Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is a novel of deliverance from darkness to light, a resequencer of cognitive awareness and differential patterns of conformity. It rejects imitation, deeming it as nothing more than a form of limitation, a burden hampering the doctrine of artistic creation. The novel appeals to the indirect participation of its readers in determining the mechanisms which constitute a collective conscience, a moral voice which communicates for us and through us.
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The author commits to his duality as a mainstream educated, patriotic American insider and his often frustrating position as a repressed minority, a victim persecution, the racial outsider. His status has the potential to propagate a significant amount of perceptual liberation as he is granted insight, unrestricted access into both fundamental facets of the American cultural construct. Ellison is an outspoken denouncer of extremism in all of its forms and manners of content, placing great emphasis on accurate depictions and justifiable service control, banishing impulses or other manifestations of emotion which tend to either embellish or diminish the narrative.
The novel functions by utilizing a strong internal voice attempting to claim the spoils of jazz and random materialization of captured imagination. Generating the narrative voice is not however an entirely independent endeavor as Ellison must preoccupy himself with exhibitions of intent that mark familiarity in terms of style, character development and literary form. He manages to capture random synchronicities in the fabric of language and tame them under the banner of intention and literary design. Language is thus able to ascend to a tier where it is no longer restricted to simply expressing ideas; it begins to generate independent thought, become the forger of identity as an instrument of both creation and deception.
From this standpoint, one is almost obligated to view Ellison’s writing as an act of patriotism and national pride. But he is by no means a celebrator of the founding fathers or other such bribers of destiny. He bows to the common man, the carrier of tradition and the giver of love and enlightening humanity. Powerful men are perceived as the enemies of equality and freedom inside the American experiment. This pseudo-communist view and manner of interpreting deeds, individuals and events will trigger an internal conflict inside the mind of Ellison himself who viewed communism as a corrupt and bankrupt ideology and treated it as such, indirectly of course through his portrayal of the Brotherhood in Invisible Man.
The perception of Afro-Americans is modulated to encompass not only their immediate predicaments, but also the trigger-elements of their past that had obstructed their development as a group and as individuals. Slavery is the key element inside a shameful national battlefield whose remnants still included segregation, unwarranted racial presuppositions and a lack of equal opportunity and respect. Yet Ellison does not let rage or Black Nationalism get the better of him. His solution for mending the hearts and minds of all parties involved is based on love, tolerance, affirmative action, exploring the elements that unite us rather than embracing those which have the capacity to tear our shared humanity asunder.
Ellison is one of America’s gatekeepers of moral history. His influence on the Afro-American novel and the American novel as a whole may have hastened the emergence of the Civil Rights Movement. He carried inside his writing the intellectual turmoil of his generation and set the standard for a new moral and artistic comprehension of 1960s America. His objective was not to portray a coherent image of individual identity, or of black identity but the identity of the American rainbow, the melting pot of intimidating complexity. His verbal flow and communicative fortitude served as a release valve for the creative energies of his countrymen. The great American writer acknowledged Faulkner, Melville or Hawthorne but above all he paid homage to the almost sacred pieces of paper (the Constitution and the Bill of Rights) which had dictated the moral imperatives shaping the beautiful destiny of his beloved America. His patriotism was not uncommon for an individual living in 1940s and 50s America; what was oddly inspiring however was the fact that he managed to unreservedly love a country that had at times rejected and humiliated him because of the color of his skin. Invisible Man is a novel of trust and belief in the ideals for which America stands. Had it not been for Ellison’s patriotism and trust in America’s pledge of liberty and justice for all his novel would never have been written; because despite his façade of irony and pessimism Ralph Waldo Ellison is a true believer that change will come, that he himself can make a difference through his work and generous humanity. The novelist’s responsibility and debt to society cannot be overlooked or ignored towards the realm of perdition. Both form and content must coexist and serve the author’s creative infrastructure, a convergence hub where literature and democracy become intertwined creating not only mentally endowed characters but also intelligent, opinionated citizens/readers who have the courage and mental clarity to change society for the better.
