Invisible Man | Critical Essay by Sandra Adell

This literature criticism consists of approximately 26 pages of analysis & critique of Invisible Man.
This section contains 7,693 words
(approx. 26 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Sandra Adell

SOURCE: "The Big E(llison)'s Texts and Intertexts: Eliot, Burke, and the Underground Man," in CLA Journal, Vol. XXXVII, No. 4, June, 1994, pp. 377-401.

In the following essay, Adell examines Invisible Man according to the theory of intertextuality expressed by Roland Barthes, noting the connections between Ellison's novel and such works as T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land and Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground.

Mallarmé might well have been, as Michael Gresset and Noel Polk claim, the first of the moderns to point to intertextuality as a key operation in literary activity when he wrote that

all books, more or less, contain the fusion of a certain number of repetitions: even if there were but one book in the world, its law would be as a bible simulated by the heathens. The difference from one work to the next would afford as many readings as would be put forth in a boundless contest for the trustworthy text among epochs that are supposedly civilized or literate.

                          [Intertextuality in Faulkner]

Of course, Mallarmé did not know that he was articulating a theory of intertextuality; that word has only recently come into literary terminology. But he obviously had no doubt that this "fusion of a certain number of repetitions" is not only the basis, but the very essence of literature. This notion of intertextuality and its attendant concepts, the "work" and the "text" are, of course, founding principles for structuralist and post-structuralist criticism.

Prior to the late 1970s, when a few black writers and intellectuals began to reconsider and reevaluate the relationship between black writing and the critical discourses of the literary mainstream, and the space(s) occupied by Ralph Ellison and his writing in those discourses, a dominant issue in Afro-American literary criticism was what in Barthian terms would be called the "writerliness" of Ellison's Invisible Man. In what John Wright refers to in "Shadowing Ellison" [in Speaking for You: The Vision of Ralph Ellison, Howard University Press, 1987] as an intense "war of invective" waged against Ellison by his more ideologically oriented opponents, the novel has often been attacked because it subverts much of what characterizes the "work" or classic text, and because, like the "writerly" text as Roland Barthes defines it, what "traverses it from one end to the other" are references and echoes of texts from systems that lie outside of the parameters of what has been very loosely defined as the black "experience."

An essay published in 1970 by the black aesthetician Clifford Mason entitled "Ralph Ellison and the Underground Man" [Black World, December, 1970] is symptomatic of this "war of invective." Guided by what the one-time-but-now-much-reformed black aesthetician Houston Baker calls the "romantic Marxism" of the black aesthetic, Mason speaks of a "proper position" with regard to black literature and white American culture which he feels that Ellison, through his "literary references," has violated:

Black literature deserved its own references, its own standards, its own rules. Not in an abberrant denial of anything that came from white American culture, valid or otherwise, but as conscious insistence on the creating of an African-American text that derived its raison d'etre from an African-American truth that exists in spite of the fact that it has never, until very recently, had a really pervasive life in the world of literature.

Without specifying what that "truth" is, Mason argues that the amplitude of Ellison's literary references and his insistence on giving structural credit for Invisible Man to a number of mainstream writers rather than to Richard Wright not only makes this kind of "aggressive Black literary independence" impossible; it makes Ellison's nationalism suspect as well:

[H]is insistence on giving structural credit for Invisible Man to William Faulkner, and Ernest Hemingway and Feodor Dostoevsky and T. S. Eliot and James Joyce and God knows who else, when it's as plain as it can be that he owes the basic design of the book to a Richard Wright short story … called, prophetically enough, "The Man Who Lived Underground," certainly makes his nationalism suspect. I suppose a case can be made for Dostoyevsky based on his Notes From Underground. But Notes deals with the outsider who is estranged because he is the son who cannot conform, not because he is the bastard who was never allowed to conform in the first place.

Ignoring the well-known fact that both writers read and were very influenced by Dostoevsky, Mason goes on to argue that rather than basing his writings on a "white substructure," Ellison should have stood against white literary values as did Du Bois and Alain Locke. One need look no further than Du Bois and Alain Locke themselves to see the fallacy of this argument; for indeed, their aesthetics is heavily implicated in the Western philosophical tradition and therefore inextricably bound to the "white substructure." In fact, Du Bois's thesis in "Criteria of Negro Art" is that black folk will not be recognized as human until their art is equal to that of white folk. Alain Locke shared Du Bois's thesis and defined the "poise and cultural maturity" of the black artist in terms of his ability to "bring the artistic advance of the Negro sharply into stepping alignment with contemporary artistic thought, mood, and style." He called for the kind of "transfusions of racial idioms with the "modernistic styles of expression" which he felt had already occurred in music so that "Negro thoughts" would wear the "uniform" of the modern age. Like Du Bois, he practiced what Houston Baker calls an "integrationist Poetics." His critical and theoretical perspective was based on a faith in "American pluralistic ideals" that were to be effected through an art whose impetus was lodged within the "spirit" of the restless and urbanbound Negro masses.

