CYNIC, n. A blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be. Hence the custom among the Scythians of plucking out a cynic’s eyes to improve his vision.
Nor is my invisibility exactly a matter of bio-chemical accident to my epidermis. 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.
Those smart-talking, high-falutin’ university men gather around the hole in which the Invisible Man skulks like Diogenes. Ellison himself was up amongst these critics, lunching out for the rest of his days on unhelpfully helping to interpret his sole novel. The critics all peer down into the blackness and tell each other how wise and splendid it is for the political activist to end up in a hole, and how this apparent setback is obviously redeemed by something or other. Why, there is his fabulous jazzy narrative which experiments with the text – or is it the narrator’s consciousness? – or his reading of the literary canon? – like Louis Armstrong improvising with traditional materials. Can something played so beautifully really produce a meaningless racket?
Some fled from the hole, concluding that the Invisible Man was utterly nihilistic, and that his was a straightforward message of emptiness and defeat. In 1952 John O Killens despaired that, “The Negro people need Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man like we need a hole in the head or a stab in the back.” Larry Neal objected to Ellison’s portrayal of black Americans as, “Kafkaesque creatures stumbling through a white light of confusion and absurdity.” In 1963, Irving Howe alleged that Ellison had abandoned the task of the Negro writer. More sympathetically, Kenneth Burke informed Ellison that, “With regard to your book and its ingenious ways of dealing with the black-white issue… I gradually came to realize: Your narrator doesn’t “solve” that problem…” Paul Gilroy, a leading modern critic of black literature, has wandered away from the hole, and Invisible Man is scarcely mentioned in his Black Atlantic (1993), albeit at the cost of citing several altogether more inferior authors.
Surveying the various creations of modern literature in 1953, Ellison concluded that, “reality was far more mysterious and uncertain, and more exciting, and still, despite its raw violence and capriciousness, more promising.” Modern prose was “embarrassingly austere” when compared to the street talk of Harlem. In this sense, the morality and style of Invisible Man are one and the same: Ellison defines the book’s moral responsibility as that of evoking reality. Ellison argued in “Working Notes for Invisible Man” (1945) that the black American has at his disposal a multiplicity of identities, rather than a sense of certainty and a fixed place in the world, and that amongst black Americans one encounters “personalities which in a short span of years move from the level of the folk to that of the sophisticate, who combine enough potential forms of western personality to fill many lives…” These personalities “act out their wildest fantasies.” Ellison’s novel accordingly observes the array of personalities and reality available to the black American.
For many black activists, however, reality was rather an indulgence. A novel quite unfortunate in its timing, Invisible Man seemingly delivers a blast of cold realism, when what its original, oppressed readers wanted was something a bit more, well, helpful: a Spartacus rather than a Diogenes.
The plot of Invisible Man is as follows: the young protagonist, a model student, sets off to deliver a speech to the town’s leading white citizenry, but he instead finds himself competing with other black youths in a sort of sadistic Olympic Games. Yet his tormenters eventually award him a scholarship to a flagship Negro college. One day, he inadvertently reveals various skeletons from the Negro community’s closet to an important patron of the college, and he is consequently expelled by the college’s hypocritical president, Dr. Bledsoe. Seeking his fortune in New York, he is betrayed by some dastardly letters of introduction from Bledsoe. He finally gets a job in a paint factory – hired for his potential as a scab – but this also ends disastrously. He subsequently falls in with a group of communists, who assist his rise as a Harlem community leader, although he eventually finds the ideology of the communists to be treacherous. After an apocalyptic Harlem race riot, the Invisible Man buries himself in a hole in the ground, from where he tells his tale.
The Invisible Man is forever disappointed by ideologies and social institutions, and the narrative delivers various portrayals of those blinded by ideology. The Reverend Homer A. Barbee, who supplies a mythological history of the Negro college, is revealed to be totally blind, whilst a glass eye pops out of the communist leader Brother Jack, recalling the narrow vision of James Joyce’s Cyclops. If Barbee and Jack’s blindness symbolises the impairment of their vision by ideology, other characters avoid appearing within ideological narratives. The scoundrelly Bledsoe and the trickster Rinehart (the original “Invisible Man” of the story) deliver only shifting “cynical” appearances. The Invisible Man is captivated by the “invisibility” of Rinehart, but he also feels an affinity with more down-to-earth characters such as the boarding house mistress Mary and the Harlem rioters, who just try to get by in the midst of chaos, without Rinehart’s pluck.
By disappearing from established reality in a puff of invisibility, the Invisible Man digs himself into something of a hole. In rejecting ideological solutions, he may obtain only worthless freedoms. Like Trueblood, who unintentionally impregnates his own daughter – or like the elderly couple who are evicted from their Harlem home – he appreciates that fortune may be more tyrannous than any political oppression, and yet he consequently resorts to a less civic version of Bledsoe’s knavery, the individualism which is essentially a gesture of defeat.
