Monday, April 12, 2010

Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man

The absurd is central. It’s central to any life (whether or not the mind is conscious of it), and it is central to the protagonist in Invisible Man. In a book that is literally (at times) dripping with metaphors, we see moments where the crazy path of our own life is articulated. Life is never a set of the known and perfectly pre-determined plans. No, it takes a bit of being knocked around and a sense of reality to make one realize that all is not how we first thought it would be. This process of living life and learning from experience slowly begins to draw back the curtain. We are then able to see how some of the “chance happenings” around us were not so accidental after all, but were part of a much larger plan.

This plan that society has for us is rarely what we thought it would be. In fact, most people can go through life never having the awareness that they are living the dream of another. They are told what to think, when to think it, who to think it for, why it is to be thought and where it is to be done. Oh sure, they can be paid good money and experience all the material benefits that are available to a person. However, the real questions remain. Do they know what they see when they begin to examine the internal? Do they know where to find the internal? Do they even know what the internal is?

Our unnamed protagonist is black, which further buries his identity. In the white man’s world, he has to dig much deeper to find the mark of where his subconscious realization of self begins and where others have trained him to stop looking. Society and “culture” can become, and really are, ways of trained thinking; of groupthink. It extends from the economic system in which we provide for ourselves to the way we accept or decline the notion of a Higher Power to the patterns in which we dress, talk, walk, speak and relate to others. This situation is further complicated when the individual loses or has never gained the sense of BELONGING in American society. THAT condition of the absurd applies to the black person and other minorities.

The grasping and searching that result from the absurd lead the unprepared mind into ideologies, institutions, groups and cultures that become a definition. This is where the symbolism opposing dogmatic thinking enters Ellison’s writing. For while we may look to find meaning OUTSIDE of ourselves in these defining factors, it is only through looking INTERNALLY, VOID of all other elements that we can see who we are. When we become too dogmatic or hold too tightly to anything in life, we fold or melt into it.

Our protagonist found this out when he devoted himself to Communism or “The brotherhood” as it’s described in the book. Ellison’s novel would be tainted were he to make obvious his political affiliation, so we can not say whether the corrupt bosses of the Communist party were a symbol with which we could pin him down. Rather, Ellison is warning us that no matter what the ideology, when we lose our sense of self, then we lose our ability to love; our ability to understand justice; our ability to empathize. Instead, we become a cold part of the machine. We are easily manipulated. We cling to the external with all our might to find fulfillment. It will never come through the external. Our identification with our amount of education, our job, our contacts, our politics, our religion or our friends can not provide it for us. We MUST look within.

Ellison has provided a path towards discovery. However, even the strict following of the path that Ellison himself has set up in Invisible Man would be to defeat the purpose. Life is NOT about how someone else says it should be. This is not to say that we think only of ourselves when we are finding the way. On the contrary, when we are able to LOVE, when we are able to KNOW our own humanity, we begin to recognize it in others. What we then owe to ourselves is NOT to follow someone’s pre-designed system, but to get a grasp on our how our own INVISIBILITY is directly tied to the strict dogmatism of conformity. When we realize that the world viewed through the external will only de-humanize us, then we realize that to truly serve the cause of justice, love and empathy requires us to cast aside definitions and BECOME that person we always were. WHO ARE YOU? Think about how to answer that question without restriction. That is true freedom, and that is the challenge which Ellison leaves us in the life of the Invisible Man.

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