Ellison, whose interest in music and sculpture exposed him very early to these "modernistic styles of expression," responds to Locke's imperative for black participation in the modernist movement through his appropriation of T. S. Eliot and Kenneth Burke in Shadow and Act, and to Locke's and Du Bois's cultural pluralism through the many intertextual instances—Dostoevsky's Notes From Underground is but one of those instances—that permeate Invisible Man.

From Eliot's critical perspective, a writer's contemporaneity is contingent upon the extent to which he perceives, simultaneously, the pastness and the presence of the past. This historical sense, which Eliot refers to as "tradition," therefore paradoxically involves an indebtedness to the past without which a work of art not only would not be new; it would not be a work of art. The new work of art must emerge out of the past, out of the "ideal order" of the "monuments" existing prior to it. It must "reorder" and readjust the ideal order so that there is conformity between the old and the new and a parallel reciprocal relation between the past and the present: "the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past." The imperative for the artist or poet in this relationship is that he surrender his "private mind" or personality to a "continuing developing consciousness" of the "main current" which, while abandoning nothing en route, proceeds from the past through the mind of Europe and his own country. Through this process of a continuing developing consciousness, his mind must become a medium, not for expressing his personality, but for combining, in "peculiar and unexpected ways," the passions, impressions, and experiences which constitute its (the mind's) materials. What Eliot therefore proposes—and this is a founding principle for modernism in general—is a "formal" approach to art. The poet or artist must become subordinate to the work of art. Interest must be diverted from the subject to the object, from the poet to the poem, from the artist to the art work; that is, to the way everything that has come before is recombined, reconcentrated, recast, and refined to form something new.

When Ellison writes in the introduction to Shadow and Act that "[b]ehind each artist there stands a traditional sense of style,"… he reiterates Eliot, whose notion of tradition, as we have seen, is related to one's perception of the past as a living present. This "traditional sense of style" was the source from which Ellison drew the forms and figures that inhabited the imaginary realm which he often shared with his boyhood friends as they attempted to escape an environment—post-World War I Oklahoma—which he describes as one which "at its most normal took on some of the mixed character of nightmare and of dream" [Shadow and Act]. He writes that "part of our boyish activity expressed a yearning to make any and everything of quality Negro American; to appropriate it, possess it, recreate it in our own group and individual images" [Shadow and Act]. There is, therefore, in his fiction a convergence of the styles of black jazz and blues men with those of the heroes of American and African-American literature and folklore, which in turn combine with those of the "literatures of Europe."

From out of this "vortex" of cultural contexts emerged Ellison's "Invisible Man." He resembles his Russian "ancestor" in that, like Notes From Underground, his memoir is "one long, loud rant, howl and laugh" [Shadow and Act]. He resembles Wright's "underground man" in that his underground hole is a refuge from a society determined to "keep this nigger boy running." He is also very different in that his experience, i.e., his quest for self-realization and self-definition, takes him through what Ellison describes as the black American language.

… a language swirling with over three hundred years of American living, a mixture of the folk, the Biblical, the scientific and the political. Slangy in one stance, academic in another, loaded poetically with imagery at one moment, mathematically bare of imagery in the next.

                                 [Shadow and Act]

As a being born into this intertextual linguistic field, the black writer, like the Invisible Man, is irrevocably linked to the "white substructure" upon which it is grounded. Consequently, despite the contention of the black aestheticians and the more recent black "anti-theory theorists" that there is something called a "unique" black experience out of which should develop "unique" cultural artifacts (with the power to transform an "American Negro into an African-American or a black man"), and "unique" critical tools for evaluation, the literary work of even the most radical black writer, and Baraka is an excellent example of this, will to some extent reflect the values—cultural, political, social, aesthetic, etc.—of that "substructure." Such is the nature of art, and particularly of literature. A work of art does not develop out of a vacuum. From Ellison's (and Eliot's) perspective, every work proceeds from the totality of works that preceded it. Thus, a more practical critical approach to African-American literature in general, and to Ellison's texts in particular, would seem to be that taken up by the writers included in Kimberly Benston's Speaking for You: The Vision of Ralph Ellison—that is, to analyze the skill with which the black writer is able to "rewrite" or recontextualize the literary references that echo, resound, and reverberate throughout his or her texts rather than to criticize, for purely social, political, or ideological purposes, the fact that they are there.

