Ralph Ellison as a Reader of Hegel: Ellison's Invisible Man as Literary Phenomenology.
Self-consciousness exists in and for itself when, and by the fact that, it so exists for another; that is, it exists only in being acknowledged [recognized]. ~Georg W. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit And, let me confess, you feel that way most of the time. You ache with the need to convince yourself that you do exist in the real world, that you're a part of all the sound and anguish and you strike out with your fists, and you curse and swear to make them recognize you. And, alas, it's seldom successful. ~The Invisible Man, Invisible Man
There has been little scholarship connecting Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man to Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit despite biographical information that Hegel influenced Ellison. Lawrence Jackson acknowledges, for example, that Ellison wrote to Richard Wright in 1940 searching for Hegel's Philosophy of Mind (229). John Wright argues that Ellison agrees with the Hegelian notions that "consciousness is all," "human life is a move toward the rational," and freedom is a byproduct of consciousness, not political projects in the name of abstract ideas (69). Arnold Rampersad discusses how Ellison viewed Bigger Thomas's consciousness as an "indignant consciousness," which is a clear appropriation of Hegelian thought (132). (1) Rampersad further shows how Ellison in "A Congress Jim Crow Didn't Attend," a piece of propaganda written for New Masses, drew on Hegel when he wrote the delegates at the third convention of National Negro Congress possessed "a temper of militant indignation" (134). These insights into Ellison's use of Hegel are without a doubt valuable. Such biographical facts highlight the need for a discussion of how Ellison utilized and critiqued aspects of Hegelian phenomenology in Invisible Man. (2) Invisible Man is laden with philosophical references to Emerson, Kierkegaard, and Hegel at the very least. (3) Thus, I argue Ellison's Invisible Man can be read as a sustained and profound meditation on African American consciousness that draws on Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit.
This article will explore how Invisible Man seeks to investigate black existence and consciousness as it is shaped by anti-black racism from a Hegelian perspective. I argue that the philosophical dimensions of Invisible Man can be read side-by-side Hegel, so as to position Ellison as an author deeply engaged with understanding black consciousness from the philosophical perspective. To accomplish this task, I discuss Ellison's Invisible Man as literary phenomenology that can be read through and at times against Hegel's concept of recognition and his lordship and bondage scene by charting ruptures and movements in the Invisible Man's consciousness throughout the course of the novel.
Jesse Wolfe rightly argues in '"Ambivalent Man: Ellison's Rejection of Communism" that Ellison appropriates the Hegelian and Marxist categories of "recognition" and "contradiction," to construct his prologue (621). As Wolfe's title indicates, however, his main concern is Ellison's dismissal of communist ideology, not Hegelian thought itself, although he does draw out vital connections between Hegel, Marx, and Ellison which I am indebted to and build upon. In regards to Hegel's concept of recognition, I argue Ellison's Invisible Man characterizes black existence as a struggle for recognition. I will draw on Hegel's concept of recognition and his staging of the master-slave scene to provide the backdrop necessary to (re)read Invisible Man as an investigation of African American consciousness. To advance these claims, I analyze the Invisible Man's struggle for recognition with Mr. Norton, which I argue can be read as a restaging of Hegel's master-slave dialectic with a difference and his unsuccessful attempt to gain recognition through violence at the outset of the narrative. The point is to emphasize that Invisible Man can be understood as nothing short of a genuine phenomenology of spirit moving according to four environments, which traces the Invisible Man's trajectory from slavery, or a subservient consciousness, to freedom through his negation of his fear of death and acceptance of invisibility: the school, which is an allegory of the plantation south; New York, which is a stand in for the industrial north and represents a moment of "unhappy consciousness"; the Brotherhood, which represents the anonymous hero's failure to obtain recognition and his embrace of ideology in the form of the dialectical thinking as a means to cope with his invisibility; and, of course, his time spent underground where he negates his fear of death, embraces his invisibility, and subsequently, actualizes freedom while on the brink of madness.
Philosophies of History
The narrative represents the anonymous protagonist's struggle for recognition and freedom. The actions pursued by Ellison's protagonist are efforts to secure recognition from the white world, which refuses to see him as an individual. Two attributes of Hegel's philosophy are worth recalling: his philosophy of history and his concept of recognition in the context of the master-slave dialectic. Hegel writes in The Philosophy of History: "For it [Africa] is no historical part of the World; it has no movement or development to exhibit... What we properly understand by Africa, is the Unhistorical, Undeveloped Spirit, still involved in the conditions of mere nature, and which had to be presented here only as on the threshold of the World History" (99). For Hegel, the history of Africans and their descendants is nonexistent. Elsewhere in The Philosophy of History, Hegel states negroes in general represent "natural man in his completely wild and untamed state," in addition to arguing that negroes have "no development or culture" (93, 98). Against this Hegelian backdrop we can understand Ellison's Invisible Man as an attempt to create a fictional account of African American consciousness and existence in a white world that does not recognize blacks and hinders their ability to realize their historical destiny. Ellison parts with Hegel by asserting that African Americans have been vital to the movements of history.
