The Invisibility of Ralph Ellison

John Haber
in New York City

Modernism, Hatred, and American Culture

I was startled when Ralph Ellison died. The writer of a modern classic about burning hatred had still been alive through all the cold, bitter winter of 1994. I had never wondered why Invisible Man remained its author's first and only novel, and I was stunned to have to be reminded how greatly I admire it. Ralph Ellison (1914–1994)

Accepting silence

How easy it was to accept Ellison's silence. We are all too used to artists who simply give up or destroy themselves, just as we are used to young black voices never penetrating below 125th Street. A gay man has made silence, his sewn lips, an emblem of himself. What incentive was there to do more, especially in the avant-garde of midcentury urban America, to which Ellison and his subject alike belong? Joyce in his own exile had made silence, patience, and cunning part of the myth of Modernism.

We are even more used to blacks dying spiritually, or all too literally, well before their time, as if to create their only identity out of the waste they are supposed to become anyhow. Ellison did not stay to see teenage boys giving up their lives for cheap jewelry or a badly timed smile, but he describes that self-destruction all the same. The eerily lit cell from which his invisible man speaks is like a parody of a real torture chamber, where the black man can be proud at last to have no tormentor but his own laughter.

All the more respect is due a writer who keeps going, even if for Ellison it meant turning his back on America's literature as much as on its violence. Like invisible man, he refused society's game; we can be grateful that, unlike his hero, Ellison would not play games at his own and our expense either. His reward of sorts has been a polite niche in survey courses on African-American fiction.

Invisible Man still captures the crisis of literature, violence, and blackness as much as any voice I know in my own time, and that is why it always fits our literary history so badly. Too certain of his anger to talk us comfortably through his crises like the wonderfully self-deprecating heroes of a Salinger or Roth, too aware to accept his destruction as dumbly as Bigger Thomas, far too knowing even to offer much of a rallying cry against white America, invisible man—not unlike his creator—chooses his own invisibility.

Persistant hatreds

He could not have chosen that identity alone. Psychologists and philosophers have stressed how a sense of self is created not just from within, but in light of what we sense from others. We internalize the pathetic image that these others see in us—and just as pathetically rebel against it. I like to imagine the breakdown of urban America as like neurosis in the individual writ large.

Plato came near much the same insight long ago, when he described good people as ones who know—or at least acts as they know—when the appeal of the heart makes sense, when the demands of the appetite are sufficient, and when reason should come into play. In terms of modern psychology, we can think of Plato as calling immorality a kind of neurosis: a bad man thinks with his balls or tries to raise children with the "shoulds" of reason. In other places, I am aware, Plato reduces morality to a rigid and supernatural sort of knowledge, but we should acknowledge an interesting parallel here, too—to Freud's model of the treatment of neurosis as bringing divisions in the mind into consciousness.

The analogy between social identity and the neurotic self may even help explain the special persistence of racial hatred among lower-class whites, of anti-Semitism in blacks, and of violent struggles for status in the ghetto. If all that we are is born in hatred, we hate, and the safest thing is to turn our hatred against someone one step down the ladder. After all, blather about Jews, whether by the Klan or by Leonard Jeffries, has never bothered anyone with any power. The harshest fights are always where the rewards are the least.

In this kind of hatred, as Ellison knew, identification with other sufferers must be repressed because it is the excluded underside of our own identity: we heterosexuals have to be sure of our masculinity, black poverty has been the repressed history behind an American dream, and Christianity began by defining itself apart from Judaism. If I believed in the collective unconscious, and I do not, I would think that civilization is rebelling against its parents like an unruly teenager.

Real irony and real rebellion

The odds are always against rebellion being honest and self-affirming, which is why I value modern artists with a measure of irony, like Ellison, above a 1990s' politics of affirmation and identity. Maybe a Louis Farrakhan can mobilize the political force and positive self-image of what we optimistically call the black community, but even that virtue can sound dangerously self- and other-denying. It is too close a cousin to invisible man's terrible laughter.

We should never adapt ourselves to another human being's invisibility, and we should never forget our need for mere writers if we are to forge a saner American consciousness. When I had forgotten about Ellison all these years, I had forgotten what black and white America has paid for his silence. We can still be more startled by the honesty of fiction than the visible promises of our lives.

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I wrote this essay several years before Ellison's executor assembled excerpts from his drafts into a novel. The drastic changes in another man's hands only testify to the price and power of Ellison's silence.


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