Ellison writes that his constant concern with the craft and technique from which his literary styles emerged and his "constant plunging back into the shadow of the past" were necessary precisely in order to transcend the limitations "apparently imposed by [his] racial indentity" and to resist the temptation to "interpret the world and all its devices in terms of race" [Shadow and Act]. He therefore takes a decidedly formal approach to literature and to literary criticism.

Ellison attributes his preoccupation with form and technique to his 1935 encounter with Eliot's The Waste Land and to his formal training in music with its emphasis on theory. In fact, he writes that he began to make the transition from the study of music to the study of literature after having read The Waste Land during his second year as a music major at Tuskegee Institute. He describes the influence it had upon him in "Hidden Name and Complex Fate":

The Waste Land seized my mind. I was intrigued by its power to move me while eluding my understanding. Somehow its rhythms were often closer to those of jazz than were those of the Negro poets, and even though I could not understand then, its range of allusion was as mixed and varied as that of Louis Armstrong. Yet there were its discontinuities, its changes of pace and its hidden system of organization which escaped me. There was nothing to do but look up the references in the footnotes to the poem, and thus began my conscious education in literature.

                                [Shadow and Act]

Thus by reading The Waste Land, with what F.O. Mathiessen calls its "series of scholarly notes," Ellison "inscribes" himself into modernism and the entire Western literary tradition. However, as we have seen, in so doing, he situates himself in opposition to many of his more ideologically oriented contemporaries vis-a-vis the literary "text." As Ellison explains in Shadow and Act, what concerned him was not an ideological or sociological interpretation of the "Negro's experience" but the conversion of that experience into "symbolic action." For Ellison, the "text" is therefore not a sociological or political construct, although it does perform a social function: "[I]t brings into full vision the processes of [man's] current social forms." Following Kenneth Burke, to whom he claims to be "especially endebted," Ellison thinks of reading/writing as symbolic actions—in the introduction to Shadow and Act he writes that writing was an "acting out, symbolically" of a choice (between music and writing) he dared not acknowledge—and the "text" as a "symbolic act." As William Dowling puts it in his discussion of the relationship between Frederic Jameson and Kenneth Burke, the "text," accordingly, is paradoxical, for it is at once a symbolic act and a symbolic act. This means that it is as act genuine, for it tries to do something to reality or the world, but this something is unabashedly symbolic, for it leaves the world unmarked. Thus we come to a point of ambiguity or ambivalence, which is perhaps at the heart of modernism (certainly in the form of the New Criticism) and about which Ellison is keenly aware: the relationship between the text and the world or reality or the Symbolic and the Real. One choice would be to stress the symbolic status of the text, to view it as a kind of passive reflection of a ("politically") chaotic reality. A second would be to stress act whereby the language of the text would be seen as having the power both to organize and, as it were, constitute the world. This is important, for it is perhaps the case that the world or its reality cannot be independent of language: without language the world would simply disappear. Our question is, then, where does Ellison place the stress? On the symbolic or on the act? This brings us to yet another problem: Ellison's understanding of "reality" or the "real."

In pursuing this last question, let us not forget that Ellison was greatly influenced by Burke, who believes that what we call the real is in fact the symbolic. In Language as Symbolic Action Burke writes that as symbol-using/misusing animals, we cling to "a kind of naive verbal realism that refuses to realize the full extent of the role played by symbolicity in [our] notions of reality," which he defines as "but a construct of our symbol system." Thus reality is for Burke, and for Ellison as well, a "clutter of symbols about the past combined with our knowledge of the present" which is dispersed through writing—through books, magazines, maps, and newspapers. Indeed, Ellison's exposure as a child to a reality different from the one he inhabited was stimulated by the media: by the radio he enjoyed tinkering with and the discarded opera records, books, and magazines—he mentions specifically Vanity Fair—his mother would bring from the home of her white employer. Needless to say, this reality (or symbol system) often clashed with the one to which he was confined by virtue of his being black. In any event, what is implicit here but is made explicit by Ellison in the essay entitled "Twentieth-Century Fiction" is that what is taken for the real, particularly in literature, is in fact the symbolic. All of its constructs, including the sociological and racial, reside in linguisticality—in the word, which Ellison describes as an "insidious" form of segregation:

Perhaps the most insidious and least understood form of segregation is that of the word. And by this I mean the word in all its complex formulations, from the proverb to the novel and stage play, the word with all its subtle power to suggest and foreshadow overt action while magically disguising the moral consequences of that action and providing it with symbolic and psychological justification. For if the word has the potency to revive and make us free, it has also the power to blind, imprison, and destroy.

