This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
By Andrew N. Adler
Copyright © 1994 by Andrew N. Adler. All rights reserved.
The narrators in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Samuel Beckett’s Molloy arrive at surprisingly similar conclusions about the devious yet potentially liberating nature of language. I first discuss the evolution and decline of the invisible man’s career as orator, and later I compare and contrast it with Molloy’s career as autobiographer. The narrator of Invisible Man learns more and more about his own identity as he delivers speeches. His first public speech (at graduation and then after the battle royal) was disastrous for several reasons. The opportunity to speak did give the narrator a sense of power, accomplishment, and superiority over other boys (18).1 It made the local African Americans feel proud (—“it was a triumph for our whole community” (17)—), and it mollified the whites. But, the valedictory represented neither a genuinely individualistic act, nor an effort to sway an unconverted audience or speak the conscience of a sympathetic one. With the exception of one unconscious slip of the tongue, the narrator simply mouthed the words that his white listeners craved; he added neither his own nor anyone else’s voice to an awful pre-existing vocabulary. Fortunately, the narrator learns a great deal before his next speech (at the eviction). First, he continues to discover the power and complexity of language. In earlier days, he had more trouble discerning underlying meanings. For example, he “could understand the vet’s words but not what they conveyed” (91). A series of “spokespeople,” however, probably helped to show the narrator how to say one thing and mean much more. After all, his grandfather, Bledsoe, and to a lesser extent, Emerson all explicitly removed their “masks” in his presence. Furthermore, the Reverend Barbee, although blind, demonstrated how a charismatic speaker can almost force an audience to transcend its previous sense of itself. Barbee told his listeners, “You escaped to freedom…” (118). The invisible man himself became so enthralled by this rhetoric of freedom that he fully believed he had committed a grave sin in derailing Barbee’s “vision,” even through an unintentional lapse of judgment. By the time of his eviction speech, the narrator has read “countless library books” (252) and quotes everyone from Dante to Lord Kelvin, yet he remains only dimly aware that, by speaking, he can imaginatively rework other peoples’ ideas and contribute something of his own
citations here refer to page numbers in the Vintage 1972 (30th anniversary) edition.
-2identity: He hears “contradictory voices” and perceives that his urge to make speeches can somehow harmonize these voices (253-54).2 The eviction speech does in fact partially accomplish this harmonizing task. The narrator transplants his “Southern” vocabulary in addressing the crowd. Just as the yams in New York City are frostbitten at the edges (261), so his references to chitterlings or to “abiding” by Southern laws (271-72) do not resonate with all of his auditors. Yet many do respond, because by speaking about himself, he has told them something about themselves that they had not recognized before. After the narrator is enlisted by the Brotherhood and delivers his third address, he can more fully articulate his belief that he can advance both his own identity-seeking and his social responsibility by lecturing. Beyond the primitive ego-gratification of eliciting tremendous applause (338) and of playing a “vital role” in a “movement” (373), the narrator feels “more fully human” while speaking. In asking himself why, he comes up with a plausible answer, one whose seed was planted by his former English professor: “Our task is that of making ourselves individuals. The conscience of a race is the gift of its individuals who see, evaluate, record… We create the race by creating ourselves and then to our great astonishment we will have created something far more important” (346). The narrator even realizes that he has transcended the professor’s vision, just as the professor had transcended Joyce’s. For, the narrator feels that his imaginative speech-making can reach beyond ties of race to an even “bigger ‘we’” (309). The rest of the novel, however, showcases the limits and dangers of trying to fuse “me” and “we” through language. Two related problems plague the narrator. First, he can never know which thoughts are his “own” and which have been implanted by others. By now, he realizes that “magic” inheres in language (372);3 yet magic is both powerful and mysterious (346), and it can
tells Brother Jack, “I wanted to make a speech. I like to make speeches. What happened afterwards is a mystery to me” (286). This passage can be read as evidence that the narrator only vaguely understood his motives and those of his audience. 3The most extreme case: “‘If it become a sho ’nough race riot I want to be here where there’ll be some fighting back.’ The words struck like bullets… It was as though the uttered word had given meaning to the night, almost as though it had created it…” (540).
