In his excellent summary of the field of literary theory, Jonathan Culler challenges his readers to think of what exactly the term “theory” means by way of a simple example: He imagines a conversation in which someone proposes a “theory” of why a couple broke up. Culler then asks what makes this theory of the breakup different from a guess or speculation. Despite its relative simplicity, this is a difficult and important topic. Does the speaker have a concrete answer? No, that wouldn’t be a theory. Is just a hunch? No, it’s more than that. Is it because the speaker has evidence? Maybe, but not necessarily. What Culler ultimately decides is that a theory “claims to offer an explanation that is not obvious” (2). It is a complex working out of a problem—often an unanswerable one—that must approach a problem from many different angles, taking into account a variety of circumstances, hypotheses, and, at least to some degree, evidence.
While we generally consider literary theory to be a body of critical, non-fictional or essayistic writing, I posit that fiction writing is as much a part of this body of theory as are Derrida, Foucault, Mulvey, et al. Moreover, literature often serves as an event that literary theory seeks to explore, challenge, complicate and extend. The relationship between Theory and literature—as exemplified here by Ralph Ellison and his contemporaries—is a heated, often-contentious, always-important conversation dealing with fundamental questions about what it means to be a thinking being in the 20th Century. Rather than viewing “Theory” (with a capital T) as something which exists outside of “Literature” (with a capital L), works such as Invisible Man help us to understand how intertwined the processes are, and how similar are their aims. In other words, both bodies of work—theory as such and fictional literature—offer their own views about “why so-and-so broke up,” to use Culler’s analogy. They simply do so in different ways, and often not without contention.
Since its publication in 1952, Invisible Man has served as a reflection of the changing current of 20th century literary theory. It has also embodied the challenge that non-mimetic, or otherwise anti-realist, novels have had in garnering support from a community of theorists. The novel quickly attained support from a wide variety of publications but was disparaged by many ideologically-driven critics. This is in part due to the strange nature of the text itself. Despite the fact that Ellison cut out sections in order to please his publisher, the novel runs close to 600 pages. And, in these 600 pages, there is a strange mix of surrealism, expressionism, and social realism.
The novel is, in many ways, a novel of disenchantment. We begin with an unnamed narrator who proclaims himself to be invisible, “simply because others refuse to see [him].” He writes from deep underground, not unlike the Dostoyevsky character, where he has taken refuge after a series of disillusionments. He begins his story as a young student at an all-black college where he un-learns the politics of “yessin em to death,” as his grandfather puts it. He heads north, enters into the “Brotherhood,” a thinly veiled Communist party, interacts with black nationalism, and ultimately retreats underground in the face of never-ending misunderstanding. In each place he seeks a community, he instead finds a group of people looking to bend his will to their own purposes. The novel ends with a tongue-in-cheek paean to American freedom: the Invisible Man may be underground, but never has he been so free.
Perhaps one of the best places to go to understand this work is Ellison himself, who wrote copiously about his process of composing the novel. Born in 1914, Ellison’s life bears remarkable similarities to the unnamed narrator of his only novel; yet Ellison repeatedly asserted that this was not an autobiographical book. Instead, he began with theory. As he notes in the preface to the 1981 edition of the book, he began the novel with aspirations of overcoming the idea of the “Afro-American protest novel,” which was the dominant style of black writing at the time. He wanted, instead to explore what he calls a “comparative humanity” while retaining the political spirit of the protest novel:
So if the ideal of achieving a true political equality eludes us in reality—as it continues to do—there is still available that fictional vision of an ideal democracy in which the actual combines with the ideal and gives us representations of a state of things in which the highly placed and the lowly, the black and the white, the northerner and the southerner, the native-born and the immigrant are combined to tell us of transcendent truths and possibilities such as those discovered when Mark Twain set Huck and Jim afloat on the raft. (xx)
This excerpt is important for many reasons. Most importantly, it shows the theoretical (as in Theory) break that Ellison made with his longtime mentor Richard Wright. Wright, a committed Communist and Harlem editor of The Daily Worker, favored a social realist style that exposed the seedy underbelly of American racism. This, he believed, was the best way to illuminate the suffering of African-Americans in the Jim Crow south. His stories are full of cruel fate, thwarted attempts, and misunderstanding. It is not unusual for a tale to end with a lynching or shooting; the vast majority of main characters die brutal deaths; and rarely are the characters entirely cognizant of the web of racism that undermines their autonomy. They are pawns, in short, the sort of faceless pawns that Ellison’s Invisible Man learns to despise. For though Ellison got his start writing a review solicited by Wright, and frequently—especially in his early days—expressed a profound admiration and allegiance to Wright, the two had irreconcilable theoretical differences.
