ENGL 291: The American Novel Since 1945
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The American Novel Since 1945
ENGL 291 - Lecture 19 - Philip Roth, The Human Stain
Chapter 1. Roth’s Mundane Modern Context: Historical Markers of the 1990s [00:00:00]
Professor Amy Hungerford: Now, what’s coming up? As I mentioned last week, on Wednesday I’m going to give my censorship lecture, and in preparation for that I would like you to go to a local bookstore, any one, and just observe how it’s laid out, what you see, what your attention is called to, what your attention is not called to, and here’s a difficult question: What isn’t there? Think about that, and I’ll talk a little bit about what isn’t there on Wednesday. Also, in order to keep up, please try to read at least to page 202–that’s the next chapter division in The Human Stain–so that you’re on track to finish it–it’s 361 pages–for next Monday. And so, next Monday, a week from today, I will give my second lecture on The Human Stain. And I will talk about The Human Stain a little bit on Wednesday, because some of what I have to say about censorship does pertain, so that’s what’s coming up.
I hope you all thought about the Identity Plot as you read this novel. It’s hard not to. When I gave that lecture, I suggested that when a genre gains a certain credence, a certain widespread use in the culture, it requires more and more innovations on it to make a fresh story out of it. It also gets us to the point where that set of conventions is available to writers in a new way, to be transcended in a new way. So, one thing that I want to ask about this novel is, does it transcend the genre? Does it do more than provide the certain dramas and satisfactions that we come to expect from a novel about identity? In this sense, because it is so deeply embedded in those kinds of narratives, Roth is taking a kind of risk here. He’s playing it safe because he knows that this is a topic of interest, but he’s taking a risk as an artist because he’s working in very well-trodden territory.
I suggested that, also, when a genre reaches a certain point of saturation, writers tend to change the subject. I didn’t say this when we talked about Blood Meridian, but I think in part Blood Meridian is that kind of change of subject. So, this returns to the genre, and we want to ask what it’s doing with the genre. Before I go in to my meditation on that question today, I just want to call your attention to another element that does relate back to Blood Meridian, and that’s its status as a historical novel. This novel places itself with certain kinds of historical markers at the very opening. It was the summer of 1998, the summer of the Monica Lewinsky affair, the summer when Viagra takes off in the marketplace. Those are very contemporary historical markers.
Now, think back to the way Blood Meridian opens with its historical markers. Do you remember this line? It’s the father talking about the kid’s birth. He says, “Night of your birth, ‘33. God, how the stars did fall.” I think I’ve got that correct. What he’s talking about is the Leonid meteor showers in 1833 that mark the night of the kid’s birth. For all that McCarthy is interested in–and mining–the historical detail of the 1830s, ’40s, ’50s, that novel favors historical markers that seem like cosmic markers of time. So, contrast the stars falling in, yes, a historically specific meteor shower, but nevertheless in something that looks like a cosmic communication of meaning. Contrast that with the relatively mundane, debased historical markers that Roth chooses, Viagra, the Monica Lewinsky scandal. You want to ask yourself, what kind of history is each writer invoking?
I want to suggest to you that if you press on the markers that Roth chooses, you will find something more than trivia, more than contemporary trivia, that Roth has in his sights an equally universal, trans-historical kind of truth in this novel, that’s brought up by those little details of history. And that trans-historical history is the history of desire, of which both those things are indicative. I will say a lot more about desire and its relationship to the history of literature and to writing in this novel in my Monday lecture, but as you go on I would like you to think about how history functions as a set of contexts for the story that Roth tells you.
Chapter 2. Roth’s Identity Plot: The Performance of the Self [00:05:59]
Now I want to talk about identity. So, does this novel conform to the form of the Identity Plot? There are certain ways I think it does, and it does so in a very explicit way. Remember how I mentioned that tension in the Identity Plot is produced by the individual’s relationship to the group and the way that’s vexed. It isn’t a very exciting Identity Plot if the protagonist just discovers that he or she is whatever categorizable identity and says, “Oh, good. I’ll be that,” and then goes on. The tension comes from feeling that either such an identification would be coercion, or that it comes with all kinds of attendant suffering. There are all kinds of tensions that are produced in making that not an easy identification, and you can see that very explicitly in this novel on page 108–106, 108–when Coleman talks about being at Howard University, and along with that, the experience of being called a “nigger” for the first time. This is on the top of 106:
Right there in that sentence, in this little set of scenes about Howard and his experience in D.C., you see him at first being asked by his family to identify with a certain version of the black middle class, and then finding he is revolted by his own difference from that middle class. He feels like a black field hand, the darkest of the dark field hand, “for all they knew that he didn’t,” and on 108 we get it in very abstract terms. “You finally leave home, the Ur of we, and you find another we, another place that’s just like that, the substitute for that.”
