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Research takes us down strange paths. I wonder sometimes if subconsciously I am heading to a place that I am not fully aware of, that all my explorations and creations are an attempt to make sense of something that continuously stays just out of reach. Time and again, one area of research I am conducting (eg for my PhD Creative Writing novel) unexpectedly merges with another. Take this Invisible Man occurrence for example. Ralph Ellison is famous for his novel, Invisible Man (1952). I got the book from Benji Reid, a dancer–director friend of mine, having bought it for him a couple of months ago from the poet, Mark Mace Smith who was…oh forget it, It’s a long story, too long for here! IM features in its first chapter a ‘Battle Royale’, a macabre practice from US slavery/post slavery times in which black men were placed blindfold in a boxing ring where they were to attack each other, with the winner getting a prize, often a pittance. Benji and I have recently developed a theatre play which contains as its opening scene a Battle Royale. We did a huge amount of research first. So I got this frisson of déjà vu when I read Ellison’s description of a Battle Royale. Ellison delivers the scene with irony rather than rage.
I’ve not finished Invisible Man. So far it looks like an innocence to experience story, with a political subtext. A black college student gets wise. The story begins with him knowing his place, expressing humility and deference to the white man, abiding with the whole Booker T Washington ‘anti-revolution/ pull yourself up by bookstraps and keep your head-down’ philosophy. He moves to College where he encounters rich white college sponsors. There are aspects of A Tale of Two Cities as the black narrator shows a rich white sponsor how the black poor live – the shacks and the day to day deprivation. He then takes the sponsor to a club-brothel, where mentally ill blacks from an asylum are on the premises. As ‘crazy’ people this group can tell it as it is – they have the spark of rebellion and not much ‘step n fetch it’ in them. The story weaves its way back to College and another classic black genre trope occurs – the church scene. Except instead of church it is the University assembly speech. The Dean figure is a black guy who learned to keep his head down and accumulate power by getting rich white donors on board. This Dean tells the protagonist he has to learn how to do this subterfuge, how to lie, how to fake humility. So Invisible Man starts to explore black consciousness of the times (1920’s/30’s) and the complexity of black psychology when interacting with whites.
Ellison’s explorations of consciousness call to mind the double-consciousness ideas of Franz Fanon. I read somewhere Ellison was encouraged to write by Richard Wright of Native Son fame. There are two passages I’ve come across in Invisible Man that Wood might consider a little clunky: (1) the poor folk of the shack soliloquising / dialoguing Mark Twain style about their lives. (2) the college preach/speech soliloquies. The internal consciousness of the characters in these big set pieces is lost, the style baroque, but effective for all that. Then there is the new school Ellison – the riffs and streams of consciousness that reminded me of Ishmael Reed’s The Free-lance Pallbearers and that make the work something that will be read for a long time.
PS I read in Wiki while checking the publication dates of Invisible Man that Ellison was influenced by TS Elliot and Dostoyevsky. Small world.