W.E.B. Du Bois penned The Souls of Black Folk with both Hegel's The Philosophy of History and Phenomenology of Spirit in mind. Du Bois described the world as one "which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world" (38). Du Bois's formulation of history lays the ground for his notion of "double consciousness" and the negation of a "true self-consciousness" (38). Throughout Invisible Man Ellison asserts, like Du Bois, that true self-consciousness must be strived for thus providing an alternative philosophical vision to Hegel. It is my contention that Ellison too had Hegel's philosophy of history and concept of recognition in mind, and that the aforementioned philosophies presented by Hegel and Du Bois guide his fictional narrative: Ellison's Invisible Man is an attempt to revise Hegel and Marx's teleological philosophies of history. (4)
Ellison writes against Hegel and Marx's metaphysical philosophies of history. The invisible protagonist mentions the dangers of linear philosophies of history while discussing the lighting in the "hole" that is now his home in relation to the Empire State Building and Broadway. He says:
Those two spots are among the darkest of our civilization--pardon me, our whole culture (an important distinction I've heard)--which might sound like a hoax, or a contradiction, but that (by contradiction, I mean) is how the world moves: Not like an arrow, but a boomerang. (5) (Beware of those who speak of the spiral of history; they are preparing a boomerang. Keep a steel helmet handy). (6)
Hegel's philosophy of history is rejected through a denunciation of philosophies asserting that history moves in a linear progression. (6) The Invisible Man says the history of the world moves "Not like an arrow"--history is a boomerang; it is cyclical, unpredictable, and repetitive. History, then, is contingent (6). As John F. Callahan notes history, for Ellison, is chaotic and from this chaos the Invisible Man forges his destiny (128). Ellison's narrative structure reveals his commitment to the idea that history is cyclical, a radical embrace that separates him from both Hegel and Marx.
Ellison's philosophy of history is thus a critique against both Hegel and Marx's teleological notions of history (Doane 166). Ellison adopts a philosophy of history that abides by the law of dialectical contradiction while stripping it of its teleological dimensions. During an interview in 1972, Ellison explains that he "described it [history] as a boomerang because a boomerang moves in a parabola. It goes and it comes" (O'Brien 73). For Ellison consciousness and history are fundamentally connected (Callahan 136).
The Struggle for Recognition
Hegel's phenomenology of consciousness is grounded in the idea that self-consciousness stems from being recognized by others and that to be denied recognition results in the negation of one's self-consciousness. In terms more fitting with the poetic renderings enunciated by Ellison, a lack of recognition makes one invisible (Wolfe 624). Hegel demonstrates his philosophy of recognition by staging the master-slave scene. Detailing the fundamental connection between recognition and self-consciousness in Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel states, "Self-consciousness exists in and for itself when, and by the fact that, it so exists for another; that is, it exists only in being acknowledged [recognized]" (111). And: "Self-consciousness is faced by another self-consciousness; it has come out of itself. This has a twofold significance: first, it has lost itself, for it finds itself as an other being... "(111). Self-consciousness is mediated through and supported by the other. Self-consciousness, in short, is intersubjective. Importantly, if one is not recognized, one desires to make their presence known so as to develop self-consciousness by securing recognition. Unlike Hegel who presented his philosophy of self-consciousness in a hyper-metaphysics, Ellison provides a fictional account of a black subject struggling for recognition in a racist world that renders him invisible and negates his self-consciousness and freedom.
In Hegel's philosophy and Ellison's fiction, recognition is a precondition for self-consciousness and freedom. Note the similarities in the language utilized by Hegel above and the language employed by Ellison at the outset of his prologue, which contains the heart of what I am calling Ellison's literary phenomenology:
I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids--and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surrounding, themselves, or figments of their imagination--indeed, everything and anything except me. (3 emphasis mine) (7)
William Lyne has rightfully pointed out that the prologue and epilogue are indebted to Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground (324). (8) Recall the opening to Dostoyevsky's novel: "I'm a sick man... I'm a spiteful man" (1). And Joseph Frank has clearly articulated points of convergence between Invisible Man and Dostoyevsky's House of the Dead where the narrator tells the reader that the Russian peasantry is merely "an optical illusion," a clear descriptor that Ellison appropriates in the quote above (50). (9) The passage also alludes to the opening lines of Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener": "I am a rather elderly man" (3). Ellison, ever the signifier, is also signifying on Hegel here. (10) He is invisible because he is perceived simply as a bodily being lacking interiority or subjectivity. His interiority is eclipsed by people's perceptions of him. The Invisible Man's subjectivity is eclipsed by others projecting their fantasies onto him: hence the Invisible Man says his existence is distorted as if he were surrounded by "distorting glass" (3). Ellison suggests that blacks are not seen because of the "high-visibility" of their black bodies. (11)
The Invisible Man attributes the utmost importance to recognition. Three paragraphs into the text the narrator reflects on the fact that he nearly beat a white man to death because the man did not see him. Ellison suggests that the Invisible Man is not recognized by others in a Hegelian fashion by creating a scene detailing his confrontation with a conflicting white consciousness who did not recognize him (Wolfe 624-625). The act of violence, however, does not produce a liberated consciousness and in this way can be read as a critique of Hegel's assertion that the struggle for recognition is a struggle to death. Ellison works against Hegel who thought that acts of violence produce a restored subjectivity as it solicits recognition from the other. Ellison's prologue sets the stage for a Hegelian master-slave scene. However, instead of positing the slave and master as abstract entities, Ellison breaks from Hegel by rejecting Hegel's rigid classificatory schema of "master-slave" by substituting "me," for Hegel's "slave" and "they," which can be read as all who deny blacks recognition, for Hegel's "master." Ellison does however retain a largely unfiltered adaptation of the importance Hegel lends to recognition. For Hegel, if recognition is not granted it results in the negation of one's self-consciousness; for Ellison to not be recognized results in invisibility. Thus we can follow Jesse Wolfe's claim that Ellison replaces Hegel's concept of "negation" with that of "invisibility" (623).
This struggle for recognition is the fundamental characteristic of the Invisible Man's existence and actions. He says in the prologue:
And, let me confess, you feel that way most of the time. You ache with the need to convince yourself that you do exist in the real world that you're a part of all the sound and anguish and you strike out with your fists, and you curse and swear to make them recognize you. And, alas, it's seldom successful. (4)
The lack of recognition leads the anonymous character to pursue two projects. First, it makes him question his own existence as a person existing in the real world. Second, his acknowledgement of himself as an unrecognized, invisible man leads him to wage a protracted struggle to gain recognition.
