Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

The Stain and the Sign. Poetics in Philip Roth's the Human Stain

Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

The Stain and the Sign. Poetics in Philip Roth's the Human Stain

Article excerpt


The paper shows how Philip Roth's text discards and negates language, fiction and the temporality of narrative, replacing them with an experimental poetics that inscribes form into the body itself, endowing it with sensuality and musicality and manifesting itself as a new spatio-temporal form. Drawing on Heraclitus, Kenneth Burke, Friedrich Nietzsche and the poet S. Ulrik Thomsen, the paper further demonstrates how woman is in the place of the truth, and how "truth" in a sense is "no knowledge". The dialogue between the feminine and the masculine, and the passion between a woman and a man expands subjectivity into an Other, a Third Form tending towards formlessness and eliminating the dualism of thinking and sensing.


I shall attempt to construct a poetics based on Philip Roth's novel The human stain, or rather, perhaps, explicate those elements in the text that imply a certain congruity between being and form, ontology and aesthetics, and how the subject, being in dialogue with itself and an other, may conceive of itself as form; my interpretation will be carried out in the manner of an experimental reflection on aesthetics and ontology in the course of which I shall comment on and apply a selection of excerpts from the poetics of Soren Ulrik Thomsen, Danish poet; pre-Socratic philosophy, specifically Heraclitus' remarks on fusion and diffusion; Kenneth Burke's philosophy of literary form; Friedrich Nietzsche's concept of grades, degrees and opposition; Jacques Derrida's concept of totality and excess; Julia Kristeva's concept of abjection; and, of course, Philip Roth's own aesthetic reflection and philosophy of language and subjectivity as they appear implicitly in the text. While I do not intend to downplay the realistic representation of race and gender problematics in Roth's text (whose protagonist is Coleman Silk, an African-American passing for and becoming a Jewish-American college professor who at the end of his life encounters a woman much younger than himself, Faunia Farley), I will discuss color as metaphor and as an aspect of form--specifically as a kind of infinite gradation and evolution of form through which "body" becomes "mind", or rather, perhaps, the distinction between them is erased. I see the process of infinite gradation occurring simultaneously in the forming of character and self-reflection and in the forming of the text, and I see that process culminating in a negation of language and signification, and in an openness, even emptiness that I would call an amorphe: the formless vessel into which any form may be poured. I will not to provide a comprehensive interpretation of the novel; instead, I will select textual fragments that show character in dialogue with itself and with an other. In Roth's text, the encounter of Self and Other, particularly of masculine Self and feminine Other, contains a potential poetics with profound epistemological implications.

Poetics is the creation of form and the explication and realization of the conditions for the creation of form; the metaphysical--and ontological--essence and purpose of form is, in the words of the Danish poet Soren Ulrik Thomsen, (1) to "produce one self as form" since "coming into existence as form is the only chance the subject has to transcend and reflect upon itself in its objectivity" (Thomsen 1985: 50). It seems obvious to me that the protagonist of Roth's novel, Coleman Silk, produces himself "as form", initially by casting himself in the language of Greek tragedy and of the white academic elite but ultimately by negating that language as he enters the final change of identity. The text thus strives towards the fulfillment of a radical ontos which extends itself into and almost merges with an equally radical poetics whose substance, paradoxically yet logically, gravitates towards the non-substantial: a poetic form comprising aesthetics and Being and including them in a spiralling, centrifugal motion where the limits of Being and form are continuously expanding in accordance with the law of Heraclitus phrased as follows by Plutarch in On the E at Delphi

Reason can grasp nothing which is at rest or which is really real; for it is not possible to step twice into the same river, according to Heraclitus, nor to touch mortal substance twice in the same condition: by the swiftness and speed of its change, it scatters and collects again--or rather, it is not again and later but simultaneously that it comes together and departs, approaches and retires

(Barnes 2001: 70). …

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