In class Ellison’s disdain for protest literature was discussed to some degree. Ellison, unlike many of his contemporaries seemed to be less interested in protesting the plight of African-Americans as he was with writing a “classic.” To Marcuse this is all wrong, he often states that literature’s purpose is to challenge the established order. If there exists a debunking of Marcuse’s understanding of literature, it exist in Ellison’s Invisible Man. Ellison frequently refers to socially integrated texts of his time and at the same time presents a story which effectively challenges social structures.
In Chapter 3 of Marcuse, the idea of “Oppressive Desublimation” is introduced as the integration of culture into society.
“The reality surpasses its culture. Man today can do more than the culture heros and half-gods; he has solved many insoluble problems. But he has also betrayed the hope and destroyed the truth which were preserved in the sublimations of higher culture. To be sure, the higher culture was always in contradiction with social reality, and only a privileged minority enjoyed its blessings and represented its ideals.” (Marcuse 3)
The premise of his idea is in many ways disproven within the first pages of Invisible Man. The largely discussed quotations at the start of the book are both from authors who have—by Marcuse’s standards—gone through “oppressive desublimation.” Benito Cereno for example, was first published in a literary quarterly, which for Marcuse would have been a direct agent of desublimation. In the same third chapter of One-Dimensional Man, Marcuse argues that high culture should be reserved for a certain strata of society or else it would lose its effect on social change.
“Today's novel feature is the flattening out of the antagonism between culture and social reality through the obliteration of the oppositional, alien, and transcendent elements in the higher culture by virtue of which it constituted another dimension of reality. This liquidation of two-dimensional culture takes place not through the denial and rejection of the "cultural values," but through their wholesale incorporation into the established order, through their reproduction and display on a massive scale.” (Marcuse 3)
For Marcuse, Benito Cereno’s widespread publication would have made it succeptable to desublimation. By invoking such work in the first page of his text, Ellison is making a statement about his novel; in many ways it can be argued that the point of Invisible Man is societal integration. Aside from his invocation of “dead white men,” Ellison makes many other indications at his novel’s goal.
While it may be an ostensible stretch, it is possible to read the subject matter of Invisible man through the context of desublimation. The narrator, in the early part of the novel describes his life before his realization that he was indeed invisible. The second chapter is concerned primarily with the narrator’s time in college, and specifically an instance in which he shows a wealthy white man around campus.
Ellison does something interesting in this segment of the novel, instead of lamenting the lowly state of African-Americans by merely describing Trueblood and the saloon as many of his contemporaries might have. He seemingly integrates and in many ways criticizes those who’d rather not. By showing Mr. Norton the true state of things Ellison creates something that is immune from desublimation. Almost as if his text’s radical nature is disguised in prose, Ellison tells a story that is accessible to a wide audience but at the same time illustrates society’s shortcomings.
Marcuse might have disagreed, the wider reading of Invisible Man would have been seen by Marcuse as a watering down of the issues at hand and further proof of desublimation.