Let us now turn to a more nuanced discussion of the ways Hegel's master-slave dialectic takes shape in Ellison's Invisible Man. Two concepts are central to Hegel's master-slave dialectic: mediation and service. Hegel writes in the Phenomenology. "The lord relates himself mediately [sic] to the bondsman through a being [a thing] that is independent, for it is just this which holds the bondsman in bondage; it is his chain from which he could not break free in the struggle, thus proving himself to be dependent, to possess his independence in thinghood.... " (115-116). Here Hegel suggests the bondsman, like the anonymous hero of Invisible Man, pursues projects and directs his efforts in a fashion contingent with the lord's desires. Perhaps more importantly, the lord is mediated through the consciousness of the bondsman who performs the work of the lord; the consciousness of the lord and the bondsman are codependent, but the lord reaps the benefits of the bondsman's labor.
These Hegelian themes concerning the mediation of master's consciousness through the labor-preforming slave crystallize in the Invisible Man's relationship with Mr. Norton, a trustee at the college he attends. Mediation for the lord and the bondsman results in their two consciousness's becoming dependent upon each other--the lord views the slave as an extension of himself by appropriating his labor. Mr. Norton echoes this sentiment when the Invisible Man is driving him on a tour of the campus: "I suppose it is difficult for you to understand how this [the Invisible Man's fate and destiny] concerns me. But as you develop you must remember that I am dependent upon you to learn my fate" (45). And: "Yes, you are my fate, young man. Only you can tell me what it really is. Do you understand?" (42). Ellison puts the struggle for recognition and the master-slave dialectic in the mouth of Mr. Norton to show the co-contingent nature of black and white existence and historical destiny. Ellison's invisible hero is dependent on Mr. Norton for endowments to keep the university functioning and to provide him an education that will ultimately help him achieve recognition and achieve his historical destiny, while Mr. Norton is dependent upon the invisible hero to determine and tell him his fate.
This movement of the anonymous hero's consciousness at a school in the south is reminiscent of plantation slavery: his consciousness is subservient and he does not question the advice given by authority figures (e.g. Mr. Norton and Dr. Bledsoe). Mr. Norton functions as the master of the plantation and Dr. Bledsoe functions as the overseer. This is further evidenced by the fact that Invisible Man signifies on slave narratives by having the Invisible Man search for freedom in the north and the not so subtle allusion to the Underground Railroad by having the Invisible Man take a train north. (12) Hegelian themes become more evident by fleshing out the role of service and work that blacks do and whites, as represented by Mr. Norton, appropriate, which partially determines their consciousness. Mr. Norton cannot locate his labor in the objects to which he connects himself.
Concerning service and work in relation to the master-slave dialectic, Hegel writes in the Phenomenology that "for recognition proper the moment is lacking, that what the lord does to the other he also does to himself, and what the bondsman does to himself he should also do to the other. The outcome is a recognition that is one-sided and unequal" (116). The lord uses the bondsman as a means to fulfill his desires and accomplish tasks. As such the actions of the bondsman are as much connected to the lord as they are with himself. But as Robert Pippin argues the bondsman begins to liberate himself and develop a mind of his own through manipulating nature--that is, through work. Consequently, the master becomes useless due to his dependency (94).
Ellison explicitly follows this logic, which is revealed through the words of Mr. Norton. He says: "I had a feeling that your people were somehow connected with my destiny. That what happened to you was connected with what would happen to me... Only you can tell me what it [his historical destiny] really is" (41-42). And: "That, I've come to believe, is more important than my own work, because more depends upon you. You are important because if you fail / have failed by one individual, one defective cog; it didn't matter so much before, but now I'm growing old and it has become very important..." (45). And finally: "Through you and your fellow students I become, let us say, three hundred teachers, seven hundred trained mechanics, eight hundred skilled farmers and so on. That way I can observe in terms of living personalities to what extent my money, my time and my hopes have been fruitfully invested" (45). The idea that what the master does to the other--the bondsman--he does to himself and vice versa is unambiguously revealed by the way Mr. Norton views his identity, success, and historical destiny as entangled with the fate of those whom he views as dependent upon him, those who serve him and carry out his work (e.g. the students and Dr. Bledsoe). The symbolism of the setting provides the metaphorical texture necessary to read Mr. Norton as a dependent consciousness. Most of the conversation happens while the Invisible Man is driving Mr. Norton around campus, symbolically demonstrating that Mr. Norton is a dependent master. Mr. Norton is dependent upon the Invisible Man by being dependent on his labor, like the master in Hegel's dialectic.
Here we locate another point where Ellison's Invisible Man makes contact with Hegel's Phenomenology, as Ellison indicates that Mr. Norton has an inauthentic consciousness due to his indirect relationship with the object in which he invests his labor. Hegel writes in his Phenomenology: "Through work, however, the bondsman becomes conscious of what he truly is. In the moment which corresponds to desire in the lord's consciousness, it did seem that the aspect of unessential relation to the thing fell to the lot of the bondsman, since in that relation the thing retained its independence" (118). And: "Through this rediscovery of himself by himself, the bondsman realizes that it is precisely in his work wherein he seemed to have only an alienated existence that he acquires a mind of his own" (118-119). Hegel writes that "he seemed" to have an alienated existence implying that he has been in fact fashioning himself to the notion of freedom, toward authentic self-consciousness. The bondsman's direct relationship to the object he works on allows him to develop a genuine self-consciousness by materializing his consciousness through labor, while the lord cannot locate himself in the object itself because he has not invested his labor in it.
