Thursday, September 01, 2016

Quotes from Ralph Ellison's "The Invisible Man"


Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Man is the best English language novel I've read, IMO. How I've considered myself well-read this long without having read it is to my shame. I consider it a decolonization novel for the black people of the United States. The unnamed narrator goes through a Ulysses-like odyssey in search of personal power and individual and collective liberation, growing and learning through each betrayal and cul-de-sac.


In addition, the language is more clear than Melville's Moby Dick and as powerful, without Hemingway's austerity. I've excerpted quotes to encourage you to read the novel. Most of the quotes are from the first third of the novel, but that's mostly because plot elements predominate in the latter two-thirds. As an example, read the eulogy for Tod Clifton, whom the New York police shot and killed.

The whole novel is incredible.

And, if you want a real literary puzzle, read Ellison's postumously-published novel Juneteenth. I couldn't make heads or tails of it, but I enjoyed listening to Blair Underwood reading it.

Page numbers are from the 22nd paperback printing by Random House, copyright 1952.

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Nor is my invisibility exactly a matter of a bio-chemical accident to my epidermis. That invisibility to which I refer occurs because of a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with whom I come in contact. A matter of the construction of their inner eyes, those eyes with which they look through their physical eyes upon reality. [p 7]

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Most of the time (although I do not choose as I once did to deny the violence of my days by ignoring it) I am not so overtly violent. I remember that I am invisible and walk softly so as not to awaken the sleeping ones. Sometimes it is best not to awaken them; there are few things in the world as dangerous as sleepwalkers. I learned in time though that it is possible to carry on a fight against them without their realizing it. [pp 8-9]

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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. [p 10]

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Once I saw a prizefighter boxing a yokel. The fighter was swift and amazingly scientific. His body was one violent flow of rapid rhythmic action. He hit the yokel a hundred times while the yokel held up his arms in stunned surprise. But suddenly the yokel, rolling about in the gale of boxing gloves, struck one blow and knocked science, speed and footwork as cold as a well-digger's posterior. The smart money hit the canvas. The long shot got the nod. The yokel had simply stepped inside of his opponent's sense of time. So under the spell of the reefer I discovered a new analytical way of listening to music. The unheard sounds came through, and each melodic line existed of itself, stood out clearly from all the rest, said its piece, and waited patiently for the other voices to speak. That night I found myself hearing not only in time, but in space as well. I not only entered the music but descended, like Dante, into its depths. And beneath the swiftness of the hot tempo there was a slower tempo and a cave and I entered it and looked around and heard an old woman singing a spiritual as full of Weltschmerz as flamenco, and beneath that lay a still lower level on which I saw a beautiful girl the color of ivory pleading in a voice like my mother's as she stood before a group of slave owners who bid for her naked body, and below that I found a lower level and a more rapid tempo and I heard someone shout:

"Brothers and sisters, my text this morning is the 'Blackness of Blackness.' " [pp 11-12]

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And yet, it was a strangely satisfying experience for an invisible man to hear the silence of sound. I had discovered unrecognized compulsions of my being -- even though I could not answer "yes" to their promptings. I haven't smoked a reefer since, however; not because they're illegal, but because to see around corners is enough (that is not unusual when you are invisible). But to hear around them is too much; it inhibits action. And despite Brother Jack and all that sad, lost period of the Brotherhood, I believe in nothing if not in action.

Please, a definition: A hibernation is a covert preparation for a more overt action. [pp 15-16]

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It took me a long time and much painful boomeranging of my expectations to achieve a realization everyone else appears to have been born with: That I am nobody but myself. But first I had to discover that I am an invisible man! [p 19]

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But my grandfather is the one. He was an odd old guy, my grandfather, and I am told I take after him. It was he who caused the trouble. On his deathbed he called my father to him and said, "Son, after I'm gone I want you to keep up the good fight. I never told you, but our life is a war and I have been a traitor all my born days, a spy in the enemy's country ever since I give up my gun back in the Reconstruction. Live with your head in the lion's mouth. 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 bust wide open." [pp 19-20]

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[After the narrator drove Mr. Norton on a tour which turned into a misadventure, a white trustee of his college, Mr. Bledsoe, the dean, interrogates.]

"Boy!" he exploded. "Are you serious? Why were you out on that road in the first place? Weren't you behind the wheel?"

"Yes, sir . . ."

"Then haven't we bowed and scraped and begged and lied enough decent homes and drives for you to show him? Did you think that white man had to come a thousand miles -- all the way from New York and Boston and Philadelphia just for you to show him a slum? Don't just stand there, say something!"

"But I was only driving him, sir. I only stopped there after he ordered me to . . ."

"Ordered you?" he said. "He ordered you. Dammit, white folk are always giving orders, it's a habit with them. Why didn't you make an excuse? Couldn't you say they had sickness -- smallpox -- or picked another cabin? Why that Trueblood shack? My God, boy! You're black and living in the
South -- did you forget how to lie?"

"Lie, sir? Lie to him, lie to a trustee, sir? Me?"

He shook his head with a kind of anguish. "And me thinking I'd picked a boy with brain," he said. "Didn't you know you were endangering the school?"

"But I was only trying to please him . . ."