Imagination does not run its course individually and independently. In Invisible Man for example it responds to the needs and compensative prerequisites of American life. This complex and immensely creative subroutine of the human mind governs the flux of the yet undiscovered or under-discovered recoils of fate, regulates preoccupations of solitude fills in the blanks of our existence as all true creation begins with imagination and if we seek to better ourselves we must first envisage it with our mind’s inner eye. The protagonist in Invisible Man is meant to become the perfect American citizen but he is still in beta testing. A more congealed version is set to surface after the author has fully experimented with his test dummy and exhausted all potential behavioral simulations generated by his mental resourcefulness. The final version of the character should be very astute in reflecting not just destiny or possibility but also America’s variations and complexity, referring here of course to its cultural heritage, racial, gender and class interactions.
Invisible Man must not be approached solely based on its intrinsic value. Like any work of art its dedicated objective is to move, transport or transform even abstract concepts such as democracy or perceptions of freedom. Ellison was well aware of this reality and also mentally converged on the topic of control by the artist versus the readership over the resulting cultural product: “the work of art begins to pulsate with those meanings, emotions, ideas brought to it by its audience, and over which the artist has but limited control” (Ellison qtd. in Callahan 1995:94). After setting in motion multiple perspectives dealing with creation as an act of control, he attempts a power play through which the author must fully detach himself from his work, set all personal subjectivity aside and become his own personal appraisal specialist by taking on the role of the reader who must objectively assess a work in progress. This creative method is deeply rooted in imagination, and the ability to immerse oneself inside a fundamentally different role caresses the realm of empathic intelligence, setting about to comprehend the hidden truths behind socially assigned roles and adaptive, intellectual democracy.
The rampant success of Invisible Man ignited a vast whirlwind of undignified criticism and unwarranted, feeble justifications. The fact that the book was well ahead of its time concerning matters of race, gender or social affiliation caught the attention of many critics of that time who were unfortunately locked inside a limited mindset, unable to comprehend a visionary such as Ralph Ellison. They interpreted the defiance of norms, categories and labeling as nothing less than literary, social and cultural heresy. The random, free-flowing, fluid literary style Ellison had perfected from his adaptations of jazz was also deemed precarious, seen as lacking in consistency and proper planning. The writer justly and calmly defended his novel, explaining, justifying and clarifying all issues related to his novel regardless of time constraints or argumentative relevance. His eloquence and patience as well as his ability to enhance predictions partaking in an astonishing pre-revelation of the American collective eventually earned him the praise, respect and recognition he most undoubtedly deserves. The novel comes as a response to a creative higher calling, a repayment of spiritual debt, a brave statement of honor and dignity.
Ellison’s working notes and letters have rendered clarification relevant to the conceptual and structural apparatus behind Invisible Man. The first part of the “Working Notes” analyses not only the causes of invisibility but also its subsequent manifestations and the impact it has on all parties involved. He uncovers two main sources of invisibility which are strongly rooted in the American cultural paradigm. The first generative element of invisibility is human nature itself. Man is instinctually pre-programed or pre-conditioned to interpret all physical, mental or spiritual differences as signs of inferiority and potential threats. This unfortunate reality enforces unnecessary clustering and segregation, separation and even conflict. Invisibility is not only a prerogative of race, gender or religious orientation. Individuals have often found themselves in a state of conflict or just ignorance because of trivial differentiations such as being from another city, speaking with a slightly different accent or supporting a different sports team. The conclusion is that no matter how small or big the differences, people are more than willing to surrender their personal identity to that of their respective arbitrary collective. They incapacitate themselves from seeing members of the “rival” faction as fellow, kindred beings and embrace a path of antagonism and dismal competition. The second factor of invisibility would be what Ellison identified in his notes as “the great formlessness of Negro life”. Cultural values here are highly volatile and exposed to a continuous stream of transformation and evolution. Afro-Americans are also subjected to often debilitating and diverse hardships from which only powerful individuals emerge with their personality, identity and sanity intact. Therefore it is difficult to create a stable, “visible” version of oneself inside a shifting and diverse ethnic universe whose objective is to heap disorientation rather than provide a marginally functional moral compass.
