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Critical Essay by Mary Ellen Williams Walsh
SOURCE: "Invisible Man: Ralph Ellison's Wasteland," in CLA Journal, Vol. XXVIII, No. 2, December, 1984, pp. 150-58.
In the following essay, Walsh delineates the relationship between Invisible Man and T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land.
In Shadow and Act, Ralph Ellison credits an early reading of The Waste Land as the impetus for his "real transition to writing." Invisible Man reveals the profundity of this experience. Important scenes, characters, and events in Invisible Man recreate prototypes from The Waste Land. Identifying his avatars by strong patterns of allusion, Ellison creates a dry, devastated land of the human spirit which reaches into the mythic past. The protagonist of Invisible Man reenacts the journey of the quester in The Waste Land. His search for the truths which will bring spiritual renewal ends with his perception of his invisibility and his corresponding acceptance of the ideal precepts of American democracy.
Ellison establishes the connection between Invisible Man and The Waste Land early in the novel in the protagonist's description of the agricultural college he attends:
For how could it have been real if now I am invisible? If real, why is it that I can recall in all that island of greenness no fountain but one that was broken, corroded and dry? And why does no rain fall through my recollections, sound through my memories, soak through the hard dry crust of the still so recent past? Why do I recall, instead of the odor of seed bursting in spring-time, only the yellow contents of the cistern spread over the lawn's dead grass?… I'm convinced it was the product of a subtle magic, the alchemy of moonlight; the school a flower-studded wasteland, the rocks sunken, the dry winds hidden, the lost crickets chirping to yellow butterflies.
By describing the lush and fruitful agricultural college with the images of aridity and decay used by Eliot to portray the dying land of the impotent Fisher King, Ellison implies that the source of the isolation and dislocation felt by the protagonist is a spiritual sterility like that which devastates the Fisher King's kingdom. He further implies that the protagonist, like the quester in The Waste Land, must seek the truths which will restore spiritual vitality to black intellectual, cultural, and social life as it is symbolized by the college.
Ellison underscores the larger purpose of the protagonist's journey by unmistakably identifying the Founder of the college with the Fisher King. The Founder was impotent; his "seed" was "shriveled" in infancy. Referred to at all times by his regal title, rather than by name, the Founder has "the power of a king, or in a sense, of a god." The imagery Homer A. Barbee uses in describing the Founder's death strengthens his identification with the fertility myths: "[T]hink of it not as a death, but as a birth. A great seed has been planted. A seed which has continued to put forth its fruit in its season as surely as if the great creator had been resurrected." Fertility does invest the physical landscape of the Founder's kingdom. The spiritually deformed people who inhabit the immediate environs—the venal Bledsoe, the incestuous Trueblood, the maimed veterans—remain as evidence, however, that a spiritual rebirth has not accompanied the transformation of the "barren clay to fertile soil."
As Ellison shapes the powerful myth to include the experience of black Americans, he transforms Eliot's brittle, European characters and scenes into appropriate counter-parts in the life of the protagonist. The Trueblood episode is clearly an adaptation of "A Game of Chess." Ellison parodies Eliot's "O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag—" with the following line which announces the episode: "And Oh, oh, oh, those multimillionaires!" The petulant woman of "A Game of Chess" is the source of the woman in Trueblood's dream. The room in the mansion in which the dream woman appears is "full of lighted candles and shiny furniture and pictures on the walls, and soft stuff on the floor"; Eliot's woman sits in a similar room. Eliot's lines, "In vials of ivory and coloured glass / Unstoppered, lurked her strange synthetic perfumes, / Unguent, powdered, or liquid—troubled, confused / And drowned the sense in odours …," undoubtedly are the source of Ellison's description of the smell of the dream woman which gets "stronger all the time." When the woman attempts to hold Trueblood with her, she acts out the line which Eliot's woman speaks: "My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad. Stay with me." The bartender's call in the second scene of "A Game of Chess" perhaps suggested the clock through which the woman appears and Trueblood escapes. The account of the incestuous rape and its aftermath conjoins allusions to both scenes in "A Game of Chess." Trueblood's act parallels the rape of Philomel. His wife's attempt to obtain abortions for herself and their daughter reflects the talk of abortion by Eliot's women in the bar. The response of the white community to Trueblood's act suggests Eliot's line, "'Jug Jug' to dirty ears."