Wright’s views are clearly outlined in his 1937 essay “Blueprint for Negro Writing.” Tellingly, Ellison evokes Lenin in his first sentence, for his is a profoundly Marxist view of the position of the black in the South. Borrowing from social realist theory, Wright suggests that the “Negro writer” need not write propaganda, per se, but he or she must have what he calls “perspective”:
Perspective is that part of a poem, novel or play which writers never put directly upon paper, but which is sensed in every line of the work. It is that fixed point in intellectual space where writers stand to view their struggles, hopes and sufferings of their people… It means that Negro writers must learn to view the life of the Negro living in New York’s Harlem or Chicago’s South Side with the consciousness that one sixth of the earth’s surface belongs to the working class. (12)
In some fundamental way it seems that Wright is splitting hairs here; what he is really after—call it what you will—is an overt ideological underpinning that requires writers to bring about class consciousness in their readers. His ideal artist is filled with a revolutionary impulse to “create in their readers’ minds a relationship between a Negro woman hoeing cotton in the South and the men who loll in swivel chairs in Wall Street and take the fruits of her toil” (12). This collective betterment of society is, for Wright, more important than any character, plot, or aesthetic choice; individualism is the antidote to revolution and must be put aside in order to unite the collective masses.
Ralph Ellison, on the other hand, struggled with the notion of grooming others for battle, whether through political movements or literature. As evidenced in the block quote above, Ellison believed that “fictional vision of an ideal democracy” was the key to creating change; it is also clear that “transcendent truths” do not necessarily favor black narratives over white ones, or working class over bourgeois. Such a belief in the power of narrative—in the inherent activism of writing itself—flies in the face of Wright’s belief in creating a subject matter that, as he puts it, “must be marshaled toward some goal” (13). Accordingly, then, Ellison moved farther and farther from Wright. In a 1952 interview he admits that he “felt that Wright was overcommitted to ideology—even though I, too, wanted many of the same things for our people” (Shadow and Act 16). This raises large theoretical questions about what the purpose of literature is and how best to achieve social justice through literature. For his part, Ellison believed that “the work of art is important in itself, that it is a social action in itself” (115). That is, one need not adhere strictly to any particular doctrine in order to enact change; the very act of writing, despite its subject, theme, or “perspective”, is itself is revolutionary.
In Invisible Man, one sees this played out in the narrator’s struggle with the Brotherhood, a fictional Communist-like party in which the goal is to “say what the people want to hear, but say it in a way that they’ll do what we wish” (359). Despite the fact that his life becomes “so terribly empty and disorganized without it,” the narrator—much like Ellison himself broke with the Communist Party—ultimately turns from the Brotherhood (412). A break occurs when he finally begins to see the masses not as empty vessels needing to be filled—and corralled—but rather as “the set faces of individual men and women” (459). In the final pages of the novel, the unnamed narrator becomes what the Brotherhood and the Communist Party so dearly despise: an individualist.
