Friday, April 15, 2011

Tricksters in the 20th

I took this week’s assignment as a chance to present a version of my final project as it not only answers the given prompt, but allows for an assessment of the more trivial aspects of my ideas. For this reason (and length stipulations), I am presenting it in somewhat shallow cases. Commence critiquing.

Kierkegaard asks, “What is it to be God’s elect?” What is it to be a god? a hero? But that’s lackluster – did Thor ever have more fun than Loki? Tricksters, as a general rule of thumb “serve primarily ‘to add disorder to order and so make a whole, to render possible, within the fixed bounds of what is permitted an experience of what is not permitted’” (Doty 16). The invisible man takes on many personas and many alliances only find his true calling is in the art of mischief and transcending the norm.

To consider anyone as such, it is imperative to determine why he or she is inclined to break from the mold and mock the status quo. Invisible Man is set in an America shortly after slavery has been abolished. For this reason, society went from literally using humans as natural resources to having to come up with more nefarious ways of instrumentalization (Marcuse 1964). I take it upon myself herein to assume America at this time to be experiencing a shift in the marginal rate of technical substitution – from human powered production to a more efficient and mechanical method of controlling the masses.

In these circumstances, the transformation of under-developed into industrial societies must as quickly as possible discard the pre-technological forms. This is especially so in countries where even the most vital needs of the population are far from being satisfied, where the terrible standard of living calls first of all for all quantities en masse, for mechanized and standardized mass production and distribution” and here we get to the meat of the idea, “The machine process (as social process) requires obedience to a system of anonymous powers – total secularization and the destruction of values and institutions whose de-sanctification has hardly begun” (Marcuse).

I find this too obvious a situation to pass up: The Brotherhood not only defines this practice but explicitly admits to it countless times in the novel: “We have a scientific plan and you set them off. Things are so bad they’ll listen, and when they listen they’ll go along,” “…we must do and say the things necessary to get the greatest number of the people to move toward what is for their own good” (Ellison 1947) – the latter proving the utilitarianism that pervades the book and all organizations the invisible man seems to fall into, blindly or no. The narrator actually is convinced of their goal at one point, “I’m no hero and I’m far from the top; I’m a cog in a machine” (Ellison 1947). On a racial level, the oppressed blacks are faced with a few choices: assimilate, disappear, or fall onto trickery to fend off the system. “Thus the blacks have to still fall back on trickery and ingenuity if they are to progress socially or even just to survive” (Whyte 1984). This creates a choice to become a cog, and as it should happen, the narrator decides that if best to play both sides (though I don’t think he know he was doing so) for “to define (definis) is to draw borders around phenomena,” and he is a trickster, after all (Hynes 1984).

Invisible Man is a literary enigma. It may be difficult to determine what the narrator’s role is but the beauty of having such a complex novel is creating the case for such ideas. It is without question that the invisible man is a trickster, as many are in hard times. Much like Lord Raglan has created tenants of what makes a hero, W. J. Hynes presents six commonalities “at the heart” of tricksters.

Ambiguous and Anomalous. Much like Kermode, Hynes describes the trickster as a barrier crosser; “seems to dwell in no single place but to be in continual transit through all realms”. I think this is the most readily available characteristic of the narrator. He not only crosses borders of physicality/geography but spiritually. The journey from South to North, a once deadly trip for his people, is symbolically simple enough. His ascension into the Brotherhood and coming into an alternate identity allows him to be something more than the impoverished minority he may be. Brother Jack hands him an envelope and gives him a crowd, after that he gains access to the community, he speaks for the organization, persuades politicians, he transcends borders. The numerous rebirths he undergoes creates in him a set of polarities, “the trickster is always more than can be glimpsed at any one place or in any one embodiment” (Hynes 1993). To answer these claims, Ellison tells us the narrator is conscious of being who is not – “giddy with the delight of self-discovery” as he faces the name Buckeye the Rabbit. As easy as it would be to say he is remembering the nursery rhymes of his ancestry, it would be naïve to think the references throughout the novel to Buckeye, Brer, and animals of folklore is too pervasive.

Deceiver and Trick-Player.



Messenger and Imitator of the Gods.

Sacred and Lewd Bricoleur.

*Note: I am at war with myself wondering if analyzing the text and defining the invisible man as a trickster (using Hynes’ six tenants of a trickster) is “acceptable”. Perhaps I just see this as being a rudimentary stance, but it is the heart of my essay – and I wonder if it’s an argument at all. I guess my real question is, am I doing enough? I’m most worried about filling 8 pages. This segment is in accordance with the length allotment because I wanted to give you a glimpse into the essay without boring you with reading it twice. I plan going through each tenant much like I did the first one and then finishing. HELP.

Kierkegaard, Soren. Fear and Trembling. 1843.

Whyte, Philippe. Invisible Man as a Trickster Tale. Delta. 18 April 1984.

Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man. 1964.

Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. 1947.

Mythical Trickster Figures. ed. Hynes, William J. and Doty, William G. The University of Alabama Press: Tuscaloosa/London 1993.


  1. Here's how I intend to help, and you can let me know if it's actually helpful.

    The invisible man is a trickster. Maybe that's because he gets tricked so much - going from the tricked to the trickster is a complex but natural transition for him. Yet, he is an intellectual who also analyzes what it means to be a trickster (I'm thinking especially of his experience as Rinehart, which then provides a kind of education preceding his move into the basement).

    Saying that he's a trickster, though, is a little on the easy side. Understanding him in terms of the archetypal characteristics of tricksters in general, while certainly interesting, is also a little basic. Using Raglan to understand Ellison should be the start, not the stop, of an essay; you're in a comparable situation.

    So here's the lynchpin: why does it matter that he's a trickster? Clearly, you want it to relate to instrumentalization.

    The answer, I think, is obvious: tricksterism matters in this context because it is a answer (maybe *the* answer) to instrumentalization; Ellison, incidentally, is following in Melville's footsteps here (I'm thinking of his great novel *The Confidence Man*).

    So, using Marcuse as one component, can you make an essay out of the concept that instrumentalization is answerable primarily or even only through tricksterism work? I suspect that you can. How, I don't know - but here's my one thought, which might appeal to you. It might be that Marcuse's full pessimism comes from his lack of appreciation for people's ability to trick, elude, and betray the system.

    Does that help?

  2. I feel a little lost reading this. You have so many different quotes and voices presented here, but I don't see *your* own ideas as much as I would hope to. Yes your quotes support your argument for the most part, but I feel like your own voice is lost in everyone else.

    If I am correct in picking out this to be your overall thesis, "The invisible man takes on many personas and many alliances only find his true calling is in the art of mischief and transcending the norm," then I am not sure how the Marcuse quote relates to this. How do the science described in Marcuse and the scientific plan from Invisible Man relate to the tricksters?

    The Hynes' six tenants of a trickster seems really interesting. You could definitely apply those to the characters in Invisible Man to further support your argument.