Invisible Man Essay, Research Paper
According to Goethe, “We do not have to visit a madhouse to find disordered minds; our planet is the mental institution of the universe.” Despite the hyperbolic nature of Goethe s statement, it holds some truth. Because of this element of truth, society looks to psychoanalysis as an important tool for understanding human nature. Furthermore, psychoanalytic criticism of authors, characters, and readers has a place in literary criticism that is as important as the place of psychoanalysis in society. This is because of the mimetic nature of much of modern literature. In fact, the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan wrote, “If psycho-analysis is to be constituted as the science of the unconscious, one must set out from the notion that the unconscious is structured like a language,”(1) thus directly relating literature the art of language – and psychoanalysis. Searching the database of the Modern Language Association for articles about the use of psychoanalysis for understanding Ralph Ellison s Invisible Man yields one article by Caffilene Allen, of Georgia State University, in Literature and Psychology in 1995. Thus, further study of this subject seems warranted. As Allen points out, “Purely psychoanalytic interpretations of Invisible Man are rare, even though Ellison clearly threads the theories of at least Freud throughout his novel.”(2) Because of the rarity of psychoanalytic critiques of Invisible Man, this paper will examine the character of the invisible man in the Prologue and Epilogue of Ellison s masterpiece using the theories of Sigmund Freud, Carl Gustav Jung, and Jacques Lacan.
The first step in this study should be to look at previous psychoanalytic critiques of Invisible Man. As stated earlier, Caffilene Allen s article showed itself as the only article of this type in the Modern Language Association database. Other researchers mention Freud, and Allen cites one other article of this type, but as Allen notes, “Even those critics who touch on Freud do not emphasize the relationship between his clinical theories and the literary action in Invisible Man.”(3) Allen s own work focuses on the fact that Freud s book Totem and Taboo appears in Invisible Man, and she describes how the action of Invisible Man, possibly at the intention of Ellison, mirrors the theory of Totem and Taboo. The use in this paper of three psychoanalysts to study the character of the invisible man makes this an article emphasizing psychoanalysis.
Even though the focus of this current paper is quite different from Allen s, some concerns she had about the limitations of such a study still must be recognized. One limitation to a psychoanalytic study is that Freud himself is limited and has become less than popular.(4) The use of Jung and Lacan in addition to Freud will combat this limitation. Another limitation is that Invisible Man is such a multifaceted work that it deserves analysis of all its parts.(5) However, this study will take on only a small part of the text because of the post-modern attitude valuing studies of specific parts of texts in detail. A final limitation is that psychoanalysis is a field of speculation, and, as the editor of The Critical Tradition points out, ” the hazards of speculation about characters are even greater than about authors Another problem stems from the fact that characters are both more and less than real persons.”(6) This limitation will not be a hindrance because the character of the invisible man will be analyzed independent of the author and the author s intentions.
Next, a brief background of each psychoanalyst will be given. According to the anthology The Critical Tradition, three stages exist at which psychoanalytic theory joins literature. That is, three minds can be examined: the mind of the author, the minds of the author s characters, or the mind of the reader as he reads.(7) The basis of this study is in the second of these two, the mind of the character. The theorists of use in this study are Sigmund Freud, Carl Gustav Jung, and Jacques Lacan. As the father of psychoanalysis, Freud is an important theorist to reference. Despite the limitations of his theories, their usefulness still exists, especially as a background for Jung and Lacan. The Freudian text at work in this analysis will be Civilization and Its Discontents. In this text, Freud s theories about aggression and the death drive are related to societal tensions that isolate the individual.
Carl Gustav Jung was somewhat of a “son” to Freud, but he quickly outgrew his “father s” theories, and, in an ironically dipal conflict, overthrew Freud as the leading psychotherapist.(8) The buzzword of Jungian theory is “archetype,” so the text of his being used in this study is Four Archetypes. In The Critical Tradition, the editor gives the description of archetypes as “structures deep in the human unconscious.”(9) The editor continues and says, “In Jungian analysis, the patient recapitulates his life and looks for the ways in which symbols of the above-mentioned archetypes have been embodied within its texture.”(10) From Four Archetypes, the section on rebirth will be the most useful to this study. Jung s essay “Rebirth” includes descriptions of five different forms of rebirth along with their psychological implications.
