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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

To whom can I be responsible, and why should I be, when you refuse to see me?

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
This is the story of how a man comes to find himself invisible (that is to say, unseeable) to the world around him. It chronicles the steps that lead to this conclusion, and illuminates the path he takes upon his enlightenment. It is not a story of romance, or a comedy, or even a traditional coming-of-age story. It simply explains how a man once visible can cease to be so.

The main character has a name, but we never learn it. We know only that he is a young black man living in what seems to be about the late 1920s, early 1930s, but in a sort of timeless period. He is a promising student and makes a speech at graduation, receiving a scholarship to attend the local 'negro college'. He does well at college, but while serving as chauffeur for one of the trustees for a week, he leads the man to an unsavory part of town without realizing it, and after a series of misadventures on this trip, he is eventually sent away from school. Dr. Bledsoe, the school president, leads him to believe that he can go to New York and stay through the summer, and if he makes enough money to pay his way, he can return the following semester.

After presenting the letters of introduction that Dr. Bledsoe gave him to various trustees in New York City to no avail, however, he finally learns from the receptionist at the last trustee's office that the letter actually states he has been expelled, and under no circumstances should these men hire him. Lost and without options, he takes the receptionist's advice and looks for work at a paint factory, but after more misadventures and discrimination from many angles, he is in an accident at the factory. He is healed and then sent out on the street, and he lives on the compensation money from the accident with a kind-hearted older woman named Mary in Harlem for a time.

While witnessing an eviction of an elderly black couple and their rude treatment by two white cops, he makes an extemporaneous speech and unexpectedly rouses the group to a small riot. He is invited by a man on the street to join "the Brotherhood", which is a political group that ostensibly supports people's rights. They indoctrinate him in their teachings, and he seems successful there, but another black Brother in the movement plots against him, and he is sent to lecture downtown on "the Woman Question". He is moderately successful there, but begins to feel that he's on the outs with the Brotherhood. They hold meetings without him, and he is sent back to Harlem. Harlem has changed, however, and they feel he is a traitor, and that the Brotherhood no longer cares for the woes of the black people.

When he confronts the Brotherhood, they claim that Harlem is "a reasonable sacrifice" for the good of the movement. Another brother, Tod Clifton, one of the few other Brothers who was also black, goes missing. The main character finds him selling degrading Sambo dolls on the street, and as Clifton runs up the street, he is arrested, and the main character witnesses Clifton struggling with the cop, and then suddenly fall as the cop shoots him in the chest. Horrified and outraged, the narrator decides to mobilize his remaining Brotherhood members in the district and plans a large memorial and march for Clifton. After the memorial, the tension is palpable in Harlem, but the Brotherhood berates the narrator for having spoken and acted based on his personal feelings, rather than on the greater movement's political stances. They are eventually appeased, and the narrator decides to just be a yes-man and let Harlem simmer while they think he's brought it back into the brotherhood fold.

Harlem erupts into a violent state of looting and rioting in the streets, and Ras the Exhorter, a leader in the black community who despises the Brotherhood and thinks the narrator is a traitor for working with them, tries to incite a small group within the mob to attack the police. The narrator hears of the riot and travels up from downtown to try to reach the district office of the Brotherhood, but he is caught in several scuffles and schemes along the way. He realizes as he travels through the mob that this is exactly what the Brotherhood wanted -- the people are committing an act of self-sacrifice unknowingly -- because the police will overpower them and eventually instead of being a battle of men against stores, it will become a battle of men against men, and he sees they are easily outnumbered. He eventually falls into a manhole full of coal while running away from some attackers, and at first he stays there comfortably, safe at last from violence. After a time, he realizes he has no source of light and no way of escaping. He realizes his true invisibility both literally and metaphorically at this point, and when he makes it above ground, he begins to live off the grid, stealing electricity and holing up in the basement of a building designated only for whites. He concludes by suggesting that perhaps his hibernation will come to an end one day, and contemplates what role an invisible man can play in the course of history.

Spoiler Over: Continue Here

This book is definitely a classic; it's an incredible work of fiction, and I absolutely think that everyone should read it at some point in their life. It's a hard book to read, and I can't say it was a pleasure to read it really, because it's tough and heavy and it weighs you down, in a way. But it made me think and challenge myself and I think it will continue to have that effect on every person that reads it until the end of time.

A few parts that stood out to me:

--It's one of the best (and most difficult to stomach) scenes in the book, and I don't want to give it away here, but the Battle Royal scene in the beginning is incredibly written and deeply disturbing.

--The narrator is looking at the statue of the Founder of his college with a veil pulled over his face --
"I am standing puzzled, unable to decide whether the veil is really being lifted, or lowered more firmly in place; whether I am witnessing a revelation or a more efficient blinding."

--"I am not ashamed of my grandparents for having been slaves. I am only ashamed of myself for having at one time been ashamed."
- My heart stopped for an extra instant when I read this. It's 100% amazing and so eloquently stated.

