The Ecstasy of Sanctimony: The Human Stain by Philip Roth

The third-part of Roth’s second Zuckerman trilogy (The Human Stain) was written in the context of America’s obsession with Clinton’s affair and considers Identity politics in American life.  Roth uses Zuckerman’s portrayal of Coleman Silk’s racial deceit as a back-drop to explore ‘America’s oldest communal passion… its most treacherous and subversive pleasure: the ecstasy of sanctimony’ (p. 2).

This ecstasy is submerged in a gap, an excision of our memory.  Like Toni Morrison in ‘The Bluest Eye’, Roth wants to elucidate the way that people wash themselves in the sins of another.  Identity is the violent construction of our narrative.  This is the (Human) stain that we leave in the lives of those whom we use to define ourselves.  ‘There’s no other way to be… It’s in everyone. Indwelling.  Inherent’ (p. 242).  Yet, it is the joyful pursuit of this form of purity-through-sanctimony that is most appalling.  We rejoice in purity obtained through the stain we leave on the other.

Silk’s relationship with the comparatively youthful and uneducated Faunia Farley, through this lens, becomes particularly provocative.  They are equalised by their refusal to rejoice in this sanctimony; rather they seek to reveal their excised selves to each other, not what was excised but rather that they were fundamentally a gap, a blank, a lack.  The pain, however, in their relationship emerged from the specific form of their connectedness; she could not escape the privilege of his suffering (p. 234).  The size and nature of the excision in Farley was different, and perhaps, incommensurable with Silk’s.  It was incommensurability that made their relationship passionate but also leading inexorably toward their deaths.

Here Roth underscores the inherent absence in a re-telling (playing upon his earlier ‘So I married a Communist’ and ‘American Pastoral’).  It is an absence that we attempt to cover with the act of re-telling, it is like the gaps between the cords of wool in a knitted jumper.  This loose weave is pried open in the final pages of the book as Zuckerman confronts whom he believes to be (and whom he has ‘re-told’ in the book in such a way as to inevitably conclude that he must be) the killer.  These pages are Roth at his very best and yet the genius of this passage is not necessarily in the tension of the encounter (though it is there) rather it is in the ambiguity which becomes observable through the threads of Zuckerman’s re-telling.  It is here, in the encounter with the other, the one we have stained, that we must learn to mourn the violence we have done to them.

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