The problem of the Identity Plot is the problem of the “I” and the “we.” Here is Coleman laying out exactly how he feels about that, and so what he’s going to favor there, again on 108, is the raw “I,” all the subtlety of being Silky Silk. So there you have encapsulated, in a very short amount of prose, a major form–narrative form, narrative dynamic–of the Identity Plot as a genre. On 144, you get another version of that, slightly more personalized to his family. This is another version of identity and what Coleman thinks about it. This is after we get the history of Coleman’s family, his ancestors, and we’re told that he is not the first to pass as white or to disappear from the black family in to which he was born:
So, this version of identity on 144, this vision of it, is identity as ancestor worship and imprisonment in that family, imprisonment in that way of thinking, a radical un-freedom. So, this is one version of identity, radically individual, rising out of the difference that you feel from the various “we” groups you are asked to join. But there are other versions of identity that are imagined here, and they track pretty clearly with scholarly ways of thinking about identity at this same time.
So, in one sense identity is this radical individual humanist version that I’ve been tracing in the last few minutes. Another is that identity is a constantly changing performance, and we get that too in Coleman. You see it, again, right in the section about Howard on 109, and I want you to note the words that Roth chooses here, 109 in the middle: “He could play his skin however he wanted, color himself just as he chose.”
“Play his skin any way he wanted.” Now, remember that his father is a great devotee of Shakespeare and tries to communicate to his children, not only through their Shakespearian middle names, but through every verbal interaction he has with them, that the grandeur of the English language will somehow fill them and make them who they are, that this is the source of their dignity and their power. He takes that lesson and transforms it. It’s about playing on the model of drama, but it’s about playing color, and this is an artist’s vocation, “color himself just as he chose.” He’s like a painter, in this sense, so this is identity as performance. There are many instances of this. On page 115, 116, there is just a little description of Steena’s dance for Coleman. I’m going to just read a little bit of it.
The history of jazz that’s concentrated in to that tiny, little passage has been unpacked by a critic by the name of Jonathan Freedman. He does a whole history, which I can’t produce here, of how Artie Shaw and various players played Gershwin, and used black musicians in their ensembles, and how this very dance, when Steena, here, we’re told, in a way, inhabits most fully her whiteness, she does that by performing to a music that is radically hybrid, black and Jewish. So, Freedman argues that in this passage we get identity as a vision of absolute fluidity, absolute performance and fluidity, and that the whole history of American jazz stands behind that imagined state. It’s the very difference between the hybrid music and the pure whiteness of Steena’s body that creates what’s so provocative to Coleman, the spectacle of whiteness in the context of hybridity.
Chapter 3. Classification as Definition [00:16:36]
The father’s obsession with the English language, though, has taught Coleman to categorize relentlessly. Do you remember this little detail? This is on page 93 when Coleman is describing or we’re having described to us exactly how Coleman’s father taught them to speak. This is on 93.
The father, for all that he is imbuing them with the most elite version of a white literary tradition, Shakespeare, he is also teaching them relentlessly to see classification and categorizing. In Coleman this comes to mean something quite different, and you see it in this funny, little passing moment on 107, the very top of the page. This is talking about his father’s cherished volume of Shakespeare’s plays, the oversized book with the floppy leather binding that, when Coleman was a small boy, always reminded him of a cocker spaniel.
