Ralph Ellison, “Invisible Man”

1952

Though it owes much to Richard Wright’s earlier Native Son, Ellison’s complex and subtle work supersedes the genre of protest novel and is one of the earliest examples of postmodern tropes in American literature. The repeated use of spectacle in the novel, the trickster-like cycle of stories, the flatness of characters who are overstated types and come and go, and the cryptically unnamed narrator and his bizarre underground life all point ahead to the literature that would take firmer hold in the 60s with novels like Pale Fire & The Crying of Lot 49. 

More than anything, Ellison’s novel represents a moving away from the binary or double-consciousness (Hegel, DuBois, the Marxist dialectic) and towards a more uncertain multiplicity. Ellison wrote to Wright that he wanted to expose the Communist Party’s abandonment of blacks in the novel, and to depict a man “who had been forged in the underground of American experience and yet managed to emerge less angry than ironic.” Part of his resistance to becoming a “type” is his constant movement, his search for self-knowledge, and his awareness of his own contradictions – like Langston Hughes’ speaker, this narrator, too, sings America and ‘contains multitudes.’

It’s interesting to consider women in this novel – the narrator champions women’s rights at one point, relates to a white stripper, has an affair with a white woman (its ‘rape play’ rehearses Birth of a Nation and Bigger and Mary, but also looks ahead to blaxploitation films like Sweet Sweetback). Unlike the “invisible man,” itself a rewriting of the “native son,” women do not have the luxury of remaining invisible in the novel; they are made into spectacle, as the stripper and raped daughter of Trueblood attest.

– The Introduction: The unnamed narrator squats in a basement at the edge of Harlem, “a border area,” sucking power off the grid to light it up brightly with filament bulbs, which are more expensive to run: “I live rent-free in a building rented strictly to whites, in a section of the basement that was shut off and forgotten during the nineteenth century.” In this sense, he siphons and ‘wastes’ the provisions of capital in a repurposed way. He listens to Louis Armstrong’s “Black and Blue” because Armstrong “made poetry out of being invisible” 8.

– The Battle Royal: The story begins 20 years earlier, when the narrator is a boy. He does not understand his grandfather’s advice to treat life as a war, to “overcome ’em with yeses…let ’em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open.” He is invited to give a speech to a group of white men in the town. There is a stripper there who “saw only me with her impersonal eyes” – as in McKay’s “Harlem Dancer,” the woman’s eyes are vacant as she performs, moving outside her body (the kewpie doll is comparable to the Sambo doll here). The white men make the black boys fight for coins on an electrified rug, dehumanizing them before the boy’s speech. He wonders if this is not a time for “humility and nonresistance,” but is forced into battling the others. It is no surprise that his speech is largely a recitation of Booker T. Washington’s “Cast Down Your Bucket” speech. He is given a scholarship in a briefcase, and in a dream, he sees the paper as “To Whom It May Concern: Keep this Nigger Boy Running” 33.

– The university: The narrator drives the rich, white Mr. Norton around, who is obsessed with his own pure, dead daughter. He is fascinated by Trueblood, a local black sharecropper who rapes and impregnates his own daughter, supposedly in his sleep. Trueblood says he is in “the tunnel” in his dream (MattyLou’s vagina), and once a man gets himself in “a tight spot” like that, he “wants some more” 68. Norton gives him cash and makes the narrator take him to a black brothel, where he gets drunk and a fight breaks out. Homer Barbee lectures the narrator on how great the founder is and says he should have shown Norton an idealized picture of black life. He is dismissed from the college with 7 letters of recommendation.

– Harlem: The narrator learns from the trustee Emerson that he can’t get a job because the recommendation letters condemn his character. He gets a job at Liberty Paints making Optic White with Lucius Brockway. They quarrel because Lucius fears he is in the union. One of the paint tanks explodes and the narrator wakes up in a hospital. The doctors experiment with electric shock treatments on him, feminizing him as hysterical and bringing an element of madness in that also reminds me of the Beats. He recovers his memory, is released, collapses outside, and is taken in by Mary.

– The brotherhood: Brother Jack offers him a job as a spokesman for the Party after his impassioned speech at the eviction. He takes it to earn some money to help Mary. He associates with Tod Clifton and Ras the Exhorter (and sleeps with a white woman after a rally). The white Brother Hambro trains him in rhetoric, and he gives speeches.

