May 25, 2000
The Skin We Can’t Shed
There are many different reasons for the lies we tell about ourselves, to ourselves and to.
Jewish demons have always pursued Philip Roth. Starting with the 1959 publication of "Goodbye, Columbus," his iconoclastic and now classic portrait of materialistic Jewish suburbanites, Roth has dramatized his characters' struggle to reconcile their eternally warring urges to simultaneously lay claim to and distance themselves from (even sometimes flat-out reject) their Jewish heritage.Through the decades, Roth's ruthlessly ambivalent portraits have drawn much ire upon the author from the Jewish community- more likely than not, I've often thought, because his cold, unjaundiced eye is on target so often. To be Jewish or not to be Jewish - at least, not too Jewish: That is the question that several generations of American Jews, in Roth's view, have uneasily confronted and never comfortably answered. And Roth has created characters belonging to each of those generations.
Nor does Roth's probing stop there. What does it mean to be no longer a stranger in a strange land but a well-blended citizen in the national melting pot? For that matter, as Roth pointedly questioned in his controversial take on Israel, "Operation Shylock," is it possible to straddle two worlds, or must we choose between them? In some sense, aren't we all modern-day Hamlets, asking: Whether to live in exile, the diaspora we know, or to return to a homeland whose terrain is so complex that no one can truly claim to know it?
Moreover, it has not escaped Roth that the current Zeitgeist has added a new, ironic twist to the push-pull of Jewish identity: ethnic chic.
Why fear anti-Semitism in the newly minted 21st century when you can savor your own Jewish cool? How curiously, wondrously American it is to revel in the fact that Oscar-winning blond goddess Gwyneth Paltrow is descended, on her father's side, from a long line of rabbis, and that Madonna studies kabbalah!Indeed, proud Jewish roots are turning up in just about everyone's family tree, starting with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright who, like the authors of a spate of recent memoirs (including Louise Kehoe's award-winning "In This Dark House"), discovered only as adults the surprising fact of their Jewish heritage - and at the same time learned the terrible fate of family members killed in the Holocaust.
So much for exorcising the past. Conceal our identities as we will, fate will find us out. No, Roth wrote in 1985, near the conclusion of his brilliant trilogy, "Zuckerman Bound," that "one's story isn't a skin to be shed - it's inescapable, one's body and blood. You go on pumping it out till you die, the story veined with the themes of your life, the ever-recurring story that's at once your invention and the invention of you."Fifteen years later, that passage gives an extraordinary, ironic resonance to Roth's superb new novel, "The Human Stain" (Houghton Mifflin), the story of a light-complexioned black man who, metaphorically speaking, does shed his skin. And he succeeds in doing so by "passing" as an olive-hued Jew.
The novel opens in the blazing summer of 1998, against the backdrop of the media furor over President Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky. But in the view of narrator (and long-time Roth alter ego) Nathan Zuckerman, what 19th century American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne long ago identified as "the persecuting spirit" is chillingly alive not only in Washington, but across the country, even in the small New England college of Athena, where former dean and classics professor Coleman Silk has retired in disgrace under charges of racism and misogyny.
Enraged at the injustice, Coleman demands that Zuckerman - who himself has retired from most human contact, living as he does in a secluded cabin near the college - vindicate him by writing the true story. Thus begins their friendship - and the slow unraveling of Coleman's long list of other secrets.The obvious secret, the one most easily uncovered and the richest fodder for the town wags, is the 71-year-old Coleman's affair with 34-year-old Faunia Farley. Molested in childhood by her stepfather, then abused in adulthood by her crazed Vietnam veteran ex-husband, finally torn apart emotionally by the deaths of her two young children in an apartment fire, Faunia views the world with a tough-minded, primitive, passionate realism.
Uneducated and illiterate, she works as a part-time janitor at the college and earns her board by milking cows for a local organic dairy. This Dionysian couple cannot help but arouse the wrath of staid Athena's Greek chorus of avenging professors, a set of Furies led by the resonantly named, and scathingly satirized, Delphine Roux.
Still, as Zuckerman, a master observer of the surfaces of people's lives, wisely observes, "ourunderstanding of people must always be at best slightly wrong." Moreover, what passes for truth is even more slippery. And so it is that, layer by layer, Zuckerman discovers that the deeper, unspoken secrets that Coleman, Faunia, even Delphine work so hard to conceal in their outwardly convincing presentations of themselves - as distinguished Jewish professor, illiterate sensualist and successful academic careerist, respectively - make impostors of them all.
There are many different reasons for the lies we tell about ourselves, to ourselves and to the public, and Roth also explored and played with a host of different self-deceptions in "American Pastoral" and "I Married a Communist," the two novels written immediately prior to "The Human Stain." Together, Roth has said, these three novels form a thematic trilogy, each one focusing on the impact of a particular historic period, in the first the Vietnam War, in the second the McCarthy era of the 1950s, and finally, the new moral Puritanism that closed the century just ended. Taken together, they also define, with thunderous clarity, Roth's bleak vision of the stain all humanity bears. It is, he writes, "in the universal hard drive everlasting and undeletable, the sign of the viciousness of the human creature."
And that same blemish is reflected in the gods we worship, whether pagan Greek or Christian or Jewish.Some have suggested that a model for Coleman "Silky" Silk, Roth's slippery protagonist, was Anatole Broyard, the well-known author and New York Times Book Review editor, who, it was discovered after his death, was not white, as he had let people (or led them to) assume, but black. But Roth is never so simple or literal. And the actual color of Coleman's skin is not as pertinent as Roth's larger point.
Rather, Coleman's is the deeply human drama that pits the need to realize one's individual ambitions - the singularity of the "I," Roth calls it here - against the demands of the larger ethnic, religious, national, or family "we." What turns the struggle tragic, Roth demonstrates, is our failure to foresee that even as we attempt to escape the confines of the "we" into which each of us is born, we unwittingly build different prisons. When we throw off the bonds that tie us to our past, we not only become "lost to all our people." as Coleman's sister eulogizes her brother, but we also lose part of ourselves. And when that happens, Roth shows us in this richly textured masterwork, our fate is sealed, as blind-sided strangers in a strange land once more.
Diane Cole is the author of the memoir "After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges" and the book editor of the health magazine In Touch.