Friday, August 27, 2010

The Ellisonian Self

Ralph Waldo Ellison is a titan. It is difficult to finish Invisible Man and not be impressed by both depth of thought that clearly went into its making and the execution with which that product of thought was born. It is also difficult to not take very seriously indeed the thought that lies behind his many essays and interviews. An extraordinarily considered and rhetorically skilled writer, Ellison should be considered a philosopher by any other name.

As you dig into the tissue of the relationship between the first three major post-Harlem Renaissance writers, Wright, Baldwin, and Ellison, it quickly becomes apparent how much Baldwin and Ellison wrote in the wake of Wright's early success in Native Son (Wright did, too), and how important coming to grips with Marxism was for all three. Forcing that confrontation was Wright's gift to Baldwin and Ellison, and there was undoubtedly a dramatic (and dramatized) reaction. While Wright became a very early convert to American Marxism, Baldwin and Ellison saw it as something of a curse on the writer qua writer. The interaction between Native Son and Wright's early programmatic essay, "Blueprint for Negro Writing," Baldwin's essays in Notes of a Native Son (especially "Everybody's Protest Novel" and "Many Thousands Gone"), and Ellison's Invisible Man and his essays "Richard Wright's Blues" and "The World and the Jug" provide enough fuel for reflection on a hundred related topics about literature, literary criticism, philosophy, history and politics.[fn.1]

The below takes on the more strictly philosophical side of Ellison's vision. Ellison was a natural pragmatist in his theoretical orientation: while I'm not sure how well-read Ellison was in the work of professional philosophers, Ellison was a natural amateur philosopher and struggled personally with his namesake, Ralph Waldo Emerson (who Cornel West, Harold Bloom, and Richard Poirier have made us realize was the spiritual progenitor of that professional philosophical movement, pragmatism) and enjoyed and used the work of Kenneth Burke (who was also an amateur philosopher, though we do know he read Dewey). Ellison's vision of culture is deep, and includes a vision of the self and its relationship with society (as every Emersonian struggles with). And while I come from Rorty's professional version of what a pragmatist picture of the self should look like, Ellison's picture--which is only too briefly dug into below--provides a fascinating sidelight on essentially the same picture.

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man. New York: Vintage International, 1952, 1980, 1995.

---. The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison. Ed. John F. Callahan. Preface by Saul Bellow. New York: The Modern Library, 1995, 2003.

Kimberly W. Benston, Ed., Speaking for You: The Vision of Ralph Ellison. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1987.

Stanley Fish, Self-Consuming Artifacts. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1972.

*NOTE* The footnote links won't work unless you're on the specific post page (by clicking on the title link). You'll have to excuse my crappy coding.


A repeated figure in the first part of Invisible Man is variations on the phrase “I am who I am.” What is striking about the figure is the static finality of the verb, and it should make us wonder if this figure is Platonic or Nietzschean in its roots. For the Plato of the Republic, people have essences, bronze, silver, or gold in his myth, and justice is done when each is in their rightful place. The Nietzsche of the Gay Science, on the other hand, wanted us to become who we are. More generally, the Platonic tradition uses metaphors of discovery and being and the Nietzschean metaphors of creation and becoming. With the Invisible Man’s statement that the “end is in the beginning” (Invisible Man 6), there would seem to be a statement of inevitability, of inescapable essence. Yet, the notion of a static essence that each of us has inside and must conform to seems antithetical to the spirit of anti-conformity in Ellison’s work. What kind of self is the Ellisonian self?

To figure out what Ellison means, we shouldn’t start at the level of philosophy and build a theory of the self, but rather begin at the ground level of experiencing selves and tailor our theory to fit what we find there. The reason for this comes out of Ellison himself. What we find in Ellison is a broad rejection of isolated, programmatic theory. For instance, in Ellison’s essay “Society, Morality, and the Novel,” we find a constant denunciation of the maneuvers of literary critics who attempt to bind the artist with their formulations (often in the mode of a joke): “Critics would give you the formula that would make the achievement of a major fiction as certain as making a pre-mixed apple pie” (Essays 699). In Invisible Man, this comes out of the Invisible Man’s relationship to the Brotherhood, which is a veiled reference to Marxism. In referring to the Brotherhood’s “ideology” (e.g., Invisible Man 359), Ellison is ironically calling attention to the Marxist pretension to “science.” Marxism explicitly is not an ideology, which is a term Marx put into currency to distinguish all other modes of life. Marxism is rather a science, a theory, a method of uncovering our rationalizations of injustices (ideology) in order to find the essential path to justice and truth. It is this pretension that the Invisible Man will eventually reject.