The issue of compromise has largely gone unseen in the novel. On the surface it is a concept or deliberate lack of action which leads to a passive resolution of conflicts. Taking a more in-depth look however reveals that compromise merely postpones a brutal reaction or conflict. This method leads to the accumulation of tension, an overwhelming increase in the parameters of rage and self-loathing. Compromise draws its energy not from wisdom but from weakness because the truly powerful do not compromise they just make merciful enlightened concessions from time to time. The unnamed hero in Invisible Man joins the Brotherhood and later serves its nefarious plans not out conviction but out of necessity. This ruthless left wing organization which is nothing more than a literary expression of the real life Communist Party uses the main character as he allows himself to be manipulated. He catches rare glimpses of what goes on behind the curtain but he refuses to see and acknowledge the truth. And herein lurks his predicament: the truth cannot and will not set him free, not the weakened version of himself anyway. The truth always reaches everyone no matter how strong or elaborate the deception might be, yet it is always meant for those who have the power to accept it. Weakness and compromise can also lead to the dissolution of family values. The protagonist’s sexual indiscretions with a married woman are overlooked by her husband in the interest of politics. The fact that there is no vindication for this dastardly act confirms that our character is indeed for all intents and purposes invisible and also that modern day society is severely dehumanizing as under the false and frail mask of a pseudo-enlightenment a man is forced to himself find, accept and provide justification for adultery and sentimental betrayal.
Devising his female characters spawned a great deal of compromise for Ellison himself. Most women in the novel are depicted as prostitutes or secret agents of deception and misrepresentation. Mary Rambo is the only positive female character in the novel, a nurturer, a benefactor for the protagonist, a mother figure. Despite all her qualities however she can never be a true partner for the “invisible man” as she utterly lacks eroticism or passion. She can’t complete him; she can only tend to a limited amount of wounds. From Ellison’s “Working Notes” we are made aware of what could have been the unnamed character’s significant other. Sadly enough she never made the roster. Louise was envisaged as seductive, charming the flagship of American ideals of freedom, democracy and fertility. Her relative perfection sort of defeats the purpose of the whole novel. The main character must be assaulted, tested and prodded from all directions. His hardships are transformative, motivating, the defining initiators of his true identity. Give him love and redemption and you might end up with a Garfield-type character, too lazy and unwilling to seek transformative confrontation. So sadly enough we ended up with good old Sybil, Ellison’s little compromise, who happens to have a bad case of jungle fever and whom the main character regards as nothing more than an obstacle and possibly a source of non-essential information.
The end of the novel commandeers a corpus of interactive integrity where Ellison appeals to both novice and specialized readers. He reveals the representative voice of his narrative, a raft of hope carrying with it the encoded pride of our shared humanity:
Being invisible and without substance, a disembodied voice as it were, what else could I do? What else but try to tell you what was really happening when your eyes were looking through? And it is this which frightens me: Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you? (Ellison, 1995:581)
1.3. Ralph Ellison: Between “Addiction” and Tradition
Ralph Ellison underscores the linkages and connections between Afro-American Culture and mainstream American culture, based on a hope of potential synergy, choosing to disregard arbitrary bonds of restrictive servitude. The limitations to his method are very few as he manages to create new worth through the exploration of the infinite possibilities conferred by folk tradition, jazz or the tales of old. He promotes his narrative as a stable and truthful presence in “the discontinuous, swiftly changing and diverse American culture.” His body of work expresses a blues-like absurdity in accepting a personal desire to defy limitations, seeking not simply a portrayal of tradition, but a translation, a decryption of its wider, more precise meanings. Ellison’s blues attest to “the agony” of life and the distinct possibility of overcoming all adversity through sheer wealth of spirit and desire to carry on by using pain as a catalyst rather than succumb to its destructive charms.
Several essays in Shadow and Act call attention to the purpose of folklore and its inner workings, as they strive to preserve the repeated situations that had once formulated the existence of a well-defined group of individuals, capturing the beauty of thoughts and emotions. The wisdom and spiritual wealth of a group, its symbols, icons and heraldic legacy and ultimately its desire to live long and prosper, generated according to Ellison, an essential truth which captured the spirit of all blacks. Folk symbols can utterly annihilate time through their simplicity, and an entire culture can revolve around a raw image, a universal rhythm. When addressing the black experience Ellison is a firm believer that folklore confirms “the Negro’s willingness to trust his own experience, his own sensibilities” rather than to permit their oppressors and masters to decide these fundamental things for them. Folklore therefore becomes not only a source of cohesive identity but a resource for freedom as well.
