Thursday, January 27, 2011

Invisible Man: To See or Not to See

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.

My post (two days ago) about media references in Invisible Man nods to The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells from 1897 and mentions the shared theme of alienation.

Ellison's reinterpretation of "invisible" gives the word its own kind of transparency through displacement from its original, concrete meaning. Not only is the definition harder to pin down but Ellison energizes its fluctuating state with multiple declarations by his narrator throughout the novel that he is and is not invisible. His invisibility is not a property of the object but a diminished capacity for seeing by the viewer. Ellison's invisibility is directly related to another's "blindness," which is another word he veers from its original meaning. Physical blindness is simply a metaphor for the mental blindness that makes him invisible.

This is most clearly demonstrated with the removal of the glass eye of the oppositional Brother Jack. What is interesting in this action is that the narrator was unaware of/blind to the fact that someone so close to him was actually blind in one eye. It is a reciprocated blindness...and the narrator fails to take the high road by quipping to one-eye Jack:

...maybe you'll recommend me to your oculist...then I may not-see myself as others see-me-not.

It is quite a bolder, more cynical character, than who is addressed by a veteran at the Golden Day at the beginning of the book:

...for God's sake, learn to look beneath the surface...Come out of the fog, young man.

My favorite concept of invisibility from this novel is itself invisible. It is so entirely invisible, that it seems to have evaded readers for more than half a century. It is the inherent invisibility of an author both in the seclusion of how he or she writes but also in the lack of identity. Unlike actors and dancers, the author is faceless and bodiless. We cannot know the gender, race, age or fitness unless its is offered to us by something beyond the text. Consider how this is handled in the title and contents of John Howard Griffin's Black Like Me (1961).

Additionally, there is an absence of visual cues we might get from another profession: the photographer's camera, the painter's splat jeans, or the musician's cello (in case) being wheeled down the street. This is partly by design. The inherent invisibility of an author seems necessary to the profession and craft: to secretly observe without any obvious recording device and then to recall the invisible ideas suspended in one's imagination. This is a great advantage to an observer whose subject would certainly act differently in front of a still or movie camera. Subjects of such devices project ideas of themselves back through the lens.

There is also another fascinating affect. While the paperback or Kindle have a physical presence, their words are quickly converted into invisible memories of what was read and can be unwound by thinking about and discussing them.

Ellison's invisibility is indeed complex. In the prologue her offers:

That invisibility to which I refer occurs because of a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with whom I come in contact. A matter of the construction of their inner eyes, those eyes with which they look through their physical eyes upon reality. I am not complaining, nor am I protesting either. It is sometimes advantageous to be unseen, although it is most often rather wearing on the nerves.

The complexity is especially of note in such a comment:

Irresponsibility is part of my invisibility...


Discipline is sacrifice. Yes, and blindness.

Invisible Man
is too easy reduced to/defined as the story of a black man in white America. The narrator is just as invisible and alienated from other African-Americans as he is from the Anglo-Americans. His state is a blurred one, bouncing between the extremes. Dr. Bledsoe, who is a "white is right" black man, and Ras the Exhorter/Destroyer, who is the closer to home, foreign-born African, are his two greatest enemies. Both of these men want to bury him alive. In fact, he wants to be invisible to both of them. In one of the most interesting and comical parts, the narrator buys a pair of sunglasses and then a hat to avoid being noticed by Ras and his followers. The minor disguise apparently makes several people believe he is someone else, Rinehart, a multi-faceted mystery man, who is defined as:

...Rine the runner and Rine the gambler and Rine the briber and Rine the lover and Rinehart the Reverend?

Ellison starts the novel from a future time in the story and states he is an invisible man but this identity is not immediately assumed. It's developed throughout the book. At the beginning of the book, in the racist brawl organized at a local hotel for the town's "big shots," the narrator comments:

Blindfolded, I could no longer control my motions. I had no dignity. I stumbled about like a baby or a drunken man.

The idea of invisibility is introduced by one of the crazy war veterans (speaking about our narrator) at the Golden Day:

"You see," he said turning to Mr. Norton, "he has eyes and ears and a good distended African nose, but he fails to understand the simple facts of life. Understand. Understand? It's worse than that. He registers with his senses but short-circuits his brain. Nothing has meaning. He takes it in but he doesn't digest it. Already he is - well, bless my soul! Behold! A walking zombie! Already he's learned to repress not only his emotions but his humaity. He's invisible, a walking personification of the Negative, the most perfect achievement of your dreams, sir! The mechanical man!"

I love how the theme evolves; over 500 pages into the novel the narrator remarks:

They were blind, bat blind, moving only by the echoed sounds of their own voices. And because they were blind they would destroy themselves and I'd help them. I laughed. Here I had thought they accepted me because they felt that color made no difference, when in reality it made no difference because they didn't see either color or men...

I don't want to take anything away from the book's moved readers or its influence on the Civil Rights Movement but Ellison's work reaches beyond this period and cast of characters.

When he writes in the Epilogue, "I have been hurt to the point of abysmal pain, hurt to the point of invisibility," I consider his confession through the narrator that he is a "sensitive" person. To be sensitive to certain issues is to also be slightly removed from them and to acknowledge their actual qualities. While the narrator is alienated by the Anglo-Americans he also shares very intimate moments with them, whether its casually pressing up against their bodies on a crowded subway or being eagerly pulled into bed by a woman who fancies him.

Ellison can be very direct, black and white:

Why, if they follow this conformity business they'll end up by forcing me, an invisible man, to become white, which is not a color but the lack of one. Must I strive toward colorlessness?

Thus one of the greatest jokes in the world is the spectacle of the whites busy escaping blackness and becoming blacker every day, and the blacks striving toward whiteness, becoming quite dull and gray.

There is one reference to food that I found quite interesting. I do not know if was an unconscious wording or if bread and jam are code for Anglo-Americans and African-Americans:

good white bread...with wild blackberry jam from home.