Returning to Ellison's genius, and the invisibility of man

On Books

June 06, 1999|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

I was born in New York City, and grew up there and in New Jersey's Appalachian foothills 70 miles to the northwest, surrounded by farms settled by Dutch and English in the early 1700s. My father was immigrant Anglo-Irish and my mother was a transplanted South Carolinian. Though she was too polite -- and perhaps too deeply dyed by a Confederate culture of hypocrisy -- to use ugly language about race, she almost surely believed that people of color should, at very least, be kept apart from whites.

If Mother tried to impose her definitions on me, she failed and I have forgotten it. When I was 10, one of my two best pals was -- as was said back then -- "colored." When I was 19, I had four chums who were Negroes. As I progressed into my 40s, I had many more friends and colleagues who were black. Today, I have a great number of intimates and associates who are African-American.

Race tags have continued to be amended, but my abandonment of consciousness of the race of people I treasure came, I believe, from common sense, not political progress. I had no Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus event.

Last week, I reread Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man."

It was published in 1952. I first read it some time in my early 20s. I vividly remember the impact -- as powerful as that of any book I have ever read.

Most profoundly, I remember telling myself what a self-indulgent fool I had been to have believed I understood the experience of negritude.

Does that imply that, even after reading Ellison, I understand what it is to be black? Of course not. But maybe it brought me closer.

My return to "Invisible Man" was triggered by publication of "Juneteenth" -- a posthumous work carrying Ellison's name. On these pages, my friend and colleague Dion Thompson makes clear judgment of that book and the shame of publishing it. I defer to, endorse and applaud Thompson's conclusions.

Essential text

"Invisible Man" is a classic act of truth. From time to time, I have been accused -- unfairly, of course -- of hyperbole. Fearless of that misapprehension, I make this insistence: It is impossible to be a responsibly sentient American, or seriously to hope to understand America, without having read and thought about this book.

The first four sentences constitute one of those rare passages in prose or poetry that cry out to be memorized:

"I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids -- and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me."

There then begins a chronological narrative of a young man's life that is filled with promise and blighted by the random unfairnesses of the world, naive judgment and very bad luck.

A third of the way through the book, while in physical restraint, coming out of electroshock treatment, the narrator reflects on his awareness: "For though I had seldom used my capacities for anger and indignation, I had no doubt that I possessed them; and, like a man who knows he must fight, whether angry or not, when called a son of a bitch, I tried to imagine myself angry -- only to discover a deeper sense of remoteness. I was beyond anger. I was only bewildered."

Seeking escape from bewilderment, many months and a third of the book later, he came to submit himself to the discipline of "the Brotherhood" -- the Communist Party.

He relates his deepest aspiration: "For the first time, lying there in the dark, I could glimpse the possibility of being more than a member of a race. It was no dream, the possibility existed. I had only to work, and learn and survive in order to go to the top." He was, of course, bitterly betrayed by Marxism's essential cynicism.

At the end of 572 glorious pages (in the excellent Modern Library edition, $18.50), that nameless narrator is still invisible, reflecting, equally memorably: "Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?"

Culture and politics

"Invisible Man" is a richly artful work, bulging and rollicking with an awareness of the best of the literary canon. It provides a powerful argument in favor of traditional literary and artistic values. It also puts forward a courageously tough-minded dissection of Marxism. I know of no novelist but George Orwell who has so effectively explored and exposed the fundamental perniciousness of that ideology.

But the book is not about culture or politics.

What is it about?

It is in no way to betray the importance of race and caste and tribe to insist that at its core this is a book about loneness, about individuality, about the mystery of every unique human life -- alone at birth, alone in death and never entirely otherwise in between.

So at the book's end, nothing much has changed, in the world or in the narrator's life. But the promises and the failings of justice and human decency and the innate will to survive and prevail have been majestically -- and very entertainingly -- examined and presented. As is true in all great art, there is a powerful underlying affirmation of the beauty of lone human life.

Today, 47 years after its publication, the question must be asked: Have things changed? The answer is simple: Yes -- but not enough. There is another question: Since there has been change, however inadequate, has it been because of "Invisible Man"?

That must be so.

If you haven't read it, do. Please.

Pub Date: 06/06/99

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