                                      [Shadow and Act]

Ellison's concern here and in "The Shadow and the Act," is with what Burke calls "language as a species of action—symbolic action [whose] nature is such that it can be used as a tool." As symbolic action, language posits a myth—that of the stereotypical black—(Burke refers to this stereotype as a symbol of "contented indigence") and a ritual—that of keeping the black in his place. (Jim Crow is but another symbolic [juridical] system.) Hence, according to Ellison, what is represented as a "black" reality in much of twentieth-century fiction is not the Real but the Symbolic—a system of symbols governed, as in the case of Faulkner's Chick in Intruder in the Dust, by "an inherited view of the world with its Southern conception of Negroes" [Shadow and Act]. His imperative in "Brave Words for A Startling Occasion" is that, like Menelaus, who in the Odyssey must struggle with Proteus's ever-changing forms in order to find his way home, the modern American novelist must struggle against this "inheritance of illusion" and challenge the "apparent forms of reality" in order to find his way home:

The way home we seek is that condition of man's being at home in the world, which is called love, and which we term democracy. Our task then is always to challenge the apparent forms of reality—that is, the fixed manners and values of the few, and to struggle with it until it reveals its mad, vari-implicated chaos, its false faces, and on until it surrenders its insight, its truth.

                                      [Shadow and Act]

In addition to his very Burkian notion of reality as the symbolic rather than the real, what Ellison reveals here is his own paradoxical relationship to modernism. On the one hand, Ellison, like most modernists, is involved in a serious reevaluation of the limits of literary form and the possibilities for a new aesthetic in the arts generally. On the other hand, through his concern with value, he refuses to be modern. Furthermore, by invoking the idea of homelessness, he raises a problem with which modernism tries to grapple: what does it mean to be-in-the-world in the twentieth century? Indeed, Ellison tells us in the introduction to Shadow and Act that the question of Being is what underlies his fiction: "Fiction became the agency of my efforts to answer the questions: Who am I, what am I, how did I come to be?" In other words, as we shall see, Ellison—like the Invisible Man and his Russian counterpart, Dostoevsky's Underground Man, whose narrative we will argue forms a kind of "frame" upon which Invisible Man is superimposed—writes out of an urgent (metaphysical) need to act.

We have called Notes from Underground a "frame" for Invisible Man because it is in the novel's Prologue and Epilogue that Ellison's close proximity to Dostoevsky is most evident. In both novels we have an "I," a speaking subject who, after having endured about twenty years of "sickness," is suddenly compelled to write a kind of confessional. "I am a sick man…. I am a spiteful man," declares the Underground Man, while Ellison's protagonist writes, "I am an invisible man." The first sentence of each novel is important because it raises the question, "Who is behind the 'I?'" "Who is writing, and to whom does he address himself?" According to Barthes, the "I" has a double status, that of character and figure, which he distinguishes as follows:

In principle, the character who says "I" has no name…. [I]n fact, however, I immediately becomes a name, his name. In the story (and in many conversations), I is no longer a pronoun, but a name, the best of names; to say I is inevitably to attribute signifieds to oneself; further, it gives one a biographical duration, it enables one to undergo, in one's imagination, an intelligible "evolution," to signify oneself as an object with a destiny, to give a meaning to time…. The figure is altogether different: it is not a combination of semes concentrated in a legal Name, nor can biography, psychology, or time encompass it: it is an illegal, impersonal, anachronistic configuration of symbolic relationships. As figure, the character can oscillate between two roles, without this oscillation having any meaning, for it occurs outside biographical time, (outside chronology …).

In short, as character, the "I" is full, a complete subject; as figure, the "I" is decentered, dispersed among its "configurations of symbolic relationships."

While Ellison claims that his Invisible Man is a "character" in the "dual meaning of the term," he posits his protagonist in much the same way that Dostoevsky posits his—that is, as a "figure." In a footnote to Part One of Notes, Dostoevsky describes the Underground Man as a representative of a "generation that is still living out its days among us." He is the type of man that city life had begun to breed: a man of acute consciousness whose sickness comes from his increasing awareness that the system which constitutes the social has no basis—it has no ground. His audience is nothing more than an "absent presence," an "empty device" which makes it possible for him to carry on this long dialogue with himself in which he lays out his notion of pain and suffering as one of the metaphysical grounds for human existence.