This blatant attack on collective action was bound to rub some people in the Party the wrong way. Although Ellison and Wright maintained their civility, one leftist critic was incensed enough to create a public feud. Writing for Dissent in 1963, a left-wing journal advocating literary socialism, Irving Howe attacked what he viewed as the failure of Ellison’s writing to “ring true”:
Ellison makes his Stalinist figures so vicious and stupid that one cannot understand how they could ever have attracted him or any other Negro. That the party leadership manipulated members with deliberate cynicism is beyond doubt, but this cynicism was surely more complex and guarded than Ellison shows it to be. No party leader would ever tell a prominent Negro Communist, as one of them does in Invisible Man: “You were not hired [as a functionary] to think”—even if that were what he felt. (363)
What Howe fails to acknowledge is that Invisible Man takes place in a world where a man is, well, invisible. At one point, the narrator is placed in an electric box and subjected to electric shocks in a factory hospital. He lives underground where he burns 1,369 light bulbs simultaneously. In short, the novel makes no claims to be a realistic interpretation of any actual events or people. Nevertheless, Howe faults the text for its apolitical message and championing of the individual over the collective. This, it is true, presents itself in the novel; however, it is not with the unequivocal championing that Howe claims. The reader, according to Howe, is not “easily persuaded by the hero’s discovery that ‘my world has become one of infinite possibilities’” and claims that the “self-liberation” of the text “violates the reality of social life, the interplay between external conditions and personal will” (364-5). Again, Howe seems to be attacking a book very different from the reality of Invisible Man. Ellison’s ironic gesture of pairing “infinite possibilities” with an invisible narrator who is, essentially, in exile underground, seems to be lost on him.
As Ellison frames the argument, Howe seems to be favoring a sociological version of society that privileges “revolutionary posture” over the variegated quality of real life. His response, published in The New Leader in 1963, accuses Howe of dismissing the beauty of “Negro life”:
There is a fullness, even a richness here; and here despite the realities of politics, but nevertheless here and real… To deny in the interest of revolutionary posture that such possibilities of human richness exist for others, even in Mississippi, is not only to deny us our humanity but to betray the critic’s commitment to social reality. Critics who do so should abandon literature for politics. (Shadow and Act 112)
Surely the history of Howe’s line of reasoning lies in the classic argument that the novel is a bourgeois form. According to Bakhtin, “the novel speculates in categories of ignorance. When the novel becomes the leading genre, epistemology becomes the leading discipline” (quoted in Morson 133). By this line of reasoning, the only way to salvage the novel from the status-quo is to enact the sort of “perspective” that Richard Wright suggests should undergird each and every black writer’s work. This was the birth of what Wright and Ellison, following James Baldwin, both called “the protest novel.”
But even more central is the famous (infamous?) argument between György Lukács and Ernst Bloch that occurred in 1938, roughly contemporaneous to both Ellison and Wright’s rise to fame. Responding to Bloch’s assertion that Expressionism presents a means for political action, Lukács responded with what today seems like a fairly conservative line of argumentation. In “Realism in the Balance”, Lukács argues that writer should strive for a Realism that will “grasp that reality as it truly is,” (33). Like any true Marxists critic, Lukács is a materialist first and foremost: undergirding his argument for a true representation of reality is the assumption that such a true reality exists, and is available for representation. Authentic realists are not those, like Dickens or Flaubert, who merely attempt to capture a picture of life as objectivist as possible, but rather those writers who “depict the vital, but not immediately obvious forces at work in objective reality.” (47-48) Much like Wright and, later, Howe, Lukács’ essay argues for the ethical imperative writers have to better society.
The problem with such an argument—at least according to Ellison—is that in promoting this ideal Realism, one simultaneously denigrates the modernist impulse to seek truth inwardly. Before dismissing the Expressionists outright as “ideologues” (an attack Ellison would undoubtedly find more suited to the “Realism” Lukács seeks) he faults the modernists for “inserting these into scraps of reality with which they have no organic connection.” (34) Stream-of-consciousness—or association, or word play—has no relevance to Lukács’ model of an activist literature because it lacks a community-oriented center, because it fails to do something in the objective world. This, according to Lukács is something that Modernism—in its inability to depict “the fates of actual human beings” (59)— simply cannot accomplish.
