I just finished reading the novel The Human Stain by Philip Roth. The novel is set in a quaint New England college town, in Vermont. The story is intriguing in that it is framed in the late 90’s just following the President Clinton, Monica Lewinsky scandal and is told as if written by the writer Nathan Zuckerman. The plot is exceptional. There are more twists and turns in this novel than one could imagine. Roth is an excellent social critic. No one seems to escape his eye, especially the those in the tolerance movement.
Here is a short summary of what happens (Warning—I’m going to expose one major theme of the book so if you don’t want to lose the intrigue, stop reading this blog now). The distinguished and brilliant classics professor Coleman Silk offends some African American students, in his class by referring to them as spooks, as ghosts, since they’d never attended his lectures. The students got wind of it and charged him with racism. It’s a bogus charge, and one many on the faculty saw as such, but he ended up losing his job and his wife, over the whole affair. The book is built around that event and his reaction to it. What comes out, as the plot unfolds, is that everyone of the main characters has a secret. A secret so deep, and in some cases, so profoundly disturbing, that it acts like a stain on their humanity. It colors their perception of reality and yet also defines them. Roth’s secret is he’s African American himself. The term spooks couldn’t have possibly been used in a racially charged way. But no one ever finds out—except Nathan Zuckerman.
Roth, describing the stain through the lens of one of the characters says this, “The human stain…we leave a stain, we leave a trail, we leave our imprint. Impurity, cruelty, abuse, error, … there’s no other way to be here. Nothing to do with disobedience. Nothing to do with grace or salvation or redemption. It’s in everyone. Indwelling. Inherent. Defining. The stain that is there before its mark. The stain that proceeds disobedience and perplexes all explanation and understanding. It’s why all the cleansing is a joke…its inescapable.”(pg. 242)
I won’t take time to unpack the book. It is not an easy book to digest. I went on line after reading it to see what others had to say and one critic suggested that this was the kind of book that should be read by High School students. I don’t think so. It was pretty graphic at times but the critic was right in one regard. Everyone should understand that there truly is a human stain, and that stain, whether we are completely aware of it or not, is inescapable. You can’t get away from it. You can try to conceal it, but it won’t go away.
The question then becomes, how can it be dealt with? Roth offers no answer. The book is a description of human depravity and how that is used to hurt others and how that eventually hurts us. It’s thought provoking, I’ll say that. As a Christian, there is really only one answer—Jesus Christ. But there are a lot of people unwilling to consider that with all its ramifications.