Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Melville's Robot vs. Ellison's Man

                As encapsulated by the opening of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man we see that Herman Melville was of great influence in this novel. Because of this it seems only obvious that the use of machinery in reference to men should be held within both Invisible Man and Melville’s Moby-Dick.  A better understanding of Ahab’s robot helps a reader better understand the changes which take place to the narrator in Ellison’s Invisible Man.

                “Hold; while Prometheus is about it, I’ll order a complete man after a desirable pattern. Imprimis, a fifty feet high in his socks; then, chest modeled after the Thames Tunnel; then, legs with roots to ‘em, to stay in one place; then, arms three feet through the wrist; no heart at all, brass forehead, and about a quarter of an acre of fine brains; and let them see – shall I order eyes to see outwards?, No but put a sky-light on top of his head to illuminate inwards. There, take the order, and away.”(Melville, 512).

                Prometheus, a Titan who in Greek mythology famously gave Zeus’ fire to humans thus giving them knowledge, is also a general symbol for socialism and communism. This begs us to question the representation of the doctors within Invisible Man. Their conversation involving the narrator is already suspect.

“’But what of his psychology?’
‘Absolutely of no importance!’ the voice said. ‘The patient will live as he has to live, and with absolute integrity. Who could ask more? He’ll experience no major conflict of motives, and what is even better, society will suffer no more traumata on his account.”(Ellison, 190).

The doctors are clearly altering their patient for the benefit of society rather than his own physical benefit. In fact, his entire psychology is ‘of no importance’ to them! If we are to view these doctors as a type of Prometheus, not only are they giving a form of “knowledge” (Prometheus’ fire) but also representing a form of socialism.

Though socialism is mainly economic, as is communism largely, they both revolve around the ideas of decentralization and public or common ownership. This seems to reflect largely what is going on with the narrator’s body. After he is “hospitalized” the narrator is subjected to questionable experimental electric shock therapy, in which he has not consented to, a decision made by a separate group of men he has not met, and the benefits (or the lack thereof) the narrator will receive is of “no importance”  but the benefit to society is primary here.

Furthermore, the “knowledge” here is primarily benefits society. However, we can see this better within the terms of Ahab’s robot. ”’… about a quarter of an acre of fine brains; and let them see – shall I order eyes to see outwards?, No but put a sky-light on top of his head to illuminate inwards.’”(Melville, 512). As we see through the narrator’s later actions, this is precisely what the doctors have achieved through their experimentation on the narrator. Clearly intelligent, no true remaining identity, only information that is given to him is processed, and he does not necessarily choose his form of action. We see this in the eviction scene, where the narrator both gives an inspiring speech urging the rioters to not harm the white authority, but then continuing to inspire them all to do the exact opposite. The rants of those around him inspire him to act in radical ways simply because he no longer chooses his form of action (first responding to the white authority and then to the enraged black gatherers).

This raises the question, is the narrator the success or failure of the perfect replacement of humanity, or in this case, black humanity. It is obvious that when Ahab was imagining the robot that he was imagining a replacement of humanity entirely, but within the scope of the ongoing racial issues within Invisible Man they are attempting the perfect black man. Thus far it seems to me that to the white man this has been a failure. Throughout the novel we see that a “good” black man gives the white man what they want to hear by feeding them deceiving truths. Now, through his alterations, the narrator is simply spewing back what is given to him, which is what he has been warned against his entire life. It seems now that this perfect creation is now going to be the white man’s biggest threat.

By seeing the event of the hospital machine through the eyes of Ahab’s robot I feel that it can deeply influence our view of what is taking place within Invisible Man. Rather than a man struggling with his identity, we see a man regurgitating his surroundings from the intentional alterations by a group of white men attempting to achieve the perfect black man. This results in what seems to be a threat to the white man in a way they did not anticipate.

1 comment:

  1. This is a good reading. I think the merits of it will be even clearer to you when you finish the novel (if you haven't yet) - a mechanical man appears in the narrator's last vision which is highly amenable to this reading. While I don't think you're under any obligation to read the mechanization of the narrator through Melville specifically, I think that you *can*, and that your choice to do so is justifiable. The line about the narrator's psychology is obviously very amenable to a Marcusean reading - hypothetically, if you were going to revise this essay, I'd urge you to at least consider incorporating Marcuse into it. I think there's be a lot to gain by doing so (although you could also range more deeply just into the role of mechanization within both Moby-Dick and Invisible Man).