The Trueblood episode, like "A Game of Chess," demonstrates the perversions of love and potency which are symptomatic of spiritual aridity. The impotence of the king makes potency monstrous. Lust, not love, prevails. Rape and incest result. At the end of the episode, when Trueblood's young children play "London Bridge's Fallin' Down," Ellison alludes to Eliot's line in "What the Thunder Said": "London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down." In the novel, as in the poem, the words of the children's game comment on the decay and disintegration of a spiritually bereft land in which such perversions occur. The episode at the Golden Day Tavern—peopled with whores and mad veterans—further exhibits distorted and perverse sexuality. Like Eliot's bar in "A Game of Chess," the tavern is filled with "demobbed" men. In the course of the episode, the "multimillionaire" Norton inadvertently reveals an incestuous lust for his own daughter, the source of his great interest in Trueblood's story.
The chapel scene in which Homer A. Barbee delivers his eulogy to the Founder further establishes the need for spiritual regeneration in the Founder's kingdom. In this scene, Ellison alludes to "The Fire Sermon" and to "What the Thunder Said." The Founder's chapel is dedicated to his "'vast' and formal ritual." What his people celebrate, however, is "the black rite of Horatio Alger," an economic, not a spiritual, success story. Like Eliot's ruined Chapel Perilous, the Founder's chapel extends no hope for the renewal of his land. The "thunder and lightning" in this chapel is uttered by white men. Their message to the young blacks parodies that of the sacred Thunder in The Waste Land; the young people must "accept and love" the limited universe proscribed for them "and accept even if [they do] not love."
In this setting, Homer Barbee narrates the life and death of the Founder, drawing parallels between the Founder and Jesus Christ, as Eliot associates Christ with the Hanged Man/Hanged God in "What the Thunder Said." Barbee, the black Buddha, describes the Founder's being saved from his enemies by a "fire that burned without consuming," a parody of the fire in the sermon of Buddha to which Eliot alludes. Ultimately, the restorative promise of the birth, death, and resurrection imagery which pervades the chapel scene collapses under the rites practiced there. The rites are devoted to economic success, not to spiritual regeneration.
Although the protagonist leaves the college, he remains in a ritual landscape when he travels north. Ellison develops one of the protagonist's first encounters in New York through allusions to the closing section of "The Burial of the Dead." Just as Stetson is hailed in the poem, a man who alludes to the life of Christ ("Why you trying to deny me?") hails the protagonist and asks, "[I]s you got the dog?" Furthermore, when the protagonist goes to work at Liberty Paints, Ellison identifies the action as the beginning of his descent into a hell by a brief narration of the protagonist's trip to the plant: "The plant was in Long Island, and I crossed a bridge in the fog to get there and came down in a stream of workers." The narration is an adaptation of Eliot's lines which allude to the Inferno: "Unreal City, / Under the brown fog of a winter dawn, / A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many."
When the protagonist becomes involved with the Brotherhood, Ellison establishes the mythic importance of the organization by characterizing its leader in the terms of The Waste Land. The head of the organization, one-eyed Jack, who lapses in a moment of fury into a "foreign language," parodies the one-eyed Smyrna merchant, who speaks in "demotic French." Ellison's naming the one-eyed leader Jack identifies him with the figure found in a deck of common playing cards and provides thereby a particularly complex allusion to the Tarot card figure with which Eliot associated Mr. Eugenides. The Smyrna merchant's proposal in "The Fire Sermon" debases the messages of the fertility cult mysteries carried throughout the Mediterranean area by early Phoenician and Syrian merchants. Jack's promise to the protagonist similarly perverts the already perverse message of the rites celebrated in the Founder's chapel. The Brotherhood, nonetheless, does offer the narrator a kind of ritual rebirth, giving him a new name, new clothes, and a new address.
Ellison's continued allusions to The Waste Land throughout the Brotherhood section maintain the parallel between the journey of the protagonist and that of the quester in the poem. The protagonist stages a massive funeral procession—the burial of Tod—thereby literally rendering Eliot's "The Burial of the Dead." The line from de Nerval which Eliot uses in "What the Thunder Said" doubtless suggested the bell tower setting for the funeral oration, Tod Clifton having earlier been called a "natural prince" by Ras the Destroyer. When the Brotherhood denounces the protagonist for planning and executing the funeral ceremony, he seeks an answer to some of the mysteries of the cult from Sybil, the wife of one of its leaders. Ellison thus transforms the Sibyl at Cumae, the subject of the quotation from Petronius's Satyricon which forms the epigraph to The Waste Land, into a chubby, middle-aged woman who knows nothing of the mysteries but desires to be raped by a black Apollo in order to give herself an illusion of youth and desirability.
