Points of Light

April 5, 2011 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The White Guard, by Mikhail Bulgakov.

Half an hour later everything in the room with the falcon had been turned upside down.  A trunk stood on the floor, its padded inner lid wide open.  Elena, looking drawn and serious, wrinkles at the corners of her mouth, was silently packing the trunk with shirts, underclothes and towels.  Kneeling down, Talberg was fumbling with his keys at the bottom drawer of the chest-of-drawers.  Soon the room had the desolate look that comes from the chaos of packing up to go away and, worse, from removing the shade from the lamp.  Never, never take the shade off a lamp.  A lampshade is something sacred.  Scuttle away like a rat from danger and into the unknown.  Read or doze beside your lampshade; let the storm howl outside and wait until they come for you.

That’s early on in The White Guard, before things get really bad, but it’s one of those knockout passages that Bulgakov uncorks every now and then, topping it off with one of his enigmatic, double-edged epigrams.  I was startled to realize, as I kept reading, that it was a very important passage.  Light — lamps — especially electric lights — kept popping up.  More than a motif, a kind of presence.  A metaphor, a character.  The Lights of Kiev.

Monument of St. Vladimir, Kiev, 2008. From lights2008 flickr photostream.

Light bulbs, candles, wood-burning stoves, and electric street lights fight a kind of shadow-war in the novel.  It’s a book, famously, about the irrevocable loss of a certain kind of world, a kind of system of being, to another, new system: the tsarists giving way to the socialists, the Ukrainian nationalists, inevitably the Bolsheviks, amid the swirling confusion of a World War.  And there are these lights, everywhere: these bulbs being turned on and off, and Bulgakov taking the time to mention these things, associate them with certain kinds of actions, certain ways of being.

Wires “snake” from outlets to lamps.  As our young cadet-officer, Nikolka Turbin, struggles to make his way home through the war-ravaged city, “the electric street lamp on the corner was turned on and began to burn with a very faint hiss.”  In a marvelous, grotesque chapter, the syphilitic avant-gardist Rusakov shows his compatriot how to “thrust [his] way upwards to the top” by “Clasping the lamppost” and “wind[ing] his way up it” like a “grass-snake.”

You see what I’m getting at here, though I’m really only scratching the surface (and only highlighting one aspect of the representations of light in the novel).  We’re not so far from The Master and Margarita after all.  I am astonished to find myself believing that Bulgakov’s marvelous encoding of the giant all-seeing eye of Stalin as the sun in that novel did not begin there; no, he built that image out of its beginnings in The White Guard, where light bulbs, especially the unshaded ones, are Satanic.  They change night to day.  The little light bulbs here, at the beginnings of the Soviet Union’s formation, represent the beginnings of the spy-state.  Eventually, adding all of the light bulbs together leads to a spy apparatus the size and scope of the sun: overwhelming, nearly inescapable.   A lampshade is sacred because it represents the individual’s freedom from oppression by the spy-state.  Maybe this is all common knowledge, but it was a revelation to me.

Bulgakov also uses light bulbs as part of a broader thread of images of machinery and technology: field telephones also function as a sort of character.  Things are anthropomorphized (guns, the Turbins’ tiled stove), and people become things (clocks, especially).  But the focus on electric light made me realize how Bulgakov prefigured later use of the bulb as an important symbol, motif, and character.  Two legendary American examples:

-The prologue of Invisible Man: the 1,369 lights in the invisible man’s “hole in the basement,” the electricity stolen from the grid of Monopolated Light & Power “for taking so much of my money before I learned to protect myself,” and to allow him to feel his “vital aliveness.”

Jeff Wall, <i>After Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, the Preface</i>, 1999-2001

-“The Story of Byron the Bulb,” in Gravity’s Rainbow. As with everything in the book, it’s dense, clotted with meaning, both perverse and hilarious.  The story of an immortal bulb, and the “international light-bulb cartel” that monitors his activities.  Surveillance.  Power.  The individual against the oppressive state.  It’s all happening again…

Beautiful Absurdity

February 17, 2008 § 1 Comment

Now reading: Invisible Man.

