Chaos and Imagination

“Because the book is written in the first person singular, Ellison cannot establish ironic distance between his hero and himself, or between the matured “I” telling the story and the “I” who is its victim. And because the experience is so apocalyptic and magnified, it absorbs and then dissolves the hero; every minor character comes through brilliantly, but the seeing “I” is seldom seen.” –Irving Howe on Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, 1952

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I wonder sometimes to what extent is this book almost autobiographical. Did Ellison ever experience his own “battle royal”? Was he affiliated with a group similar to the Brotherhood? Well, I think it’s safe to say that Ellison did not end up in the bottom of a hole somewhere. That is probably metaphorical for the position he felt himself in after all these experiences. “I’m invisible, not blind,” says the narrator in the Epilogue. Ellison has most definitely proved that he is not blind either; he has written a novel filled with detailed observations and chilling accounts.

While the narrator at the end of the book might not know what his next step will be, Ellison’s next step is writing this novel. He is “trying to make sense out of chaos” (see quote below), and literature is precisely the way he thinks he can possbily change the world. “Step outside the narrow borders of what men call reality and you step into chaos–ask Rinehart, he’s a master of it–or imagination,” the narrator says (Epilogue). According to the invisible man, there’s either chaos or imagination when one decides to challenge everyday “reality”. We can see this echoed in the two great figures of the Civil Rights Movement: Malcolm X on the side of chaos (“By any means necessary”), and Martin Luther King, Jr. on the side of imagination (“I had a dream…”).

It seems to me that Ellison is trying to be a bridge between chaos and imagination, using one to understand the other.

“I am a novelist not an activist,” [Ellison] says, “but I think that no one who reads what I write or who listens to my lectures can doubt that I am enlisted in the freedom movement. As an individual, I am primarily responsible for the health of American literature and culture. When I write, I am trying to make sense out of chaos. To think that a writer must think about his Negroness is to fall into a trap.” –From John Corry’s “Profile of an American Novelist, A White View of Ralph Ellison”

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3 Responses to “Chaos and Imagination”

  1. Prof. Matt Says:

    I think that Howe’s claim is pretty specious: to claim that Ellison can’t establish “ironic distance” because the book is written in the first-person singular is to elide the difference between author and character. Understanding that the voice of a character does not necessarily represent the voice the author is a pretty basic (though often ignored) element of literary criticism.

    I’m going to send out a few essays from Ellison’s Shadow and Act which may help you answer some of these questions. Here, for instance, what Ellison has to say about the battle royal scene, as he responds to a question about his use of folklore and ritual in the novel:

    Take the “Battle Royal” passage in my novel, where the boys are blindfolded and forced to fight each other for the amusement of the white observers. This is a vital part of behavior pattern in the South, which both Negroes and whites thoughtlessly accept. It is a ritual in preservation of caste lines, a keeping of taboo to appease the gods and ward off bad luck. It is also the initiation ritual to which all greenhorns are subjected. This passage which states what Negroes will see I did not have to invent; the patterns were already there in society, so that all I had to do was present them in a broader context of meaning. In any society there are many rituals of situation which, for the most part, go unquestioned. They can be simple or elaborate, but they are the connective tissue between the work of art and the audience.

    In many of the essays in Shadow and Act, Ellison denies direct connections between his experiences or real-life historical personages and episodes in the book. It’s quite clear that many of his characters were inspired by his own experiences, but he used them in the way that any good author does: as the raw materials from which he would build a more resonant world of the imagination.

    Your statement that Ellison is “trying to be a bridge between chaos and imagination” is very apt — keep thinking along those lines.

  2. Prof. Matt Says:

    I should have mentioned that the quote above comes from “The Art of Fiction: An Interview” in Shadow and Act.

  3. Sam Gale Rosen Says:

    Dear Lindsay,

    My name is Sam Gale Rosen. I’m a producer at Radio Open Source, Chris Lydon’s nationally-syndicated public radio show.

    We’re having Arnold Rampersad, author of a new autobiography of Ralph Ellison, on our show tomorrow. I read your post about the relationship between Invisible Man and Ellison’s own life, and I wondered if you had any questions you’d like us to ask Mr. Ramperstad. We like to get ideas and comments from bloggers to use on our show.

    If you do, we’d love to hear from you on our comment thread here:


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