Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Invisible Man: Like a Museum

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.

It is always important to read a book, view a painting or listen to music with an understanding of its historical context. Invisible Man is inseparable from the Civil Rights Movement.

John F. Callahan comments in the Introduction:

Segregation was the law of the land and Jim Crow customs still prevailed in the South....The Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision mandating integration in public schools was two years away...seamstress Rosa Parks [had not yet] refused to give up her seat...Martin Luther King, Jr. was a first-year divinity student...
Considering how progressive Ellison was as a writer, it is surprising to note that Pablo Picasso had painted Demoiselles d’Avignon almost half a century earlier, in 1907, which, like other cubist paintings, referenced the abstraction found in African art.

Ellison's narrator is often wide-eyed, somewhat naïve (though he does recognize a Renoir) and at times critical of African objects. While visiting a wealthy New York businessman, Mr. Emerson, in search of employment, he takes in his office:

Beyond the door it was like a museum. I had entered a large reception room decorated with cool tropical colors...I looked around the room, amazed. There were paintings, bronzes, tapestries, all beautifully arranged...I looked across to a lighted case of Chinese design which held delicate-looking statues of horses and birds, small vases and bowls, each set upon a carved wooden base...The room was quiet as a tomb...These folks are the Kings of the Earth!...There was nothing like this at the college museum - or anywhere else that I had ever been. I recalled only a few cracked relics from slavery times: an iron pot, an ancient bell, a set of ankle-irons and links of chain, a primitive loom, a spinning wheel, a gourd for drinking, an ugly ebony African god that seemed to sneer (presented to the school by some traveling millionaire), a leather whip with copper brads, a branding iron with the double letter MM...
The narrator is continually impressed and seems to respect the finer things of the upper class. An admirer of his speeches brings him back to her apartment "in one of the better sections of the city" where he is seduced prior to her indifferent husband's arrival in the early morning:

"What a beautiful room you have here," I said, looking across the rich cherry glow of furniture to see a life-sized painting of a nude, a pink Renoir. Other canvases were hung here and there, and the spacious walls seemed to flash alive with warm, pure color. What does one say to all this? I thought, looking at an abstract fish of polished brass mounted on a piece of ebony.
The pink, nude Renoir anticipates the "small, delicately plump" woman's advances, which he is hesitant to submit to but not something he denies himself:

And there was something about her voice and smile that gave me a sense of both comfort and excitement. It was not merely the background of wealth and gracious living, to which I was alien, but simply the being there with her and the sensed possibility of a heightened communication; as though the discordantly invisible and the conspicuously enigmatic were reaching a delicately balanced harmony. She's rich but human.
The harmony is quickly disrupted when she talks about his primitive nature when he gives his speeches:

" have tom-toms beating in your voice."
To which he responds:

"My God," I laughed, "I thought that was the beat of profound ideas."
She corrects herself:

"I don't mean really primitive. I suppose I mean forceful, powerful."
It is an exchange that makes me question my previous mention of Picasso, because what we often embrace as an advancement in art was really a cultural slight: embracing "the primitive" which feeds into the art world all the way up to Jean-Michel Basquiat and beyond.

It is an issue Ellison exposes in this passage:

These fellows whose bodies seemed - what had one of my teachers said of me? - "You're like one of those African sculptures, distorted in the interest of a design." Well, what design and whose?
My favorite art references are less direct and are formed by Ellison - the writer, but not for the benefit of a character observing art: and horses of flesh imitating men and horses of stone.
And I love this image created by a man carting piles of blueprints through New York City:

"I got damn near enough (blueprints) to build me a house if I could live in a paper house like they do in Japan."
I would even go so far as to reinterpret this next sentence, simply a convalescent/medical analogy, to that of the creation of a statue coming to life, perhaps even the formation of Adam, himself. There is something of George Segal's sculptures in it:

My entire body started to itch, as though I had just been removed from a plaster cast and was unused to the new freedom of movement.
I love Ellison's scope of observation of the day-to-day:

I looked into the design of their faces...

Now, moving through the crowds along 125th Street, I was painfully aware of other men dressed like the boys, and of girls in dark exotic-colored stockings, their costumes surreal variations of downtown styles.
Speaking of 'surreal variations,' Ellison is brilliant with this animism of an object and words that almost emit sounds themselves:

...a bullet struck an auto tire, the released air shrieking like a huge animal in agony.
Finally, a line I will contemplate for the rest of my life:

There was no time for memory, for all its images were of times past.