Jacques Lacan, a more recent theorist than Freud or Jung, based his works on a revision of Freudian ideas. Lacan is the father of the philosophy of psychoanalysis. That is, he believed that psychoanalysis was a valid field of thought independent of its use as a medicinal therapy.(11) In The Critical Tradition, the editor points out that “Lacan approached literature primarily as material that, properly interpreted, illustrated the major concepts of his psychology.”(12) Since his theories are illustrated by literature, they will easily fit with this study. The Four Fundamentals of Psychoanalysis, a collection of lectures delivered by Lacan to the Ecole pratique des hautes Etudes, works with the current analysis of Invisible Man. In this text, Lacan included lectures on “The Split between the Eye and the Gaze” and “Alienation.”
Next, it is important to further explain the method behind selecting the Prologue and the Epilogue as the text from which to study the character of the invisible man. “The end was in the beginning,” writes the invisible man on page 571.(13) This statement refers to Invisible Man as a framed story. Because the action of the Prologue and the Epilogue occurs after the action of the novel, the unity of these two pieces should be a part of critical analyses. Ellison explains the action of the Prologue and the Epilogue in his essay “The Art of Fiction: An Interview:”
The Prologue was written afterwards, really in terms of a shift in the hero s point of view. I wanted to throw the reader off balance make him accept certain non-naturalistic effects. It was really a memoir written underground, and I wanted a foreshadowing through which I hoped the reader would view the actions which took place in the main body of the book The Epilogue was necessary to complete the action begun when he set out to write his memoirs.(14)
Ellison is saying that the Prologue and the Epilogue share the same position in the time continuum of the novel the present. Since the aim of this paper is to analyze the character of the invisible man, the important part of the novel is the part in the present. Ellison s above passage also points out that the last part of the book that his invisible man wrote was the Prologue and the Epilogue, thus his most developed state of character lies within the pages of this final part of text. In this study, the character who writes the novel is of interest, not the character who lives the novel. Because of this the study will focus on the Prologue and the Epilogue.
According to Henry Louis Gates, Jr., ” Race, in much of the thinking about the proper study of literature in this century, has been an invisible quality, present implicitly at best.”(15) This “invisible quality” of race is part of the character of the invisible man in Ralph Ellison s novel; however, the causes of invisibility are much deeper than just race. Beginning with Freud s theories from Civilization and Its Discontents, a sentence from page four of Invisible Man will be analyzed. The invisible man writes about his frustrations toward society:
You ache with the need to convince yourself that you do exist in the real world, that you re a part of all the sound and anguish, and you strike out with your fists, you curse and you swear to make them recognize you. And alas, it s seldom successful.(16)
The first aspect of Freudian theory that must be applied here is that of the dipal struggle. The dipal struggle actually created society, according to Freud. If brothers had not needed to overthrow, be aggressive toward, or kill their father, then they would not have realized the effectiveness of communal living.(17) In other words, Freud posits that social living is a higher form than individuality because it came later and replaced aggression. Thus, in the above quote, the invisible man seems to be reverting to a presocietal stage, in which his instincts are more in control than his learned behaviors. Freud, to emphasize that aggression is the psychosis and civilization the norm, says:
Civilization, therefore, obtains mastery over the individual s dangerous desire for aggression by weakening and disarming it and by setting up an agency within him to watch over it, like a garrison in a conquered city.(18)
Thus, civilization has lost its mastery over the invisible man because he feels the need “to strike out” with his fists.
A second point of interest while pursuing a Freudian critique comes on page fourteen, where the invisible man says, “I was the irresponsible one; for I should have used my knife to protect the higher interests of society.”(19) This particular passage is rather complicated. The invisible man seems to be expressing guilt with the phrase “for I should have.” Part of the complication of this sentence relates to a psychological problem that Freud deals with. The invisible man has not properly shifted his instincts, and because of this he is frustrated by society. Freud says, “The task here is that of shifting the instinctual aims in such a way that they cannot come up against frustration from the external world.”(20) Furthermore, guilt is supposed to arise after an act of aggression is carried out. In fact, the first feeling of guilt came after the initial band of brothers killed their father. On this topic, Freud reviews earlier works and says:
We cannot get away from the assumption that man s sense of guilt springs from the dipus complex and was acquired at the killing of the father by the brothers banded together. On that occasion an act of aggression was not suppressed but carried out.(21)
The invisible man s sense of guilt has not developed properly, for his guilt comes from suppression, not aggression.