-3control the magicians, too. Consider, for instance, Brother Jack’s first attempt to indoctrinate the invisible man: You’re not like [the elderly couple]… any longer. Otherwise you’d never have made that speech. …You have not completely shed that self, that old agrarian self, but it’s dead and you will throw it off completely and emerge something new. History has been born in your brain (285). Of course, as the narrator much later recognizes, “history” was not “born in his brain” but was insinuated there by the Brotherhood. It is true that, when Brother Jack first mentions history, the narrator asserts that he already understands why he gave his speech (“I was angry”) and that he does not even comprehend what Jack is talking about. He suspects he is being used (288). He calls Jack’s metaphors “double talk” (284). Also, he proclaims that, although willing to use the Brotherhood’s words, “I’ll be no one except myself — whoever that was” (303-04). Still, the narrator continually invokes metaphors of his own, for he, too, is “half-drunk with language.” So, the narrator is an easy target for the novel Brotherhood terminology. He incorporates more and more of such infectious terms into his own speeches. (For example, he invokes the “rebirth” and “history” images in his next oration (338).) Then, he begins (mistakenly) to think that the Brothers “say just what they felt and meant in hard, clear terms” (309). He does not and cannot distinguish himself any longer from the new and alien Brotherhood identity thrust upon him (302). He has forgotten what he once knew — and must try to re-learn — that ideology often constitutes a mere “veil for the real concerns of life” (409). Quite simply, he no longer knows what it “real.” But, beyond this problem, the narrator must grapple with the fact that many pre-existing ideologies resist the creative, individualistic touches that might “harmonize” such ideologies with other inflexible world-views. Consequently, anyone who does not parrot the relevant catechism commits “treason”: Such people include Emerson, a traitor against his father (189); Tod, a traitor against the Brotherhood (456); and the narrator, a traitor against the college (132), perhaps the residents of Harlem (461), Ras (367), and of course, the Brotherhood (498).
-4The narrator’s flight from his Brotherhood career progresses through three analytically distinct phases. Initially, he tries to extricate himself at one stroke from his past indoctrination. In his funeral oration for Tod Clifton, the narrator tries simply to list “the facts,” to describe “the person himself,” declaring, “Let me tell it as it truly was!” (445, 446). But, without commitment to some larger issue, the speech serves no purpose for anyone. Facts are unbelievable without a world-view in which to organize them (— described as “chaos” vs. “patterns” in the Epilogue). Next, the invisible man contemplates dwelling in the extreme possibilities of disingenuous speech. After all, people apparently will believe any spoken or written absurdity — for example, the Brotherhood’s proclamation, “We follow the laws of reality!” (491) or Rinehart’s fantastic signs, “BEHOLD THE INVISIBLE!” and “I DO WHAT YOU WANT DONE!” (484). But, while those who speak in such terms do “make themselves anew” (488), the new self remains parasitic on hollow slogans. A person cannot simultaneously think and take such slogans to heart. In his final incarnation, however, the narrator retreats and sets limits upon his aspirations. In the Epilogue, he consciously realizes that it is impossible not to establish one’s speeches and writings upon some pre-existing assumptions. By struggling to resist all roles, he would only enter the role of ironic self-detachment. He also perceives that, in any event, he can never separate out his “roles” from his “personality” (“At least half of it lay within me” (562).). Most importantly, in his final sentence, he applies his insights about himself universally to his readers. He thus contradicts his first paragraph, where he suspected that “everyone else” was “born with” the realization that you are nobody but yourself (15). Therefore, everyone seeking to find himself may have to step up to some Brotherhood’s podium. That is, each person must provisionally accept someone else’s opinions and speak with some of that material, testing its coherence in front of a skeptical, thinking audience. This may be the “socially responsible role… of an invisible man” (568). Accordingly, one must adopt some “pattern” against the “chaos.” Although he denies it, the invisible man cannot know with certainty whether he is not merely listening to the “echo sounds of his own voice,” like his former employers, the blind Brothers (497). His “mind”
-5nevertheless impels him to speak and to write, to search for patterns and to label those patterns “reality.”
Like the invisible man, Molloy seems to have survived a process of learning about the complications and conventions of language. At one point, Molloy used to “read with care” (31),4 including the social and physical sciences (39). Eventually, he claims to have abandoned reading and speaking entirely (31, 34), to have “gradually lost interest” in beauty and knowledge (64), and to have arrived at a point in life “richer in certain illusions, in others poorer” (76). Although he claims never to have been taught the social graces or “reasoned theory” (25), we know that he once retained those capacities, although later he begins to doubt their efficacy, to put it mildly. It is much more interesting to discuss Molloy’s interest in language’s potentialities than his insistence upon language’s uselessness. But, before turning to the former topic, I will first briefly point out that Molloy does indeed share the invisible man’s mature skepticism about the inextricability and intractability of ideology as expressed through writing. Indeed, for Molloy, words are rarely remembered correctly or understood by the speaker (19, 50), much less by the recipient (e.g., his deaf mother (17)). Even when understood, “You invent nothing… and all you do is stammer out your lesson…” (32). “To tell the truth” is a ridiculous phrase (32, 59); newspapers serve various functions except mass enlightenment (30, 61). And, it is equally appropriate to obliterate texts than to construct or interpret them (13, 68). Molloy claims not to be writing for the money; in fact, he claims that he does not know why he continues to write, since the process gives him “a lot of trouble” (7, 8). Nevertheless, like the invisible man, Molloy finds language fascinating, his contrary declarations notwithstanding. He pretends playfulness yet often displays insight into which grammar best serves communication. For instance, in at least three places, he concerns himself with the appropriate verb tense.5 Also, he knows well how language “contrives” reality, but he discusses in depth the contriving mechanisms, so that we doubt that he really believes that the
citations refer to page numbers in the 1991 Evergreen edition. (16); “mythological present” (26); tense for perpetual repetition (36).
