, and to excavate this I want to go back to that first dance scene, on page 27, with Coleman and Nathan. This is when they start to talk about sex. And this is Nathan’s reflection: “The moment a man starts to tell you about sex, he’s telling you something about the two of you.” It’s quite a remarkable statement. Its homoeroticism should not be lost on you. He’s telling Nathan about sex with Faunia, but how Nathan hears it, is that it’s about him and Coleman.
Now, I don’t mean to say that it literally becomes about the fantasy of sex between–literal sex between–Coleman and Nathan. But, I will point out a couple of things. One is that Nathan, if you recall, has been rendered impotent by his surgery. So, his only relation, in that physical way, to Coleman, is not really as a man as such. I think he’s imagined to be unmanned in this scene. So, then you get, on page 43, an even fuller description of this. He’s talking, Coleman is talking, again, about Faunia, and Nathan is very much responding in the conversation.
The language of courtship and of gushing, of that overeagerness, suggests a crush. It reinforces the homoerotic charge of their dance, and the way Nathan observes his virile body as they dance together. And it gives it that emotional dimension. So, we’re told of Coleman, in another spot in this basic scene, that he’s contaminated by desire alone. Nathan, if he is seized by Coleman’s story, as we’re told at the end of the book, is contaminated, too, by that story, and by desire for Coleman. So, just as that stepping over into the first person from free indirect third-person discourse, stepping over in to the “I” of his character, represents crossing a certain kind of boundary, so does the erotic charge that is given to his relationship with Coleman.
Now, there are a couple ways of thinking about that homoerotic structure. One is through the work of a critic named Eve Sedgwick, and if you’ve taken any women’s and gender studies courses, or studied feminist interpretations or queer interpretations of literature, she should be a familiar name. She wrote a famous book called Between Men, and her argument is that, in a lot of–I think her subject was Victorian fiction–in a lot of Victorian fiction, the homoerotic or the homosocial bond between men is channeled through a woman, and the perfect example of that, in this novel, is when Coleman and Nathan go to the dairy farm to watch Faunia. So, it’s as if, by both watching Faunia together, through her their desire for one another is channeled. So, they’re able to experience desire together, and it’s safely not for each other because Faunia is right there as a mediating point of the triangle. But I think we can say some other things about the structure, too, and not just that it’s there.
Essentially, Sedgwick’s theory allows us to see how it works, to see that it’s there. But then, we want to ask, why? And this is related to another feature of the text that you might have noticed, and that is the repeated reference to Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. Did you notice that? It comes back. Tadzio and Aschenbach are the two characters from Mann’s Death in Venice. This is a mid-twentieth-century German novelist. This is a small novel, a little novella. It’s about an older man named Aschenbach who goes to Venice for a vacation. And he’s a scholar and a writer, and he goes to Venice, and he suddenly finds himself transfixed by a beautiful young boy that he sees at the hotel. And he spends the novel chasing Tadzio, the boy, all around the city and trying to get close to him. And the mother realizes, the mother of Tadzio realizes there is this sort of lecherous man coming after her boy and warns him, Tadzio, to stay away from Aschenbach. In the end Aschenbach is taken with, I think it’s tuberculosis or some disease–I can’t remember what the disease is–and he dies in Venice. This passion for the boy is described, and this is the part that Roth quotes in this novel, as “a late adventure of the feelings.”
So, in those quotations Roth is directing us to think about the lateness of that desire as its characteristic quality. It’s an older man suddenly waylaid by an unexpected surge of passion. Now, what I find interesting about that is that Roth could have chosen any number of romantic stories to characterize this. Humbert would be one: a late adventurer of the feeling, an older man, younger woman. Why does he take a homoerotic structure? Why does he choose this story, a story of same-sex desire, rather than a heterosexual desire? Why is this the model that he chooses? So, I would suggest it’s important that the novel is called Death in Venice, that Aschenbach dies. There is something about homoerotic desire–and this is a characteristic of fiction that features it over the centuries–that it seems deadly. Somehow it’s deadly. It’s imagined as being deadly. Of course, this is a product of its unconventionality in older times, the fear that a heterosexual person, or a person who conceives themselves as heterosexual, might experience if they are taken by a homoerotic urge.
So, there’s somehow that death gets wound into stories of homoerotic desire, and The Human Stain is no different. I just want to point out a couple of examples. You can see it in the difference between the way Nathan describes his decision to dance with Coleman and the way Faunia describes hers. This is Faunia on 226. This is just right in the middle of the page.
That’s Faunia, sort of thinking, why not? Why not dance as he’s asking me? Why not? What’s the big deal? What does it cost her? Contrast that with, on 25 and 26, the way Nathan thinks.