A final passage to examine using Freud comes from page 573, when the invisible man says, “And my problem was that I always tried to go in everyone s way but my own.”(22) Here we begin to see the invisible man looking inside himself for pleasure. He has found, through the writing of this book, great pleasure; whereas, in society, he had found little pleasure because his works were not his own. Freud admits that “one gains the most if one can sufficiently heighten the yield of pleasure from the sources of psychical and intellectual work.”(23) The invisible man finds himself through the psychical work of writing this book. However, he still thinks he is invisible, and he lives underground. A particular passage from Freud seems useful here:
While this procedure already clearly shows an intention of making oneself independent of the external world by seeking satisfaction in internal, psychical processes, the next procedure brings out those features yet more strongly. In it, the connection with reality is still further loosened; satisfaction is obtained from illusions, which are recognized as such without the discrepancy between them and reality being allowed to interfere with enjoyment. The region from which these illusions arise is the life of the imagination; at the time when the development of the sense of reality took place (24)
The invisible man s statement about going in everyone s way but his own fits Freud s first procedure because this realization makes the invisible man independent. The second procedure refers to the invisibility of the invisible man. The invisible man s satisfaction comes from his illusion that he is invisible. Both these characteristics arise, according to Freud, from the imagination. This then relates back to the invisible man s purpose in the Prologue and the Epilogue. His purpose is to relate the process he went through in order to create, from his mind, a novel about his supposed existence. Thus, the invisible man, when looked at through Freud, seems to be creating a story from a failed “development of the sense of reality.”
Theories of Freud s “son,” Carl Gustav Jung will be used next. Using his theories from Four Archetypes, several statements made by the invisible man in the Prologue and in the Epilogue will be examined. First, in the Prologue, the invisible man says, “I have been boomeranged across my head so much that I now can see the darkness of lightness.”(25) Also, the invisible man, in the Prologue, explains why he is living underground by saying, “A hibernation is a covert preparation for a more overt action.”(26) Both darkness and hibernation indicate aspects of a cave, and Jung has something interesting to say about the result of being in a metaphorical cave:
I have chosen as an example a figure which plays a great role in Islamic mysticism, namely Khidr, the Verdant One. He appears in the Eighteenth Sura of the Koran, entitled The Cave. This entire Sura is taken up with a rebirth mystery. The cave is the place of rebirth, that secret cavity in which one is shut up in order to be incubated and renewed The legend has the following meaning: Anyone who gets into that cave, that is to say into the cave which everyone has in himself, or into the darkness that lies behind consciousness, will find himself involved in an-at-first-unconscious process of transformation.(27)
Even though the invisible man does not yet realize what will become of his hibernation, he has become aware of the darkness and the cave in which he lives. These two images are important to his unconscious mind, and Jung sees their existence as an indicator of a rebirth to come.
The next line of interest to this Jungian interpretation shows signs of the rebirth Jung predicted. In the Epilogue, the invisible man says, “The hibernation is over.”(28) It is important to note that Jung believes:
Rebirth is not a process that we can in any way observe. We can neither measure nor weigh nor photograph it. It is entirely beyond sense perception.(29)
This statement is important because it indicates that rebirth cannot be identified by an external source. Jung places rebirth “beyond sense perception,” and, in doing so, leaves it solely for the individual to self-realize. After notifying his audience that his hibernation is over, the invisible man has the revelation that he is being reborn:
I m shaking off the old skin and I ll leave it here in the hole. I m coming out, no less invisible without it, but coming out nevertheless. And I suppose it s damn well time. Even hibernations can be overdone, come to think of it. Perhaps that s my greatest social crime. I ve overstayed my hibernation, since there s a possibility that even an invisible man has a socially responsible role to play.(30)
With this statement, the invisible man shows the world his rebirth which is beyond sense perception.