Ellison's protagonist is described by what is probably the sanest character in the novel, the "crazy" vet. He describes the Invisible Man as a product of the age of technology, the kind of man that philanthropists like Mr. Norton, who believe it is their business to see to the "first-hand organizing of human life," had begun to breed. As the "crazy" vet helps Mr. Norton to recover from his Golden Day Tavern ordeal, he tells Mr. Norton that the Invisible Man is the most perfect achievement of his dreams:

"You see," he said turning to Mr. Norton, "he has eyes and ears and a good distended African nose, but he fails to understand the simple facts of life. Understand. Understand? It's worse than that. He registers with his senses but short-circuits his brain. Nothing has meaning. He takes it in but he doesn't digest it. Already he is—well, bless my soul! Behold! a walking zombie! Already he's learned to repress not only his emotions but his humanity. He's invisible, a walking personification of the Negative, the most perfect achievement of your dreams, sir! The mechanical man!"

As a mechanical man the Invisible Man is unable to see beyond the corners of his consciousness, and when he does, as in the Prologue, he retreats. Everything else, including an understanding of "the simple facts of life," is blocked off by the "they" or the "Other" to which he looks for an image of himself. And when he finally comes to see the "nightmare" of the absurdity of all life, it is to the "they" or the "Other" that the Invisible Man articulates his need to write:

So why do I write, torturing myself to put it down? Because in spite of myself I've learned some things. Without the possibility of action, all knowledge comes to one labeled "file and forget," and I can neither file nor forget. Nor will certain ideas forget me; they keep filing away at my lethargy, my complacency. Why should I be the one to dream this nightmare? Why should I be dedicated and set aside—yes, if not to at least tell a few people about it? There seems to be no escape. Here I've set out to throw my anger into the world's face, but now that I've tried to put it all down the old fascination with playing a role returns, and I'm drawn up again. So that even before I finish I've failed (maybe my anger is too heavy; perhaps being a talker, I've used too many words). But I've failed. The very act of trying to put it all down has confused me and negated some of the anger and some of the bitterness. So it is that now I denounce and defend, or feel prepared to defend. I condemn and affirm, say no and say yes, say yes and say no. I denounce because though implicated and partially responsible, I have been hurt to the point of abysmal pain, hurt to the point of invisibility. And I defend because in spite of all I find that I love. In order to get some if it down I have to love.

We have quoted this rather long paragraph almost entirely, because it shows some important intersections and divergences between the Underground Man and the Invisible Man. The most obvious intersection is the protagonists' need to write. But they write for different reasons. The Underground Man claims that he writes in order to relieve himself of one of the hundreds of memories that oppress him, and because he is bored. As a man suffering from "excessive consciousness," and inertia, he needs something to do. The Invisible Man writes precisely because he does not want to forget, and because he wants his anger and frustration to be heard. He therefore aspires to be a "readerly" writer. And in contrast to the Underground Man, who contemptuously invokes his audience only to negate it, the Invisible Man always takes his readers' sensitivity into account. He is respectful, and careful not to take advantage of them. He is apologetic for even the slightest contradiction. And at the end of the Prologue, he says, "Bear with me." He asks them to be tolerant because he needs allies; the Invisible Man does not want to dream the nightmare alone.

As the Lisa episode dramatizes, the Underground Man refuses to establish an alliance with anyone. He refuses because he considers himself more intelligent than everyone else, but more importantly, because to seek allies implies a willingness to give oneself over to the quotidian, the social, the moral, the ethical; in short, it implies a willingness to give oneself over to the nightmare which the Underground Man is attempting, through a sort of metaphysical rebellion, to escape. His escape is not without its consequences, however. The anger and bitterness that abate as the Invisible Man tries to "put it all down" only becomes more intense as the Underground Man turns it inwards. Since he denounces everything that stands for the social, he is never tempted by the fascination of playing a role for the sake of the "they" as is the Invisible Man. He does not allow himself to be drawn into the everydayness of the "they"; therefore, nothing detracts from what he, too, experiences as an abysmal pain.

The pain from which the Underground Man suffers is the "sole root" of his consciousness. It constitutes the state or condition which Dostoevsky nominates the "underground." And it is only in this condition that the Underground Man feels he can experience what ordinary existence, with its "systems and abstract conclusions," denies the human subject: that most "advantageous of advantages," absolute freedom.

The freedom about which the Underground Man speaks has nothing to do with material well-being or virtue: that falls under the rubric liberation and is always contingent upon the "they." What he articulates is a notion of freedom which is another metaphysical ground for existence as he understands it. It is a kind of existential "thinking" that negates all systems of reason and logic—it is the absolute right to choose:

One's own free, untrammeled desires, one's own whim, no matter how extravagant, one's own fancy, be it wrought up at times to the point of madness—all of this is precisely that most advantageous of advantages which is omitted, which fits into no classification, and which is constantly knocking all systems and theories to hell. And where did our sages get the idea that man must have normal, virtuous desires? What made them imagine that man must necessarily wish what is sensible and advantageous? What man needs is only his own independent wishing, whatever that independence may cost and wherever it may lead.