Ralph Ellison, however, was a unique brand of writer who wedded Modernism to a protest impulse, something that Lukács would have found impossible. In Shadow and Act, Ellison repeatedly refers to James Joyce, T.S. Elliot, Gertrude Stein, and Henry James as his fictional models, but he also refuses to let go of the revolutionary aspect of writing. In his view, “good fiction is made from that which is real” but he has a very different idea of what constitutes the Real. For Ellison, reality is “difficult to come by” and necessitates a hybrid understanding of self and community (Shadow and Act xix). In this way, he may have agreed with Frederick Jameson’s assertion that History is the Real—certainly a unique blend of personal background, systematic oppression, and community engagement is required to understand Ellison’s reality. For, although, he is self-admittedly more concerned with art than oppression, he balks at the notion that the two are incompatible:
Now mind! I recognize no dichotomy between art and protest. Dostoievsky’s Notes from Underground is, among other things, a protest against the limitations of nineteenth-century rationalism; Don Quixote, Man’s Fate, Oedipus Rex, The Trial—all these embody protest, even against the limitation of human life itself. (169)
The art of craftsmanship—of creating a universally useful work of art—is, for Ellison, the embodiment of protest. Moreover, Ellison disagrees with the Marxist imperative that the collective supersede the individual experience. “All novels are about minorities,” he claims, because “the individual is a minority. The universal in the novel… is reached only through the depiction of the specific man in a specific circumstance” (170). Ellison turns the notion of individualism on its head: not only does the exploration of the individual further the understanding of the “universal,” it is a necessary component.
At some point it seems germane to ask, just what kind of universality is furthered with a book about an invisible man in a hole? The novel is at once strange, surreal, dark, brutal, hopeless, and hopeful; but never does its narrator suggest any clear answers to Ellison’s universal struggle. The origin of the novel may be of some help: one important figure that comes up frequently for Ellison in discussions of his development as a writer is Kenneth Burke. After attending a lecture on “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s Battle,” Ellison seems to understand his disillusionment with Marxism more concretely. In his 2003 essay on Ralph Ellison and Kenneth Burke, Donald E. Pease suggests that Ellison borrowed from Burke’s notion of the scapegoat to understand the Negro scapegoat thusly:
At the social level, the Negro scapegoat introduced a principle of racialized division into the social order that the social policy of segregation consolidated; at the psychological level, the Negro scapegoat facilitated collective processes of disavowal and projection which buttressed that social policy. (69)
The black American, in other words, is a symbol for the consciousness of the nation; in order to understand the driving forces of freedom and inequality that persist for all Americans—and, perhaps, all human beings—Ellison felt that a social as well as psychological understanding was in order.
The back-and-forth of societal imprisonment and individual freedom is beautifully voiced in the epilogue to Invisible Man. In this brief monologue, the narrator explains that he has written his story in spite its futility because such self-exploration is crucial to understanding “the hole I was in” (572). His problem, he claims, has been that he has always tried to place his “sickness… in the outside world” rather than within (575). This is a direct attack on the Marxist collective: Ellison suggests that people are responsible to themselves and obligated to act responsibly as individuals first and foremost. Understanding of the self is crucial to understanding one’s societal constraints. In doing so, Ellison suggests that an appreciation for the multifaceted nature of humanity leads to true freedom for the collective. “Our fate,” his narrator argues, “is to become one, and yet many” (577). Only in understanding the “absurd diversity” of humanity can we be truly free (578). The invisible narrator gradually comes to understand that tyranny is born from going everyone’s way but one’s own; this is art’s job to explore.
Ellison may not have answered the question of the individual’s relationship to societal constraints, or how best to emancipate those who are constrained by society, but he opens a discussion of how best to deal with such issues through literature. Social realism, for Ellison, includes an element of the fantastical; to his mind, the image of an invisible man who is invisible only because people refuse to see him is more realistic than the presumably more realistic depiction of a lynching. Unlike Howe and Wright, Ellison elides personal individuality and societal responsibility at the same time as he links the protest novel with Modernism. Such an understanding is, indeed, relevant to our current milieu in that it links both form and content. I would argue that Ellison has succeeded, and that universality has indeed made a home in Invisible Man. The very last line of the text is telling. “Who knows,” the narrator asks, “but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?” (581).