Having just finished this, and with a great deal to process and look into, I’ll say that the book is clearly a masterpiece, and no wonder Ellison had such trouble finishing a second novel: where do you go from here? Two things nag at me, the way small flaws in otherwise perfect constructions do. One is the opening paragraph, which, after the power of the first sentence–the famous “I am an invisible man.”–is stiff and verbose in ways the rest of the book avoids. The other is chapter 24, very near the end, which is weirdly tedious, annoying, and overlong in its explication of a drunken night between the narrator and one Sybil. There’s a point to all of this, too, of course–the constant fear of miscegenation that’s haunted America, the superstitions of sexual power this fear has assigned to black men, and the comic debunking of same–but the tone and the tedium seemed all wrong to me for a chapter so near the end, and it seems wildly out of place. At times it seemed to me simply an excuse to have drunken Sybil call the narrator “boo’ful,” with its potential to signify beautiful, boogieful, and boo-ful (as in, ghostly, invisible, scary) all at once.

There’s far too much going on near the end of this book to go into all of it–the final chapter, with its surreal race riot and the fascinating image of Ras (now Ras the Destroyer) on his black steed, holding a spear and spiked shield, leading his warriors against a police troop while stores are looted around him; not to mention the narrator’s dream, on an underground coal pile, of a bridge brought to life as an “iron man” by the transplant onto it of the narrator’s castrated testicles–but I wanted to focus on one small phrase near the end. The narrator says, in the midst of the wild riot:

“I looked at Ras on his horse and at their handful of guns and recognized the absurdity of the whole night and of the simple yet confoundingly complex arrangement of hope and desire, fear and hate, that had brought me here still running, and knowing now who I was and where I was and knowing too that I had no longer to run for or from the Jacks and the Emersons and the Bledsoes and Nortons, but only from their confusion, impatience, and refusal to recognize the beautiful absurdity of their American identity and mine.”

Beautiful absurdity… this is the phrase that Ellison chooses to sum up American identity. And he includes all of us in it–black and white, rich and poor, revolutionary and reactionary. It’s a phrase the narrator enacts himself, in previous chapters, in his impersonation of one Rinehart–equally rind and heart–who turns out to be a popular preacher promising to make “the invisible visible” (there’s a handbill shown here reminiscent of the famous J.A. Dowie handbill in Ulysses) but also a numbers-runner, womanizer, and general sleazebag.

And it’s a phrase that might also be the key to understanding the contents of the narrator’s pocket. Throughout the book he collects these somewhat talismanic objects in his pocket: first the leg iron given to him by Brother Tarp, a kind of symbol of slavery, and used as a kind of brass knuckles to escape from a couple of jams; then one of Brother Clifton’s “Sambo” paper dolls; then the dark, green-tinted glasses he bought to hide his identity and which convinced passers-by that he was Rinehart. These are all symbols of identity: of identifying who he is, who his people are, how they are perceived or not perceived. This strikes me as a beautifully absurd collection of objects to carry around in a pocket.

But so what’s meant by “beautiful,” anyway? Is it tied to the fact that, as the narrator says in the epilogue, “one of the greatest jokes in the world is the spectacle of whites busy escaping blackness and becoming blacker every day, and the blacks striving toward whiteness, becoming quite dull and gray”? This is an appealing theory, to me, but if so, why does this description of American unity-in-diversity use ugly words like “dull and gray”? Is it because of the struggle against this becoming? The “absurdity” is more obvious: no one seeing who they are, where they came from, where they are going; no one taking the time to delve into their connections to others, or their own motives for the actions they take or do not take. Plus, of course, there’s the absurd distance between America’s foundational principles and the actions of the ones we entrust to uphold and enforce those principles. Hard to find beauty in that, though.

And it’s the “beautiful” in that phrase, I think–a phrase which is very close to a self-summation of the book–which keeps the book from being a polemic, a manifesto, or (only) a “social” novel. “Beautiful” is open-ended, subjective, ambiguous, personal. Because Ellison is concerned with the aesthetic, and is concerned with the individual. It’s a book about individual perception and awareness, as much as anything–about self-discovery and its power, and the beauty of those things.

