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holographic tropes

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the aesthetics of ralph ellison's invisible man

Ralph Ellison painstakingly crafted a separate world in Invisible Man , a novel that succeeds because it is an intricate aesthetic creation -- humane, compassionate, and yet gloriously devoid of a moral. Social comment is neither the aim nor the drive of art, and Ellison did not attempt to document a plight. He created a place where race is reflected and distorted, where pithy generalities are dismissed, where personal and aesthetic prisms distill into an individualized, articulate consciousness -- it is impossible, not to mention foolish and simplistic, to attempt to exhort a moral from the specific circumstances of the narrator, who is not a cardboard martyr and who doesn’t stand for anyone other than himself: he does not represent the Everyman, nor does he epitomize thesufferings of his race. The narrator can prompt questions about and discussions on both themes precisely because his is an individualized experience -- unassailable, apolitical1 and ultimately aesthetic. Ellison succeeded by projecting his words through several funhouse mirrors, and particularly by carefully layering the valences and meanings of specific images -- any aesthetic experience, specially the written word, is inherently a distortion of reality.

Saussure, the founder of modern linguistics, believed that the written language depended on sequentiality to be intelligible2. Sense and coherence require scanning one significant unit at a time, phoneme by phoneme, word by word, phrase by phrase, paragraph by paragraph, until significant meaning is achieved and stacked on to other units for an expanded or qualified signifying body, each separate signifier expanding on the previous and preparing the groundwork for the next.

Signifiers in literature are trickier. Whereas a signifying unit elsewhere represents a simple, straightforward symbol (a "No Parking" sign) a unit in literature is intended to convey several things at once. Conscious repeated variations of a word or image portray both what is readily apparent to the eye and also recall previous incarnations of the same trope, both in and out of the corpus of the aesthetic work itself. This stacking of signs explains the nature of metaphorical literary language, and it particularly explains why Ellison's use of ironic and stacked imagery works so well.

The dream imagery of Invisible Man's prologue3, "I entered [the cave] and below that I found a lower level I wandered down a dark narrow passage" echoes the dream imagery of the last chapter in the novel, "still whirling on in the blackness, knocking against the walls of a narrow passage... and the darkness to light..." Darkness and light play an important role throughout the book but specially in these bookend images, and so does the image of the passage, but the reader should be impressed by the stacking involved and not by obvious symbolism (race, knowledge, etc). The prologue image is a chemically-induced hallucination, whereas the one at the other end is a physical reality that leads, after exhaustion and panic, to a hallucination. The dark passage, however, is an actual physical construct in Chapter 25. Both images imply sinking -- the first a kind of heavy, dreamy floating, the second a physical descent made all the more bizarre because the reader remembers the first. Thus a dreamlike escape through a tunnel ripples with a similar, shimmering dreamscape.

The prologue is but a page or two away from the "Battle Royal" incident, where the narrator procures a briefcase, which is also connected to the dream of the envelopes (connected also to Bledsoe's letters of recommendation -- another facet of this particular hologram). Both the seemingly endless envelopes and the remarkably sturdy briefcase re-appear at the end, the former as kindling and the latter as a kind of magical bag. Again, the image is similar enough to its counterpart to color the latter with a deeper, translucent tinge. The effect is not sequential but simultaneous: the first image is conjured as the reader discovers its second, or third, or fourth echo, and each instance bounces off every other, so that no single image stands alone.

Here are two more holographic tropes:

Irony plays a crucial role in these translucent images. Often the portrait presented is at odds with its previous incarnations. The incongruity adds to the funhouse effect, particularly when the narrator finds himself reflected in a grotesque mirror of a previous experience -- or when living out a nightmare. The oddness of the prologue's hallucination is not as odd as the symbolic fulfillment of that dream and the burning of the papers in Chapter 25. Also striking is Clifton's pathetic life selling the Sambo dolls, which turns grotesque when the Invisible Man , after having pitied and made use of Clifton's death, finds himself peddling the dolls. Each event is odd in and of itself, but it isn't aesthetically whole without its counterpart or counterparts.

Invisible Man is aesthetically whole, which does not preclude it from recording, in its own way, a specific story of the human condition -- that of one individual with his own unique reading of race. The book has no moral: it offers no simple solutions to a complex problem, nor does it offers any reasons for that problem. What did our narrator do to be so black and blue? On that he is mute, and well he should be. What can he do about it? No answer. What can we do about it? Silence. What Invisible Man does, however, is to present this particular human experience in such a way that each event counts -- every episodic travail is vivid, crystalline, gem-like, and Ellison achieves this shimmering accomplishment by folding events onto each other and giving specific aesthetic value to the reflections that result therein.


1. Politics do come into play, but they're muddled into more nightmarish images. There is none of the full-throttle commitment to any one system that one finds, for example, in Richard Wright's Native Son. Back

2. See Roland Barthes' Mythologies. Back

3. Italics presented just as they appear in the novel. Back

© 1997
Last Updated 28 July 1999
Created and Maintained by J.M. Martinez

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