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Blue Angel ? Disgrace ? The Human Stain
Reviewed by ROBERT MICHELS, M.D.
Am J Psychiatry 2000;157:2065-2066. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.157.12.2065
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By Francine Prose. New York, HarperCollins, 2000, 314 pp., $25.00. • By J.M. Coetzee. New York, Viking, 220 pp., $23.95. • By Philip Roth. New York, Houghton Mifflin, 2000, 352 pp., $26.00.

A middle-aged male professor of humanities at a liberal arts college is charged with violating the social and sexual norms of the academic community, abusing his power over students, and refusing to express remorse or seek repentance. There are academic inquiries, hearings, attacks by angry feminist colleagues, attempts at compromise by timid administrators, excesses of political correctness, parodies of judicial proceedings, and finally disgrace. His clandestine adventure with a much younger, sexually available woman, its discovery, confrontations with her family, and condemnation by his colleagues all contribute to his leaving his faculty position and seeking reconciliation with his long-estranged, rebellious daughter. Although the drama is deeply personal, it unfolds in the context of a social order that is itself being transformed by new views of gender, race, social class, power, and authority.

This is a central plot of Francine Prose’s brilliant new novel, Blue Angel. Remarkably, with little variation, it is also a central plot of two other recent highly acclaimed novels: J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace (winner of the 1999 Booker Prize, making Coetzee the first ever two-time winner of Britain’s most important literary award) and Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, the third in a trilogy that started with American Pastoral (1997 Pulitzer Prize) (1) and went on to I Married a Communist (1998 Ambassador Book Award) (2). Prose’s, Coetzee’s, and Roth’s visions are, of course, quite distinct. (For example, for Prose and Coetzee, the sex is with a seductive ingenue student, and it isn’t very good, but for Roth it is with an illiterate campus cleaning woman and is much better.) Nevertheless, the congruence of their central plot devices is remarkable. What does that mean, what does it tell us about the books, and what might it tell us about ourselves?

Prose understands that the good teacher-student relationship is based on love: "there’s something erotic about the act of teaching, all that information streaming back and forth like some…bodily fluid. Doesn’t Genesis trace sex to that first bite of apple, not the fruit from just any tree, but the Tree of Knowledge?" (p. 22). Her teacher is happily married and has a good sex life with his wife but is quite ungratified as a writer and teacher. The student who seduces him, or whom he seduces, or at least with whom he breaks the rules, provides in their single completed sexual experience one of the less gratifying episodes of his life:

For once he isn’t thinking as he turns her over, and her legs fall open. He braces himself on his arms, then lets his chest sink against hers, feeling his chest against her breasts, her thighs pushing to get closer. And now his face is against her face, his chin against her cheek….

There’s an explosion inside his head. A crack, a crunch, and then a grinding, like stone turning to powder. It takes him a while to realize what’s happened.

"What was that?" asks Angela. "I heard it through my skull." "Nothing," says Swenson. "I broke a tooth.…" "I lost a filling," he says. "That’s not all you lost," says Angela. His hard-on’s gone. Gone for good. (p. 171)

The student engages him by her literary gift more than her sensual allure, and his midlife crisis has more to do with creativity than sexuality, but they come together in the failed solution that reminds him, and us, of the famous Josef von Sternberg film that features Marlene Dietrich as The Blue Angel, the referent of the title.

Coetzee’s character and emphasis are different. His hero’s disgrace culminates early in the novel, resonating later with the much more devastating disgrace of his daughter’s gang rape, to which he is a helpless witness. Coetzee is also more explicitly interested in his hero’s experience as a metaphor, for the tensions of race in South Africa, for generational conflict, and even for animal rights. It is not so much that the hero’s personal psychology is ignored as that it is subordinated to these, for Coetzee, far more important themes.

Roth is also interested in larger themes. In his characteristic style he tells and retells his story, first from one perspective, then another, as told by one narrator to another and then retold to us with the background of Clinton, Monica, and the impeachment hearings and the foreground of a New England college with roots in the Puritan ethic. (Prose also uses a New England college, drawing on the same connotations.) Of the three, Roth alone tells us of his protagonist’s early life—a gifted black man who "passes" as white (rumored to be based on the late New York Times critic Anatole Broyard), who conceals his true identity, even from his wife and children, and who is charged with racism for referring to students (whom he has never seen) as "spooks." Roth’s irony is as relentless as Coetzee’s despair.

However, if Roth tells us how it came to be, and Coetzee describes what follows as a result, Prose focuses on the events themselves. How did an innocent and faultless teacher fall, what was the first boundary to be violated, who was seducing whom? Was it the thought, his attempt to conceal it from himself, the act, the refusal to conceal it from others, the guilt, or the lack of remorse? It is in the theme of boundary violations that all three of these novels, and perhaps especially Prose’s, might have a special interest for psychiatrists. The teacher-student relationship is not the only one that is fundamentally based on love, and problems in separating therapeutic as well as pedagogic from erotic themes are not unknown.

These are three fascinating novels by three masters of the genre. Roth, the most familiar to American readers, writes with the hypomanic intensity that has marked his last few novels, constantly reminding us of aging (his alter ego-narrator Nathan Zuckerman suffers from all of the indignities of prostate cancer and its treatment) and the limited time left to strip away the facades of convention and denial, to confront whatever in ourselves we have long tried to deny. True, there may be more than a bit of narcissism that is uncovered in the process, but without that the novel, and perhaps we ourselves, would be much less interesting.

Coetzee—the darkest and sparest writer of the three—never lets us forget the background of post-Apartheid South Africa and that the tensions and conflicts of our personal lives are always reflections—and often only pale reflections—of the cultural conflicts of the communities in which we live.

Prose—the youngest, least well-known, and only woman of the three—may be the most interested in the protagonists’ inner experience for its own sake. In her most recent previous work, Guided Tours of Hell(3), she offered a powerful description of the inner experience of a slow descent into psychosis. Here she has fun satirizing the academic world of a small New England college (her Euston is more superficial and less ominous than Roth’s Athena, but they are only a few hundred miles apart and probably play in the same football circuit). She uses as counterpoint the film The Blue Angel, with its tale of a teacher who falls in love and out of grace, as Roth uses The Iliad, with its story of a hero who cannot survive the war and return to the world of peace. Prose stumbles occasionally—Swenson wouldn’t have driven his student to town to buy a new computer, or found himself in bed with her in her dormitory room, but these are minor and unimportant glitches. She helps us understand how someone with a once rich but now sterile imagination can find himself doing what he had never imagined possible.

Three gifted contemporary novelists capture the stories of sexual boundary violations between older men in authority and younger women whose only power comes from their erotic appeal. Their stories tell us about exploitation, hypocrisy, aging, and desire, and, perhaps, some of the problems of our profession.

Roth P: American Pastoral. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1997
 
Roth P: I Married a Communist. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1998
 
Prose F: Guided Tours of Hell: Novellas. New York, Henry Holt, 1997
 
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References

Roth P: American Pastoral. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1997
 
Roth P: I Married a Communist. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1998
 
Prose F: Guided Tours of Hell: Novellas. New York, Henry Holt, 1997
 
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