– Clifton: Clifton sells Sambo dolls on the street and is shot for not having a permit to sell them. After the narrator holds a funeral, the Brotherhood is angry and lectures him. He turns against the brotherhood, as Ras has, but Ras also turns against him, since he blames him for the Brotherhood’s failure to use the momentum of the funeral for action. He is mistaken in a disguise for “Rinehart” – a pimp, bookie, and reverend. He confronts Brother Hambro, who has decided the Party is not interested in racial issues (here is where Ellison plays out his disillusionment with the Party, which he shared with Richard Wright). He sleeps with Sybil to try to play along with the Party, but she is clueless and only plays out her rape fantasy with him.

– The riot: Ras has started a full-blown riot in Harlem. The narrator participates, setting fire to a tenement house. As the police chase him, he falls down a manhole and has stayed there ever since, mulling over his own individual complexity and preparing to emerge again, which he says he is now ready to do. His conflict explores the complexity of self-articulation vs social struggle. (You could also read this against the simplifying films he discusses in “The Shadow and the Act.”)

Importantly, the narrator insists at the end, “I’m invisible, not blind” and that “white is not a color but the lack of one” (a reversal of the Freudian sex dynamic that feminizes white men?) 576. He observes the “spectacle” of whites becoming blacker and blacks becoming whiter without understanding each other. The stench in the air is “either of death or spring” 580. “I’m shaking off the old skin and I’ll leave it here in the hole… even an invisible man has a socially responsible role to play… Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?” 581.

 

 

Doris Lessing, “The Golden Notebook”

1962

The Golden Notebook, often considered one of the great works of second-wave feminism (though Lessing thought it came too early for that and claims she had no such agenda) tells the story of the writer Anna Wulf and her friend Molly Jacobs. Molly has been married to Richard, from whom she has Tommy. Anna has been married to Willi/Max (she met him while in Rhodesia in the 40s) and has a child, Janet, with him. She also has a long affair with Michael, who does not requite her love, and Saul, a brash American who opens her writing up to new levels, but ultimately disappears and gives way to the next man in line.

Much of the work is a treatise on various social issues, despite Lessing’s insistent claims that this was a “misreading” of the novel. Anna and Molly continually try to reintegrate themselves to Party life, only to find themselves disenchanted and leave again. It’s hard to consider it a misreading when all of this is so plainly spelled out at every turn (‘this is what women are experiencing today’), and this is where the wonderful novel is at its weakest. It engages in gender essentialism, national and political stereotypes (mostly about Americans, Brits, communists, and ‘liberals’), and overstatements of feeling and thought that verge onto D.H. Lawrence’s sometimes overblown “novel of ideas” style.

 

Indeed, the opening scene shows the two alone, discussing marriage, relationships, and themselves as “free women,” restaging the beginning of Lawrence’s Women in Love. In fact, The Golden Notebook restages modernism in a variety of ways. Anna’s concern with representing her bodily functions (unisex and particularly female) resonates with Joyce’s Ulysses, as does the Molly/Marion pair who have both been married to Richard. Richard, a real square and a businessman who cannot express emotion, is reminiscent of Richard Dalloway, and Anna’s surname (Wulf), as well as Molly’s (Jacobs [Room?] can be no accident. Instead of the 6 voices of The Waves, we have 6 parts of Anna and her life.

The splitting of the self that the novel insists on seems to stem from Woolf’s persistent attempts to represent the female splitting and gathering self in Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, as well as the passage in A Room of One’s Own where Woolf insists that to write as a woman is always to write multiply. Anna herself tells Tommy that she cannot write in one notebook because it would be an overwhelming chaos.

The novel has 6 component parts: the black, red, yellow, and blue notebooks, the golden notebook that tries to combine them, and the interspersed metanovel segments called “Free Women.” The four notebooks are in first-person by Anna (except the yellow one, where she is called Ella and Molly Julia). They each appear 4 times in the cycle, while the metanovel “Free Women” has 5 sections, and the golden notebook has just 1 section, which is the penultimate of the book and corresponds as a sort of “5th” occurrence of the other 4 notebooks, since it combines them.

The structure of the novel as repeating cycles seems to mimic both political waxings and wanings, the rhythm of everyday domestic life in motherhood, and the female body. Around the middle of the novel, Anna gets her period and continues to mention its inconveniences, pains, and awarenesses for several days’ worth of entries.

