Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

Two Versions of Oedipus and Philip Roth's the Human Stain1

Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

Two Versions of Oedipus and Philip Roth's the Human Stain1

Article excerpt

Philip Roth's engagement with psychoanalysis in his eailier fiction characterized by an uncritical appropriation of Sigmund Freud's concepts2 has steadily grown hostile toward this influential theory, deploying parody and lampoon against its rationale and, at times, thoroughly rejecting it.3 Significantly, The Human Stain (2000) posits die Oedipus complex as the psychoanalytic reproduction of a pre-existing representational myth that co-opts modem subjects as part of the power relationships prevalent in the society. Interestingly, Roth's novelistic repudiation of psychoanalysis has a striking parallel in many post-war American novels.4 Not only does Roth espouse the postmodernist sensibility in his later works such as The Counterlife (1986), Operation Shylock: A Confession (1993), Sabbath's Theater (1995), and American Pastoral (1997), but the novelist also shares with the anti-foundationalists a distrust of Freudian psychoanalysis. Examining the Oedipus complex as a representational myth ideologically functioning in the society, The Human Stain marks the crystallization of Roth's postmodern problematization of psychoanalysis. The story of King Oedipus's "(p)assing for an alien" (Sophocles 38) in Thebes parallels rhat of the African American Coleman Silk who, thanks to his light skin, passes for a Jew and succeeds in becoming a classics professor and dean of faculty in Athena College until a charge of racism brings about his downfall.5 In the novel's evocation of Oedipus, however, there are traces of two influential interpretations of Sophocles's King Oedipus advanced by Freud and Nietzsche. In focusing on how Roth's The Human Stain pits the Nietzschean version of Oedipus notably embodied as Dionysian forces in The Birth of Tragedy (1872) against Freud's reinvention of the myth, this essay seeks to analyze the attendant ideological implications.

Rodi's The Human Stain strategically rewrites the Oedipus complex in racial terms to supplement the exclusive gender specificity of the Freudian model. According to Freud, the identity formation of a male individual involves the resolution of the Oedipal conflict through a gendered identification with his father and subsequent entry into the father's world (the Symbolic Order of language in Jacques Lacan's rereading of Freud). Contrastingly in Roth's fiction, Coleman, the protagonist, is compelled by his family and society to identify with his father's gender and race and seek analogous mother substitutes among mature individuals.6 Although Coleman attains identification with his father's gender over the yeats, he manipulates the expected resolution of his racial Oedipal stage in significant ways. In tracing Coleman's development, the novel exposes the ideological imbrications in the processes of identification and othering underlying die Oedipus complex, which Freud characteristically, if somewhat uncritically, projects as a universal unconscious drama.

Evident in Gladys Silk's attitude towatds Coleman, the Oedipal situation in The Human Stain differs radically from the Freudian concept that presupposes an "original" Oedipal instinct in every child. Interestingly, the novel foregrounds not so much Coleman's emotions as his mother's, presenting an Oedipal context that assigns the son a passive role: "The mere sight of him, from the moment of his birth, stimulated feelings against which she had no defenses and that had nothing to do with what he was worthy of" (Stain 137). Contesting claims of "universal occurrence of Oedipal impulses," Rachel Bowlby, for instance, undetscores "an occasional suggestion in Freud that a more localised reality may be shaping the child's feelings - indeed an influence coming from the parents themselves" (121). Similarly, the novel frames the Oedipus complex as a pre-existing structure that has the power to co-opt Coleman even without his active emotional engagement. Coleman's characteristic response to the Oedipal relationship is uncovered through his mother's emotional outbursts on learning of his decision to pass for a Jew: "You were seriously disinclined even to take the breast. …

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