Saturday, April 9, 2011

Invisible Man Through Marcuse's Eyes

We can consider the narrator of Invisible Man to be what Marcuse calls a disruptive character. With such a character, the novel can move beyond just containing a disruptive character, to causing antagonism; although in a slightly different way than Marcuse originally intended.

Conflict between true art and the status quo is what gives art truth. This conflict can be achieved in one way through a character who acts as a “negation of the established order” (Marcuse 59). One example of a disruptive character Marcuse supplies the reader with is “the outcast”(Marcuse 59). Such a character is found in the unnamed narrator in Invisible Man. We find out from the very first sentence, “I am an invisible man” (Ellison 3) that the narrator is distinct from the rest of society. We go on to learn that he neither identifies with Blacks nor with Whites during the blind-folded fight scene. The narrator does not associate with his fellow Black fighters or with the Whites, “I played one group against the other” (Ellison 23), and he does not leave with the Blacks but stays to deliver his speech to the White audience, who ignores him or jeers. The entire scene displays the narrator teeter-tottering between the two social groups, and without a group to call your own, you are often labeled an outcast.

The narrator fulfills Marcuse’s stipulation of not earning “a living, at least not in an orderly and normal way” (Marcuse 59) which also allows him to be viewed as a disruptive character. The narrator has no source of income. At first he needs money to return to school, but after he realizes the futility of that endeavor his reason for finding work changes. The narrator’s conversation with Mr. Emerson (and, consequently, reading Dr. Bledsoe’s letter) instilled a feeling of numbness that quickly turned to vengeance. He calls the paint company and gets a job, however, rather than dreaming of his education he is “dreaming of revenge” (Ellison 195). In a way the narrator fulfills both parts of Marcuse’s specification for a disruptive character at first he has no job or purpose and then once he seems to have found a job, his motive (revenge) are definitely not “normal” (Marcuse 59).

Once we have established the narrator as a disruptive character, we can talk about his effectiveness as one. Marcuse attributes a character’s ability to cause conflict and commotion to his being contradictory to the status-quo, “Incompatibility is the token of their truth” (Marcuse 60). The character could not transcend the current society if he represented the society. Thus, a truly effective disruptive character must negate the society from which it is born. The narrator stands out from the societies he is in. The South and the North represent two distinct realms of society each with their own expectations and taboos. When Dr. Bledsoe is yelling at the narrator, it becomes obvious that the narrator does not fit in in the South, “You’re black and living in the South—did you forget how to lie?” (Ellison 139). The narrator did not do, what Dr. Bledsoe saw, as a simple task for anyone in the South to understand, but to the narrator it was incomprehensible “lie to him, lie to a trustee, sir?” (Ellison 139). It also starts to become clear that the narrator doesn’t exactly fit in up North either when he addresses the young receptionist by Ma’am and then reprimands himself for it. The narrator’s lack of conformity leads him to be socially separated by race and geography. Thus, allowing him to act as the “negation of the established order” (Marcuse 59).

The narrator, at this point, has communicated mainly through memories. These passages are still relevant to issues today; another condition for an antagonistic novel, “What they recall and preserve in memory pertains to the future” (Marcuse 60). Getting electrified by the carpet in the opening passage was something, as we had discussed in class, Ellison had experience with in his real life. The narrator’s story pertaining to the electrocution has not only historical relevance but pertains to the future. Its message is not lost on the current society by being white noise; it antagonizes the current status-quo by making society remember that not everything was once perfect. The completion of Marcuse’s sentence on memories, “images of a gratification that would dissolve the society which suppresses it” (Marcuse 60) is where he would most likely find shortcoming in Invisible Man. Marcuse writes how the pre-technological world is the one we should aspire to be like, before we were enslaved by our own technology. In this case the memories from which the narrator is drawing, the pre-technological world, are not images of gratification but images of warning. Instead of providing examples of how we were better in the past, as Marcuse suggests is the best way to provide antagonism, Invisible Man provides antagonism through relevant memories.

1 comment:

  1. Nitpick: Marcuse does not want us to aspire to the pre-technological world - although perhaps he does admire some aspects of it at some times.

    It was kind of crass for me to start with a nitpick, especially since you otherwise provide a nuanced, thoughtful understanding of both Marcuse and Ellison. Your understanding of the narrator as fitting in nowhere, while not fully developed, is obviously good. Starting with his failure to identify with *anyone* at the battle royale (although, perversely, he does kind of identify with the superintendant) is great - if you develop this draft, I think the main challenge would be to not only work with examples of his outsider status throughout, but to see if, and how, that outsider status changes or evolves.

    Marcuse, of course, sees the "negation of the established order" you mention as leading somewhere: to enabling a kind of negative vision of a better world (my words, not his). If you revise this, I'd be very interested in you working with Marcuse's understanding of the ultimate, utopian purpose of literature. Everything you're doing with Marcuse and Ellison is great - it's just a question of whether you can move from the specifics into a bigger, bolder understanding of what Marcuse is doing.