"I felt a shudder of nameless horror. I had never been so close to a white person before."
-- I forget (as I think many of us are wont to do) that there was a time in the not-so-distant past when people of different races, and particularly blacks and whites, did not share spaces, schools, water fountains, restaurants, the same parts of the bus. I think it's always worth remembering our missteps and ensuring they are never repeated. Fiction is one of the best ways to make sure we do not forget.

"Here beneath the deep indigo sky, here, alive with looping swifts and darting moths, here in the hereness of the night not yet lighted by the moon that looms blood-red behind the chapel like a fallen sun, its radiance shedding not upon the here-dusk of twittering bats, nor on the there-night of cricket and whippoorwill, but focused short-rayed upon our place of convergence; and we drifting forward with rigid motions, limbs stiff and voices now silent, as though on exhibit even in the dark, and the moon a white man's bloodshot eye."
-- Ellison is weaving a tale that is at many times political, racial, and often identity-driven. But in addition to creating this brilliant study of man, he throws in the most fantastic imagery and his prose is just breathtaking.

No name - disembodied voice
- The main character's name is never revealed to us. I thought at first it was some sort of accident, but then he would reference someone asking his name, and then just write something like, "I gave her my name." And I thought, "Which was.....?" Heh heh. It contributed to the everyman feeling and an identification with the narrator (at least for me) but it also made it feel a bit more polemic and less like a story, which I found sad.

When the narrator is tossed out on the street after recovering from his accident at the factory, he bumps into an older woman named Mary Sambo. This is their exchange.
Narrator: "I didn't want to be trouble to anyone,"
Mary:   "Everybody has to be trouble to somebody."
-- Adorable. Mary was one of the nicest characters in the book, and one of the few characters that never confounds, confuses, abuses, or accosts the narrator.

"Then I relaxed a bit; work had to be done and I would play the waiting game. And despite my guilt and uncertainty I learned to forget that I was a lone guilty black Brother and to go striding confidently into a roomful of whites. It was chin up, a not too wide-stretched smile, the out-thrust hand for the firm warm hand shake. And with it just the proper mixture of arrogance and down-to-earth humility to satisfy all."
-- I think frequently about not just how much discrimination minorities/people of color have to deal with but also how much work they have to put into certain interactions to assimilate, or to blend, or simply to exist.

"Where were the historians today? How would they put it down? We who write no novels, histories or other books. What about us? Was this all that would be recorded?"
-- I'm painfully aware that this is the first novel (of the now 49 that I've read for this blog) written by a black author, and only 1 of 2, out of 100 classics. We must remember to ask ourselves when we study history, who are the historians? Who dictated those events to me? When we think of a classic, who had the time/ability/privilege to write and to be published?

Striking sentences/passages:
--"I remember that I am invisible and walk softly so as not to awaken the sleeping ones."
--"I'm convinced it was the product of a subtle magic, the alchemy of moonlight; the school a flower-studded wasteland, the rocks sunken, the dry winds hidden, the lost crickets chirping to yellow butterflies."
--"You have looked upon chaos and are not destroyed!"
--"I recall the sudden arpeggios of laughter lilting across the tender, springtime grass."
--"In the hereness of dusk I am moving toward the doomlike bells through the flowered air, beneath the rising moon."
--"They smelt that old obscene stink of darkness, that old slavery smell, worse than the rank halitosis of hoary death."
--"You're black and living in the South - did you forget how to lie?"
--"All it takes to get along in this here man's town is a little shit, grit, and mother-wit."
--"I'll teach you some good bad habits." I love this line.
--"If only all the contradictory voices shouting inside my head would calm down and sing a song in unison, whatever it was I wouldn't care as long as they sang without dissonance; yes, and avoided the uncertain extremes of the scale." (Wouldn't that be nice?)
--"We do not shape our policies to the mistaken and infantile notions of the man in the street. Our job is not to ask them what they think but to tell them!" (Finally, a true statement from the Brotherhood)
--"If I couldn't help them to see the reality of our lives I would help them to ignore it until it exploded in their faces."
--"I had no longer to run for or from the Jacks and the Emersons and the Bledsoes and Nortons, but only from their confusion, impatience, and refusal to recognize the beautiful absurdity of their American identity and mine." (I won't get overly political here, but recent immigration arguments bring to mind the "beautiful absurdity of your American identity and mine")
--"Life is to be lived, not controlled; and humanity is won by continuing to play in face of certain defeat." (This reminds me of the line Atticus says in To Kill a Mockingbird when Scout asks him if they'll win the court case, and he replies, "No, honey. But simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win.")
--"Why should I be the one to dream this nightmare?"

I hope that the nightmare of undesired invisibility is one that can fade over time, if not eventually be eradicated. It's certainly a goal I think we can strive for.

Onwards to France, the longest novel ever written, and The Finding of Found Moments. Or was it The Forgetting of the Future? Something along those lines...

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