Magazine article Academe

Ravelstein / Disgrace / the Human Stain

Magazine article Academe

Ravelstein / Disgrace / the Human Stain

Article excerpt


Saul Bellow. New York: Viking, 2000, 233 pp.


J. M. Coetzee. New York: Viking, 1999, 220 pp.

The Human Stain Philip Roth. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000, 361 pp.

AS CHRISTOPHER MARLOWE tells it, the cause of Dr. Faustus's damnation is his own arrogance. Embracing necromancy because no other field of study seems worthy of his genius, this consummate academic sells his soul for twenty-four years of unfettered knowledge and power-and proceeds to waste himself on sophomoric practical jokes, empty celebrity, and sex. The literary Faustus may finally achieve immortality, but it is not achieved, as he desires, through the kiss of the incomparable Helen of Troy. Faustus's immortality is of a much-diminished sort, as an object lesson in over-- weening pride.

The academic protagonists of the three books under review bear at least a passing resemblance to Dr. Faustus, for they, too, act as if they believe that the rules that govern the lives of ordinary mortals do not pertain to them. True, none strikes a bargain with the devil in anything more than a metaphorical sense, but all, like Faustus, seem powerless to use their superior intellects, and vast learning, to master their passions. And they don't seem to want to try. Arrogant, self-centered, bursting with a sense of their own entitlement, these intriguing but deeply flawed characters are unmistakably, but not always comfortably, products of the academy.

Abe Ravelstein, in Saul Bellow's fictionalized tribute to his deceased friend and colleague, Allan Bloom, is a professor at a prestigious university in Chicago, who has managed, by means of a best-- selling screed against the academy, to influence the wider cultural agenda and achieve material comfort to a degree ordinary academics could only dream about. Surprising even himself, Ravelstein becomes an admired (and reviled) public figure, his new-found success allowing him to indulge his extravagant tastes for luxury and dissipation, tendencies leading inexorably (as Bellow tells the story) to decline and death, though not to any regrets.

Coleman Silk, in Philip Roth's novel, is an imperious former classics professor and dean of faculty at a private college in the Berkshires, who is brought down in a different way by his own conduct. Accused of racial insensitivity stemming from a bizarre in-class episode, Silk refuses to apologize-he may be guilty of many things, but not of this-and, in a fit of self-destructive outrage, he precipitately resigns from the college where he has spent his entire career. Having devoted his deanship to enhancing the institution's educational quality and reputation, Silk is stunned to find himself without defenders among the entrenched senior faculty whose complacency he had threatened, or among the silent majority of the faculty whom he expected to stand up and do the right thing. Consumed by outrage, maddened by injustice, he cannot let go until his fury burns itself out in an unpublished book manuscript on his tribulations, and he is freed to find temporary release in a clandestine Viagra-fueled relationship with an illiterate college janitor half his age.

David Lurie, the antihero of J. M. Coetzee's novel, is a former scholar of English Romantic poetry at an urban South African university; when the university is retooled as a technical institute, he is allowed to continue teaching as an adjunct lecturer in communications. He then loses his position after forcing a sexual relationship upon a female student. Her complaint leads to a hearing by a university committee, where he proves unable or unwilling to acknowledge the impropriety of his conduct, claiming he was compelled to act as he did by "Eros." If, by the end of the novel, he seeks out and apologizes to her family, he remains obsessed with his former victim and as aloof and self-absorbed as before this apparent change of heart.

Coetzee is obviously conversant with academic institutions and sensibilities, but his real interest here does not lie in exploring the privileged milieu of the academy. …

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