And, if you look on 26, you get another description where death comes back up as a reason.
The corpse pops up in the middle of this reflection on why he’s dancing. So, two times in the space of a page, death accompanies his decision to dance with Coleman. So, why then is homoerotic desire such a threat, a threat in this way? Well, one structural reason could be that homoerotic desire threatens to collapse the engine of desire, which is difference. The novel has set up difference being the engine of desire. So, if it’s desire for the same–understood as gender, the important sameness being gender–then it looks like a self-canceling desire, a desire that can’t sustain itself, somehow, or that lacks that fundamental structure of difference that the whole novel seeks to set up. If desire is the engine of the sentence, as well as the engine of the narrative, as well as the engine of human connection in the novel, its collapse is a great threat, not just to human connection, to human life, but to writing.
Chapter 3. Nathan as Narrator: Blankness or Secrecy? [00:29:57]
So, this is one way to understand the problem, and it goes back to speak to my point about inhabiting, or being a parasite upon, Coleman’s story. Nathan inhabits the “I,” and finally begins to conflate himself with Coleman, or with Coleman’s lovers, and we get various versions of this. So, while Faunia and Coleman dance, he replaces–let’s see–he replaces Les. So, while they’re dancing in the cottage–Do you remember this scene? I can’t find my page number in my notes right now – while they are dancing in Coleman’s house privately–this is after Coleman stops seeing Nathan–he’s outside in his car lurking on the road. The only other person who does that is Les Farley. So, he comes to be in the position of Faunia’s other lover. Okay. So, that’s one way he enters into his characters, as he starts to occupy, structurally, the same spot as they do, but it actually gets much more complicated. This is on 326, in Ernestine’s conversation, in her scene. She is very helpful to say:
So, there he is, taken right into the Silk family, so he starts to replace Coleman after Coleman’s death. At the very end, as he’s getting into the car to drive down to New Jersey for dinner with the Silks, he says–let’s see–“Like Steena Paulsson before me,” he was going to sit with his East Orange family as the white guest at Sunday dinner. He becomes Steena in that passage. He becomes Faunia when he dances with Coleman. He leeches into all the aspects of Coleman’s life. So, it’s not just inhabiting imaginatively, but there are these structural ways that he comes to double Coleman and also to double his lovers. It’s by virtue of a blankness that Nathan sees in Coleman and in Faunia that he can pull this off, and this is very noticeable in my favorite scene of the novel, the Tanglewood scene, which I think is quite beautiful. This is on 209, 210. He’s writing about music, here, and the feeling that all the people in the audience were going to be swept away by death. That’s sort of the overwhelming sense of mortality in the beginning of the, in the middle of the page, there, and he says:
I would suggest that it’s precisely that “lacking nothing” that makes it deathly, because if you lack nothing, there is no desire. So, it’s the very stasis of the day and the solidity of that music that brings him into this mood. And then Bronfman appears, the pianist, and you get this wonderful description of what he does, how he attacks the piano and banishes death with his contention with the piano. And it should remind you of all that’s said about life being an argument. Remember, I mentioned last time Coleman saying that all Western literature begins with a fight, with an argument between Achilles and Agamemnon, Coleman’s fight with the college, Coleman’s fight against the racial contract drawn up for him at birth, Nathan’s contention in the world of desire which he then withdraws from.
He implants in his own narrative of his thoughts what Coleman will later say. This is on 211. Coleman says, “I was telling Faunia that he took ten years at least out of that piano.” Nathan had said on the previous page that they “would have to throw that thing out after Bronfman’s finished with it.” He plants in the narrative the shared thought, asserting that somehow Coleman’s mind is Nathan’s mind; that collapse is written right into the realist assumption of the novel. We, sort of, read along in those passages thinking, “oh, let’s take this at face value, oh, yes, they’re thinking the same thing.” But, of course, it’s Nathan who plants that; it’s Nathan who’s making it up. We don’t know how honest Nathan is. So, he claims to have the same thoughts. It’s the blankness. He describes–Nathan–Faunia and Coleman as a pair of blanks, and it’s precisely that blankness that allows Nathan to inhabit Coleman.
This is, in fact, a quality that he finally attributes to the, as he says, “negroes,” in the photograph of Coleman’s family. And this is on 337, the very bottom of 336. “They were pale but they were Negroes. How could you tell they were Negroes? By little more than that they had nothing to hide.” This is quite an astonishing sentence. If identity is, in its ideal form, secrecy, if you have nothing to hide, then you don’t have an identity. There are two things, two implications that flow from that. One is that racial secrecy is really the only kind of secrecy that matters, because being Negro is the only thing that one would hide. It also means that these people are just as blank as Faunia and Coleman; so there is a somewhat pernicious racial simplification going on, here. It’s somewhat related to the simplification of thinking that homoerotics is the desire for the same. What both of these logics leave out is that point that is insisted upon, actually, earlier in the novel, which is that the other fellow always has a life you can’t know, that it’s simply the otherness of any individual person that keeps you from knowing more than you can see on the surface. It’s the otherness, not the racial otherness, necessarily, but just the otherness.
