what we pretend to be

“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”

–Kurt Vonnegut, Mother Night

john cusack mask

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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

Link to the full article: http://writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/50s/howe-on-ellison.html

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”

Link to this article

“Invisible Man” and the Veil

“After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, –a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”

-Excerpt from W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, Chapter I

Throughout “Invisible Man”, I feel Ellison channelling Du Bois’ words. Ellison uses the word “veil” several times, and I see it as a reference to Du Bois’ veil in this quote above. A veil is something that covers your eyes but is not a blindfold; you can see through it still and people can still see you through it. But at the same time, your sight is impared by a veil, foggy and unclear.

“Invisible Man” is often referred to as a bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story where the main character starts off from innocence and journeys into experience. If you look at the first couple chapters, the narrator is very naive and unsure of how to live as a Black man and an American man in his society. He struggles with these two sides and finds many contradictions that confuse him. It is like he is wearing a veil, and that he cannot yet see clearly how to live in the world. I anticipate that the rest of the book will show the process of the narrator throwing away the veil, although I’m not sure yet if it will be a slow and gradual change or an abrupt one. When I’m reading, I know I will certainly look for more ways in which Du Bois has influenced both the author and the narrator.

lightning of possible storms

 “I dream about a kind of criticism that would try not to judge but to bring
an oeuvre, a book, a sentence, an idea to life; it would light fires, watch
the grass grow, listen to the wind, and catch the sea foam in the breeze
and scatter it. It would multiply not judgments but signs of existence; it
would summon them, drag them from their sleep. Perhaps it would invent
them sometimes — all the better.

“Criticism that hands down sentences sends me to sleep; I’d like a
criticism of scintillating leaps of imagination. It would not be sovereign or
dressed in red. It would bear the lightning of possible storms.”

-Michel Foucault, “The Masked Philosopher,” interview in *Le Monde,*