All I had going for me was no small thing: I was a white man in a white man’s world. I didn’t ask for the privileges that no doubt came my way; I didn’t need to. I was taught—by parents, by teachers, by TV, by a thousand million subliminal messages, and by who knows how many more indomitable forces—that I was a singular individual, limitless, unshackled, infinitely deserving of investment. I was defined by nothing; circumscribed by nothing; held back by no gender bias or skin color or religious affiliation, by no conspicuous feature. I was America’s son.
And so when I began to read seriously, I could take freely to Nabokov’s dictum of aesthetic bliss above all else. I wasn’t a political being. I was, of course, a political actor; everyone is. It’s just that the white man in a white man’s world is often blind to all the ways in which he acts.
I would have liked to remain above the fray, on purely aesthetic grounds, on account of my attachment to Nabokov. But as I got older I found myself riled up by injustice, by systemic bias, by the world’s chronic ills. I had the aesthetician’s refinement but the reformer’s spirit.
I was 27 when I read The Human Stain. It tells the story of Coleman Silk, the classics professor and former dean of students at the fictional Athena college in New England who, as a young man, discards his African American heritage and passes as a white Jew. Like Roth’s alter-ego Nathan Zuckerman—the narrator of the book, and no stranger to the claustrophobic confinements of the accidents of birth—Silk rails against the strictures and pieties of conformity. Here’s the passage that moves me the most:
At Howard he’d discovered that he wasn’t just a nigger to Washington, D.C.—as if that shock weren’t strong enough, he discovered at Howard that he was a Negro as well. A Howard Negro at that. Overnight the raw I was part of a we with all of the we’s overbearing solidity, and he didn’t want anything to do with it or with the next oppressive we that came along either. You finally leave home, the Ur of we, and you find another we? Another place that’s just like that, the substitute for that? Growing up in East Orange, he was of course a Negro, very much of their small community of five thousand or so, but boxing, running, studying, at everything he did concentrating and succeeding, roaming around on his own all over the Oranges and, with or without Doc Chinzer, down across the Newark line, he was, without thinking about it, everything else as well. He was Coleman, the greatest of the great pioneers of the I.
Then he went off to Washington and, in the first month, he was a nigger and nothing else and he was a Negro and nothing else. No. No. He saw the fate awaiting him, and he wasn’t having it. Grasped it intuitively and recoiled spontaneously. You can’t let the big they impose its bigotry on you any more than you can let the little they become a we and impose its ethics on you. Not the tyranny of the we and its we— talk and everything that the we wants to pile on your head. Never for him the tyranny of the we that is dying to suck you in, the coercive, inclusive, historical, inescapable moral we with its insidious E pluribus unum. Neither the they of Woolworth’s nor the we of Howard. Instead the raw I with all its agility. Self-discovery—that was the punch to the labonz. Singularity. The passionate struggle for singularity. The singular animal. The sliding relationship with everything. Not static but sliding. Self-knowledge but concealed. What is as powerful as that?
As the white man in the white man’s world, I’ve suffered none of this. No coercion, cooptation, oppression, insularity, or suffocation. I have rather the opposite problem of Silk (and Zuckerman, and Roth himself): I lack a relation to any defining we. No ancestral we, no religious we, no racial we, no baseline birthright against which to rebel and better resolve the individual self. A man who knows nothing but the sliding relationship with everything. For whom it’s all self-discovery.