There is something ambiguous, however, about Ellison’s relationship to Marxism that comes out in this passage from Brother Jack: “Remember too, that theory always comes after practice. Act first, theorize later; that’s also a formula, a devastatingly effective one!” (359) Practice before theory is a formula I would commend to Ellison, the pragmatism common to Ellison and Marx’s “Theses on Feuerbach.” Ellison’s comment on Marxism would be that, in practice, Marxists don’t put practice ahead of theory, but rather make the evidence fit their theories. This is punched up when the Invisible Man thinks to himself after Jack offers his formula, “He looked at me as though he did not see me…” (359). The metaphor of sight is deployed to register the sense that the Brotherhood’s theories leave out significant portions of reality. “Outside the Brotherhood we were outside history; but inside of it they didn’t see us” (499). What is deficient about the Brotherhood’s interpretation of reality is that they only offer, as Ellison puts it elsewhere, a “statistical interpretation of our lives” (Essays 75): “It was all a swindle, an obscene swindle! They had set themselves up to describe the world. What did they know of us, except that we numbered so many, worked on certain jobs, offered so many votes, and provided so many marchers for some protest parade of theirs?” (Invisible Man 507) The ambiguity in Ellison’s relationship is that though the Invisible Man rebels against the Brotherhood’s classification and organization of reality, he must classify and organize reality somehow. In the moment that the Invisible Man suddenly realizes that he had not been undermining the Brotherhood by working for them, but rather doing exactly what they wanted, he says, “And in defining, in giving organization to the fury, it seemed to spin me around…” (553, emphasis mine). The Invisible Man hasn’t given up classification, but realized a new classification and interpretation of reality. What Ellison rejects is not organization per se, but the idea of a science or theory of organization, the attempt by some to short-circuit the individual’s experience of reality by authoritatively telling them what they are really experiencing (whether they know it or not).

The vision of reality as in need of organization is a typically Kantian one, but in order to avoid epistemological controversies that Ellison pays no heed to, I would call it a rhetorical vision. A rhetorical vision of reality is one that recognizes the constructedness of reality, rooted in the public means of communication. The major problem for rhetoric, however, has been pointed out by Plato in the Gorgias—if rhetoric requires a common vocabulary between speaker and audience, then how is it not just pandering? How does real change occur if public, inferential communication requires a body of common assumptions for understanding? Ellison knows very well the problems of communication, calling the ideal American audience member “the little man behind the stove” (Essays 495), a symbol of the broadly different forms a writer’s readers might take. Ellison says “the novel is rhetorical” (701) and pondered just that question of communicating to a white audience when writing Invisible Man.[fn.2] But if Ellison has to communicate in the terms of a white audience, how can he change them?

This is a difficult practical problem for every writer, and to help to understand Ellison’s solution we might distinguish between two different modes of presentation that Stanley Fish uses: rhetorical and dialectical. A rhetorical presentation is much like Plato would have it: “A presentation is rhetorical if it satisfies the needs of its readers” (Fish 1). However, “this is not to say that in the course of a rhetorical experience one is never told anything unpleasant, but that whatever one is told can be placed and contained within the categories and assumptions of received systems of knowledge” (1). This presents just the problem, for Ellison wishes to overturn the received assumptions about black Americans. To do so, he uses a format for Invisible Man that is dialectical in Fish’s sense, which is “disturbing, for it requires of its readers a searching and rigorous scrutiny of everything they believe in and live by” (1). Fish says of this experience that “it is nothing less than a conversion, not only a changing, but an exchanging of minds” (2).

This is what I think we see in Invisible Man. The novel is a bildungsroman, but the lessons are not didactic, tacking-ons of easily potted moral lessons, but rather shifts in assumptions about the way the world is that the protagonist finds difficult to cohere with the rest of his working body of assumptions. This makes sense of a motif of incomprehensibility that floats along with the Invisible Man. During the battle royal scene, he accidentally grabs onto the leg of a chair: “I feared the rug more than I did the drunk, so I held on, surprising myself for a moment by trying to topple him upon the rug. It was such an enormous idea…” (Invisible Man 28, first and third sets of italics mine). The surprise is the momentary overturning in practice of a conceptual assumption that shapes his reality, one that by itself is too large to work out and fit with the rest of how he thought reality functioned (where you don’t do things like that to whites). When Mr. Norton is passed out in the Golden Day, the Invisible Man thinks to himself that “the very idea that I was responsible for him was too much for me to put into words” (86). In contemplating Clifton’s selling of the dolls, and the possibility that Clifton believed he’d sold out, Ellison writes, “For a moment I weighed the idea, but it was too big for me” (447). In thinking about Rinehart, Ellison writes, “I caught a brief glimpse of the possibilities posed by Rinehart’s multiple personalities and turned away. It was too vast and confusing to contemplate” (499).