The second characteristic of Hegel's lord--his lack of an authentic self-consciousness--is prevalent in Ellison's characterization of Mr. Norton in a more symbolic fashion. In addition to the ways we have discussed Mr. Norton as someone who views his destiny as fundamentally bounded to the destiny of blacks, which cements the fact that he has an unauthentic, dependent self-consciousness, we should also note that Mr. Norton is literally a fragile character supported by others and dependent on alcohol. Mr. Norton's frailty is demonstrated by the fact that he cannot tolerate the heat to the point that he suffers a heat stroke from a short stint in the sun, while his dependency is revealed by the fact that African Americans who occupy a lower social status than him ultimately determine his self-worth and historical destiny. In the end, he shares the same fate as Hegel's master as they both are only recognized by those who they view as inferior to them. (13)
By touching back lightly on the concept of recognition we can note that after Mr. Norton suffers a brief and mild heat stroke after meeting with Trueblood, he requests to be driven to a local bar where he can have "A little whiskey" to stimulate him out of his weariness (69). Soon they arrive at the Golden Day, which is full of "shell-shocked" vets. After the bartender Halley tells the Invisible Man she will not let him take the drink outside and he must bring Mr. Norton inside if he wishes to be served, Mr. Norton is eventually dragged inside where he receives some brandy. Mr. Norton soon falls unconscious again and is assisted by a former physician known as "the vet." After learning from the Invisible Man that Mr. Norton is a trustee at the college the vet declares he is "A trustee of consciousness" and thereby lends support to the assertion that consciousness and subjectivity in the Invisible Man are intersubjective (89). His consciousness, like his labor, has been purchased. The vet elucidates the conscious state of the anonymous hero at this particular moment in the south when talking 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! (94 emphasis in the original) (14)
That he only registers with his senses and cannot see below the surface of things is something his grandfather warned him about on his deathbed. He said to the young anonymous hero: "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 burst wide open" (16). That is, he instructs him to follow the wishes of the master and to not read into his social condition and environment. Valerie Smith argues that the grandfather's riddle instructs the Invisible Man to pretend to uphold the system while actually working to undercut it (192). The vet articulates a moment in the movement in the Invisible Man's consciousness. At this point in the movement of the Invisible Man's consciousness he is still at the level of sense perception thus the vet himself states, "he registers with his senses but short-circuits his brain" (94). The Invisible Man is a subject without substance, "a walking zombie" and a "mechanical man," void of all cognitive faculties above sense awareness that appear in immediate sense perception.
The passage can be read from the vantage point of Hegel. Hegel says that one of the historical movements of consciousness--before self-consciousness, to be sure--operated at the level of simple sense perception. Hegel thought that it is at this particular temporal moment in the unfolding of consciousness that objects are not notional--they simply "are" which for Hegel is "the most abstract and poorest truth" (58). Here are Hegel's own words: "Neither of these has anything to do with the truth of sense-certainty: here neither I nor the thing has the significance of a complex process of mediation; the T does not have the significance of a manifold imagining or thinking; nor does the 'thing' signify something that has a host of qualities. On the contrary, the thing 15, and it is, merely because it is" (58). The Invisible Man's consciousness, then, resides at the level of sense-certainty as disclosed by the vet in the aforementioned quotes. Both Ellison and Hegel elucidate the point that at this particular movement in their respective narratives of consciousness that things simply are and are not notional in the sense that they cannot be registered by the conscious observer as possessing content beyond what appears immediately in sense perception. Things lack meaning. At this point in Hegel's phenomenology, like Ellison who uses more poetic language like a "mechanical man," consciousness is not conscious of itself; it is only conscious of what stands outside of itself as sense datum. Self-consciousness is yet to emerge.
Given the trajectory of the Invisible Man's consciousness, it might seem like Ellison is working backwards from Hegel, moving from a struggle with the master, Mr. Norton, which is supposed to grant self-conscious, back to sense certainty, which appears before the master-slave scene in Hegel's Phenomenology. I want to suggest that the struggle is yet to be resolved and as such the Invisible Man still remains at the level of sense certainty. That the Invisible Man is always struggling against someone whether it is Dr. Bledsoe and Mr. Norton in the south, or the Brotherhood in the north reveals that his struggle for recognition is an ongoing process that takes different shapes according to the environment he occupies. The vet also crystallizes the point that the struggle is yet to be resolved and that both the Invisible Man and Mr. Norton fail to see the truth behind what they see. The Invisible Man is on his way to epistemic level understanding, which happens when he understands his social positionality. The vet says the following in regards to understanding after Mr. Norton expresses the idea that his destiny is tied to the school:
But seriously, because you both fail to understand what is happening to you. You cannot see or hear or smell the truth of what you see--and you [Mr. Norton], looking for destiny! It's classic! And the boy, this automaton, he was made of the very mud of the region and he sees far less than you. Poor stumblers, neither of you can see the other. To you he is a mark on the score-card of your achievement, a thing and not a man; a child, or even less--a black amorphous thing. And you, for all your power, are not a man to him, but a God, a force--. (95)
Both the Invisible Man and Mr. Norton fail to recognize each other and as such lack self-consciousness as the vet acknowledges in the quote above and as Dr. Bledsoe further articulates when haranguing the Invisible Man for what he envisages as poor treatment of Mr. Norton when he states, "You're nobody, son. You don't exist--can't you see that?" (143).
Geography is Fate: The Move North and Unhappy Consciousness (15)
Recognition does eventually come for the Invisible Man. (16) When the Invisible Man arrives at the station after being expelled from school and is told to go north where he can find work in New York's booming industrial sector, he notes the two other passengers on the train, the vet and Crenshaw, and states that the vet gave him "a smile of recognition" (151). When the Invisible Man moves north we can recognize another movement in the development of his consciousness. Crenshaw forecasts the differences his consciousness will undergo when he tells the invisible hero his "speech will change," and he will attend lectures at Men's House and might even be privileged enough to "dance with a white girl" (152). On the train the Invisible Man's consciousness develops beyond sense perception as he begins to understand his social positionality and think abstractly about freedom in the north. The vet tells the Invisible Man that deep down he is thinking of the freedom he has heard about up north and wondering if it is all true, in addition to telling him most of the freedom he will enjoy will be symbolic (152-153).