Despite the elaborateness of his narrative, the dilemma facing the Invisible Man is surprisingly stark: he can either be blinded by ideology or opt out of it. His increasing resort to the latter is indicated by character of his speeches and the narratives which he cites. His first speech – whilst dripping with blood before his barbarous townsfolk – repeats Booker T. Washington’s Atlanta Compromise Address. The drunken audience hoot with laughter during the speech, although they are abruptly silenced by a reference to “social equality” and the Invisible Man hastily corrects his “mistake.” In contrast to Washington’s absurd rhetoric, we next encounter Trueblood’s narrative, which entails altogether too much reality, fascinating and demoralising the Invisible Man and the patron in his charge. The lunatics provide more reality at the Golden Day, although we lurch back into unreality at the school assembly addressed by Dr. Barbee.
Significantly, when the Invisible Man stands poised to contribute his own voice to this discord, at the eviction of the Negro couple, he “seemed to totter on the edge of a great dark hole,” foreshadowing the end of his career before it has begun. He finds himself “talking rapidly without thought, but out of my clashing emotions.” The words that he utters – “we are a law-abiding people” – are totally inadequate, and there is something excruciating to the progress of his rhetoric, which always seems to arrive abruptly, at empty conclusions: “…A day labourer, you heard him, but look at his stuff strewn like chitterlings in the snow… Where has all his labour gone?” The Invisible Man delivers a litany of despair, which briefly splashes cold water over the crowd until they resolve to beat up the marshal in charge of the eviction. The Invisible Man then suggests that the crowd “march,” which they do – rather inconsequentially – although when the march finally attracts the attention of the police, the Invisible Man runs for his life, leaving the marchers to the police’s mercy.
At the Invisible Man’s second speech – when he is hoisted in front of a rally by the communists – he rants pointlessly about “dispossession,” and he blunders along sustained by the crowd’s charitable encouragement. The Invisible Man confesses that “something strange and miraculous and transforming is taking place in me right now… as I stand here before you,” although he finds the “words forming themselves” and perhaps he is not really sure what he is on about. He eventually concludes that “I have become more human,” and he follows this with a lot of hollow rhetoric. Most of the Invisible Man’s communist comrades hate his speech, and one reviewer finds his bland oratory “wild, hysterical, politically irresponsible and dangerous,” although it transpires that this is because the speech strayed from communist “science” rather than common sense.
Yet after Brother Tod is murdered by a policeman, the Invisible Man addresses Tod’s funeral with a speech that suddenly becomes total reality, a terrible articulation of personal despair, as black as Munch’s Scream:
“What are you waiting for me to tell you?” I shouted suddenly, my voice strangely crisp on the windless air… “Go home, he’s as dead as he’ll ever die. That’s the end in the beginning and there’s no encore. They’ll be no miracles and there’s no one here to preach a sermon. Go home, forget him. He’s inside this box, newly dead. Go home and don’t think about him.”
After his funeral oration, the Invisible Man “stood looking at the crowd with a sense of failure,” and, reflecting this defeat he saw “not a crowd but the set faces of individual men and women.” Back at the communist headquarters, however, Brother Jack can only taunt the notion of the Invisible Man’s “personal responsibility” and he warns that “politicians are not personal persons.” The crowd, in any event, know their own will, and the result will be the terror and lawlessness of a race riot, unprocessed by any established ideology. They demand an appearance of leadership – and an idea of Tod’s heroism – from the Invisible Man’s funeral oratory, and not the untidy, anguished reality, “jam-full of contradictions,” which he delivers. The Invisible Man will significantly silence Ras the Extorter – a black nationalist vision of ferocious gollywog, who provides high rhetoric and easy answers – with a spear through the chops.
The Invisible Man’s last testament is the narrative in our hands, which ends with his triumphant castration, where he is finally “freed from illusions,” realising that his own oppression is “the sun” and “the moon” of Brother Jack’s world. We are comforted with the thought that “life is to be lived, not controlled; and humanity is won by continuing to play in the face of certain defeat.” Disavowing “phony forgiveness,” he insists that “too much of your life will be lost, its meaning lost, unless you approach it as much through love as through hate.” Perhaps carried away with these inconsequential suggestions, the Invisible Man ventures that “there’s a possibility that even an invisible man has a socially responsible role to play.” Yet somewhat anticipating the long years of anger and disappointment which would greet his book, the Invisible Man also concedes that, “I was never more hated than when I tried to be honest.”
[Irving Howe's 1952 review of Invisible Man is here. The above frequently borrows from sources cited here. Tychy previously observed racial politics within Poe's "Black Cat" and Melville's Benito Cereno.]