I’d like to think about this novel as an extension of the crisis of faith concerns in the works of Waugh, Greene, and Murdoch, but here the faith in question is, ironically, Marxism. I therefore want to experiment with aligning them with sections of the gospel and Eliot’s The Waste Land. The notebooks:

Black: Anna’s memories of her past in Rhodesia, as well as her record of finances (money/sources). (MARK: earliest source, travel, heroism, death) (Burial of the Dead – the difficulty of memory and prophecy, the struggle to express meaning.)

Red: Anna’s diary of her involvement in the Party. (MATTHEW: history, law, based on Mark, written to Jews) (A Game of Chess – sex as strategy, disappointment, disillusionment, concerned with matters of class and gender.)

Yellow: Anna’s own novel about Ella and Julia. (LUKE: longest, most evangelical and poetic, emotional and metatextual) (The Fire Sermon – a cleansing but collapsing of society as we know it.)

Blue: Anna’s diary, largely made up of dreams and fantasies, as well as day-to-day conversations and occurrences. (JOHN: visionary, salvatory, erratic) (Death by Water – the mystical possibility of death and rejuvenation in one).

Golden: Anna’s attempt to bind the other 4 together. (The Holy Gospel as an imbricated text.) (What the Thunder Said – combining fragments against one’s ruin, trying to revivify spirituality and love.)

I think it’s worth considering how this presages the narrative levels in Byatt or many of the “hysterical realism” novels. It also seems to me the first venture into postmodernism, except maybe Naipaul. It certainly implants the fragmented subject firmly in the British literary tradition where it does not seem to have existed before – would also be worth comparing with Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49. 

Simone de Beauvoir, “The Second Sex”

1949

Existentialist Simone de Beauvoir wrote The Second Sex in a little over a year. It forms the foundation of the literature of second-wave feminism. In the introduction, de Beauvoir points out that men occupy both the positive and neutral gender valences in society, while women are the negative, the limitation, and the lack 5. The tie that binds women to her oppressors is unique because she cannot leave him, because it is a relation that has always been – it is ahistorical 9. Like Woolf, she observes that men always find even the smartest women to be reflections of their most average ranks 13. “How, in the feminine condition, can a human being accomplish herself?” 17.

The book’s first section, “Destiny,” examines biology, psychoanalysis, and socialism all as modes that have insufficiently constituted women and sexual difference. Her biological approach acknowledges that women are weaker, but fails to grasp how that still matters in contemporary society, for “her body is not enough to define her” 48 and “a society is not a species: the species realizes itself in society; it transcends itself toward the world and the future; its customs cannot be deduced from biology… it is not as a body but as a body subjected to taboos and laws that the subject gains consciousness of and accomplishes himself” 47. Her review of psychoanalysis contends that Freud takes drives as givens and does not account for their origins. He even admits that he accepts the father’s sovereignty of male supremacy as a given without seeking its origin. Psychoanalysis’ ‘scientific’ divide of clitoral (male) and vaginal (female) aspects of women attempts to make psychic life a mosaic, but like Woolf, de Beauvoir contends that “it is altogether complete in every one of its moments” 54. In this system, woman struggles to “accomplish herself as transcendence” rather than immanence 60. (In Husserl’s terms, the transcendent object is real, complex, and whole, while the immanent object is aesthetic, conceptual, finite, and metonymous). Finally, her section on Marxism claims that reducing women to a “class” like the proletariat is unsuitable. Historical materialism has its limits, and gender busts them 64. Man apprehended woman as property, but we cannot “deduce woman’s oppression from private property” 65. The USSR has struggled to treat female workers equally and to allow for gestation and recovery: “it has asked woman to become an erotic object again” 67. All these theories have value, but are insufficient.

In “History,” de Beauvoir explores how men came to oppress women. She concludes, like Woolf and Freidan, that it is not female inferiority that has made them insignificant, but insignificance which has rendered them inferior. The “dependent consciousness” of Hegel’s master-slave dynamic would be better suited to man-woman, since the rule of life that defines her as immanence and man as transcendence “rivets her to her body” (an existentialist approach) 75. In history, when men are still subject to the earth, woman is vital; the struggle to be free from mother earth is imagined as a great struggle in men’s writing 88. Though she is indispensable, “by total annexation, woman will be lowered to the rank of a thing” 89. She is dethroned by private property and then becomes it. Christianity intensifies this: “in a religion where the flesh is cursed, the woman becomes the devil’s most fearsome temptation” 104. Like Foucault’s power structures, de Beauvoir contends that “so many factors converge to thwart woman’s independence that they are never all abolished simultaneously” 109. Much of this is also tied to the mythos of female evil. Though there is room in Christianity to see woman as “better,” these examples are twisted to mean the opposite. The French Revolution was bourgeois in nature and did not alter things 126. Balzac says, “The married woman is a slave who must be seated on a throne” 129. Bourgeois woman “clings to her chains because she clings to her class privileges” 130 [Friedan]. Socialism favors her liberation, but it is tied up in reproduction, which must be reconciled with production 136. Abortion is still illegal but birth control is widespread. de Beauvoir also points to the benefits of capitalism: capital flows and the individual rules, making divorce and independence more possible 140. On the flip side, pressures of appearance and elegance constrain American women 154. (Female sovereigns escape these issues by androgyny.) Like Woolf: “a great man springs from the mass and is carried by circumstances: the mass of women is at the fringes of history, and for each of them circumstances are an obstacle and not a springboard” 151. Stendahl: “all the geniuses who are born women are lost for the public good” 152.

