Think Piece: Invisible Man (2010 edition)

06Feb10

[For anyone who’s new around here: I make my seniors write think pieces, which are basically targeted reflections over a unit we’re just wrapping up.  They can pick any focus as long as it’s relevant to class discussions or readings in some way.  I write these when they do, because I think they’re just that useful.  Here’s my latest iteration, though I feel like I should disclose that I don’t think I know how to write anything remotely comprehensible anymore?  Well.  Have fun.]


Same As It Evah Was

Until I found the basis of something real, some firm ground for action…I’d have to move them without being moved…I’d have to do a Rinehart.  —Invisible Man, p. 507

I think somehow I’ve let myself read this book over and over without ever really letting myself get to the bottom of this whole invisibility issue.  Invisibility: Good?  Bad?  Just a…condition, with no negative or positive connotations?  Evitable?  Inevitable?  Universal or particular?  Does he NEED to be visible in order to be really human and alive?

I guess I need to go back to existentialism and look at it a little.  We start with the idea that the universe is unfeeling and indifferent and…we have to deal with it.  We have to WRASSLE with it, and we’re  not going to win, but that’s not the point.  Or maybe it’s more accurate to say the universe is unfeeling and indifferent and we CAN’T deal with it, we have to deal with/wrassle OURSELVES in the face of that.

How does that translate into any sort of a viable political stance, by the way?

Anyway, not my point.  What I’m thinking…what I’m trying to get at is his grandfather’s advice, and whether the narrator decides it’s right or not.  And I keep going back to the above quote – which, by the way, does NOT occur at the end of the book, but at the part where the narrator finally gets that he’s invisible.  He starts looking around for ways to cope with that realization.  And he knows, even though he’s totally lost, that whatever he’s settling on now – namely, using his invisibility – is a temporary fix.  “Until I found the basis of something real, some firm ground for action…”

At the end of the book, I don’t know that he’s found that ground yet, though he seems to think it might have something to do with connecting with other people.  He says – and he prefaces it by saying it “frightens” him, which…I’ll come back to, but – he says, “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?”  [Sorry, but this is a completely necessary digression: My book has a TYPO in it in that line!  It says ‘know’ rather than ‘knows’!  How on earth have I not noticed that before?]

Last night I finally read a little bit about Nietzsche’s superman, and it seems like that’s what our hero rejects in the above lines.  He talks about temporarily embracing this slickly omnipotent persona, somebody who can sculpt the emptiness into pure power, but knows that he doesn’t want that, and can’t, just can’t pursue that, really.  After all, it’s all persona and no person.  It requires him to remain invisible.  Maybe that’s all the further his grandfather could see, but our narrator, he’s got a bit better vantage point, maybe.  He’s got a bit more hope, or reason to hope, maybe.   He might conceivably find that firm ground.  So he knows he’s obligated to keep looking for it.

This is NOT a very modernist idea, I think.  It’s not really existential either, particularly since he’s throwing around ideas like “social responsibility.”  It’s a realization he’s “frightened” of, and…I love that.  I love that he’s scared that he’s…he’s people.  He’s obliged to be.  He doesn’t have any choice about it.  Even if none of them see him.

I hate what we’ve done to our experience of being human.  I hate how we’ve made it impossible to be people.  Of course, it’s not something we’ve even done, exactly – I mean, who would do that? — but something that’s become of some particularly misguided ideas that were also particularly toothy and keen at self-promulgation.  Fuck!  This culture!

At least the nameless narrator and I are together on this one.  IRONY.  Trying to live into and through this imbroglio of oppression and falsity and just utter BULLSHIT we’ve weaved is simultaneously totally impossible and impossibly necessary.

In some ways, I think Ellison fast-forwarded us right through postmodernism to…whatever else it is we need now.  I’ve got an eerie feeling that my think piece over postmodernism is going to be basically the same as this one.  Because the question that I keep getting back to, even though I don’t have a clue how to get through it, is…what now? I guess the invisibility, it’s both particular and universal, it’s totally unnavigable and inevitable, but has to be overcome, has to be fought through, so… What now?

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3 Responses to “Think Piece: Invisible Man (2010 edition)”

  1. I have this sudden urge to re-read Invisible Man again.
    I just wanted to point out that I was not aware that it was acceptable to use the word “fuck” in a think piece. 😛

  2. 2 J

    Saying “fuck” in think pieces is liberating. You should try it sometime! 🙂

    You know, when people think about Invisible Man, they are often all, “Huh. I should maybe give that one another go!” Not that they liked it the first time, necessarily, but… I find it an interesting phenomenon.

  3. 3 J

    You know, I just reread this? And it’s awful! It’s so incoherent! There are so many mental leaps I’m making that I don’t explain at all…like I keep having a conversation with my own subtext without ever letting anyone else in on what we’re talking about. Oy vey.


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