Plunging Outside of History

February 14, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Invisible Man.

Just finished watching Yes, a deeply weird, deeply beautiful movie in which all the dialogue is in a lovely, Shakespearean iambic pentameter–some rhyming, some not. (You know I’m a sucker for this kind of thing. Bonus points for an antiquated outlandish formal conceit.) There’s an Irish-American biologist, a Lebanese cook, a chorus of housekeepers, an English blues aficionado, and much much more. I’d spoil the plot but want you to go ahead and watch the movie, so I won’t.

Anywho, this coupled with IM finds me thinking about history. The place of the individual in it, out of it, or near it. What we think of as history and what we think of as life. Etc.

Chapter 20 felt an awful lot like the core of this book. In chapter 17 the narrator and his compatriot, Brother Tod Clifton, have a run-in with their nemesis in Harlem, the black militant Ras the Exhorter. And Ras does not approve of their working in the Brotherhood (as their organization is called) with and for white people. After their confrontation, Clifton says of Ras, “I don’t know…I suppose sometimes a man has to plunge outside history….Plunge outside, turn his back…Otherwise he might kill somebody, go nuts.”

By chapter 20 Clifton has abandoned his post in the Brotherhood. The narrator, reassigned to the Harlem beat, tries to track him down and finds him hawking small, paper-and-cardboard dancing dolls. They’re black, they’re called Sambo, and the narrator sees them as a betrayal of everything he and Clifton had stood for. Clifton ends up shot dead by a cop he’d punched in anger. And the narrator is left to ruminate on Clifton’s sudden plunge outside history, into the black marketplace, selling the world’s image of himself.

I won’t pretend to understand everything in the narrator’s ruminations, but there’s a lot of interesting stuff in here about history and time. He sees three black boys in the subway, and thinks, “These fellows whose bodies seemed–what had one of my teachers said of me?–‘You’re like one of these African sculptures, distorted in the interest of a design.’ Well, what design and whose?” And going on, continuing to talk about these “transitional,” extra-historical (because not recording their own histories, and sure to be forgotten in the traditional textbooks) boys, he says, “What if Brother Jack were wrong? What if history was a gambler, instead of a force in a laboratory experiment, and the boys his ace in the hole?”

What does it mean, exactly, to plunge outside history? To turn one’s back on the narrative of “progress,” or destiny, or fate? To what end? Are the downtrodden in any sense free agents–or does the narrator insinuate the exact opposite–that history is gambling on those boys (all of us), thinking they might lead to some big payoff (the Brotherhood, writ large) but never quite knowing? A kind of determinism lite?

More Humanity

February 11, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Invisible Man.

The narrator, the invisible man, has stumbled onto the eviction of an old black couple from their home, and has, in spite of himself, made a speech (beginning as a call to law-abiding behavior and long-suffering) leading to an act of violent uprising. This catches the eye of a socialist group, led by Brother Jack, which grooms him to work for them and speak for them.

In chapter 16 he makes another speech, this time in a crowded auditorium of proselytes, and has similar impact. He says, at one point, after “a stillness so complete that I could hear the gears of the huge clock mounted somewhere on the balcony gnawing upon time” that he feels “more human” before them. He makes a powerful, emotional appeal to them, telling them that they will rise up, and they react powerfully, and he sobs.

He is, of course, being used. The words had poured out of him and it is unclear whether or how deeply he meant them, and where they came from. Immediately after leaving the stage, he meets up with Brother Jack and the other party leaders. In a funny scene, the head socialists are cold and disgusted by his appeal to emotions–his “antithesis of the scientific approach,” his stirring up of the common people. But the organizers, the ones on the streets–they loved it, loved the enthusiasm he generated.

