Monday, May 22, 2017

Favorite Books (5): Invisible Man

Reading for Enjoyment

Here I briefly discuss one of my favorite books; this is part of a continuing series.

“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 surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me.”

Ralph Ellison, “Opening lines to Prologue,”
Invisible Man (1952)

Invisible Man: This book, as first published by Random House of New York City, in 1952, was hardcover and 439 pages. Random House, since 2013, has been part of a conglomerate called Penguin Random House, which the photo of this particular book cover shows. This is a business partnership between the German company Bertelsmann and the British company Pearson, one in which the German company is the majority owner with 53 percent controlling interest. Random House was founded by Bennett Alfred Cerf [1898–1971] and Donald Simon Klopfer [1902–1986], when two young Jewish businessmen purchased the complete works (109 volumes) of Modern Library for $200,000 in 1925. Modern Library published inexpensive reprints of classic works of literature, chiefly European modernists but also a few contemporary Americans. Two years later, in 1927, the Modern Library site says, “finding that they had time to spare, they started Random House as a subsidiary of the Modern Library. Random House enabled them to publish, ‘at random,’ other books that interested them. It soon was a major publishing force in its own right, and the Modern Library would become an imprint of its own offspring.” Now, that’s quite a story of success.
Photo Credit & Source: Greg Tucker

Invisible Man (1952), by Ralph Ellison [1913–1994], is a novel that has many interwoven strands. It is at first about a young southern black man’s search for identity in New York City of the 1930s, finding out that truth is so malleable that it eventually turns into a falsehood, which is what keeps relations between people going. It is also about the desire to join a group, because when you are not part of a larger cause, you find yourself without any acceptable social identity, and thus you are effectively invisible. It is also about the larger issue regarding the place of the individual in greater society, and in this particular case American society.

The novel’s opening lines grab your attention and you are hooked. When I read this book for a university course on American literature a quarter of a century ago, I was immediately drawn into the world of its main character.  Like me, the unnamed narrator in the novel says a lot of things, because he has a lot of time to think. What he’s essentially revealing is that man’s capacity for cruelty is unlimited and it takes on many forms, including a denial of the human being. Indifference to others has always been an acceptable part of modern society.

Much like Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground (1864), the narrator uses irony to describe his situation, most notably his living situation, which is less than ideal, as seen by his need to jerry-rig a lighting system of 1,369 light bulbs powered by electricity stolen from Monopolated Light & Power Company. It is by all accounts horrible and bleak, but it is this way until the narrator decides that he’s had enough of being invisible, which he does decide in the end. We do not know what his decision leads to, but the reader is left with an undefined and unredeemed hope for the future.

This is an American book, no doubt, but its story can be understood outside this nation. It could be understood when it was written; it could be understood outside its time. The reasons for saying so are universal, as man is universal in his needs. One can easily mistake the particulars for the universals and arrive at the wrong answer, the wrong conclusion. One can make the practicalities of life and of living the whole story.

Accordingly, it is also about determining the cost of deciding to become an individual, which is a diminishing sight at a time when there is so much confusion on what is essential to the human being; people are splintering off into smaller and smaller groups, driven by despair to identity politics and the safety of the group. Nothing has changed in this regard. This is the hard truth, and it is hard to accept without becoming cynical or hiding in an underground hole of your own design. Or to begin to wonder about your sanity.

This story also makes me think of why and how. How does a person become invisible? Is it only a result of mental illness? Or of actions? We know that each person has a story; this is what the writers of long ago tell us. It is also about how such persons can make poor choices, both through a lack of knowledge and a willful stubborn stupidity—in their desire to become individuals, and how poor thinking can make these ones bereft of the rich social pleasures of friendship and community. One of the sad outcomes, an undesirable one, is that such ones become “invisible.”

There are those who will always fall through the cracks of normal society into the darkness below, where the light of day hardly finds its way in. They live but are not known; they fail to reach their human potential for reasons that are not always known to us. We mourn the loss of potential, a very modern idea, even as we move on, making our own preparations for another day. This is the crux of the matter, whether everyone and anyone can be saved from “himself” if this is not what he wants.

One can make the effort, but it will likely end in vain. Even so, the effort must be made, even if success is not apparent. It is in the making of the effort that the rules of society are changed.

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