In order to maintain this absolute right to his own "whim," the Underground Man must stand alone, and he must struggle against that which has already been defined. He must reject anything that makes a claim to the good, the logical, and the beautiful as being nothing more than weapons, illusions with which to combat the painfulness of "authentic" existence. And since this authenticity is what he seeks, he must always be acutely, excessively conscious. This is why in "On the Occasion of Wet Snow," he allows himself to be insulted and humiliated, then insults and humiliates Lisa, and thereby perpetuates the cycle of pain through which he grows more morbidly and sensitively self-aware.

The Underground Man is morbidly and sensitively aware of what it means to say "I am." Through his dialogue with himself, he attempts to make a distinction between the "I am" of everydayness, the "I am" that gets dispersed into the "they" and exists in terms of the "they," and the authentic self, the "I am" that can uncover what everydayness shields from the "they"—that is, the finitude of existence. He is morbidly and sensitively aware that life is nothing more than a "sequence of experiences" between birth and death and that despite the multiplicity of possibilities which lie between those boundaries, he is nothing more than a being-towards death. As such, he insists on his right to exist authentically, in his corner, away from society, and to leave "living life" to those he feels are simply too cowardly to look true subjectivity in the face and say, "I am."


"I yam what I am," exclaims the Invisible Man as he walks along the Harlem streets enjoying a yam—piping hot and sweet and seeping with butter. Although he engages in the play on words out of a sense of exhilaration over having broken a rule of etiquette by eating in the streets, the "whatness" of the slightly distorted tautology is the metaphysical problem he spends his life trying to resolve. However, he seeks the "whatness" of his self in the very thing that distances the self from itself: in language. Only when language is temporarily wiped away, when what the "crazy" vet refers to metaphorically as his "short-circuited brain" becomes a reality after the paint factory accident, does the Invisible Man succeed in experiencing his true subjectivity.

When he recovers from the paint factory explosion, the Invisible Man finds himself in the hospital, attached to a machine, "pounded between crushing electrical pressures, bumped between live electrodes, like an accordion between a player's hand." When the pounding and pumping stop, all he feels is an intense pain and a kind of primordial vacu-ousness. For a fleeting moment, with his memory temporarily wiped away, he says, "My mind was blank, as though I had just begun to live." But with a second onslaught of electrical shocks, conducted to the rhythms of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, the Invisible Man drifts back into consciousness, into an awareness of himself as a being existing somewhere between a fluid and painful blackness and the vast whiteness of the white world. He does indeed become, at least temporarily, a walking zombie for whom nothing has meaning. Language comes to him first as the "rhythmical differences between progressions of sound that questioned and those that made a statement," then as a "jumble of alphabets" as the voices hovering over him in a cacophony of silence try to make him understand.

As his focus becomes clearer the Invisible Man is able to recognize the jumble of alphabets that one of the doctors has written on a card as a question: "What is your name?" But its meaning does not register. Only when the question is rephrased does the Invisible Man feel a "distant light" of understanding penetrating the pain and blackness of his mind:


As he reconstructs the incident, the Invisible Man remembers that suddenly,

Something inside me turned with a sluggish excitement. This phrasing of the question seemed to set off a series of weak and distant lights where the other had thrown a spark that failed. Who am I? I asked myself. But it was like trying to identify one particular cell that coursed through the torpid veins of my body. Maybe I was just this blackness and bewilderment and pain….

The Invisible Man is brought back into contact with what the Underground Man would call his true self; but it does not last. All of the subsequent cards that the doctors and technicians produce force him to contemplate the question "Who are you?" within a racial and historical context. His responses, which are a kind of internal monologue, are double-edged, two-toned, as one part of him tries to grapple with the "I am," while the other engages in a game in which he either inverts the meaning of the question or invents a text for which he provides an interpretation. For example, when one "short, scholarly looking man" writes on a small chalkboard, "Who Was Your Mother?" the Invisible Man writes, "I looked at him, feeling a quick dislike and thinking, half in amusement, I don't play the dozens. And how's your old lady today?" By invoking the black verbal game of the dozens, he imposes one level of language, the vernacular, upon another, the standard, and thereby subverts the specialist's attempt to communicate with him.

