Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Invisible Man: Invisible Media

by Drew Martin

I recently completed Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952). It is a powerful book and an important American novel so I want to discuss it here in five, consecutive postings: the use of the US flag, the use of mirrors, media references, art references and the theme of invisibility.

Invisible Man is a book about humanity and the struggles of achieving and maintaining a certain level of respect, dignity and value as a human...and yet, I have been discussing very superficial elements such as flags and mirrors; and I want to continue to discuss them. The reason for this is because I will leave the deeper discussions for the true scholars of this text.

Another reason is that I hope my perspective reveals a side of Ellison that is often lost to the conversation about the more obvious theme of being 'black' in America. I gasp when I read back-handed compliments such as "the best novel by an African American..." Ellison was a great universal writer and I believe my approach supports this with such specific examples.

I have already written about flags as a motif and mirrors as a literary device. I want to discuss here media references, both outside and inside the book. The most obvious one is the title. H.G. Wells published The Invisible Man in 1897. Ellison's Invisible Man expands the meaning of invisible, the same way the term color blind grew to have social implications. The reference to the Wells' invisible character is that of alienation.

In the introduction of Ellison's novel, John F. Callahan, addresses some interesting media points:

Invisible Man makes a powerful appeal for our participation. Though his medium is now the written word, his language has the offhand, offbeat, vernacular quality of speech which, together his story, has kept generations of readers having their say, talking back to him and to Ellison about 'the principle' and about 'the beautiful absurdity of American identity', which press on in ways 'just as concrete, ornery, vile and sublimely wonderful as before, only now [we] better understand [our] relation to it and it to [us]'.

And I like Callahan's temporal compliment:

As a writer, he was blessed with an elastic sense of time.

The genius of which is expressed in the following passage:

I moved with the crowd, the sweat pouring off me, listening to the grinding roar of traffic, the growing sound of a record shop loudspeaker blaring a languid blues. I stopped. Was this all that would be recorded? Was this the only true history of the times, a mood blared by trumpets, trombones, saxophones and drums, a song with turgid inadequate words? My mind flowed. It was as though in this short block I was forced to walk past everyone I'd ever known and no one would smile or call my name. No one fixed me in his eyes. I walked in feverish isolation.

In the closing of the epilogue, Ellison probes:

So why do I write, torturing myself to put it down? Because in spite of myself I've learned some things. Without the possibility of action, all knowledge comes to one labeled "file and forget," and I can neither file nor forget. Nor will certain ideas forget me; they keep filing away at my lethargy. My complacency.

(...perhaps, being a talker, I've used too many words). But I've failed. The very act of trying to put it all down has confused me and negated some of the anger and some of the bitterness.

My first note of a media reference came a quarter of the way into the book. Dr. Bledsoe addresses the narrator:

"These white folk have newspapers, magazines, radios, spokesmen to get their ideas across. If they want to tell the world a lie, they can tell it so well that it becomes the truth; and if I tell them that you're lying, they'll tell the world even if you prove you're telling the truth. Because it's the kind of lie they want to hear..."

One passage might as well have come out of Stanley Kubrick's notes on how to shoot A Clockwork Orange scene. It is of our narrator, coming to in the factory hospital:

They were holding me firm and it was fiery and above it all I kept hearing the opening motif of Beethoven's Fifth...

There are also many references to language, such as:

For the boys speak a jived-up transitional language full of country glamour, think transitional thoughts, though perhaps they dream the same old ancient dreams.


I saw no limits...Even if it meant climbing a mountain of words. For now I had begun to believe, despite all the talk of science around me, that there was a magic in spoken words.

But I especially loved those that were more poetic:

...their heavy heel plates clicking remote, cryptic messages in the brief silence of the train's stop.

And finally, a prescient nod to Twitter:

I hurried, the sound drawing closer, myriad-voiced, humming, enfolding me, numbing the air, as I started beneath the ramp. It came, a twitter, a coo, a subdued roar that seemed trying to tell me something, give me some message.