The chaos of the Harlem riot recalls Eliot's description of the chaos in Europe in "What the Thunder Said." The protagonist encounters the riot first as a "sound high in the air," then finds himself in a city which "Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air/Falling towers." As Harlem—a symbol of social and cultural freedom for the protagonist's black contemporaries—explodes, Ras the Destroyer singles out the protagonist for sacrifice in a death by hanging, because "only hanging would settle things, even the score." Eliot associates the Hanged Man of the Tarot with the Hanged God, who restores fertility to the land following his resurrection. While the protagonist refuses to accept the role of the Hanged Man, and death at the hands of Ras, he nonetheless thinks as he escapes down the manhole, "It's a kind of death without hanging … a death alive."
The underground death in life that the protagonist does accept has been foreshadowed by a series of figurative deaths by water. The first follows the explosion at Liberty Paints when he "seemed to sink to the center of a lake of heavy water"…. That experience leaves him feeling engulfed by an emotional ice which begins "melting to form a flood in which [he] threatened to drown…." When he rides down Riverside Drive toward the riot, he feels "as if drowned in the river." During the riot, the shattered glass in the streets appears to him "like the water of a flooded river" in which he suddenly "seemed to sink, sucked under…." After being pummeled by water from a broken main, he "lay like a man rescued from drowning…."
Underground, alive but dead, the protagonist assumes the role that the Founder had been unable to fulfill. His dream of castration, beside a "river of black water" that suggests Eliot's Thames which "sweats/Oil and tar," profoundly identifies his assumption of the role. As Ellen Horowitz observes, "The castration acts as the ultimate dispelling of illusions whereby the hero gains the right to see. Like the Fisher King his impotence seems a prerequisite for his life-giving role." That role is the role of seer. Eliot noted that "What Tiresias sees … is the substance of [The Waste Land]." What the protagonist sees is the substance of Invisible Man. He sees that his individual plight—his invisibility to white Americans—must be viewed in the larger context of a spiritual failure in American society. By withholding from black Americans the rights and privileges of humanity. American society has dehumanized itself.
Just as The Waste Land closes with the ancient answers for the restoration of the Fisher King's domain, the Epilogue to Invisible Man contains the answers the protagonist finds for the revitalization of America and the restoration of humanity to black people. The answers rest in the affirmation of "the principle on which the country was built and not the men, or at least not the men who did the violence," and in a recognition of both the diversity and the unity of the nation: "America is woven of many strands; I would recognize them and let it so remain…. Our fate is to become one, and yet many—." Despite the hope thus proffered, the protagonist recognizes that the sickness remains. In a passage which alludes to the opening lines of "The Burial of the Dead," he cautions: "There's a stench in the air, which, from this distance underground, might be the smell either of death or of spring—I hope of spring. But don't let me trick you, there is a death in the smell of spring…."
For Ellison and for his protagonist the identity of black Americans depends upon the renewal of the spirit which formed the country of which they are citizens. In his National Book Award acceptance speech, Ellison remarked that he considered his attempt "to return to the mood of personal moral responsibility for democracy" to be one of the major strengths of Invisible Man. Ellison made this attempt because he saw his characters and their situations from a broadly human perspective. His allusions to The Waste Land demonstrate the perspective. The mythic tradition—the urge for spiritual renewal, the necessity for sacrifice, the desire for rebirth—speaks as strongly to the condition of black people in America as it does to the isolated and alienated condition of any people. To emphasize this concept, the closing question of the novel contains a final significant allusion to The Waste Land. When the protagonist asks, "Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?" he echoes Eliot's use of Baudelaire's line, "You! hypocrite lecteur!—mon semblable—mon frére!" Both the question and the exclamation demand the reader's identification with their speakers. The protagonist thereby insists on the universality of his experience, an experience which Ellison has nonetheless firmly tied to a failure in American values.
This section contains 2,518 words
(approx. 9 pages at 300 words per page)