Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Invisible Men: Wells and Ellison

Receptionist: Doctor, there's an invisible man in the waiting room.
Doctor: Tell him I can't see him.

H. G. Wells and Ralph Ellison each wrote a novel about an invisible man.  The titles are actually slightly different.  Wells's is The Invisible Man while Ellison drops the "the."  Aside from sometimes being confused with one another (as in the meme above), the books are typically thought to have nothing in common.  It's not even clear if Ellison, writing 50 years after Wells, was familiar with Wells's novel, although his protagonist does allude to one or more of the films based on Wells's work.

I think for all their vast differences these two books have some surprising connections, especially when it comes to the complex relationships between the individual and society.

I'm starting with Ellison because I happened to read his book first, although for me the connections reach both ways.

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (1952)

[Note: This review was originally written in August 2016.]

Every summer I try to read at least one work of "classic Literature" (by which I mean the type of thing literature professors assign in literature courses).  This is a way to broaden my horizons and to see whether such works live up to the hype.  Much like the Grand Canyon or the Taj Mahal are attractions because they're amazing, so is at least some literature deemed classic for good reasons.  I've heard interesting things about Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man over the years as an existentialist meditation on the experience of being black in America, so I made it my choice for 2016. I'm happy to report that it lived up to the hype, even exceeded it.  Ellison is a literary genius.

[Edit Aug. 2017: If you're curious, for my 2017 "classic Literature" read I stuck with my African American literature theme and chose James Baldwin's Go Tell It On the Mountain.  See my review.]

The novel works on multiple levels, some of which I'm sure were invisible to me (especially those more purely artistic levels in the domain of literature professors).  Let me focus on two levels, which are by no means mutually exclusive - they in fact interweave and compliment each other.  One I would call the general level of existentialist ruminations on identity.  The other is a specific level of a depiction of the complex social experiences of African Americans.

As an existentialist novel focusing on issues of self identity in a world of people trying to define you, Invisible Man is up there with European existentialist authors like Dostoevsky, Kafka, and Camus.  The narrator, whose name is intentionally never revealed, moves from a college in the South to a factory in New York City and eventually a political organization (probably Marxist, although it's never explicitly stated, maybe because this was published in 1950's America or for artistic reasons or both).  Through all of these circles (of hell?  This has been called Dantesque!), everyone around the narrator is trying to define him to make him fit their notion of what he should be.  But the primary motif of the novel is that the narrator is invisible: nobody sees him, they see their own projection of what he should be, whether that's a southern black man idolizing Booker T. Washington, a cog in a factory, a taboo lover, a robotic figurehead of the revolution, or a criminal.  But the narrator is none of these things.  His identity is never made because others are trying to make it for him.  You might think this would make him a sort of milquetoast character, but he randomly initiates fist fights, yells at strangers, gives impromptu speeches, and does things that I got the sense that he doesn't understand himself.  Do any of us really understand ourselves, especially in a world clamoring to understand us from the outside?

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the novel for me is that it's sometimes funny.  I mean this in something like the way that Kafka is funny: existential absurdity is actually pretty funny if you think about it.  As a science fiction fan (who has somehow not read H. G. Wells's The Invisible Man, which I will rectify soon for comparison[edit Aug. 2017: I have since read it.  See below]), I would also point slightly forward in time to another humorous existentialist: Philip K. Dick. (This humor is almost always lost in Hollywood adaptations of Dick's work, so you have to read the books).  In Ellison's novel, the mismatch between what the narrator thinks he's doing and what's actually going on has an acerbic ironic humor.  He repeatedly spends several chapters trying to accomplish something only to find he's really been doing something else, often due to intentional deception, but sometimes simply due to his invisibility to himself and others.

Ellison, however, is not merely mimicking the European existentialists.  While Camus uses the backdrop of French-colonized Algeria to tell his existentialist stories, Ellison tells a uniquely American story that draws on his experience as a black man in America in the first half of the 20th century.  Although Ellison's existential themes can apply to everyone, they apply in a particular way to black Americans.  This level of the novel reminds me a lot of The Autobiography of Malcolm X.  Much of this level of the novel seems prescient or maybe it just shows how little has changed in 60+ years: white people tell black people what they should believe and what they should do (in education, work, politics, sexuality, etc.), black people must navigate complex social situations of which white people have no clue, black people are invisible in Ellison's sense, and so on.  There's even a police shooting of an unarmed black man.