So, in these last pages, otherness gets collapsed back into racial otherness, and I think perhaps this is why Ernestine emerges as a stereotyped character. He is folding an analysis of identity back into racial stereotype, an analysis of identity as blank. They have no interiority. One question that you could ask is whether this constitutes a critique of Nathan. Is Nathan being brought to task for stealing the story of Coleman Silk? Is this making passing, racial passing, into the ultimate form of identity, that to be interesting as a character you’ve got to be passing? Is it indicting Nathan? Is it suggesting that Nathan really does desire Coleman? These are all kinds of questions that you can think about. One thing, I think, it does do, though, is highlight the constructedness of the narrative, across the board. Coleman says about his Spooks narrative that he could not do the creative remove that the pros do because the creative remove, he says, “It’s still the raw thing.” It’s a bad book because it’s still the raw thing. He has no self-distancing.
Chapter 4. Roth’s Relationship to His Texts: Autobiography and Fiction [00:40:14]
So, what the critique of Nathan does, the implicit critique of Nathan, does is distance us from him, to some degree. It allows us to see him as an unreliable narrator. It also, I think, models Roth’s own relation to Nathan Zuckerman. Nathan Zuckerman is the creative remove, is the medium of the creative remove, that Roth requires in order to write about his own life. Most of the Nathan Zuckerman novels draw very heavily on Roth’s life, and in fact at one point Roth writes an autobiographical nonfiction book called The Facts. And it’s all, mostly, about complaining, about the response to Portnoy’s Complaint, and also caviling against his ex-wife, a very happy habit that Roth has. At the end of The Facts there is a letter to Roth from Nathan Zuckerman where he says, “You idiot. Why are you doing autobiography? This is not your style. Facts: it’s just not your thing. Forget it. It’s terrible. Don’t publish this. Go back to what you do best, which is making stuff up.”
Roth has played with this dynamic between autobiography and fiction throughout his career. And I think the threat, the deathly threat, of the collapse that’s figured in the homoerotic element of this novel is the threat of–it sort of doubles the threat of–Roth collapsing into Nathan Zuckerman. And, in another sense, it doubles the threat of writing really only about men, that what’s weak about the novel is the way that it inhabits the subjectivities of women especially. Delphine Roux is just a caricature, really, and in many small ways Faunia is a caricature, too. I’ve talked about Ernestine. Les can be seen as a caricature. So, it’s not something exclusive to his female characters, but it does suggest, as I mentioned a little while back in the lecture, a certain kind of limit to Roth’s project.
So, I will finish by saying Roth is an extremely important writer in this period because of the very complexity with which he makes the texture of his novels speak to the question of fiction’s relationship to life, writing’s relation to life, and the relationship between the writer and what he or she writes, the writer and the work. These are questions that vex writers in this period. We have seen many writers in this syllabus who worry about these things: Barth, Morrison, so many of them, Maxine Hong Kingston. Roth does it in a way that nobody else particularly does. He’s also widely admired. When The New York Times had this feature a few years ago–I think it was 2004–on the best novels of the last twenty-five years, and they polled about 125 public intellectuals, writers, professors of literature, reviewers, and asked what is the one best novel. They asked–they made it hard. They said, “What’s the one best novel of the last twenty-five years?” Well, number one was Beloved, number two was Blood Meridian, but if you added up all the Roth novels together that people chose, Roth was the winner. So, he’s highly regarded, although there is split opinion, as you can see, there, about which of his novels is really the best one.
So, I will say to you that we’re tracking, in what we’re reading, writers who are making an enormous impact on what American fiction looks like in the latter part of the twentieth century. It’s very interesting to me to see the very ambivalences that are at the heart of this fiction. Now, I’ll stop there for Roth. Let me just say, as we go into Edward P. Jones, the novel that I don’t have on the syllabus is Beloved. It’s always a novel that I hope that you’ve read. I used to teach it routinely, but it’s fun to shake it up and put some different things on, knowing that a lot of you will have read it. When you read Edward P. Jones, if you have read Beloved I’d like you think hard about the relationship between those two writers and the two novels. If you haven’t read Beloved, I urge you: just go to Wikipedia, and just get a plot summary, or open it up, even better. I won’t ask you to read it on the side, extra, although I would love to. Find out a little bit about it, just so that you have it in your head as you begin to read. Okay. Thank you.
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