Sunday, April 24, 2011

Philip Roth's The Human Stain and the So-Called PC Police in American Academia

Dr. Calvo's tragedy has reawakened popular interest in Philip Roth's great novel The Human Stain. In several online discussion about Dr. Calvo's suicide, I have seen references to this novel. It is being used as "definitive proof" that some completely fictitious "PC police" operates in American academia and ousts anybody who doesn't comply with its speech codes and rules of behavior.

If you are one of those people who have bought into this line of reasoning, I have a newsflash for you: there is no PC police. What does exist is a concerted Conservative campaign aimed at robbing academia of its intellectual prestige. Examples of the Conservative push to demonize academics and portray them as haughty, irrelevant and completely out of touch with "regular folks" abound. Take, for example, the following book review from The Economist that starts with a ridiculous assault on scholars of literature:
ACADEMICS are rarely reliable guides to literature. The magic that draws eggheads to certain books tends to get bludgeoned by theory, jargon and the need to be obscure.
After this dismissal of academics as people whose job it is to bludgeon all magic out of literature, the reviewer then proceeds to spout a string of extremely offensive stereotypes about the Russian people. A day doesn't go by without a similar nasty assault on academics gracing the pages of our leading newspapers and magazines. What is really appalling, though, is that now the work of a great American novelist should be co-opted as a weapon in this battle against intellect.

First of all, we need to remember that The Human Stain is a work of fiction. It is a great work of fiction, but still, fiction it is. It does not offer a factual account of anything. According to a blurb of the novel at Amazon,
Shocking, intensely dramatized events precipitate Silk's crisis. He remarks of two students who never showed up for class, "Do they exist or are they spooks?" They turn out to be black, and lodge a bogus charge of racism exploited by his enemies. 
 Now, anybody who has actually read the book (and not just skimmed the first few pages looking for "proof" of the evil nature of academia) knows that there is nothing bogus about the charge of racism leveled against professor Coleman Silk. He is, in fact, a racist who severed all ties with his black family and spent his entire life trying to "pass" as white. The seemingly innocuous comments Silk made in class turn out to be an expression of his deep-seated belief in the inferiority of black people. The entire message of the novel, in my opinion, is that no matter how hard you try to hide your racism, it will come out and destroy you in the end.

But, of course, I'm just one of those people who bludgeon literary magic for a living, so why listen to me anyways?


Pen said...

The "bludgeoning" is the magic. I'd like to be able to understand what I read, and to be able to connect it to other things in my life. Meaning exists where it is assigned--that's the beauty of literary analysis.

Not everyone can say why they like a book. The people who learn to dissect the work are often the people who love to read and/or write the most.

Pagan Topologist said...

I think the PC police exist, but they are definitely a moving target. Thirty five years ago, we had a theatre professor fired for being openly gay. That would not happen now, but I can imagine a professor's being fired for being openly and offensively homophobic.

Rimi said...

"ACADEMICS are rarely reliable guides to literature. The magic that draws eggheads to certain books tends to get bludgeoned by theory, jargon and the need to be obscure"

Aww. That's just adorable. Almost as adorable as seeing "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" in heterosexual romances. Of course, the sonnet compares a male lover to a female one, and dismisses the latter as greatly unsuitable for want of everything, from the general disgusting anatomy to general annoying female demeanour. And yet this sonnet features more prominently than most others in heterosexual romances, directed specifically at the female partner.

And I once read about this man, when paying court the old fashioned way, held his paramour's hands tightly and declared, "All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this". He meant, my love is beyond such earthly adornments, she does not need them.

I can completely see how an academic would ruin the mood.