The cocker spaniel: Why? Why choose that as what the little boy thinks of when he looks at that floppy volume? It’s a moment when being trained to classify and to categorize causes him to see the source of that linguistic precision, the book of Shakespeare, in very demeaning terms, or reductive terms or–I’m not getting quite the precise word I want–in deflating terms. So that, instead of grandeur, the book of Shakespeare becomes the source for the names of dogs. And the way the child’s imagination blends grandeur and the ordinary, I think, gives us Coleman, who can imagine the details of everyday life, the life he lives, as a grand play. Doc Chizner furthers this transformation of the father’s lesson in this very crucial passage, that I’m going to talk more about later, when Coleman passes as white or Jewish for the first time. And that’s when he’s boxing for the pit coach:
“You’re neither one thing or the other. You’re Silky Silk.” This takes the question of categorization–are you colored? Are you not?–it negates it: you’re neither one thing nor another, but then reinstates it in a different mode: you’re Silky Silk. Make up a new category for yourself. So, Doc Chizner takes that transgressing use of precision that we see in the cocker spaniel metaphor in the child’s imagination, and he shows Coleman how to apply that to living race in America, living his race in America. You are Silky Silk. You’re not a race. You’re a proper name, the irreducible singularity of a person.
Chapter 4. The Body as a Sign: Moments of Irreducible Otherness [00:21:25]
There is a third way of thinking about race, and that, of course, is as biology. That, too, is present in this novel. The body is relentlessly present, and I hope that you picked up on that. It’s not hard to pick up on it. The very matter and specificity of the body is everywhere in this novel, and so I want to look back at 21 and 22. This is in that wonderful scene when Coleman dances with Nathan. So, we get a whole description of Coleman’s body and what it is that Nathan sees in it, suddenly, now that he’s shirtless on this hot summer night, and also now that he is no longer talking about the “spooks” business. This is 21.
What you see there is the revelation of certain things we will find out to be true about Coleman, that he was a cunning and wily competitor rather than an overpowering one, that he is still fit and virile, that he has himself in hand, nothing that had gotten out of hand, seriously out of hand. Coleman very much still has himself in hand. He is still the maker of himself, the presenter of himself to the world in a deliberate way. But then we go on, and there are some things that we see that perhaps tell us something different. Rather than the body revealing the truth about Coleman– certain kinds of truth, not a racial truth, other kinds of truth–we see marks on his body that don’t produce that knowledge.
What’s revealed when Coleman is shirtless is the very sign that he cannot be known in any kind of complete way. It’s the mark of a history on his body, that he was in the navy, a history we’ll learn a little bit about, but not a lot, but for Nathan it is the mark of an irreducible difference between persons, that always there are details that are not accessible, circumstances of the other fellow’s life. In this moment Nathan recognizes Coleman as a cipher, a sign that can be projected upon with meanings of his own. I would suggest to you that we don’t see the full flowering of this until quite a bit later in the novel, but I think this is the first moment where, in Coleman revealing his body, he suggests to Nathan the possibilities of that body as a sign. So, he is no longer, in this moment, entirely “in hand” anymore. So, if his physique hasn’t gotten out of hand, his circulation as a sign certainly has. In this case, he has now become a blank canvas for Nathan. Certainly, up until this moment at the beginning of the novel, what’s most on the surface of the plot is how he has become the victim of rumor, how his self-presentation got completely out of hand, taken over by other people’s erroneous readings of his words. So, if the body seems to be in his control, himself as a signifier is not. Here Nathan is invited into it, but in a very different way than the rumormongers who surround him at Athena College and in the town.
Chapter 5. Speech and Secrecy: Locating Identity in the Interval [00:27:18]
So, the body is not going to be a place of revelation.
Speech, as I’ve noted, is a problematic moment of revelation, but it can be that. And on 81, 82, we see an example of that when his speech formally in the novel touches off what will be some of the most important revelatory passages in the novel. And this is when Nelson Primus, having berated Coleman and advised him in his clever, authoritative, arrogant way not to pursue anything against Lester Farley or Delphine Roux, has offended him and enraged him so much as to become the target of Coleman’s rage. Coleman said, “I never again want to hear that self-admiring voice of yours or see your smug, fucking, lily-white face,” and the question becomes why–and we see Nelson ask it the next page–why “white,” why does “lily-white” become the insult that he hurls at Nelson? And formally, even though there’s a little bit of an interlude here about Athena College and Coleman’s rage, this is the moment when we launch into the tale of Coleman’s childhood, and we learn for the first time what kind of family he comes from, and what the history of his passing has been, how he made that decision to abandon his family of birth.
