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Empty Rhetoric and Theory in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man
Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison’s seminal work, is the first person narrative of an unnamed African-American protagonist who falls victim to various forces throughout his journey. Despite the novel’s reputation as a racial work, it is also a bildungsroman in which the narrator struggles to understand the nature of his existence. The philosophical overtones of the novel gain clarity when analyzed in tandem with a relevant motif: that of empty or impractical rhetoric—from the mouths of those around him and later himself. The narrator’s recurrent interactions with such idealistic rhetoric and theory shift from blind acceptance to awareness, and eventually to revolt. His altering attitudes reflect two conversions: first, from ignorant servility to a Kierkegaardian suspension of reason; and second, to a rejection of faith in the Absurd and a Camusian affirmation of the self. To Ellison, enlightenment therefore consists not only of an awareness of the Absurd but also of a persistent revolt against its lure of comfort.

To understand Ellison’s concept of enlightenment, it is first key to understand the concept of the Absurd, which is closely related to existentialism. Invisible Man, as a work written in a time period in which Modernism was gaining momentum, emphasizes the search for identity. The absurdity that the narrator must face in this search is tied to the ideas of two past existentialist thinkers: Søren Kierkegaard and Albert Camus. The former philosopher Kierkegaard preceded the latter. He first conceived of the idea of the Absurd; in his work Philosophical Fragments, he writes, “The supreme paradox of all thought is the attempt to discover something that thought cannot think. This passion is at bottom present in all thinking” (Kierkegaard). The paradox, or the Unknown, is the Absurd; the unknowable thing that man yearns to understand. To Kierkegaard this refers to God, because of his Christian faith. Yet rather than despair in the absurdity of God, he holds that by subordinating reason to passion, man can find faith in that which he cannot understand. He explains this, saying, “… when I let the proof go, the existence is there … this little moment, brief as it may be – it need not be long, for it is a leap” (Kierkegaard). By decrying attempts to defy the Absurd and resolve its contradictions, Kierkegaard claims that a courageous “leap” of faith results in clarity of spirit. Camus, on the other hand, generalizes the Absurd beyond the concept of a deity and applies it to all of existence’s indefensible paradoxes. His essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, describes it as “the confrontation of this irrational and wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart… [it] depends as much on man as on the world” (Camus). Thus he universalizes the reach of the Absurd, yet it is in concept the same. Where he truly differs from Kierkegaard is in his reaction to the paradox. Camus rejects the Kierkegaardian leap of faith as “still absurd. In so far as it thinks it solves the paradox, it reinstates it intact” (Camus). He views such faith as a cop-out, a way to avoid confronting the Absurd in earnest. Kierkegaard, on the other hand, writes in Fear and Trembling that “the movement of faith must be ever made by virtue of the absurd” (Kierkegaard). Whereas Kierkegard views the Absurd as something to be embraced despite its contradictions—by its “virtue,” Camus considers it something to denounce in order to come to terms with reality. Both reactions to the Absurd play a role in Ellison’s novel, specifically in regards to the motif of idealistic rhetoric and theory, due to the constancy of the idea of the Absurd: the true awareness of the inability to rationalize and comprehend existence. The rhetoric which repeatedly appears before the protagonist is repeatedly vague and impractical. Essentially it is absurd. Its recurrence thus represents the narrator’s continual encounter...
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