The satisfaction which he derives from outwitting his interrogator is somewhat short-circuited, however, by the next question, at which the Invisible Man stares in "wide-eyed amazement":


I was filled with turmoil. Why should he think of that? He pointed to the question, word by word. I laughed, deep, deep inside me, giddy with the delight of self-discovery and the desire to hide it. Somehow I was Buckeye the Rabbit … or had been, when as children, we danced and sang barefoot in the dusty streets:

Buckeye the Rabbit
Shake it, shake it
Buckeye the Rabbit
Break it, break it

Yet, I could not bring myself to admit it, it was too ridiculous—and somehow too dangerous. It was annoying that he had hit upon an old identity and I shook my head, seeing him purse his lips and eye me sharply.


He was your mother's back-door man, I thought. Anyone knew they were one and the same: "Buckeye" when you were very young and hid yourself behind wide innocent eyes; "Brer," when you were older. But why was he playing around with these childish names? Did they think I was a child? Why didn't they leave me alone? I would remember soon enough when they let me out of the machine …

The first question fills him with turmoil because it invokes an "I" that once was, a wholesome "I," the one that existed long before his dying grandfather spoke of the necessity of wearing a mask, of breaking the "I" in half. It is the "I" prior to its encounter with the white world, an "I" completely in accord with its own reality, with a world that is still of its own making.

Brer Rabbit is the "I" that knows how to confront the white world. He is shrewd, cunning, and like the Invisible Man's grandfather, he knows how to live with his "head in the lion's mouth." He knows how to "overcome" 'em with yeses, undermine 'em with grins, agree 'em to death and destruction" without losing himself in the process, something the Invisible Man never learns. Because he takes his grandfather's dying words too literally, he fails to understand that what the old man described as his treachery was nothing more than a game which he did not believe in but knew how to play to his advantage. It was a game of words: Say what they want to hear, but never believe in what you say.

Although the Invisible Man insists after his Harlem eviction speech that he does not believe what he said and that he gave the speech because he was simply angry and because he likes to make speeches, he very quickly comes to believe in the game. So by the time he is indoctrinated into the ideology of the Brotherhood, he believes that by relying on language, he can free himself of the racial and historical boundaries that confine him and thus acquire a new status: that of a human being. Instead, what he acquires are new identities which make even more remote any possibilities of self-definition. The electric shock machine makes of him a "new man," whose words and expressed attitudes are not his but someone else's. They belong to some "alien personality" created by high technology and Gestalt psychology. The Brotherhood, which is another kind of machine, provides him with yet another identity, that of a "leader" and "eloquent" speaker of words. The problem is that he becomes so captivated by the magic of his own words that he begins to believe that there is some truth to what he says. For example, during his first Brotherhood speech, the Invisible Man shares with his audience what he describes as a sudden and odd experience, the experience of suddenly becoming "more human" and of feeling suddenly that he had finally come "home" after a long and desperate and "uncommonly blind" journey. The audience responds enthusiastically, and despite the disapproval of some of the brothers who argue that he was emotional rather than theoretical, the Invisible Man becomes an overnight success. But he also becomes a victim of his own discourse. After the rally, as he lies awake in his room, he realizes that he meant everything he said, even though he did not know he was going to say "those things." He writes that many of the words and phrases he used in his speech seemed to form themselves independently of him; they seemed to possess him and fall into place of their own accord. But one phrase was particularly disturbing: he did not know what he meant when he said that he had become "more human." How did this unfamiliar phrase come into his consciousness? He does not know whether he picked it up from a preceding speaker or from his college literature professor, or whether it was just one of the many remembered words, images, and linked verbal echoes one hears when not listening.

The question which the Invisible Man raises is one of the key issues in Barthes' theory of intertextuality: the plurality of the "I" that "reads" the text. According to Barthes, "This 'I' which approaches the text is already itself a plurality of other texts, of codes which are infinite or more precisely, lost (whose origin is lost)." Likewise, the "I" that "writes" the text is already itself a plurality of other texts. For the invisible man, that plurality reaches back through at least two traditions: the Euro-American and the black oratorical traditions. Consequently, his Brotherhood speech is a "re-writing" of all the speeches or verbal "texts" in these two traditions. It rewrites the Reverend Homer A. Barbee's speech/text which is already itself a rewriting of other texts—the narratives of Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass, among others—which are themselves rewritings of other narratives, and so forth. It is also a rewriting, in a Marxist discourse, of the Old Testament myth of the Jews as a chosen people. The phrase "I have become more human" is therefore both familiar and strange to the Invisible Man, because it has always already been written.