As a white American I will never fully understand what it's like to be black in America. Listening to people and reading novels like this one is perhaps the best I can do.  That's why I'm thankful for Ellison's work of philosophical and literary genius.  He makes me simultaneously proud and ashamed to be an American.

See my Goodreads review.

The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells (1897)

Wells tackles the issue of individualism and society in a way strikingly relevant for the internet age, all with some fun stuff on the follies and foibles of an invisible man.

I've been meaning to read this for awhile, and finally did after having read Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (the two books are totally different, but nonetheless have surprising connections).

The Invisible Man is not quite up there with Wells's The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, or The Island of Dr. Moreau, which like many people I'd say are his best.  It's a bit more meandering and the scientific premise is - it pains me to say - less interesting.  Unless invisibility holds some special fascination for you, I'd recommend reading those works first.  But if you want a deeper cut, check out The Invisible Man.  As usual, Wells holds up surprisingly well.  Although it was published in 1897, The Invisible Man reads smoothly.  It's not nearly as stilted as most late 19th century prose seems to us today.  The casual racism, classism, anti-semitism, and misogyny are even relatively mild - for 1897 England, anyway.

We meet a man simply called the stranger checking in to a boarding house.  As in Ellison's novel, we don't learn the protagonist's name, although Wells does tell us his name about halfway through unlike Ellison who deliberately never reveals his protagonist's name.  Wells and Ellison may have done this for similar reasons, playing on the concept of invisibility.

Eventually we learn that the stranger is actually the Invisible Man.  And he's a jerk whose jerkishness only gets worse due to the invisibility as he steals and hurts people and generally makes mayhem in London and then the English countryside.

The scientific premise is kind of lame, involving somehow making living tissue neither reflect nor absorb light.  On the upside the Invisible Man tells a story of how he first tried it on a cat, but it didn't work on the cat's reflective eyes, so all you could see was a pair of floating cat eyes.  I loved that little touch.

The major philosophical theme of the book, however, is about the individual in society.  The Invisible Man sounds like he was quite a curmudgeon before.  Somehow he didn't really think through the whole invisibility thing.  He had trouble walking at first because he couldn't see his own feet - is ethics possible if we can't see ourselves as others do?  What would you do if you could do things without being seen?

Of course Wells is not the first to talk about the moral effects of invisibility.  Long before him or Tolkien, Plato told a story of the Ring of Gyges in Republic, Book II.  The short version: a dude finds a ring that makes him invisible, which he immediately uses to kill the king, seduce the queen, and take over the kingdom.  Does this show that people are only moral because they fear what others will do to them?  Would we be bad if we could get away with it?

Wells's Invisible Man doesn't go full Gyges (a scene of him trying to kill and/or seduce an elderly Queen Victoria would have been amusing, albeit far too scandalous for the time).  The Invisible Man instead becomes a sort of mischievous thief on the run whose motives aren't entirely clear.  But whatever those motives are, he sees himself as a free individual no longer bound by the dictates of society.

So what does this have to do with the internet?  The internet gives us all a kind of invisibility.  You're not seeing me in person as I type this, nor do I see you as you read it.  I'm not making an Earth shattering observation when I say that the anonymity of the internet has not been entirely good for human beings.  Just look at your Facebook or Twitter feed or the comments sections of blogs and news sites.  Scratch a bit deeper, and you'll find the meme-laden hell-scape of 4chan and the fetid corners of the alt-right, men's rights activists, Gamergaters, Rabid Puppies, Nazis, KKK, etc.

Are the denizens of these internet spaces our modern day Invisible Men?  In the novel, the Invisible Man goes from youthful pranks like tipping people's hats off to outright theft and burglary in one day.  Do our modern Invisible Men likewise go from obnoxious memes to violence and murder?  Would this happen so readily if these people weren't initially emboldened by internet invisibility?  Or, does the fact that these murders did not happen anonymously show that the hate was already festering there and the invisibility was merely a diarrhetic that let it spew out a bit faster until invisibility was no longer needed?

Does the end of the novel show us that invisibility doesn't ward off one's moral visibility to the other forever?  Is Wells, like Plato, trying to show that there's more to morality than social condemnation?  Is being morally visible in the eyes of others a constraint on our individual freedom and dignity, or is it the means by which we become fully human beings for whom freedom and dignity are worthwhile?

See my Goodreads review.

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