Monday, October 24, 2005

An African-American 'Ulysses': Duke's scattered reflections upon getting halfway through Ellison's 'Invisible Man'

As the title to this post indicates, I am halfway through my first read of Ralph Ellison's monumental American classic, Invisible Man. It is a book that has long intrigued me, and yet for some reason I don't ever remember seeing on a syllabus for any English course in high school or in college. I am sure that is still being taught in schools; at least, I would hope so. But I don't recall ever hearing much about it beyond its title, author and famous first line (simply, "I am an invisible man."). When I learned as an adult that the author, when writing the book, was heavily influenced by such Western-canon epics as Moby Dick, In Search of Lost Time and Notes from Underground, my interest was piqued, and when I found that it was really the only major work of fiction Ellison ever wrote, I was downright fascinated. I knew it was a large tome and I began to have the impression that Mr. Ellison poured all that he knew into this one massive work, that when he had completed it he had said nearly all he had to say. He had given almost everything in producing this one towering epic that is still widely known and discussed today, some fifty years later. What was in this book that gave it such lasting influence and power? And why did it seem to cost Ellison so much to write? I remember having such thoughts a good ten years ago, but, for whatever reason, it wasn't until now that I finally took the plunge and cracked the spine of Invisible Man, very curious as to what I would discover and learn there.

There are other reasons that I wanted to read the book, of course. One of the reasons I am, and always will be, constantly reading is to educate myself, to open up whole worlds and ideas to my mind that would otherwise be foreign to my experience. Certainly the experience of the African people and their descendents in this country falls firmly into that category. Slavery, of course, is The Great, Permanent Blot on our young country's record, the shame of our nation that will never leave us entirely, despite attempts to ignore or dismiss it as simply a less-than-admirable chapter in our history. Being a child of Western Europe myself, I have often wondered what it must feel like for those who carry around the awareness that their ancestors were bought and sold like cattle in this country... how this knowledge must, even today, shape their thoughts about their own identity and calling in this nation that claims to lead the world in democracy, justice and human rights. The suffering of an entire race of people pumps through their veins every day. How would that realization affect the way that I lived my life, if I were an African-American? (Although I must mention here for balance that my own ancestors, Catholic immigrants in the Midwest, weren't exactly welcomed with open arms either in this Protestant country -- Catholics too knew something of the pain of discrimination.)

Ellison bravely took on this immense, painful topic -- the experience of the African-American in this country in the days after the Reconstruction. He seemed to want to write a bildungsroman with this monumental theme serving as the dark backdrop, the ever-present reality that colors every single experience and encounter of his hero, no matter how insignificant they may seem. This is the first of many similarities, in my opinion, between Ellison's work and another sprawling epic that marks the experience of a people -- James Joyce's Ulysses. If Ulysses could be characterized as an attempt to express what it felt like to be an Irishman in Dublin in the early half of the 20th century, Invisible Man certainly seeks to portray what it felt like to be African-American in the South and, later, in Harlem in the second half of the same century. And both books, though they follow a single character as he goes from encounter to bewildering encounter, trying to make sense of all that he takes in through his senses, undoubtedly are about more than that person's individual life. (Chronologically, the experiences of the unidentified narrator of Ellison's book cover a lot more ground than one day; nevertheless, as I go along with him through a series of strange, disjointed, jarring experiences, I am powerfully reminded of what it felt like to "walk" alongside Leopold Bloom through the tangled streets of Dublin on that ordinary June day in 1916.)

On the surface, the narrative of the book seems pretty simple (again, like in Ulysses): a nameless black man recounts the experiences he has lived through as he graduates high school, secures a scholarship to a negro college, goes to the college, and then enters into the working world. However, just like with Joyce, these details are merely the scaffolding upon which a much larger, more ambitious structure is built. As is often the case with Bloom, here we live in the mind of the narrator, experiencing his fears, doubts, anxieties, anger and confusion, which usually result from the humiliation he experiences at the hands of people who don't understand him (interestingly, these people are black just as often as they are white). We follow him through a series of bewildering scenes and experiences in locales as diverse as black-tie galas, university campuses, sharecropper farms, brothels, Harlem neighborhoods, high-powered corporate offices in glittering skyscrapers, factories, union meetings and street riots (remember, I am only reporting on half of the book!)... and all the while, our hero puzzles over questions of memory, racism and identity as he struggles to find his own place in the world and live up to his own fierce ambitions and expectations.

No doubt about it: this is a strange, rich, exhaustive, at times frustrating, complex book, with many layers and symbols and themes running through it like so many colored threads in a tangled ball of yarn. But it's also one of those books that accumulates power and force as it goes along, establishing a rhythm and a voice that gets underneath your skin and lodges itself into your mind and heart, refusing to let go. The title character, at least so far, seems to be totally confused as to what's going on around him for most of the book, and that's pretty much how I've felt reading it (in all honesty). And yet, I am fascinated by the raw emotion, the energy, the pure passion that is driving Ellison's narrative, a passion that hurtles and howls like a freight train. It is so very clear that this man opened every vein he could find and let it bleed, rooted through every dark place of his heart and mind haunted by the spectre of racism and drug all of his fears, hopes and frustrations into the light. Ellison said that the plight of his people in America, the journey from the frying pan of slavery into the slow-burning fire of discrimination and segregation, was material that would rank right up there with that of the 19th century Russian and European novelists, if someone had the guts to explore it without compromise. The sheer struggle of the black man fighting first for freedom and then for dignity in America is an epic in its own right, but it lacked a Homer to present it to our imaginations. Which brings us back to my comparison to Ulysses. Joyce used The Odyssey as his template because the whole story he wanted to tell was, he knew, much larger than the sum of its parts. The same could be said for Invisible Man, and if Ellison can't be called the Homer of the African-American experience, I don't know who can.

1 comment:

Mutt Ploughman said...

It's been a while since i had the chance to blog, but Duke's written an interesting commentary on his impressions on Invisible Man. Or at least the first half of it. I have never really known much about this book so it is interesting to read his observations. His comparison of the book to Ulysses, a book I read in 1997 but am in dire need of re-reading, is pretty astute. I probably would not have thought of that. If there's any credence to that comparison, Ellison's achievement is a monumental one. As Duke told me personally later, he must have really gone 'for broke' writing this novel, and one has to admire that ambition. It will be interesting to see what Duke's impressions are after he has read the entire novel, but for those of you who aren't tuning in to this channel, this doesn't apply to you.