Black American folklore functions as an integral part of American and Western culture. Ellison recognizes the merits of a black tradition in confronting new American and global issues, by extracting from life new and profound definitions of joy. Black culture makes wide use of characters who represent folk cultural archetypes functioning inside a wider context of strategic symbology, representing various forms of art, music, religion or folk poetry. In Invisible Man the characters provide contrast and conflict with the lost nature of the invisible narrator who hovers above the storyline observing and sometimes triggering events which consolidate the narrative drive. The slave woman appearing in the prologue is meant to confirm centuries of victimization and hardships, and announce a propulsion towards embracing and understanding freedom. The grandfather who appears several times throughout the novel is a toxic character. He embodies “the ambiguity of the past”, a monument of bitterness and spiritual limitation which can have potentially crippling and debilitating consequences. The old man’s gregarious survival strategy of allowing the so called self-destructive nature of the white man to run its course confirms a false and contagious grasp of what is real and functional. His “yessing” strategy worthy of the great Napoleon himself has nearly fatal repercussions for his grandson who adopts the strategy of his elder not out of belief but out of confusion and desperation.
From a cultural point of view Invisible Man only has two characters who encompass both folk and contemporary black tradition: Trueblood and Mary.
Jim Trueblood is on a very basic level an expectant father, a family man, a maker and supporter of life. Yet he is also a rapist, a pedophile and a performer of adultery and incest. The sins of this father cannot be justified through oniric dementia. His heinous act does not prevent him from finding redemption through music: “I looks up and sees the stars and I starts singing”. He also reaches a very dangerous Popeye the Sailor type conclusion, an empty statement that allows justification for just about anything “I ain’t nobody but myself”. Putting aside the repugnant nature of this character one can’t help notice that he is deeply rooted in tradition; his humor, storytelling and manner of speaking exemplify the turmoil of his ethnic, racial and social legacy. Trueblood is also a part of Western tradition. He acknowledges his weakness and the sins of the flesh and in his twisted way he tries to be a family man: “I’m a man and man don’t leave his family”. From a psychological standpoint, Trueblood is part of the Western tradition of incest entering the realm of Freudian psychoanalysis and dream interpretation.
Mary Rambo is the only character in Invisible Man whom Ellison depicts in a positive manner. All other women are either prostitutes, crazy, sexually deviant, manipulative or lack a moral compass. Mary however is a kind, nurturing individual with a tremendous potential to eliminate the pain and suffering of those around her. She benefits from a robust humanity deeply anchored in the beauty and common sense of folk wisdom and time honored traditions. This female character manages to perfectly integrate into the crazy life of the metropolis without abandoning her individual complexity. She is never tainted by what festers around her and remains true to her pure and genuine calling.
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Ellison is able to comprehend both the splendor and the horrific nature of black culture. He uses language for example as a verbal facilitator for the most noble of human thoughts. The rich language of the South, the blooming spoken word of the North, the joyful verbal flow of 50’s Harlem are all pitted against the ability of language to manipulate, to control, to create riots and inspire fear. Folk traditions, associated with other mechanisms of human comprehension, invite both the writer and the reader into the intimate life of blacks in America, allowing us to discover and observe them in celebration or tribulation, gripped by bliss alongside family and friends or in their darkest hour of need. Ellison employs cultural tradition without overusing external connections. His dramatic recoil is often based on a system of illusions which in the end exposes the betrayal of blackness while at the same time expounding a traumatic treatment of folk values.
Folklore does not exist for its own sake. Its governing principle is to override futility within the confines of strict thematic structuralisation and dramatic undertones. Ellison’s conceptual apparatus overpowers outdated representations of the southern folk community deeming them obsolete and leaning towards a more “pre-individual” approach to the matter at hand. He accomplishes an in-depth look into the mind of the individual or their respective collective. His characters are by no means nonsentimental or monosentimental, exploring previously untapped levels of the Afro-American psyche, reaching a point of cognitive no return. This tinkering about with both collective and individual representations of black society is done with flair and a great deal of humor and irony and herein lies the intrinsic value of Invisible Man. He makes the exploration of personal and group identity appear simple, natural and free flowing.