Ellison is opposed to both sides, I think, and is most bothered by all those eyes on the surface of his invisible man, by the enthusiasm of a crowd witnessing the baring of a soul and thinking it mere rhetoric, merely the talking points of their agenda. The narrator himself is troubled by “more human,” and what he might have meant by it. He wonders if he heard it in the literature (Irish Lit?) class he was in, taught by a Dr. Woodridge, who said, of Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, “Stephen’s problem, like ours, was not actually one of creating the uncreated conscience of his race, but of creating the uncreated features of his face. Our task is that of making ourselves individuals.” Ellison does want us to move past race, I think, without neglecting it–to become more human without making anyone become “less of what I was, less a Negro.”

To digress: it all (and maybe obviously) reminds me of Barack Obama. I remember watching his speech at the Democratic Convention in ’04; I remember it was amazing, beautiful, powerful, star-making (maybe more so after all the clunky, wooden verbiage of Kerry and Bush’s utter lack of anything like a believable rhetoric). And obviously it was. And it seemed realer, somehow: you got the sense that he felt it, not just that he knew it was his chance to make a name for himself. We’d gotten to like him, in Illinois, and I was actually excited for him, and about him, and to see him showing it to the rest of the country. I remember the analysts on PBS after it ended. They were clearly very impressed, clearly thought highly of this kid from Illinois–and I caught a whiff of dismissal, a sense that he might amount to something after three or four terms in the Senate. Putting him in his place; bemoaning his lack of the scientific approach.

Anyway, I digress. “More human” is clearly an ambiguous, dangerous, problematic phrase for Ellison and his invisible man, but I do think it’s a perfect statement of what I (we all?) want to end up with in this election. More humanity, for God’s sake. We’ve got no choice but to vote for an operator, but let’s at least vote for someone with a sense of what they’re operating for, and who they’re operating on.

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.”

The Meaningful Transition

February 5, 2008 § 1 Comment

Now reading: Invisible Man.

I’m always grateful to find examples of excellent transitional paragraphs, because I have such a hard time with them myself. I heard Richard Ford speak a few days ago, and he shared this brilliantly obvious idea: writers write to have the chance to write–that is, they need to get to write some scene, confrontation, idea, or whatever, and they’re basically hoping to get to that point without completely losing either their readers or their train of thought. Those little paragraphs of moving from one room to another, of scenery-setting and blocking: I always find myself frustrated, and sometimes paralyzed, by those details keeping you from the big payoff.

Anyway, here’s an absolutely brilliant paragraph in which Ellison not only gracefully sets the scene and builds tension (you’ll have to take my word for that part), but also manages to reinforce themes he’s been quietly developing throughout the first hundred pages of the work:

A co-ed sat at a graceful table stacked with magazines. Before a great window stood a large aquarium containing colored stones and a small replica of a feudal castle surrounded by goldfish that seemed to remain motionless despite the fluttering of their lacy fins, a momentary motionful suspension of time.

“A momentary motionful suspension of time”! Ellison’s circling around time’s tricks and illusions, and I hope I can keep up and write about what I think he’s saying about time later. But for now, I’m just happy to appreciate that meaningful throwaway scene of goldfish, unmoving despite all their movement.

Id, Ego, and Supercargo

February 5, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Invisible Man.

Chapter 3 presents a wild, wild scene in a bar/house of ill repute called the Golden Day. The narrator, driving a trustee of his college to the bar to get him a “little stimulant”–whiskey–to shake him out of the shock he’s taken, runs into a pack of patients from the insane asylum down the road. They take over the Golden Day; their orderly, named Supercargo, is hit with a bottle of whiskey and trampled.

This is a funny, diagrammatic chapter a la Ulysses: Supercargo is cast as superego, the reckless patients as id, Halley the bartender as ego, just trying to make a buck and keep his bar out of trouble with the law and the local bigwigs. But there are a number of complicating elements, as well, muddling my sense of what Ellison’s trying to do here.

At one point a patient with some medical knowledge calls the trustee, Mr. Norton, “A trustee of consciousness,” adding to the psychological allegory. Supercargo (a noun meaning a ship’s officer in charge of its commercial concerns) is a white-clad orderly; his name, outfit, and place in this allegory would seem to associate him with the only white person in the bar, Mr. Norton. His boorish bullying of the war-veteran mental patients, coming down from his room upstairs to try to establish order in the bar with his boots and fists (and receiving worse in return), seems to indicate that Ellison means to tell us something about the workings of race relations in addition to the workings of consciousness in this chapter. This chapter contains multitudes, a whole bizarre array of social strata (prostitutes to bankers) and events and crypto-events (race riots, nervous breakdowns, self-doubts).