"Please him? And here you are a junior in college! Why, the dumbest black bastard in the cotton patch knows that the only way to please a white man is to tell him a lie! What kind of education are you getting around here? [p 123-4]

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"Wait, hold on a second," he said, looking at me like a man about to flip a coin. "I like your spirit, son. You're a fighter, and I like that; you just lack judgment, though lack of judgment can ruin you. That's why I have to penalize you, son. I know how you feel, too. You don't want to go home to be humiliated, I understand that, because you have some vague notions about dignity. In spite of me, such notions seep in along with the gimcrack teachers and northern-trained idealists. Yes, and you have some white folk backing you and you don't want to face them because nothing is worse for a black man than to be humiliated by white folk. I know all about that too; ole doc's been 'buked and scorned and all of that. I don't just sing about it in chapel, I know about it. But you'll get over it; it's foolish and expensive and a lot of dead weight. You let the white folk worry about pride and dignity -- you learn where you are and get yourself power, influence, contacts with powerful and influential people -- then stay in the dark and use it!" [p 129]

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"I'm going to New York to work," I said, looking around me. "I won't have time for that."

"You will though," he teased. "Deep down you're thinking about the freedom you've heard about up North, and you'll try it once, just to see if what you've heard is true."

"There's other kinds of freedom beside some ole white trash women,"

Crenshaw said. "He might want to see him some shows and eat in some of them big restaurants."

The vet grinned. "Why, of course, but remember, Crenshaw, he's only going to be there a few months. Most of the time he'll be working, and so much of his freedom will have to be symbolic. And what will be his or any man's most easily accessible symbol of freedom? Why, a woman, of course. In twenty minutes he can inflate that symbol with all the freedom which he'll be too busy working to enjoy the rest of the time. He'll see." [p 136]

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"Man, who's this they you talking so much about?" said Crenshaw.

The vet looked annoyed. "They?" he said. "They? Why, the same they we always mean, the white folks, authority, the gods, fate, circumstances -- the force that pulls your strings until you refuse to be pulled any more. The big man who's never there, where you think he is." [p 137]

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What a group of people we were, I thought. Why, you could cause us the greatest humiliation simply by confronting us with something we liked. Not all of us, but so many. Simply by walking up and shaking a set of chitterlings or a well-boiled hog maw at them during the clear light of day! What consternation it would cause! And I saw myself advancing upon Bledsoe, standing bare of his false humility in the crowded lobby of Men's House, and seeing him there and him seeing me and ignoring me and me enraged and suddenly whipping out a foot or two of chitterlings, raw, uncleaned and dripping sticky circles on the floor as I shake them in his face, shouting:

"Bledsoe, you're a shameless chitterling eater! I accuse you of relishing how bowels! Ha! And not only do you eat them, you sneak and eat them in private when you think you're unobserved! You're a sneaking chitterling lover! I accuse you of indulging in a filthy habit, Bledsoe! Lug them out of there, Bledsoe! Lug them out so we can see! I accuse you before the eyes of the world!" And he lugs them out, yards of them, with mustard greens, and racks of pigs' ears, and pork chops and black-eyed peas with dull accusing eyes.

I let out a wild laugh, almost choking over the yam as the scene spun before me. Why, with others present, it would be worse than if I had accused him of raping an old woman of ninety-nine years, weighing ninety pounds . . . blind in one eye and lame in the hip! Bledsoe would disintegrate, disinflate! With a profound sigh he'd drop his head in shame. He'd lose caste. The weekly newspapers would attack him. The captions over his picture: Prominent Educator Reverts to Field Niggerism! His rivals would denounce him as a bad example for the South. Editorials would demand that he either recant or retire from public life. In the South his white folks would desert him; he would be discussed far and wide, and all of the trustees' money couldn't prop up his sagging prestige. He'd end up an exile washing dishes at the Automat. For down South he'd be unable to get a job on the honey wagon.

This is all very wild and childish, I thought, but to hell with being  ashamed of what you liked. No more of that for me. I am what I am! I wolfed down the yam and ran back to the old man and handed him twenty cents, "Give me two more," I said. [pp 230-1]

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I felt that somehow they expected me to perform even those tasks for which nothing in my experience -- except perhaps my imagination -- had prepared me. Still it was nothing new, white folks seemed always to expect you to know those things which they'd done everything they could think of to prevent you from knowing. [p 273]

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Whence all this passion toward conformity anyway? -- diversity is the word. Let man keep his many parts and you'll have no tyrant states. Why, if they follow this conformity business they'll end up by forcing me, an invisible man, to become white, which is not a color but the lack of one. Must I strive toward colorlessness? But seriously, and without snobbery, think of what the world would lose if that should happen. America is woven of many strands; I would recognize them and let it so remain. It's "winner take nothing" that is the great truth of our country or of any country. Life is to be lived, not controlled; and humanity is won by continuing to play in face of certain defeat. Our fate is to become one, and yet many -- This is not prophecy, but description. Thus one of the greatest jokes in the world is the spectacle of the whites busy escaping blackness and becoming blacker every day, and the blacks striving toward whiteness, becoming quite dull and gray. None of us seems to know who he is or where he's going. [p 499]