Ellison has a very firm grip on the obvious and strives to implement cultural representations bearing in mind the potential of folklore to bring forth both enlightenment and spiritual unease. His intention is not to call down the proverbial thunder on the established order of perception as he is by no means a revolutionary writer. The milestone he sets out to complete is simply to interconnect Western symbols and mythology with black culture and folk wisdom in the hope of understanding and accepting the rules that govern this particular paradigm.
Ellison’s connection to the West, the systemic support in Invisible Man, offer an almost mathematical precision between creative consistency and cultural pronouncements. Larry Neal credited Ellison with a broad spectrum of theoretical sense, an intimidating corpus of knowledge regarding the “explosive tensions underlying the Black man’s presence in the United States”. (Neal, 1968:9)
Invisible Man resonates as a powerful pledge which is fully committed towards grasping the depths and complicated splendors that forge the definition of blackness. Ellison appears hungry to exploit the functions and dedicated objectives of language. He is not burdened by his cultural responsibility, but rather he views it as a method of release, embracing a higher calling of both a universal writer and a black writer. His hunger for definitions, the study of mannerisms and collective deductions stake their claim on a narrative that is offered with apparent ease and an almost godlike understanding of the black condition. There is music and ease behind his equanimous imagination and desire to embrace the noesis of his forefathers. A clinical presupposition would therefore entail an absolute independence inside the creative laws which define his conceptual apparatus. His examination of blackness though perfectly expounded and formulated is not without precedence. William Faulkner laid the foundation for Ellison through a manifold of emblematic devices and astonishing accomplishments in capturing the proverbial zeitgeist of the South. Although Faulkner asserts himself as the deepest of the southerners, a larger than life communicator through symbols, Ellison’s work should not be misconstrued as imitation or worse, as being written from an anxiety of influence. Ralph Ellison is an adequately developed writer, one profoundly original writer who is able to provide us with fresh new insight into Afro-American culture. His tree of literary knowledge casts a large enough shadow enabling him implement a black focus that gathers success in its encounters with an audience immensely appreciative of his creative undertakings.
Ultimately Ralph Ellison produces a genuine and stimulating complexity when it comes to writing based on Afro-American culture and folk traditions. He commandeers cryptic messaging, appearing almost intoxicated with the power of his own written word and duty towards creative instruments of mental debt and depth. Folk tradition for Ellison is not proliferated as an end in itself, the author is severely self-conscious and bewildered by the overwhelming merits of simple traditions that have stood the test of time and enabled their carriers to maintain a coherent sense of identity. True folk forms provide us with a celebration of life, a righteous use of the flexible service instruments which fuel hope in the name of tradition, a proud remembrance of the past that is bound to secure the future.
1.4 Chronotopic Identity in Invisible Man
Mikhail Bakhtin’s systemic apparatus of emblematic devices comprises cognitive depths which function beyond arbitrary boundaries of simple cultural relevance. Therefore applying Bakhtinian mechanisms of comprehension to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is a fully warranted undertaking encompassing both structure and a stern analysis of desirable and justified content. Bakhtin’s conceptual framework can be held accountable for altering cultural realms outside its borders of encounter, supplementing external ideas, improving and completing them. All disseminated elements are interconnected, lacking in explicit manifestation, adhering to implicit introduction and dialogic confrontation. Bakhtin asserts that no work of literature can exist as a separate, independent entity. Any literary text is in a state of flux, maintaining communication with other literary voices or streams. The influence can reside in imitation, modular transformation or adaptation, or even rejection which is nothing more than a reversal of method. A text is always informed by other texts and at the same time it has the duty to inform its readership. The connection between two texts is by no means constrictive or parasitic in nature. Its symbiotic orientation capitalizes on interdisciplinary dialogue and voice structure, honoring social complexity and linguistic wealth:
The internal stratification of language is a prerequisite for the novel. The novel orchestrates all its themes, the totality of the world of objects and ideas depicted and expressed in it, by means of the social diversity of speech types and by the differing individual voices that flourish under such conditions. The links and interrelations lead to the novel’s heteroglossia and dialogization. (Bakhtin, 1981: 263)
Identity formation, cultural memory and religion are paramount in the understanding of blacks and whites not as mere individuals but as complex, interconnected cultural entities. Bakhtin’s approach is atemporal and universal, allowing us to not only see or understand Afro-American culture but also to expand its deeper meanings, adapt and improve our own culture, enable a positive cross-cultural contamination by upgrading our shared humanity and collective heritage.
