The Machines Inside the Machine

February 9, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Invisible Man.

I’m skipping over a bunch of good stuff–the narrator’s exile from college and move to New York, including the dream-like return of the mental patient/vet/pseudo-alter-ego who treated Mr. Norton; his shattered hopes of a good job and return to college, and utter disillusionment with his former hero (the college president, Dr. Bledsoe) after an interview with young, hipsterish, down-with-the-black-man Emerson (a very well done, uncaricatured interview, I might add)–like I say, I’m skipping all of this because chapter 10 is another knockout, another spike of wild violence and great virtuosity.

The narrator lands a job at a paint factory–“Keep America Pure with Liberty Paints,” says the huge electric sign–and, after getting reassigned from a shady-seeming job mixing up and adding “dope” to paint buckets for the government, is sent to the basement to assist one Lucius Brockway, an old black alchemist who manipulates the huge machines that make the base of the paint. He asks a lot of questions, makes the narrator anxious and uncomfortable (like just about anyone else), and loves to call his gauges and tanks “sonofabitch.”

There’s a great exchange–one of those great literary scenes that feels like you’ve read it before, but you can’t really be sure where or when or whether it’s just the recognition of beauty and truth–as Lucius and the narrator discuss the machines and the paint they’re making. Lucius says:

“All right, but I’m warning you to keep an eye on ’em. You caint forgit down here, ’cause if you do, you liable to blow up something. They got all this machinery, but that ain’t everything; we the machines inside the machine.

They begin to discuss the company’s signature paint, Optic White, a name so loaded and resonant it almost makes you laugh. Lucius says he helped come up with the slogan “If It’s Optic White, It’s the Right White,” and received a three-hundred-dollar bonus for his ingenuity. Here he is again:

“And that’s another reason why the Old Man ain’t goin’ to let nobody come down here messing with me. He knows what a lot of them new fellers don’t; he knows that the reason our paint is so good is because of the way Lucius Brockway puts the pressure on them oils and resins before they even leaves the tanks.” He laughed maliciously. “They thinks ’cause everything down here is done by machinery, that’s all there is to it. They crazy! Ain’t a continental thing that happens down here that ain’t as iffen I done put my black hands into it!…”

This old, black man, utterly proud and contented with his place in the basement, cooking up the pure white paint (but with a base thick and blackish-brownish underneath the color) on which the fortune of Liberty Paints rests. An incredible image. (And I suppose I should go ahead and say that Ellison’s Melvillean capacity to create audacious symbolical and allegorical meaning–Optic White!–while keeping his narrative couched in its realities is one of the things that I love about both writers. Like Moby Dick is a whale, not just a container for allusion and symbol, Optic White is a paint, a volatile mixture of chemicals, in addition to whatever other resonant meanings it carries. And, like Melville, the symbols here are easy to read, even–and Ellison would love this–transparent, but not necessarily easy to decipher, or even necessarily decipherable: it’s not like there’s a simple chart you can post of what Moby Dick means, any more than you can simply chart what Optic White stands for. They’re complex, multivalent symbols. Machines inside of machines, you might say.)

Anyway, after this exchange the narrator stumbles into a union meeting going for his lunch, and this, too, is fascinating, with its discussions of brotherhood and finkery. Then there’s a shocking fight between Lucius, who despises the union, and the narrator–comic elements undercut with horrible misunderstanding, shame, ugliness. These recurring episodes of crazy, unnecessary violence, something inside of the characters involved snapping, taking them in new, unexpected directions: what are they leading to? (Kind of amazing, Ellison writing this in the ’40s. If the book continues to chart the African American experience in the 20th century, as it’s doing so far, we seem to be headed to the militant ’60s and ’70s, when that violence was tapped and channeled like never before.)

In the aftermath the two men to forget to check the gauges, leading to an explosion; the narrator receiving a bad head wound and being subjected, in the next chapter, mysteriously, to shock therapy; his being dismissed with a small settlement for his trouble in exchange for not suing the company; and a final word from Lucius, in the delirium after the explosion: “I tole ’em these here young Nineteen-Hundred boys ain’t no good for the job. They ain’t got the nerves. Naw, sir, they just ain’t got the nerves.”

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