This scene can be interpreted in a Hegelian fashion as it follows one of the critical movements of consciousness that Hegel develops in the Phenomenology. At this point the Invisible Man has obtained recognition and thus can begin to conceptualize the notion of freedom, although it will remain solely at the level of thought and will not exist in actuality. "Freedom in thought," says Hegel in the Phenomenology, "has only pure thought as its truth, a truth lacking the fullness of life. Hence freedom in thought, too, is only the Notion of freedom, not the living reality of freedom itself" (122). Similarly, the Invisible Man begins to conceptualize the notion of freedom before he is able to experience freedom itself. Later the Invisible Man narrates how he was changing after stating he was proud of not ordering pork chops and grits because they presumably represent the backward, rural south, which dictated and determined his southern consciousness. This, he declares, "was an act of discipline, a sign of the change that was coming over me and which would return me to college a more experienced man" (178). This act represents the changes in his consciousness as he attempts to negate his old self governed by southern laws and habits and replace it with a northern mentality.
Of course, the freedom he experiences is completely symbolic and only notional--it remains an idea. He was merely at the service of Mr. Norton who was using African Americans to advance his own economic prestige and social standing, thus treating them simply as cogs in the machine of modern industrial capitalism. Lucius Brockway who controls the furnaces at the paint factory clearly expresses this point. After telling the Invisible Man to be attentive to the gauges, he makes the following statement: "They got all this machinery, but that ain't everything; we the machines inside the machine" (217). This passage highlights the importance of African Americans to the history of the United States by revealing that African Americans have helped push history forward, suggesting that blacks are the engines of history, of modernity.
When the "machine," breaks down we witness another movement in the protagonists' consciousness. Bear in mind the powerful scene where the Invisible Man undergoes electroshock therapy, which evokes another Hegelian movement in his consciousness that is symbolic of the alienating nature of industrial capitalism. The movement is congruent to the dual-consciousness Hegel develops and baptizes in the name "unhappy consciousness." Hegel elucidates his notion of unhappy consciousness in his Phenomenology: "Consequently, the duplication which formerly was divided between two individuals, the lord and the bondsman, is now lodged in one... the Unhappy Consciousness is the consciousness of self as a dual-natured, merely contradictory being" (126). Throughout the course of his electroshock therapy, the Invisible Man makes multiple references to the dual and fractured nature of his consciousness. "I seemed to exist," says the Invisible Man "in some other dimension" (238). And when the doctors place cards in his line of sight that read "who are you?" the Invisible Man thinks to himself, "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, but that seemed less like a suitable answer than something I'd read somewhere" (240). And when he is finally discharged he notes he "was in the grip of some alien personality lodged deep within me" (249). Without question it is tempting to read this scene as a symbolic indictment of the alienating nature of industrial capitalism in a traditional Marxist fashion. However, given the parallels between the language of Hegel and Ellison and the overall movements of consciousness I have proposed, it is equally attractive to read this scene in the spirit of Hegel. This may seem like a contradiction on Ellison's and my behalf. After all, the psychiatric test presupposes consciousness. But if read carefully--"who am I?"--is a question concerning how one relates to oneself--that is to say, it is a question concerning self-consciousness. It is precisely this merging of consciousness and his quest for an authentic consciousness that would allow the Invisible Man to be free. "I wanted freedom, not destruction" says the Invisible Man. "There was no getting around it" the Invisible Man continues, "I could no more escape than I could think of my identity. Perhaps, I thought, the two things are involved with each other. When I discover who I am, I'll be free" (243).
It is hard to imagine a passage more Hegelian as it follows Hegel's idea that freedom cannot be obtained until one possesses self-realization, which, as I will soon discuss, can only be achieved by way of negating one's fear of death, and the master. The fact that the Invisible Man begins to accept self-responsibility is indicative of his freedom, and discloses the movements his consciousness has undergone. To further advance the claim that Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man should be read as literary phenomenology side by side the work of Hegel, it would be our advantage to proceed by examining, briefly, two concepts fundamental to the novel if it is to be interpreted in relation to the Hegelian concepts that I am suggesting: freedom and responsibility.
For the Invisible Man responsibility, like invisibility, is dependent upon recognition. Although he is perhaps "free," he tends to deny his freedom, at least at the outset of the narrative, but then gradually begins to accept responsibility for his actions as his consciousness develops. The theme of responsibility and its connection to recognition and freedom is illuminated by the Invisible Man in the story he relates about nearly beating a man to death. (17) He writes, "Responsibility rests upon recognition, and recognition is a form of agreement. Take the man whom I almost killed: Who was responsible for that near murder--I? I don't think so, and I refuse it. I won't buy it. You can't give it to me" (14). Here, responsibility is first and foremost dependent upon recognition from others. Second, recognition is a form of "agreement." Although the concept of "agreement" vis-a-vis recognition and responsibility remains largely ambiguous in the quote above, a simple interpretation reveals that the agreement the anonymous hero posits is to take responsibility for actions directed toward the other. However, responsibility--like freedom--is impossible for those who are invisible and not recognized. The Invisible Man expresses this connection: "I am one of the most irresponsible beings that ever lived. Irresponsibility is part of my invisibility; any way you face it, it is a denial. But to whom can I be responsible, and why should I be, when you refuse to see me" (14). Through the mouth of his fictional character Ellison is revealing a fundamental aspect of his literary phenomenology that begins to have existential significance: the agency of African Americans is to some degree contingent upon the environment they inhabit.
The Brotherhood and Dialectic
Above I showed that before realizing freedom the Invisible Man develops a split consciousness, what Hegel called "unhappy consciousness." I also demonstrated that the Invisible Man's consciousness has developed through his acceptance of responsibility. When the Invisible Man joins the Brotherhood, he also adopts a new ideology, dialectical thinking, to make sense of the world and to reconcile his social positionality with freedom. This is a crucial moment in Invisible Man in the development a genuine consciousness. In Lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit Alexandre Kojeve argues that the slave's lack of freedom, and his ability to grasp the notion of freedom at an abstract level, leads the slave to transform his existence by manipulating his social conditions and adopting a new ideology to reconcile his subordinate position with freedom. The ideologies, however, only work as means for the slave "to be a slave freely" (49).