This concept of the irretrievable origin of the always already is what differentiates Barthes's theory of intertextuality from theories of influence or the association of ideas. Influence implies a literary indebtedness to a traceable source, be it a particular author or a particular literary tradition, etc. In other words, the origin is not lost. We can see, for instance, Eliot's, Burke's, and—despite Clifford Mason's argument to the contrary—Dostoevsky's influence on Ellison. Indeed, Ellison points to Dostoevsky himself. It would be difficult to argue, however, that Ellison, both consciously and unconsciously, bypassed Richard Wright, for although he insists that he was much less influenced by Wright than his critics assume, his novel does share certain affinities with "The Man Who Lived Underground," which preceded its publication by several years. For example, both freddaniels and the Invisible Man come upon their subterranean sanctuaries while being chased by white men; and both manage to triumph over the white world by stealing some of its power. Where the two works diverge is in terms of the metaphysical problems they raise. Whether through a direct influence or an association of ideas, Wright's treatment of those problems more closely parallels Dostoevsky's than does Ellison's. The Invisible Man's notion of freedom is materialistic, for example. He sees it as his inalienable right to pursue any number of the infinite possibilities which he believes his world has become. In other words, he sees it as his right to try and make it to the top.

In contrast, Wright's protagonist, through his devaluation of the things that are most valuable to "the men who lived in the dead world of sunshine and rain" above, discovers the kind of absolute freedom described by Dostoevsky's Underground Man. Furthermore, as he watches the boy and the watchman being wrongly accused and punished for having stolen the radio, gun, money, rings, watches and diamonds with which he decorates and illuminates the wall and floor of his cave, he is suddenly freed from any sense of guilt. He is freed, first of all, because he feels that although they are not guilty of that particular crime, they are nevertheless guilty. They had always been guilty, because for him, guilt is the very essence of existence. It is an innate, physical feeling that one had committed some dreadful offense that can neither be remembered nor understood, but which creates in one's life a state of eternal anxiety.

Secondly, like the Underground Man, freddaniels no longer shares the conscience of the "they." He no longer thinks in terms of right and wrong, because, echoing the maxim of Dostoevsky's Ivan Karamozov that "All is permitted," he realizes that "if the world as men had made it was right, then anything else was right, any act a man took to satisfy himself, murder, theft, torture." A desire to share his insights is what impels freddaniels to return to the "dark sunshine above." He wants to share his discovery with someone, because, by doing so, he would also affirm the reality of his existence as an absolutely free man.

In contrast, the Invisible Man returns to the world above because his innate sense of guilt will not let him remain underground. It forces him to attempt to absolve himself of the blame for his sickness, his invisibility, by recognizing that in spite of it all, he nevertheless has a "socially responsible role to play." Dostoevsky's Underground Man is, on the other hand, determined to carry his acute consciousness to the bitter end. He rejects any notions of personal culpability and social responsibility and remains underground because, he tells us, "I am convinced that we underground men must be kept well reined in."

In any event, with Wright's freddaniels in the avant guard of what Craig Werner [in "Brer Rabbit Meets the Underground Man: Simplification of Consciousness in Baraka's Dutchman and Slave Ship," Obsidian 5.1-2, n.d.] refers to as a "distinguished file of black underground men, all of whom march in a column led by Fyodor Dostoevsky's original," the Invisible Man occupies a prominent position because he is the first black American "hero" to come fully clothed in the "uniform" of the modern age. He brings the black American "Hero," and perhaps black American literature, to what can be called a "fixed point" of modernism; that is, a seeking, in language, of the self, for this "speaking subject" in fact give himself over to language so that, ultimately, what speaks is not a subject at all, but language itself. Indeed, the novel's internal structure revolves around language, around the sphinx-like discourse of the Invisible Man's dying grandfather, whose "truth" he thinks resides in language: in Barbee's speech, in Bledsoe's letters, and, finally, in the Marxist discourse of the Brotherhood. The characters that the Invisible Man encounters as he moves through this complex linguistic field are types of discourse, whose voices or "codes" interweave to form the intertextuality of the text. For example, much of the "crazy" vet's discourse falls under the Barthian code of psychology: he talks about the Invisible Man in terms of his psychological makeup. When his voice fades, the same code is picked up by young Emerson and intersects with yet another code, the voice or code of truth: Emerson tells the Invisible Man the "Truth" of what Bledsoe has sealed in the seven letters. In the discourse of the blues-singing and fast-rapping Peter Wheat-straw, the Harlem landlady Mary, the yam peddeler, and many of the other Harlem dwellers, there is a convergence of cultural codes. Black American history, tradition, and folk culture "speak" out of these discourses and interweave their voices into those of the white "substructure" to create the "vast stereophony of cultural languages" from which the Invisible Man challenges us to consider the question—"Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?"

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