The scene in which the Invisible Man is suddenly given new “organization to the fury” begins, “The words struck like bullets fired close range, blasting my satisfaction to the earth” (552). This is emblematic of the experience of conversion that Fish says follows the dialectical presentation. Such radical change in a mental constitution is difficult to comprehend. For example, the lesson that the Invisible Man says that his grandfather never had to learn was that he was human: “Hell, he never had any doubts about his humanity—that was left to his ‘free’ offspring” (580). This thought had suddenly come over the Invisible Man in the psychiatric hospital, though it is forgotten: “But we are all human, I thought, wondering what I meant” (239). The ECT the Invisible Man receives in that chapter is something like a resetting of his personality, an attempt to wipe the slate clean and begin again. But since the process is imperfect, new thoughts fight against old, hence the Invisible Man’s wonderment at meaning. He can’t put the new thought from the new self together with the old thought from the old self, and so lacks a coherent identity.

It is to this purpose in charting dialectical change that I believe enters the role of narrative. The Invisible Man recognizes by the end of the novel that the past is a necessary part of our identity. Whereas Brother Westrum says of Brother Tarp’s leg chain that “things like that don’t do nothin’ but cause confusion,” the objects of the Invisible Man’s past light his way when he falls into the sewer (567-8). The Invisible Man must tell his own story because he has learned that who we are now in the present is partly because of the way we tell the story of our own lives to ourselves.[fn.3] The “end is in the beginning” (6) not because there is an essential telos around which our identity circles, but because the way in which we tell our own story is determined in part by where we are standing when we begin to tell it—in a hole, in the Invisible Man’s case. When he says, “Perhaps to lose a sense of where you are implies the danger of losing a sense of who you are” (577) I take this sense of “where” to be “where in your own story,” which is partly the loss the Invisible Man feels after the ECT. As Ellison says generally, “the novel is obsessed by the relationship between illusion and reality as revealed in duration and process” (Essays 702). Reality is not a static, Platonic notion for Ellison, but is rather generated by the individual’s experience.


[1] "The World and the Jug" was a two-part exchange with the eminent leftist literary critic Irving Howe, whose addition to the conversation between the above texts can be quite profitable. Howe, in "Black Boys and Native Sons" (published in Dissent, Autumn 1963), wrote something like a defense of Wright against his two rebellious younger brothers, Baldwin and Ellison. The frame itself made Ellison a little peevish, and he responded, and then followed a double exchange of Howe's reply and Ellison's further reply. Howe's original essay with two reflections on the incident (one from 1969 and the other from the retrospective vantage point of 1990) can be found in his Selected Writings 1950-1990. Both parts of Ellison's side of the debate became "The World and the Jug." The exchanges between all four of these great men provide a fascinating, agonistic record of internal dialogue between progressive members of the left.

[2] Michel Fabre quotes a letter from Ellison to Kenneth Burke wondering how to write a “Negro character who would incorporate all of the contradictions present in the Negro-white situation in this country and yet be appealing to whites” (“From Native Son to Invisible Man: Some Notes on Ralph Ellison’s Evolution in the 1950s,” in Speaking For You, 213, emphasis mine).

[3] This is a favorite line of mine that I try to reuse as often as possible. It debuted in one of the first original things I wrote for this blog, a weaving of Pirsig, Rorty, and Virginia Woolf, "Phaedrus, the Woolf," and I quickly recycled it in the third part of an extended rethinking of Pirsig's Lila, "Prospectus" (which is the first time I used Fish's distinction to help make this point). My thinking about narrative was deepened after reading MacIntyre's essay, "Epistemological Crises, Dramatic Narrative and the Philosophy of Science" (which I talk about here, and which I incorporate in an entangling of this theme with Fredric Jameson and Sherman Alexie called "Narrative and Making Sense").

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