The Invisible Man follows a strikingly similar path and suggests that the negation of the fear of death is a prerequisite for freedom. After his stint in the factory hospital, he begins to organize on behalf of the oppressed. The Invisible Man notes the transformation he undergoes is a result of taking an active role to eliminate oppression and by embracing a dominant ideology, which tells him oppression is a result of history. While preparing to give a speech he states:
I was becoming someone else. I sensed vaguely and with a flash of panic that the moment I walked out upon the platform and opened my mouth I'd be someone else... Perhaps simply to be known, to be looked upon by so many people, to be the focal point of so many concentrating eyes, perhaps this was enough to make one different; enough to transform one into something else, someone else... (335-336)
The end of chapter seventeen discloses the Invisible Man's radical embrace of dialectical ideology, which allows him to understand reality and his relation to it. "The organization," he says, "had given the world a new shape, and me a vital role. We recognized no loose ends, everything could be controlled by our science. Life was all pattern and discipline; and the beauty of discipline is when it works. And it was working very well" (382). (18) In a Hegelian fashion, Ellisons character embraces a particular ideology, dialectical thinking, to interpret reality and his condition. Moreover Ellison, like Hegel in his discussion of the bondsman, suggests that the embrace of an ideal notion of freedom is not freedom itself (122). This is articulated by Brother Jack when he tells the Invisible Man discipline is necessary to put Brotherhood ideology into practice, "but within its framework you are to have full freedom to do your work" (360). (19) As Valerie Smith argues, the Invisible Man's naivete leads him to accept Brotherhood ideology as easy as he accepted the school's mythology, which is highlighted through his acknowledgement that he will have to forget the sociology and economics classes he learned in college. He exchanges one authoritarian ideology for another (Smith 201).
The organization sinks into chaos after Clifton's funeral and the Invisible Man's punishment. With Clifton's death, the Invisible Man realizes the consequences of Brotherhood ideology on his identity. Before his death, Clifton had begun to sell black-face dolls. Although the dolls are racist, Clifton's peddling of the dolls allows him to realize his social status in relation to the Brotherhood at this particular moment (Smith 209). The Invisible Man says Clifton: "looked past me deliberately unseeing" which produces a state of paralysis (432). Valerie Smith acknowledges that Brotherhood ideology, strangely, allows Clifton to see past the racism in the paraphernalia he sells, the same way the Brotherhood can see past individuals and blacks in favor of social structures and class affiliation while simultaneously arguing that Ellison did not arbitrarily pick the dolls Clifton sells as they function as metaphors for blacks in the Brotherhood who are used by the leadership (209). The language used by Clifton--"Shake him, stretch him by the neck and set him down" (431)--suggests an affiliation to lynching and strangling nature of the ideology he has embraced (Smith 209).
Conclusion: The Death of Clifton and a Brief note on Madness
The moment the Invisible Man witnesses the death of his friend Clifton his consciousness and sense of self again changes. When he sees Clifton falling to the ground after being shot, the Invisible Man recalls: "I took a few steps forward, walking blindly now, unthinking, yet my mind registering it all vividly. Across and starting up on the curb, and seeing Clifton up closer now, lying in the same position, on his side, a huge wetness growing on his shirt, and I couldn't set my foot down" (436). That his mind registers these events at all is radically different than the psychological descriptions provided by the vet who noted, "he registers with his senses but short-circuits his brain" suggesting a new sense of self-awareness, resulting in him witnessing the death of Clifton.
The Invisible Man also develops a new sense of humanity from experiencing the death of his friend Clifton. After he witnesses Clifton's murder he begins to hear the lower frequencies, allowing him to question the Brotherhood's understanding of history. He ponders no less than twenty questions coupled with assertions. Some include: "Why did he choose to plunge into nothingness, into the void of faceless faces, or soundless voices, lying outside history?" (439). "They were men out of time (20)--unless they found Brotherhood" says the Invisible Man who continues: "Men out of time, who would soon be gone and forgotten... But who knew (and now I began to tremble so violently I had to lean against a refuse can)--who knew but that they were the saviors, the true leader, the bearers of something precious?" (441). (21) The quote above affirms the Invisible Man's new sense of humanity and human understanding. Through the use of "who knew," and "but that," the quote above also teases the final line of the narrative: "Who knows but that on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?" (581). By hearing voices on the lower frequencies the Invisible Man is able to question whether the philosophy of history he abides by is wrong by thinking that maybe history is a gambler or a madman--that is, history is neither a predictable science or a linear movement (441). The death of Clifton allows for a radical change in his subjectivity: "After tonight I wouldn't ever look the same, or feel the same. Just what I'd be, I didn't know; I couldn't go back to what I was--which wasn't much--but I'd lost too much to be what I was. Some of me, too, had died with Tod Clifton" (478).
The Invisible Man unsuccessfully protests the sacrifices the Brotherhood's central committee makes to the poor and learns the committee does not recognize him or African Americans, but merely reduces them to social objects to manipulate, ultimately rendering them invisible. "Well, I was and yet I was invisible, which was the fundamental contradiction. I was and yet I was unseen," says the Invisible Man (507). He narrates that throughout the course of his life he had been working for others who failed to recognize him and acted to increase their social or political standing. The Invisible Man accepts his invisibility and understands himself from the perspectives of others. He says: "I was simply a material, a natural resource to be used. I had switched from the arrogant absurdity of Norton and Emerson to that of Jack and the Brotherhood, and it all came out the same--except I now recognized my invisibility" (508). He negates his fear of death, accepts his social death, and embraces his invisibility.
