Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Ellison and (American) Public Space

As some of you may have seen over in the "Current Reading" list, I've just begun reading Ralph Ellison's first collection of essays, Shadow and Act. As anyone who has read his Invisible Man knows, Ellison is a subtle and far-ranging thinker whose comments on the experience of black people in this country and their depiction in literature transcend the "merely" political and strike at what to his mind are far more crucial, moral arguments. Moreover--and to my purposes in posting about him today--because Ellison sees moral issues as transcending political ones, his observations mesh nicely with some other things I've read and thought about recently concerning public space.
The first essay, "Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity," first written in 1946 and republished in 1953, is a rich case in point. Here's the piece's larger thesis, worth quoting at length:

Thus on the moral level I propose that we view the whole of American life as a drama acted out upon the body of a Negro giant, who, lying trussed up like Gulliver, forms the stage and scene upon which and within which the action unfolds. If we examine the beginning of the Colonies, the application of this view is not, in its economic connotations at least, too far-fetched or too difficult to see. For then the Negro's body was exploited as amorally as the soil and climate. It was later, when white men drew up a plan for a democratic way of life, that the Negro began slowly to exert an influence upon America's moral consciousness. Gradually he was recognized as the human factor placed outside the democratic master plan, a human "natural" resource who, so that white men could become more human, was elected to undergo a process of institutionalized dehumanization.
Until the Korean War this moral role had become obscured within the staggering growth of contemporary science and industry, but during the nineteenth century it flared nakedly in the American consciousness, only to be repressed after the Reconstruction. During periods of national crises, when the United States rounds a sudden curve on the pitch-black road of history, this moral awareness surges in the white American's conscience like a raging river revealed at his feet by a lightning flash. Only then is the veil of anti-Negro myths, symbols, stereotypes and taboos drawn somewhat aside. And when we look closely at our literature it is to be seen operating even when the Negro seems most patently the little man who isn't there. (28-29)

This politically-, socially- and economically- vexed relationship between blacks and white society runs a parallel course in American literature, Ellison argues. Huckleberry Finn is a great American novel--and Twain a great American novelist--because
Huck's relationship to Jim, the river, and all they symbolize, is that of a humanist; in his relation to the community he is an individualist. He embodies the two major conflicting drives operating in nineteenth-century America. And if humanism is man's basic attitude toward a social order which he accepts, and individualism his basic attitude toward one he rejects, one might say that Twain, by allowing these two attitudes to argue dialectically in his work of art, was as highly moral an artist as he was a believer in democracy, and vice versa. (33-34)

The rise of technology in the 20th century was paralleled, of course, by the emergence of technical innovation in literature. And here, after critiquing Hemingway for noticing and incorporating Twain's "technical discoveries" of the resources of American vernacular but not incorporating Twain's underlying moral vision, Ellison says this:
[J]ust as the trend toward technique for the sake of technique and production for the sake of the market lead to the neglect of the human need out of which they spring, so do they lead in literature to a marvelous technical virtuosity won at the expense of a gross insensitivity to fraternal values.
It is not accidental that the disappearance of the human Negro [as opposed to stereotyped Negroes] from our fiction coincides with the disappearance of deep-probing doubt and a sense of evil. (35)

I'm certain others have made Ellison's argument before, and I'm equally certain that some, in these days of identity politics that seem to deny any other bond between human beings besides those established by laws and markets, would dismiss his argument as rather quaint. But Ellison's arguments have a real resonance for me these days as I become more confirmed in the conclusion that it's far healthier for a society's members not to become mired in single-issue politics or in the slavish, all-but-unquestioned acceptance of technology that caters to the individual's vanity (he says as he gets ready to post this on the 'Net) but doesn't further any larger collective (or, to use Ellison's word, "moral") good. And Barry Lopez's notion of internal and external narratives has a place in all this as well. But giving "all this" some actual shape will have to wait a while.

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sutrix said...

Ah, finally a honest, low-key, laid back observation of a good book and a good writer.

John B. said...

Shplonged (just what does that mean, by the way?,
I assume you're referring to Ellison's observations about Twain and Huck Finn? If so, I have to agree: I think Ellison's exactly right about that (healthy, for us) tension that he sees in Huck and that that tension is an American one. When I've taught the novel, I've said something similar, though I come at it from a different angle: that the novel makes uncomfortable even those of us who admire it because of that tension, that Huck is never entirely consistent (much less noble) in his dealings with Jim--and (I think) we're forced to ask ourselves about our own conduct (as individuals as well as a people) regarding the historically disenfranchised.