Charles Johnson on INVISIBLE MAN
Fifty-seven years after its publication in 1952, it is safe to say that Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is, in addition to being a luminous addition to our literary canon, a novel that has achieved that rare status of becoming an essential cultural artifact for understanding the American experience, much like the addresses of his namesake, Ralph Waldo Emerson. As a college professor, I have read and taught this capacious work since the late 1960s. With each encounter over forty years, I am rewarded by the discovery of something new in Ellison’s text, for this is the kind of multi-layered literary and philosophical performance that we, as citizens concerned about the health of our republic, are obliged to re-read every ten or twenty years in order to check its insights and monitions against our cultural (and personal) progress and failures. As our understanding of liberty, equality, and this nation’s ideals grows and evolves, our experience of Invisible Man deepens, achieving ever greater subtlety, nuance, and prescience.
Obviously, we do Ellison’s masterpiece a great disservice if we read it on the most pedestrian, political, sociological, or surface level, for it is a novel that delights in play and ambiguity (that is, an over-richness of meaning). His central, famous trope of “invisibility” remains universally applicable for any group that is socially marginalized. While black Americans are certainly more “visible” today, especially after Barack Obama became this nation’s first African American president, it is nevertheless true that so many other groups— Hispanics, Asians, Pacific Islanders, new African immigrants to America, and native Americans to name just a few—can make a case for still being “invisible” men and women in contemporary America. Well might they argue that “on the lower frequencies,” Invisible Man speaks to their daily, lived experience.
Yet even that observation doesn’t entirely do justice to the epistemological profundity of this novel’s central theme. We must admit that on some level we all remain noetic and ineffable—invisible and mysterious—to one another. Men and women. Blacks and whites. Westerners and Easterners. We are all victims of blindness to each other’s open-ended being, and too often victims of the Other’s attempts (from the Left and Right and Center) to define and categorize us, to use us as Ellison’s Bledso, Brotherhood and Ras the Exhorter attempt to shape Invisible Man’s naïve, young protagonist as they think best. If Ellison had lived just a little longer, I believe he would be delighted by the resonance his treatment of “invisibility” has with recent developments in cosmology. Dark matter, and dark energy, which was discovered only eleven years ago, make up 96 percent of the universe, with what we can see and measure accounting for only four percent. 90% of the universe is invisible to us—the unseen, untamed chaos of experience, as Ellison described it, which lies beyond our limited explanatory models, concepts, and the flawed, incomplete interpretations we forever attempt to impose upon what philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty once called “wild Being.” In other words, we find ourselves living in the midst of a great mystery. Art such as Invisible Man is a daily reminder of this cosmic mystery. And, obviously, that mystery is us.
Finally, can anyone look at the remarkable, bi-racial figure of President Obama, with his white mother, Kenyan father, Indonesian stepfather and Indonesian half-sister, and wife from Chicago’s South Side, and not see at the same time how his family’s very biology and cultural orientations are global (covering America, Africa, Asia, and on his mother’s side he is related to former Vice President Dick Cheney), and that his policy decisions during the first 100 days of his administration are an echo of Ellison’s famous statement that, “by a trick of fate (and our racial problems not withstanding) the human imagination is integrative—and the same is true of the centrifugal force that inspirits the democratic process”? And in Ellison and Obama we also glimpse the expansive spirit of Emerson when he wrote in his letters of 1840 that, “Every history in the world is my history. I can as readily find myself in the tragedy of the Atrides as in the Saxon Chronicle, in the Vedas as in the New Testament, in Aesop as in the Cambridge Platform or the Declaration of Independence.” Perhaps more than any president who precedes him, we see in Obama, who proudly calls himself “a mutt,” an affirmation of Ellison’s urgent demand that, “the thing that Americans have to learn over and over again is that they are individuals and they have the responsibility of individual vision”; and his clear-eyed certainty that our lives are already more integrated than we usually dare acknowledge (“There’s always the mystery,” he writes in his second novel Juneteenth, “of the one in the many and the many in the one, the you in them and the them in you—ha!”)
With Invisible Man, we clearly have a narrative vision—a guidebook for a world awash with contradiction and ambiguity—we can trust not only for the second half of the twentieth century but also for the dawn of the twenty-first century as well.
Charles Johnson was a National Book Award Winner in Fiction in 1990 for Middle Passage. He is currently chair of the National Book Awards Fiction Panel.
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