The acceptance of the possibility of death is a crucial moment for the slave in Hegel's dialectic, as it is only by passing through slavery and extinguishing one's fear of death that the slave can obtain genuine freedom (Kojeve 27). We know that Hegel is speaking of physical death while Ellison is concerned with social death; however, the consequences of coming to terms with and negating his fear of death operate on a similar level. The Invisible Man only begins to sense his freedom once he comes to terms with his social death. When retrospectively looking to his past, he says he was not truly alive until he acknowledged his invisibility: "Without light I am not only invisible, but formless as well; and to be unaware of one's form is to live a death. I myself, after existing some twenty years, did not become alive until I discovered my invisibility" (7). After a riot, the Invisible Man is chased and plunges into a hole that is to become his permanent residence; he then notes his invisibility is: "a death without hanging, I thought, a death alive" (566-567). However, his acceptance of invisibility restores his complete self and makes him whole. This restoration of the self shows the Invisible Man has become conscious of his being, seen most clearly when the Invisible Man finds himself in state somewhere between dreaming and being awake. In this surreal dream filled with blobs of blood where sand becomes the floor and light replaces ubiquitous darkness the Invisible Man visualizes himself face-to-face with his knife-wielding previous masters--Emerson, Bledsoe, Norton, and to some extent Ras the destroyer--and symbolically discloses the fact that he is coming face-to-face with his death. Upon awakening, the Invisible Man's consciousness is restored: "in spite of the dream, I was whole" (571).
That he becomes "whole" is an essential move and fits within Hegel's notion of madness. (22) It is clear that the Invisible Man is bordering on insanity in the epilogue. Daniel Bond argues that for Hegel consciousness strives for the unity of self-consciousness and engages in a recurring cycle of withdrawal from the world (196). This is the case with the Invisible Man who speaks of this in metaphorical terms: "Over and over again I've gone up above to seek it out" (576). But it is precisely in the desire for unity ("I am I!") (23) that we locate the origins of madness (24) (197). But madness for Hegel and Ellison is a therapeutic response to an experience that cannot be coped with. In the Invisible Man's striving for a unified consciousness we can locate the origins of his madness. Madness creates a retreat into oneself, which Invisible Man details metaphorically through the act of hibernation. He retreats from reality, but he cannot escape himself: "So I took to the cellar; I hibernated. I got away from it all. But that wasn't enough. I couldn't be still even in hibernation. Because, damn it, there's the mind, the mind" (573). (25) He cannot escape himself though he has escaped from the world above. But his potential madness and retreat into himself is a necessary phase in the movement to a more perfect consciousness as it is for Hegel. Hegel says, "This interpretation of insanity as a necessarily occurring form or stage in the development of the soul is naturally not to be understood as if we were asserting that every mind, every soul must go through this stage of extreme derangement" (124). Very early into the epilogue we can glimpse his madness, his split or double self: "When one is invisible he finds such problems as good and evil, honesty and dishonest, of such shifting shapes that he confuses one with the other, depending upon who happens to be looking through him at the time" (572). (26) The Invisible Man's split or dual sense of self is expressed in his assertion that his perception changes according to who is looking through him. His self-affirmation and transformation to a fully restored, self-consciousness subject is most clearly articulated in his epilogue: "I am an invisible man. Thus I have come a long way [to insanity and back] and returned and boomeranged a long way from the point in society toward which I originally aspired___But my work has become one of infinite possibilities" (573, 576). Thus, Ellison offers a challenge to Hegel by suggesting that blacks move history forward. Like the boomerang with an unknown destination, the Invisible Man's consciousness and social positionality has become one of infinite possibilities and is not necessarily hinged to others. His fate, although structured by geographical space, is not predetermined and cannot be predicted by an abstract philosophical system.
(1.) Ellison defended Wright from critics on the far left who thought Bigger Thomas should be a "revolutionary" committed to the communist ideal and project. Ellison reacted to critiques of Wright by stating that Wright was reckoning with Hegelian notions of the unconscious within Marx's dialectical materialism. As Lawrence Jackson notes in Ralph Ellison: Emergence of Genius, Ellison defended his friend thus: "They fail to see that what's bad in Bigger from the point of view of bourgeois society is good from our point of view. He, Bigger, has what Hegel called the 'indignant consciousness' and because of this he is more human than those who sent him to his death; for it was they, not he who fostered the dehumanizing conditions which shaped his personality. When the 'indignant consciousness' becomes the 'theoretical consciousness' indignant man is aware of his historical destiny and fights to achieve it. Would that all Negroes were psychologically free as Bigger and as capable of positive action!" (229). It is important that Ellison says this is a result of the bourgeois not being able to see what is good in Bigger, a common theme that runs through Invisible Man.
(2.) J. Bradford Campbell argues that there is little scholarship attempting to read Ellison's Invisible Man from the vantage point of psychiatry. The same is true for philosophy in general and Hegelian philosophy in particular.
(3.) The allusion Ellison makes to Kierkegaard's Sickness Unto Death is obvious: "Who knows? All sickness is not unto death, neither is invisibility" (14).
(4.) For a similar assessment see Wolfe's '"Ambivalent Man': Ellisons Rejection of Communism" pgs. 621-23.
(5.) In an interview conducted in the summer of 1972 Ellison speaks of the metaphor of the boomerang thus: "Vico, whom Joyce used in his great novels, described history as circling... It is never the same thing. There is implicit in the image the old idea that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat its mistakes. History comes back and hits you. But you really can't breakdown a symbol rationally. It allows you to say things that cannot really be said" (O'Brien 73).
(6.) In the same interview conducted in the summer of 1972 Ellison explains the dangers of philosophies of history and rationalism void of humanism: "Well, I think human life is a move toward the rational. Whatever man must do in order to bring order to society is what he considers rational... Some of the most moral men supported slavery. They rationalized it and in rationalizing it they accepted the most vicious practices and the most brutal forms of violence in order to keep the structure going" (O'Brien 70-71).
