Saturday, March 31, 2012

Questions on Marcuse/Ellison, Week 1


  1. Invisible Man is overtly a novel concerned with identity. The novel at large follows the narrator through parts of his young adult life, a time when many concretize their own identity. He seems destined to be an orator, speaking out on injustices to his race and social inequality. A name is not provided for the narrator and the novel is prefaced with him living in isolation, in squalid conditions, arguably driven a bit mad. Part of the loss of his identity, it seems, is that, as an educated African American, he is expected to represent the race. Indeed, Dr. Bledsoe treats the narrator as if he were some sort of diplomat for the university, and therefore the African American race. In many ways, he appears as a ‘chosen one,’ although does not feel comfortable with the notion. When the Mr. Norton debacle occurred, Dr. Bledsoe punishes the narrator, claiming “I gave you an opportunity to serve one of our best white friends, a man who could make your fortune. But in return you dragged the entire race into the slime” (Ellison). The narrator’s racial identity has taken over his individual identity within the novel, and Dr. Bledsoe seems under the notion that the narrator is responsible for the image of an entire race.
    This recalls Lilith’s predicament in Butler’s Lilith’s Brood. Both Lilith and the narrator are ‘chosen’ to represent a large portion of individuals without sufficient consent from them. Both are thrust into a strange role of ‘leader,’ where ostensibly they lead, yet they are helpless to innumerable forces that shape and dictate the world around them (Dr. Bledsoe, the Oankali). In many ways, Dr. Bledsoe was furious because the narrator had perturbed the atmosphere of the college. Within the confines of the college, it appeared as though serious and real progress was being made with regards to racial relations (or at the very least, an education equality was seeming more attainable), though the narrator’s trip beyond the college walls, particularly to the Golden Days, tarnished this image.
    In many ways, Dr. Bledsoe’s castigation of the narrator makes me uncomfortable. I think the largest part of this is that it makes the Civil Rights movement appear institutionalized, political, and largely academic. Am I naïve to have thought that this wasn’t necessarily the actual case within history? Perhaps this isn’t an extremely germane question. Ellison’s publication of his novel predates much of the African American Civil Rights movement by at least several years (Brown V Board was 1954; Invisible Man was published in 1952, and portions of it before then), which means much of what he wrote was during what is referred to as the ‘nadir of American race relations.’ My question would be how was Ellison trying to criticize or analyze the nascent Civil Rights movement at the time of his writing? Clearly he was a proponent of equality, but did he agree with the execution? What are his views on leadership?

    (Note: I'm currently only working with a digital version of the novel...therefore my citations lack pg numbers...Something to be fixed this week.)

  2. "I had kept unswerving to the path placed before me, had tried to be exactly what I was expected to be, had done what I was expected to do--yet, instead of winning the expected rewared, here I was stumbling along, holding on desperately to one of my eyes in order to be kept from bursting out my brain." (Ellison, 146-147)

    The narrator, thus far, seems to be consumed with the idea of fate and of doing what is expected of you, and how this damns you rather than rewards you. The narrator had done exactly what he was told to do, he drove Mr. Norton where Mr. Norton wanted to be driven to, and yet, through following orders, he has put his entire education in jeopardy.

    This event causes the narrator to think about his grandfather's dying words. His grandfather was a meek man, a quiet man, and yet, on his deathbed he was apparently overcome with strong emotions of anger and guilt. "Son, after I'm gone I want you to keep up the good fight. I never told you, but our life is a war and I have been a traitor all my born days, a spy in the enemy's country ever since I give up my gun back in the Reconstruction. Live with your head in the lions mouth. I want you to overcome em with yeses, undermine 'em with grins, agree 'em to death and destruction, let 'em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open." (Ellison, 16)

    This statement heavily contrasts to what Dr. Bledsoe has to say when confronting the narrator about his ill-fated drive with Mr. Norton. "I had to be strong and purposeful to get where I am. I had to wait and plan and lick around...Yes, I had to act the nigger!" he said, adding another fiery, "Yes" ..."I don't inssit that it was worth it, but now I'm here and I meant to stay--after you win the game, you take the prize and you keep it, protect it; there's nothing else to do." (Ellison, 143)

    I suppose what I'm asking is what is Ellison trying to say about expectancy and playing the part you are meant to play? Playing the part, doing what is expected of you, and meekness, seems to apparently be the biggest regret of the Narrator's grandfather's life, so much so he becomes nearly belligerent on his death bed. Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, Dr. Bledsoe has made an entire career out of playing his part dutifully, and, with an especial cleverness and savvy. Somewhere in the middle of that is the narrator, who simply plays his part but lacks the skill to truly use this part in his favor. It seems as though the main character must go to one extreme or the other, as being in the middle way only brings him difficulty and pain. Although the grandfather's way seems to be the most noble, Dr. Bledsoe is an extremely powerful and successful man. What is Ellison trying to say about race? About the role of race in society, is it something to be played carefully like a hand of cards, or should it be fought against entirely? Which is the nobler path, playing the part to rise above, or fighting so that you don't have to play the part at all?

