By Chet Yarbrough
The Human Stain
By Phillip Roth
Narrated by: Dennis Boutsikaris
Figuratively, Phillip Roth skins an onion in his book, The Human Stain. He exposes the invidious nature of discrimination in a story about a college professor’s life.
In an ironic Buddhist’ way, Roth’s writing stings the eyes of wisdom and the material world; i.e. The Human Stain offers a nuanced explanation of human nature.
Roth exposes layers of who we are by recounting President Clinton’s contretemps with Monica Lewinski; stories of a “free” but tainted press, the many forms of discrimination, and incidents of sexual exploitation. Each peel of the onion reveals a stinging criticism of human beings and the material world.
Today appears no different from yesterday. Humans lie through conscious and subconscious selection of facts. People looking at the same event view that event differently. Each person creates their own story based on their life experience. An individual’s objective truth is an oxymoron. There is good and evil in the world but it is defined by society’s acceptance. The same is true for morality and amorality.
Coleman Silk is a tenured professor, nearing the end of his career at a small university. He is seventy-one years old. His career is ended in disgrace. The disgrace is caused by the use of words, taken out of context, and given dishonest meaning by others.
Silk resigns from the university. His wife dies. In general, he blames the world; more specifically the press and university, for his wife’s death. He has an affair with a 35-year-old woman; they die in a mysterious accident that is inaccurately reported by newspapers reporting rumor and colleague’ distortion rather than fact.
That is the basic outline of The Human Stain but Roth peels layers of life off twentieth century history with fictional characters who illustrate and argue that stains are an inevitable consequence of living any life. His hero, Silk, tells a white-lie near the beginning of adulthood and is pilloried for a Black accusation near the end of his life. Roth’s story infers every lie leaves a stain and every human being is a liar.
Silk’s lover, in Roth’s depiction, is a woman stained by abuse of a stepfather, and later in life, by a husband. The abused child, and wife, carries her stains and spirals down to a dark place filled with despair. The veteran husband, now ex-husband, is stained as a soldier trained to kill by the military. He is expected to return from Vietnam as though the past is past. However, the past is never past; it lives in memory and acts on the future. It is his stain. He is diagnosed with PTSD.
A colleague of Silk’s is stained by a failure to come to his aid when Silk is unjustly vilified by the University. Monica Lewinski’s stain is literal and figurative with a soiled dress and the public’s vilification. President Clinton’s stain is weakness of character, lying about an affair, cheating on a wife. Every human being in Roth’s story is stained by life and must choose to live with it or die from it.
By the end of The Human Stain, one is reminded of the biblical phrase, “he who is without sin can cast the first stone”. How ridiculous was it to impeach President Clinton? How stupid is it to believe returning from a war is like turning off a light? Roth’s story infers every lie, and we are all liars, leaves a stain; every human experience leaves an imprint, some of which are stains.