(7.) Invisibility in the novel, however, is not always a negative attribute, though it usually is. After noting his invisibility occurs as a result of a "peculiar deposition of the eyes of those with whom I come in contact" the Invisible Man says, "I am not complaining, nor am I protesting either. It is sometimes advantageous to be unseen, although it is most often rather wearing on the nerves" (3).
(8.) John F. Callahan acknowledges in his "Frequencies of Eloquence" that the protagonist in Invisible Man, like the one in Notes From Underground speaks up "uninvited, and unannounced" (56).
(9.) For a discussion of Ellisons relationship to Ernest Hemingway see Robert G. O'Meally's "The Rules of Magic: Hemingway as Ellison's 'Ancestor.'"
(10.) For a discussion of Ellison vis-a-vis Burke, Dostoevsky, and others see Leon Forrest's "Luminosity from the Lower Frequencies" in Ralph Ellisons Invisible Man: A Casebook.
(11.) In the introduction to Invisible Man Ellison discusses the concept of'high visibility' (xv). He says: "In fact, it seemed to tease me with allusions to that pseudoscientific sociological concept which held that most Afro-American difficulties sprang from our 'high visibility'; a phrase as double-dealing and insidious as its more recent oxymoronic cousins, 'benign neglect' and 'reverse discrimination,' both of which translate 'Keep those Negroes running--but in their same old place.'... Thus despite the bland assertions of sociologists, 'high visibility' actually rendered one un-visible--whether at high noon in Macy's window or illuminated by flaming torches and flashbulbs while undergoing the ritual sacrifice that was dedicated to the ideal of white supremacy" (xv).
(12.) For a discussion of the narrative structure of Invisible Man see Stepto's From behind the Veil: a Study of Afro-American Narrative.
(13.) For further elaboration on this point see Pippin's Hegel on Self-consciousness, Death, and Desire in the Phenomenology of Spirit, pgs. 92-95.
(14.) This is not the first time Ellison resorts to the word and epistemological category of understanding. After Mr. Norton tells the Invisible Man that he wants to see how his money is invested in "living personalities" and that he desires to build a monument for his daughter he says: "Understand? I can see the fruits produced by the land that your great Founder has transformed from barren clay to fertile soil" (45).
(15.) The phrase "geography is fate" comes from a lecture Ellison delivered as the Institute for African American Culture at the University of Iowa in 1971 under the title "Remembering Richard Wright" where he misquotes Heraclitus. It is my contention that his philosophical position informs the form of his narrative, which is made evident by Invisible Man's move north and the different consciousness and fate he obtains there.
(16.) In Ellison's informative essay on Richard Wright, "Richard Wright's Blues," he details the connection between geographical space, intelligence, and emotion. He says: "Intelligence tests have measured the quick rise in intellect which takes place in Southern Negroes after moving North, but little attention has been paid to the mutation effected in their sensibilities. However, the two go hand and hand. Intellectual complexity is accompanied by emotional complexity; refinement of thought, by refinement of feeling. The movement north affects more than the Negro's wage scale, it affects his entire psychosomatic structure. The rapidity of Negro intellectual growth in the North is due partially to objective factors present in the environment, to influences of the industrial city and the greater political freedom... The human organism responds to environmental stimuli by converting them into either physical and/or intellectual energy" (88).
(17.) For alternative reading of this scene in terms of Hegel's master-slave dialectic see Wolfe's "'Ambivalent Man': Ellison's Rejection of Communism" pg. 624.
(18.) Valerie Smith argues in her "The Meaning of Narration in Invisible Man" that the Brotherhood provides Invisible Man with a system of beliefs that run counter to the American dream. The problem, however, is that Brotherhood ideology is just as uncertain and unreliable (201).
(19.) Ellison touches upon racism, freedom, and the communist party in his "Remembering Richard Wright" where he says: "Because there, too, he was encountering a form of intellectual racism. It was not couched in the rhetoric of Negro inferiority a Tamericain, but in the form of an insistence upon blind discipline and a constant pressure to follow unthinkingly a political line" (673).
(20.) This is clear allusion to Shakespeare's Hamlet who says: "The time is out of joint."
(21.) Later in the narrative he affirms his critique of Brotherhood ideology: "Outside the Brotherhood we were outside of history; but inside of it they didn't see us" (499).
(22.) The Invisible Man refers to his "sickness" in the prologue and epilogue on numerous occasions. In the prologue he says: "Who knows? All sickness is not unto death, neither is invisibility" (14). And in the epilogue sickness is directly linked to a lack of recognition: "But deep down you come to suspect that you're yourself to blame, and you stand naked and shivering before the millions of eyes who look through you unseeingly" (575).
(23.) "I am what I am!" is in reference to the Invisible Man's attempting to overcome his shame while eating yams where he later comically says "T yam what I am'!" See pg. 266
(24.) With the Rinehart character Ellison advances a notion of identity that is fluid. "Rinehart the rounder. It was true as I was true. His world was possibility and he knew it. He was years ahead of me and I was a fool. I must have been crazy and blind. The world in which we lived was without boundaries. A vast seething, hot world of fluidity, and Rine the rascal was at home. Perhaps only Rine the rascal was at home in to. It was unbelievable, but perhaps only the unbelievable could be believed. Perhaps the truth was always a lie" (498 emphasis in the original).
(25.) We also get the following concerning the inescapability of the mind in the epilogue: "In going underground, I whipped it all except the mind, the mind. And the mind that has conceived a plan of living must never lose sight of the chaos against which that pattern was conceived" (580).
(26.) In Philosophy of Mind Hegel writes the following in regards to the divided subject, which Ellison himself seems to be picking up on: "Consequently, though the insane person is in himself or implicitly one and the same subject, yet he does not know himself objectively as a self-accordant, inwardly undivided subject, but as a subject disrupted into two different personalities" (126).
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