Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Marcuse in The Invisible Man

“The most effective and enduring form of warfare against liberation is the implanting of material and intellectual needs that perpetuate obsolete forms of the struggle for existence.  The intensity, the satisfaction and even the character of human needs, beyond the biological level, have always been preconditioned.” (Marcuse 4)

            Again and again in the Invisible Man we witness the effect of possessions and “necessities” on the Narrator and his view on the material goods blacks wish to gain. His experiences and his thoughts both agree with Marcuse that material and even intellectual goods only suppress him and other blacks in the end.

            The narrator’s thoughts on this subject are perhaps most clear on page 256 where he tells us those” who sought to achieve the status of brokers through imagination alone, a group of janitors and messengers who spent most of their wages on clothing such as was fashionable among Wall Street brokers, with their Brooks Brothers suits and bowler hats, English umbrellas, black calfskin shoes and yellow gloves; with their orthodox and passionate argument as to what was the correct tie to wear with what shirt, what shade of gray was correct for spats”.  These clothes do not free these “janitors” from their position as poor blacks in New York and instead causes them to work to make money for things they do not need.  They become entrapped in the system that Marcuse describes where we work because we are preconditioned to desire things we do not need and thus must work more. However, they are not even working for a future generation but to show they are not the stereotype others believe of them.

            However, just as quickly as our narrator espouses these thoughts he seems to go back on them. The first thing he does with his new-found wealth from the brotherhood is buy himself a very nice suit. “I selected a more expensive suit than I’d intended, and while it was being altered I picked up a hat, shirts, shoes, underwear and socks, then hurried to call Brother Jack, who snapped his orders like a general.” (Ellison 331)  I think it is this last part of this sentence that we need to look at if we wish to understand this sudden change in our narrator. Our narrator, who had previously separated himself from the “dreamers” and redefined himself as a black-man who was not afraid to be black, shown by him eating yams, has now been offered a new position and gives up part of his individuality and identify to be accepted by the brotherhood.  He hurries to his new master’s call and obeys his “orders” giving up his name, his family, and speaking for them instead of just himself.  Although he is fighting for the people he has subjected himself to the “material needs” that society dictates so that society will accept him instead of accepting himself.  This passage also shows that he is not entering a good community if the people he is with value such “material needs” and later “intellectual needs” instead of the biological and individual.  The Brotherhood is then not so anti-establishment as it first appears.

            The most obvious show of our narrator’s disassociation with material goods and lifestyle is in the prologue, where he tells us of his current life.  In this section he has surpassed his state before and has entered into a new way of life, he tells us “(before I discovered the advantages of being invisible) I went through the routine process of buying service and paying their outrageous rates.  But no more. I gave up all that, along with my apartment, and old way of life.” Our narrator, abandoned the material needs we find the most basic such as an official home and address to pursue a life we have not been preconditioned for but that is perhaps more natural. At least in the world today you must have a home address, every application, government form, and document whether it makes sense or not requires one for completion.  By rejecting a standard home and with it a standard life of forms and paid for electricity our narrator not only becomes invisible to the government and society but rejects these common conveniences as unnecessary.  Why should he or we have a standard home when we can find a space to live in warmth, why should we pay for electricity or what we assume must be gas and water when we can get it anyways, why live in a world of forms?  On the one hand this lifestyle can suggest law-breaking and anarchy, on another it could suggest Communism where these services will be free, he seems to use it more to suggest individuality, a person not controlled by preconditioning, not pursuing obsolete forms of the struggle for existence.

            Throughout Invisible Man Ellison repeatedly shows us that material and even intellectual needs that are not biological are not necessary.  He shows they are trappings of a society that bring men down and waste their money instead of imparting the happiness or fulfillment that they expect.  Janitor do not become brokers by their clothes, nice clothes and a nice apartment only trap the narrator with the Brotherhood, and it is only in the isolation and anonymity of an unknown basement that our narrator is free to hibernate and explore himself and truth.


  1. I found this essay very intriguing and I think your argument has a solid foundation. The relationship between Marcuse and Ellison is clearly explained and substantiated. The examples you chose from Ellison are great for your argument. However, I would have liked to have heard a little more from Marcuse on the matter. Engaging Marcuse a little more in key moments of your argument would nicely aid an already solid argument. You also mention how this argument relates to our modern society but you did not go into much detail or explanation. Expanding on this idea a bit may help your argument in relating to the reader on a direct level.

    Overall, you have a great argument and a well written essay. This essay would be even better with more examples and deeper explanations. Good luck!

  2. Like Jesse, I think this is great. Also like Jesse, I think there are benefits to be had from engaging with Marcuse at greater length, in greater detail.

    Mostly, though, I just think this is a reading which could be productively expanded. See, for instance, the role that Cadillacs play in the novel (pg 101, 137, 493 - but especially 101). Also see Marcuse on Cadillacs. Just as much as clothing, the prospect of having cadillacs, like Bledsoe, summarizes the structure of desire (and its artificiality here).

    That's just the start, of course. Everywhere desire is channelled and manipulated - both Ellison and Marcuse are very good on this subject. And so are you!