Modernists get a bad rap for this kind of thing, now–this kind of heavily symbolist, deeply weighted narrative–but I’m a sucker for it. Especially the kinds of rich, mingled layers of meaning that Ellison digs up here. And the sentences! I mean, look at this semi-soliloquy recited by the mental patient/vet/former doctor to Mr. Norton:

“Rest, rest,” he said, fixing Mr. Norton with his eyes. “The clocks are all set back and the forces of destruction are rampant down below. They might suddenly realize that you are what you are, and then your life wouldn’t be worth a piece of bankrupt stock. You would be canceled, perforated, voided, become the recognized magnet attracting loose screws. Then what would you do? Such men are beyond money, and with Supercargo down, out like a felled ox, they know nothing of value. To some, you are the great white father, to others the lyncher of souls, but for all, you are confusion come even into the Golden Day.”

I mean, whoa! What a range of styles, meanings, associations.

(Full disclosure: I once wrote a heavily allusive, diagrammatic bar scene of my own. My bar, in the novel I wrote in college, was called the Broken Road; its walls were covered with pictures of hitchhikers; and its men’s room was missing the ‘n,’ so it was the Me room. Obviously I’m not comparing myself to Ralph Ellison, James Joyce, or anyone else in any way whatsoever– but what is it about bars that calls out for this kind of literary treatment?)

Morrison, Ellison, and the Grotesque

February 3, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison.

Yesterday, Groundhog Day, was another case of literary serendipity, for me. In the morning I read the first chapter of Invisible Man–not expecting the famous “Battle Royal” chapter, awed references to which in various places finally spurred me to read this book (somehow it was never assigned to me in school). A couple of hours later, I heard Toni Morrison read, in Duke Chapel at the Reynolds Price Jubilee here, from her manuscript for a forthcoming novel set in 1690.

But first, IM. The first 50 pages have basically exhausted everything I knew about the book. The prologue–a tour de force itself–introduces the titular character, squatting in his famous light-bulb-filled, Dostoyevskian “hole.” He takes a reefer-fueled trip into the “cave” behind the “hot tempo” of the Louis Armstrong song “What Did I Do to Be so Black and Blue” and hears a rousing sermon there. (This sermon, with its Jonah references, is an homage to Moby-Dick; Melville and Dostoyevsky are both all over this prologue, and, while we’re playing the “Literary Influence Parlor Game,” the IM’s trip into the grooves of the Armstrong song reminded me strongly of a similarly hallucinogenic scene involving jazz in Gravity’s Rainbow.)

And after that, we get the battle royal. This raging, pseudo-allegorical, horribly violent, soul-bearing chapter must have felt like a kick in the head when it first appeared (modified, of course) as a short story in a magazine in the late ’40s. Grotesque is the exact word to describe it. How else would you sum up a fight among ten young, black, blindfolded men, staged for the amusement of a town’s respected leaders–followed by the same fighters being forced to grab for money on an electrified carpet?

Anyway, seeing Morrison (her reading was excellent) reminded me of Beloved, and the grotesque elements in that novel, as well. Ellison’s achievement in the battle royal chapter, I think, is to make his scene heavily symbolic while simultaneously deeply troubling, visceral, and realistic. Really, how often do you come across a piece of symbolism–say, Eliot’s Waste Land (another influence, it seems)–which also seems like it could have actually happened–or, what’s more, is happening? That’s how this chapter feels. It feels real. And I speculate that this effect has resonated throughout subsequent African-American literature; I speculate that Morrison’s depiction of the grotesqueries of slavery may have been abetted, if not consciously inspired, by just this chapter, and its deft balance of character, violence, allegory, and emotion.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing entries tagged with ralph ellison at The Ambiguities.