-6contrivances are simply “lies” (28, 32, 88). He appreciates the “tenderness and savagery” of words (83). He further plays with the “literal” meaning of “literally” (cf. 54, 59, 91), with Latin and Italian (87, 37), and so forth. In sum, he very much cares about the “well-built phrase,” even when the phrase supposedly describes “dead things” (31). Indeed, writing seems to give Molloy pleasurable power in several respects. First, he realizes that, to some extent, he controls what he selects to write about. At one point, he exclaims, “Nothing compels me to speak of it” (40); or: “I can’t record this fatuous colloquy” (33). Naturally, Molloy contradicts his assertion of control at other times, writing (perhaps sarcastically) that “nothing is denied” the reader (45) and that choosing what to write about is merely choosing between equally useless subjects (41).6 Second, through his narration, Molloy sometimes claims to express incontrovertible truth: “I knew it… that’s all I know” (28); “I speak of principles… there must be some somewhere” (46); “[my autobiography] must mean something, or they wouldn’t keep it” (8); ominous inner voices speak to him (59, 87). Third, Molloy occasionally even comes close to naming what he is searching for — “the laws of [my] mind perhaps” (13); or, at one point, a rather lyrical striving for immortality through the preservation of his memoirs: My life, my life, now I speak of it as something over, now as of a joke which still goes on… Watch wound and buried by the watchmaker, before he died, whose ruined works will one day speak of God, to the worms (36). Finally, Molloy lowers his sarcastic guard during repeated allusions to the stars and the moon. He obviously does not speak “by mistake,” as he weakly asserts (15, 60), since he refers to them at least seven times in ninety pages. The moon occasionally awakens in Molloy thoughts of “magic,” “the indestructible chaos of timeless things,” or “amazement” (39-44). In many of the above examples, then, Molloy foreshadows The Unnamable by alluding to myths, ideas, objects, and even potentially meaningful personal creations that will outlive him. So, Molloy apparently does yearn to express something besides “to finish dying” (7). Indeed, the
also p. 52 (contemplative and active wishing have identical effects).
-7above examples illustrate that Molloy, like the invisible man, has not given up the battle to create new patterns, to free his own writing from suffocating external influence. If nothing else, his mind impels him to write, and his mind might have its own “laws.” These attempts in Molloy are both more sporadic and less ambitious that those in Invisible Man. That is, Molloy follows the logic of (semantic) invisibility almost to its logical extreme, whereas the invisible man, even in his Epilogue, stays unwilling to do so. But, in his apparent eagerness not to generalize from his own experience to that of his readers, Molloy perhaps hopes to limit the effect of his personal invisibility: At one point, Molloy may suggest the omniscience of his audience: “To you, to whom nothing is denied” (45).7 At another, Molloy declares that his own notions are “nothing like yours” (68). One possibility in these passages is that Molloy becomes sarcastic to goad us into recognition that our outlooks and thoughts remain as contorted as his. Since he often seems to play such games with his readers, we could conclude that Molloy is capable of asserting himself by attacking his readers, with ambition, purpose, and confidence like the invisible man often displays. On the other hand, if Molloy truly believes in the permanent inferiority of his writings, then it is easier to believe his explicit statements to that effect. On the last page of Invisible Man, the narrator worries that his readers will say, “He only wanted us to listen to him rave!” But, the narrator quickly responds to this hypothetical protest, mainly by suggesting that on the lower frequencies he speaks for us. In contrast, on Molloy’s first page, Molloy convinces himself that his editors, at least, enjoy listening to him rave, and that he himself also attains some (unknown or ineffable) enjoyment from listening to himself. Yet by the end of his monologue, Molloy yields only ambiguous evidence about his attitude towards his other readers. We may have been entertained and educated only incidentally to his actual goals in writing.
this sentence could just mean (1) that Molloy considers his text to be as complete as possible, either because he cannot or does not choose to omit anything, or (2) that Molloy is being purely sarcastic. Compare p. 80, where Molloy interrogates his readers: “But do you know?… No. Nor I.”
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