  3. I was just wondering about why Ellison chose to never reveal the name of the narrator. It seems like a very bold and interesting choice. The invisibility of the narrator because of his race is obviously one of the main themes of the novel. However, the fact that he never is given a name contributes to his invisibility in all of this.However, if he was given a name perhaps he wouldn't seem as invisible to the reader? I just found it an odd choice, and I have had a hard time figuring how it would change my perception of the novel and the main character while reading it?

  4. I found myself struggling with the Marcuse reading this week (more than usual that is). He concentrated on specific linguistic analysis in philosophy (something I usually understand fairly well), but I'm having trouble figuring out what his main point was/is exactly. He states "exactness and clarity in philosophy cannot be attained within the universe of ordinary discourse" (179). I think it's the word ordinary that is tripping me up. Ordinary can mean commonplace, normal, everyday (the latter of which Marcuse also uses on 175--"the universe of everyday thinking"), but it can also have the connotation of being hum-drum and unexceptional. So is Marcuse making a value judgement on the ordinary? We have not discussed any kind of elitism in Marcuse (to my memory at least), so is this something that I am misinterpreting, or did others have similar feelings towards this section? And what were every else's thoughts on Marcuse's views on on the linguistics of philosophy overall? And how does this passage relates the the rest of the book for everyone else? (Because for me, I'm having trouble connecting it to the previous chapters).

  5. The idea of fate is highly stressed within Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man”. “So you see, young man, you are involved in my life quite intimately, even though you’ve never seen me before. You are bound to a great dream and to a beautiful monument. If you become a good farmer, a chef, a preacher, a doctor, singer, mechanic – whatever you become, and even if you fail, you are my fate.”(Ellison, 51). Though we are being fed that are fates are intertwined and that our value is based on how many people we influence in life, I am wondering what exactly we are meant to take from this. Through the rest of the novel we are fed that the “white people” never say what they feel or what they really mean. Though the idea of fate being presented here is a great one, I wonder if Ellison wants us to take it for face value. How does the representation of “white men” as a whole influence how we see this idea of fate and how does it reflect how we see the narrator’s banishment to New York?

  6. "I could hardly get to sleep for dreaming of revenge"(Emerson,195). This quote exemplifies some of the narrator's feelings towards Bledsoe's betrayal in the recommendation letters he made for the narrator. How does this event fit in with the environment of racial tensions/issues that the novel has consisted of thus far? Up to this point, the tension between blacks and whites seemed to be the main emphasis of the novel. With Bledsoe's treachery, we now have a clear issue between two black characters. I got the impression that the novel was really playing with distrusting whites and the power structure that they dominate. However, Bledsoe's actions give an example of an untrustworthy African American. How is this going to affect the novel going forward and what are we to make of it? Can we see this as Bledsoe falling victim to the power structure that is dominated by whites? After all, we know Bledsoe is self-conscious about losing his power/position. Will this event have good or bad results for the narrator?

  7. “That’s what I don’t understand. I done a worse thing a man could ever do to his family and instead of chasin’ me out of the country, they gimme more help than they ever give any other colored man, no matter how good a nigguh he was.” P67
    From page 52 to page 68 in Ralph Ellison we hear the story of Jim Trueblood and how he slept with his daughter. I find this story very disturbing and can’t help but wonder why so much time is spent on it. It has a very obvious effect on Mr. Norton, “His face had drained of color. With bright eyes burning into Truebloods black face, he looked ghostly.” (Ellison68) So the story suggests the true thoughts of Mr. Norton towards his daughter and perhaps the real reason for his philanthropy but why go into so much detail. Is the story meant to suggest the only way for a black man to be accepted and helped is to shock and disturb whites and perhaps show what the white people may believe to be the true nature of the race without actually hurting whites? We definitely see that the narrator’s meekness and true deference to whites does not end in his happiness while the good farmer who was so poor is now well off due to his terrible actions.

  8. This is probably an obvious observation, but is anyone else frustrated by the narrator's naïveté throughout the beginning of the novel? I realize this will more than likely change, based on the exposition given by the protagonist’s future self in the prologue, but the entirety of his story and how he handles himself thus far had me metaphorically shaking him. After all these bad things happen to him, and all the injustice he has experienced, how is he not jaded and weary yet? This makes me wonder what exactly it is that happens to him that breaks him. Is it the revelation of the contents of the letters he had been carrying? We have not read enough after that point to know for sure, but I am interested to find out how and when this change occurs and how he transitions into his new “invisible” role.