Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Coleman and the They

The selection from Philip Roth's The Human Stain shows the capacity of literature to powerfully convey existential themes more effectively than most abstruse philosophical argument. Literature helps us to feel the conflicts that are often stripped of their force through attempts to translate them into a philosophical language fitting an academic form. The refreshingly vulgar and human characters display many of the same sentiments shown by other conversational writers such as Camus (see The Fall). Camus' conqueror in The Myth of Sisyphus echoes the imperatives put forth by Roth's character in stating that in reacting to the absurdity between human life and the universe, man has one luxury, "that of human relations...Taut faces, threatened fraternity, such strong and chaste friendship among men--these are the true riches because they are transitory," (Camus, 88). The emphasis on authentic interpersonal relations is, although appearing somewhat idealistic and pathetic in Roth's character, contiguous with Heidegger's description of an altered hold on everydayness characteristic of authenticity.

Authenticity begins not with placing oneself above or apart from the They but rather knowing specifically against whom one is distinguishing oneself, the particular perspectives being forced upon you. Coleman's female friend recognizes the lack of emphasis on personal, meditative thinking endemic to "all the social ways of thinking" and the leveling down of Dasein caused by these social expectations. All of this analysis may be misguided without knowledge of the actual characters' background stories, as Eric rightly pointed out in his precis. However, despite Coleman's "living a lie," being absorbed into the kind of being of "the others," he seems to be in line with Camus by keeping touch with the gratuitousness of his existence and the absurdity of his life, as displayed by his "proof" (or lack thereof, depending on interpretation) for God's existence.

Even the atrocious film version, with Nicole Kidman as the poorly played janitor, exhibits the influence of the They, as Coleman's wife dies from the shock of his disgraced departure from the university. I cannot agree with Eric's comparison of the janitor with the Uebermensch both as I have only read this excerpt and probably witnessed Hollywood destroy another important book, yet it is obvious how instrumental this new love interest of Coleman's influenced his conception of his own being and his being-toward-death. This merely demonstrates the malleability of the self and the ease with which something like love can influence one's worldview. However, it can only be argued that the janitor is working toward Nietzsche's ideal of the Uebermensch in that she creates her own values, her own meaning to her existence, as something apart from conformity to the herd mentality and the warm comfort and easy consent that comes from being indistinguishable from one's social environment. The Uebermensch arises in Nietzsche's thought from his preoccupation with self-creation and self-perfecting but also was an ideal that neither himself or another has or necessarily will have embodied.


  1. Also, I'm not just a consistent fool. An umlaut over a "u" equates to "ue." :)

  2. I agree that the janitor woman does not represent the Uebermensch to the full extent. Although she would like to escape "social" existence, she confines herself in a world full of restrictions. What the exert leaves out is the part where Coleman Silk is ridiculed by the city for dating her. She also has an ex husband that is mentally crazy and winds up killing Coleman Silk in a car accident. By the janitor trying to create an existence without considering these limitations, she essentially hurts Coleman in the end. Although she could not have stopped her ex, they could have taken different precautions. I would propose the janitor take the perspective of Merleau-Ponty and recognize their limitations and restrictions.

  3. I agree that I don't think anyone ever really attains ubermensch status. Although we can approximate the ubermensch by creating our own values that affirm our life, it seems impossible to be a part of society and be an ubermensch because being a part of society seems to involve obeying society's rules. Although I guess there could be ubermenschen out in the forests and deserts of the world affirming their lives, but it seems implausible. Also, the lack of societal interaction seems to remove the possibility of technological, musical, or other forms of progress.


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