The Human Stain
I have just finished reading an excellent novel by Philip Roth called The Human Stain, a novel I had never heard of, written in late 90s, set in 1998 during the Clinton scandals. The Human Stain is an exploration into the nature of humans. The book is mostly ‘dark’ but revealing about the dark side of our humanity. There is the occasional bright spot, but mostly the book fulfills the title’s purpose–the human stain.
Although we like to think, at least I do, that I am a pretty good person, this novel helps peel back the onion to show how truly ‘wicked’ I am, as well as my fellow human beings, and this wickedness isn’t always brazen, in your face, sin.
Sin is a desire to throw other people under the bus, to feel superior to people, to blame others, and not take ownership for your own wrongs. We see this in the biblical story when God calls on Adam to explain his actions, he says, “the woman made me to do it’. She’s to blame for everything, according to Adam. And whether you believe that story or not, you have to believe that it is true that we often practice sin by justifying ourselves at the expense of other people.
In order to have a decent self image I have to exploit other people and crush them, or minimize them, so I can feel better about myself. I have experienced this. I have put others down to put myself up. And I have felt this done to me as well.
“The Human Stain”, is Philip Roth’s metaphor for evil and sin. The novel is about a man, Coleman Silk, who starts to do very well in life, but everyone around him in the college he teaches at set out to bring him down, to find something wrong with him, to ruin his career.
Plus he himself is ‘stained’ with his own secret. But that’s another story.
Roth has one of his characters talk about this ‘human stain’ which is this proneness to evil in the heart, which is deeper than behavioural actions. It’s this need to pull people down, this need to justify yourself at the expense of others.
At one point in novel, one of his characters says, “It’s(the human stain) in everyone, indwelling, inherent, defining. The stain that precedes your acts of disobedience, it encompasses disobedience, and perplexes all understanding and explanations. It’s why all talk of cleansing your heart is a joke. The fantasy of purity is appalling for what is the quest to purify but more impurity. The stain is inescapable.”
What does she mean by that? The more you try to purify your heart, it just brings more impurity. Why is that? Because at the core of the human stain is self righteousness. The stain is that I justify myself by pulling others around me down, by making myself superior to others.
For anyone who has ever thought that humans are generally good, this novel will make you think otherwise, and cause you, hopefully to look elsewhere for strength to pursue the true Good in yourself and others.
If interested you can also check out the movie The Human Stain starring Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman.