By Chet Yarbrough
Narrated by: Dennis Boutsikaris
Figuratively, Phillip Roth skins an onion in his book, The Human Stain. He exposes the insidious nature of discrimination in a story about a college professor’s life.
In a Buddhist’ way, Roth’s story stings the eyes of wisdom and the material world.
The Human Stain offers layers of truth about human nature; Roth gives examples like President Clinton’s contretemps with Monica Lewinsky; stories of a “free” but tainted press; the many forms of discrimination, and incidents of female sexual exploitation. Each peel of the onion reveals a layer of stinging truth about human beings in a material world.
On January 20, 2017 Donald Trump will be sworn in as the 45th President of the United States. Trump’s protestations project a fear and trembling in the minds of a majority of America’s voting citizens. His proposed budget, according to CNN, 1. Cuts Medicaid (Over $600 billion in the next decade)
2. Cuts food stamps, known as SNAP ($193 billion over 10 years)
3. Cuts student loans ($143 billion over 10 years)
4. Cuts federal worker retirement programs ($63 billion over 10 years),
With Trump, there is the fear of Clinton like contretemps, an attorney general’s lack of racial objectivity, and an administration filled with men who believe government is a business. America trembles at the pealing of an onion (the federal budget) that reveals the worst face of democracy. Tears of the poor stain the American Constitution.
Roth’s main character, 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, he blames the press and university for his wife’s death. After his wife’s death, he has an affair with a 35-year-old woman. They die in a mysterious accident that is inaccurately documented 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 and fictional characters to 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 all humans lie.
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 to dark places filled with despair. The veteran husband, now ex-husband, is stained as a soldier; i.e. trained by the military to kill. 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 Lewinsky’s stain is literal and figurative with a soiled dress and public’ vilification. President Clinton’s stain is weakness of character, lying about an affair, cheating on a wife. Roth infers every human being is, has been, or will be stained by a life experience; they will live with it, cope with it, and die with 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”. Roth’s story implies every lie (and we are all liars) leaves a stain; every human experience leaves an imprint, some of which are stains; others, the building blocks of life.