In “Myths,” de Beauvoir considers that women must be viewed how men view her. Central to the myths of women and their fertility are horror and disgust. Women are said to spoil things, to be spoiled, to be on the edge of foul and mysterious cycles that lead men to prioritize their mystical, symbolic, and immanent value. It is almost impossible for them to “assume both their status of autonomous individual and their feminine destiny… ‘a lost sex’… it is more comfortable to endure blind bondage than to work for one’s liberation; the dead, too, are better suited to the earth than the living” 274 [Friedan]. Women can only be freed by men who assume new positions appropriate to a changing situation 274 [feminism is bisexual].

In “Childhood” and “The Girl,” de Beauvoir rejects Freud’s theory of penis envy. This is the chapter that begins, “One is not born, but rather becomes, woman” 283. The girl does not experience herself as lack, but plenitude 287. She is aware of her differences from boys in social treatment, and may envy the boy for standing urination. The penis is metonymous and animated; the doll with which the girl is compensated is whole and passive 293. Even if the girl does not envy the penis, she sees that it gains something for the boy. The girl begins to learn that the father’s authority is large and is not wasted on trivial matters 299. She understands her body as lack, wound, shame, illness, and crime 340. Older girls cope with the shock of menstruation and the disgust of understanding sex in a variety of ways. These experiences remain with her throughout life. In “The Girl,” the girl learns to model herself on the dreams of others – to negate the self for man, leading to dissatisfaction and narcissism [she cites Katherine Mansfield’s “Prelude”] 352. Woman desires male attention and fears it, is disgusted by it 364. She also addresses the “curse” of lesbian desire, which she argues is neither deliberate nor perversion.

“The Married Woman” focuses on the “absurdity” of asking two people to satisfy one another sexually forever. Marriage almost always “destroys a woman” with dullness and labor. In “The Mother,” she advocates for abortions as safe and offers socialist childrearing communities as an alternative to the nuclear family.  In “Social Life” and “Woman’s Situation and Character,” de Beauvoir claims the distractions of amusement and labor that keep women from fulfilling intellectual life. She also considers their transition into menopause, which may cause homosexual desire and depression.

“Justifications,” consisting of “The Narcissist,” “The Woman in Love,” and “The Mystic,” are musings on women outside these norms. Towards the end of the 750-page book are “The Independent Woman” and a “Conclusion.” The first suggests artists, dancers, and Bronte and Woolf as women able to escape the sadism and masochism of culture, approaching the “inhuman freedom” of nature. In the conclusion, de Beauvoir imagines a utopia the USSR promised but did not deliver:

“Women raised and educated exactly like men would work under the same conditions and for the same salaries; erotic freedom would be accepted by custom, but the sexual act would no longer be considered a remunerable “service”; women would be obliged to provide another livelihood for themselves; marriage would be based on a free engagement that the spouses could break when they wanted to; motherhood would be freely chosen—that is, birth control and abortion would be allowed—and in return all mothers and their children would be given the same rights; maternity leave would be paid for by the society that would have responsibility for the children, which does not mean that they would betaken from their parents but that they would not be abandoned to them” 759.

This failure, in the USSR as much as in France or the US, is why “woman is torn between the past and the present; most often, she appears as a ‘real woman’ disguised as a man, and she feels as awkward in her woman’s body as in her masculine garb” 761. To reconcile this, both men and women must sacrifice. In economic terms, woman must sacrifice her sense of self as “priceless” [Friedan’s ‘feminine mystique’], while man must share experience, power, and domestic work. “Men and women must, among other things and beyond their natural differentiations, unequivocally affirm their brotherhood” 766. [not in love with this as the last word, haha!]