Certain Bakthinian matters of interest such as power and control, materialism, (re)structured social and ethnic relations, dialogism, spatial and temporal paradigms provide the necessary competence to outline patterns of relevant functionality in Invisible Man. Ralph Ellison’s displays a considerable amount of dialogic audacity as a method of integrating social strategies in his novel. His principles are governed by mental alacrity and argumentative observations which often foster resentment and playful overtones of deceptive chaos. Ellison and Bakhtin possess a dedicated, shared infrastructure, a common ground where their variations in discourse can become intertwined and intervene in the establishment of philosophical augmentations and consistent power structures. The boundaries between the two become nothing more than non-cohesive, penetrable conventions which allow transcendent voices to define the desires of randomly assigned trust and determination. Envisioning Invisible Man as a Bakhtinian novel one can’t help but detect the ubiquitous Carnivalesque elements of perception which generate and govern the social environment. The Carnival entails a state of absolute liberation and subsequently a state of pseudo-anarchy, capricious libertinism and equality. It exists outside political, economic and social restrictions, suspending the status quo, living up to ideals of randomness and improvisation. It is a festival which celebrates the annihilation of individual hierarchies and the dismemberment of forged and unjust equilibriums. There is little room for political ambitions or extravagant portrayal of mediocre deeds. The Carnivaleque is a counter reaction to those abusive systems which strive to acquire our humanity with thirty pieces of our own silver.
Another essential Bakhtinian concept that is of great importance to Invisible Man is that of the chronotope. Time-space describes the dual matrix behind the emergence of Ellison’s novel, understanding both history and the topos on which it occurs. Ralph Ellison bends time to his liking offering nonlinear and often simultaneous projections engaging the reader’s attention and selective intelligence, inviting him to experience:
[A] slightly different sense of time, you’re never quite on the beat. Sometimes you’re ahead and sometimes behind. Instead of the swift and imperceptible flowing of time, you are aware of its nodes, those points where time stands still or from which it leaps ahead. And you slip into the breaks and look around. (Ellison, 1995:8)
This enigmatic passage distorts the accepted perception of time, offering a multilayered temporal construct which seeks to achieve transference of control while at the same time generating a climate of insecure reclusiveness and underprivileged substantiations of unclear history.
The chronotope’s initial manifestation in Invisible Man is done through the use of the fictional present. We are informed with great equanimity and familiarity that the narrator dwells in a coal cellar which is designed as a cocoon of self-banishment, an in-between world, a self -imposed Purgatory from which he can be emerge a new man, ready to confront his previous oppressors and the flawed systems that had spawned them. Time here contracts fissuring the containment of common meanings, creating a brave new nexus of darkened topography and supporting a cronosphere of intimidating and deliberate variation. The chronotope is the fulfiller of tradition, an astute element/method which defines our sense of community and social history. According to Mikhail Bakhtin,
The chronotope is where the knots of narrative are tied and untied […]. Time becomes, in effect, palpable and visible; the chronotope makes narrative events concrete, makes them take on flesh, causes blood to flow in their veins […]. Thus the chronotope, functioning as the primary means for materializing time in space, emerges as a center for concretizing representation, as a force giving body to the entire novel. All the novel’s abstract elements – philosophical and social generalizations, ideas, analyses of cause and effect – gravitate towards the chronotope and through it take on flesh and blood, permitting the imaging power of art to do its work. (Bakhtin, 1981, 250)
Time and space are inextricably intertwined with respect to the fundamental acknowledgement of uni
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