Plunge Into History
Ellison’s Invisible Man questions historical narrative to present multiple histories occurring simultaneously. These histories collide and help shape each other. But it is only in “plunging” outside of history that one can disrupt the system.
- Discuss the novel as a reflection. It reads as a memoir, yet contains little autobiographical information fundamental to the narrator’s identity. How does this pertain to the historical plunge? His reflections become a distorted chronology, through which he acknowledges the unawareness of his own identity. His identity was shaped by the narrative in which he was plunged at the moment.
For instance, his first historical narrative is that of the valedictorian. He is obediant through the trials (i.e. the battle royal, which he continuously references later) and follows the narrative into college, where he meets with his first political injustice after the Trueblood incident leads to expulsion. This section of the paper should focus on the significance of the identity through events and expectations. I want to go to a few places: 1. He begins as a speaker, and continues as a speaker. But he is not speaking on behalf of himself or for himself; it is for the white gamblers. Then it is for the white brothers. 2. The battle royal, while disgustingly portrayed, is sort of washed over. Why? — The battle royal is a disturbance that remains for the most part outside of history. Even in writing about it, the narrator does not attribute blame or responsibility, it is only a chronology, despite its disturbing imagery. Yet, it is referenced throughout the remainder of the novel. I want to go to some other sections where it comes up and analyze why it is there in particular and how that affects its overall meaning/ the function of intertwined historical narratives. It is an example of the individual obedience to the larger narrative that he maintains.
- In the next section I would like to discuss more his nature as a speaker. A speaker writes history, regardless of what is the truth. In the novel, after the narrator speaks at Clifton’s funeral the brotherhood punishes him because he has stepped outside of their historical narrative. They tell him that his ideas are irrelevant; he was not hired to think, he was hired to make speeches. His role as the historian does not surpass mere observation within another narrative. I will here bring in Kermode to analyze the truth in history and how that history can be altered. As the narrator takes that unintentional step he forms an individual narrative and causes disturbances.
I will introduce at some point the essay written by Jim Neighbors entitled “Plunging (outside of) History: Naming and Self-Possesion in Invisible Man.” The essay discusses the “plunge” and its relation to naming in the context of Aristotle and analysis of language. I will disagree with the major focus on naming, but take from it key points such as the narrators gradual transition between inside and outside of history and the distinction between chaos and the abyss. As the narrator nears his plunge (before which he becomes aware of the possibility with growing anxiety) chaos ensues around him. This clearly contributes to the idea of disturbance. I will go more into this in the essay and relate it to the examples given.
Clifton plunges outside of history, which leads to the conflict between Ras and IM, but clifton belonged to neither history. The brotherhood deserts him although they acknowledge Ras; Ras follows a historical narrative but Clifton is lost to them (apathy is indifferent to love/hate). Through his plunge the narrator acknowledges the anxieties to the historical narrative — I will here reference the passage that he contemplates Clifton’s “plunge” and analyze the form. Then I will compare his anxiety to the funeral eulogy and introduce a Kermodian analysis based upon the “strict distinction between meaning and truth” and the how the narrator “ignore[s] what is written in favor of what is written about” (Kermode 119). (<-- this citation is originally from Jean Starobinski)
Ultimately, the narrator himself takes the plunge. Following the funeral he sees the epitomization of the historical conflict between the two narratives. He is outside both, hunted by both. It is only in isolation from all history that he can observe and reflect, acknowledge the existence of historical narratives as their own entities to which the members blindly conform. In his invisibility his encounters are limited to minor conflicts. I will return here to the prologue, where we see him invisibly active, in comparison to his literal plunge directly before the epilogue. If he is outside of history, why does he engage in these encounters with it and why does he decide the time has come to return? And how does his isolation relate to the disturbances? He is able to play with history, cause individual chaotic moments followed by a quick return to solitude. I will suggest that it is time to return to society — to history — because aware of his invisibility and thus permanently outside o history he can surpass his past disturbance. He was able to contribute to chaos while unaware, and through the path towards awareness he is ready for the ultimate disturbance. But, back to Kermode, this is speculation based not upon what is written, but what is written about. The disturbances are written about, but the language is always subtle. This relates also to the battle royal.
The conclusion will relate back upon the disturbances. Hopefully by this point I will have given evidence to support that in the novel the disturbance of history is attained through stepping outside of it. Obediance allows the narrative to prevail, questioning causes the ripples of chaos.
Kermode. The Genesis of Secrecy.
Neighbors, Jim. “Plunging (outside of) History: Naming and Self-Possesion in Invisible Man.” African American Review 36.2 (2002): 227-42.