So, speech can be revealing, but only in those moments when it is out of Coleman’s control. Here, in this moment, “lily-white” is inspired by his rage. He is out of control, in that sense, and of course, “lily white” is the term his brother, Walt, applies to him in a similar moment of anger, after Walt discovers that he has told his mother that he is essentially estranging himself permanently from the family in order to marry Iris. Walt says, “Don’t ever show your lily-white face here again.” So, he’s reproducing Walt’s language, and, from that, it indicates to Nelson Primus and for us, in the unfolding of the novel, that there is a mystery here to be told. And then we get the telling of that mystery.
So, from that little word, all of this unfurls, and I would just note, just in passing, that this is quite a contrast to Delphine Roux. On 38 and 39, you can look at: Coleman is very surprised that she has made no effort to hide the identifying marks of her own handwriting. Delphine Roux–though her name suggests the Delphic, the oracular, the mysterious, the secret–Delphine is someone who cannot conceal herself. The very material of her language, of her writing, of her letters, puts her identity on the page to be read, and it seems as if she hasn’t even tried to conceal it. So, Delphine’s lack of depth, her lack of complexity as a character, her basic despicableness is summed up in that inability to conceal herself, whereas Coleman only reveals himself in moments when he is unguarded, or when he has become, not a person in control of his own representation of himself, but rather a sign at large among other representers (Nathan, Delphine, other people).
Secrecy, then, is at the very heart of what identity means in this novel, and now I want to get to this crucial passage on page 100. For me, this is where we learn really what identity means in this novel. So, he says he wants to be in this fight with–in front of the Pitt coach–with Ray Robinson.
And I’m going to skip down a little bit. He talks about concentrating, and how the secrecy is produced by the concentration, or is related to the concentration on the one thing that you’re doing.
That little example right there: He could do it in biology, on a biology exam he could focus exclusively on that thing, become that thing, in the dash, in boxing in the ring, but why choose that example? Why not mathematics? Why not chemistry? Well, here again, it’s Roth’s craft coming through. Roth chose that because what Coleman does is precisely to overcome biology. It’s the biology of who his parents are, of who their parents are. That biology, the biology of American race, is what he takes hold of and transforms. It becomes his secret. Biology becomes his secret, not as an academic subject, but as a lived experience. Boxing is the sport of concealment for him, thinking ahead, observing his opponent, watching how slow the punch is:
For all Coleman’s training in the English language from his father, his mode of revelation, his mode of communication, is not verbal. It is somehow physical, as a physical performance, as a damaging physical performance. That term “counter-confessional,” being–the pleasure and the power were in–being counter-confessional in the same way you were a counter-puncher, in not telling–this is quite a remarkable term for Roth to use. The history of Roth’s writing from the very first story collection, Goodbye, Columbus published in 1960, through the many, many novels in the next five decades, that trajectory, which I’m going to talk a little bit about on Wednesday, is defined by the confessional quality of many of these works.
So, Roth is widely known for drawing on his own life in his fiction, and for making Nathan Zuckerman track his biography in significant ways. And, in this novel, it happens to be true that Philip Roth went through prostate cancer surgery and now lives up in the Berkshires and has been very secluded up there and very productive writing novels in the last ten years. So, in this novel already, anybody who knows even those basic facts knows that Roth himself as a writer is confessional, in some sense of the word. One question we might want to ask is: is he counter-confessional the way that Coleman is, the way that you can be a counter-puncher, and what would it mean to be that? Why does it matter? In fact, does it matter? And then, why does it matter, if it does, that his novels track his life? This is a long-term question for anyone who thinks about Roth’s writing, and I will get more to it in my second lecture on The Human Stain next Monday, but it’s something to think about.
But let me pause, again, on that rhetorical question. “Was it because the pit coach didn’t know he was colored? Could it be because who he really was was entirely his secret?” There are two ways of reading that last question. “Who he really was was entirely his secret.” If we read that, “who he really was” as a colored guy from East Orange, then we’ll see it as that being his secret. But you can read it, you can parse that grammar, a different way. “Who he really was was his secret.” Could it be because who he really was was “his secret,” secrecy as the essence of identity? It doesn’t matter what’s in that hidden box. It doesn’t mean that we have to fill it in. It doesn’t mean, even, that it can be known. And you think back to the way the anchor on his arm, the tattoo on his arm, reminds Nathan of how little you can ever know about the other fellow. The very fact of the person’s other-ness to you means that there is always something fundamentally hidden about them, and that arises from the simple difference between one consciousness and another.
This returns the meditation on identity to a universalist, humanist version of what identity would be. It’s simply private consciousness. Private consciousness is what defines us as persons, and then, radiating out from that, all the things that one can do with a private consciousness, which then encompasses these other modes of identifying that the novel rehearses, and then critiques or sometimes endorses, plays with, jumbles, juggles. We have a private consciousness. You can decide to decide. This is something that Coleman does on a number of occasions, and it’s a phrase that Roth repeats when he’s deciding to decide to be done with the spooks business, deciding to decide not to be worried about Lester Farley. You have the power to form your self-presentation. You have the power to make your identity an artistic performance. That’s what private consciousness does for you, but it does a couple other things, too, and I want to track those, or suggest them just briefly before I end today, in one sense by following the theme of difference, and in the other sense by following the word “secrecy” in the novel.
Chapter 6: Desire and Difference [00:41:31]
First, on the question of pure difference, on 47, in that wonderful scene of Faunia with the cows, this is Nathan reflecting on the desire that he sees enacted there. And again, remember, Coleman is not primarily a man of words, but a man of being, and he has just stood in silence with Nathan watching Faunia milk the cows.
And what this passage, the sentences above, emphasize, is that Faunia is a woman of thirty-four, a “wordless illiterate,” and that Coleman is a man replete with the vocabularies of two ancient tongues, as well as his own native tongue. So, the very difference between them, this time limned in terms of education and language, vocabulary, literacy, here it’s that difference that is invoked as the engine of desire. So, if desire is always that looking towards the other thing, the thing that you are not, the thing that you do not have, the thing that is absent from you: that’s the definition of desire. You can’t have desire if you already have the thing. Desire is that force that’s always reaching toward something that is separate from you. Difference between human beings is just that, in this scene, just the engine of desire.
So, here, for all the meditations on race, the social construction of race, race as performance, race as essence, race as biology, race as secret, it’s secret that gets to that over-arching concern with desire in the novel. And this is a moment where I think Roth is transcending the genre. He’s taking the dramas of the Identity Plot, and he’s driving them to an extreme and pushing them over in to another subject matter. So, in this sense, identity as secrecy pushes us over in to the subject matter of desire and mortality, which is at the heart of Roth’s writing from beginning to end. Now, I will not say that identity is not also a subject matter he’s working with from beginning to end of his career. That’s definitely true, and I’ll say more about that on Wednesday when I talk about the shape of his career. But especially as Roth moves later in his career these questions of desire and mortality take the upper hand.
Now, the last thing I want to do, just very quickly, is point to page 44, another use of that word “secret,” the very top of the page.
Now, one question I, myself, as a reader have struggled with about this novel is whether Roth imagines that Nathan’s state, when he describes it that way, is a false one or a weak one, one to be rejected. Is it a withdrawal from life? I think that last sentence, “The secret is to find sustenance in people like Hawthorne,” gives us the answer that I’m content with. And that is: yes, it’s a withdrawal from life if you don’t understand Hawthorne as a person, as someone with whom you can become entangled. It’s the very act of thinking of a literary forebear as a person rather than a text that allows this to be a productive state, one that Nathan will be drawn out of by Coleman, but yet one that the novel does not reject.
It’s when Coleman becomes for Nathan a character, the person becomes this living representation, that he is drawn out of his solitude. So, in a way, it’s not even Coleman the person that draws him out, but his world when he encounters Coleman and his story, when he sees Coleman’s body during that dance as a cipher, as the sign of all that you can’t know about the other fellow. When he sees that about Coleman, that’s when he comes out of one productive state of communing with the brilliant dead and comes in to the world of Coleman who will be dead very, very shortly. So, on Monday next I will talk about that relationship between desire and the literary, between persons and characters, between life and novel. Think about those things as you read.
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