Continuing with the skin-shedding metaphor, a type of rebirth will be assigned to the invisible man. Jung describes five types of rebirth at the beginning of his essay “Rebirth” in Four Archetypes. The type of rebirth that relates to the invisible man is the fourth:
The fourth form concerns rebirth in the strict sense; that is to say, rebirth within the span of individual life This word [rebirth] has a special flavour; its whole atmosphere suggests the idea of renovatio, renewal, or even of improvement brought about by magical means. Rebirth may be a renewal without any change of being, inasmuch as the personality which is renewed is not changed in its essential nature, but only its functions, or parts of the personality, are subjected to healing, strengthening, or improvement
Another aspect of this fourth form is essential transformation, i.e., total rebirth of the individual. Here the renewal implies a change of his essential nature, and may be called a transmutation.(31)
The invisible man began by saying, “I m shaking off the old skin,” so the rebirth of the invisible man is within one life. The rebirth of the invisible man is within one life because he narrates his life within the book and ends in the present, as he began, and nowhere in his self-written text does he die or even seem to die. The rebirth is a complete renewal because of this shedding metaphor. The renewal that happens to reptiles periodically, the renewal that allows reptiles to grow, happens metaphorically to the invisible man. Next, the invisible man revels in his realization that “it s damn well time” for him to come out of hibernation. This indicates that there may not be a change in his essential nature, but that it is more the functions of his nature that are changing. As Jung put it, “parts of the personality are subjected to healing, strengthening, or improvement.” The invisible man, through his rebirth, improves himself by realizing that “even an invisible man has a socially responsible role to play.”
Moving along chronologically, analysis of the Prologue and the Epilogue based on Jacques Lacan s theories follows that based on Jung s. Working from parts of The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, the concepts of gaze, visibility, and sight will be examined first. On page three of Invisible Man, the invisible man tells the reader:
I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination indeed, everything and anything except me That invisibility to which I refer occurs because of a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with whom I come in contact.(32)
Amidst the paranoia of the invisible man, this passage indicates that being seen determines existence for the invisible man. Furthermore, his interpretation of what others think, reflects the way he thinks. In his studies, Lacan looked at a work by Maurice Merleau-Ponty called Le visible et l invisible, The visible and the invisible. Since the concern of the invisible man is his invisibility, it seems that Lacan s interpretations of Merleau-Ponty will be useful. To begin, Lacan s interpretation of Merleau-Ponty s “eye” will be examined:
You will see that the ways through which [Merleau-Ponty] will lead you are not only of the order of visual phenomenology, since they set out to rediscover this is the essential point the dependence of the visible on that which places us under the eye of the seer. But this is going too far, for that eye is only the metaphor of something that I would prefer to call the seer s shoot something prior to his eye. What we have to circumscribe, by means of the path he indicates for us, is the pre-existence of a gaze I see only from one point, but in my existence I am looked at from all sides.(33)
First, the part of the invisible man s statement where he accuses society of “a peculiar disposition of the eyes” will be examined. According to Lacan, the eye metaphorically represents “something prior to his eye.” What exactly does this mean? The seer s eye relates to the thoughts of the seen. The pre-existence of the gaze is also important here. If the individual is looked at from all sides and sees from only one point, it is unlikely that the eyes of the seers are all at fault. According to Lacan, he is “looked at from all sides” by “something prior to his eye.” The invisible man thinks that he cannot be seen; however, he, like Lacan, is looked at from all sides. Thus his invisibility is created by his own thoughts which are situated prior to the seer s eye.
Next, the nature of the signifier will be examined. In the Prologue and the Epilogue, the invisible man calls himself only two things. He begins his narration with, “I am an invisible man,”(34) and on page six says, “The point now is that I found a home or a hole in the ground, as you will Call me Jack-the-Bear, for I am in a state of hibernation.”(35) Just as being seen relates the individual to those around him, signifiers connect the individual to others:
Everything emerges from the structure of the signifier The relation of the subject to the Other is entirely produced in a process of gap. Without this, anything could be there. The relations between things in the real, including all of you animated beings out there, might be produced in terms of inversely reciprocal relations.(36)
The language of Lacan s theory is a little dense, but, by breaking it down, it can be used to understand why the invisible man creates his own signifiers. Key to the above quote is the idea that real relationships might come from oppositely interchangeable relations. That is, the signified necessarily is related to that which assigns its signifier, and when this relationship exists in reality, the signifier and signified become interchangeable. However, the invisible man sheds all societal signifiers for him while he speaks in the Prologue and the Epilogue. He assigns his own signifiers of Invisible Man and Jack-the-Bear, and because of this, based on Lacan, he establishes a relationship with only himself.
Continuing with the last quoted passages of Invisible Man, another theory of Lacan can be applied. A psychosis of which Lacan talks is aphanisis:
Now, aphanisis, is to be situated in a more radical way at the level at which the subject manifests himself in this movement of disappearance that I have described as lethal. In a quite different way, I have called this movement the fading of the subject.(37)
The invisible man declared himself to be in this state of imperceptibility. Lacan describes his subject as one who “manifests himself” in a lethal disappearance. Thus, the invisible man, through self-signification, disappears. He is guilty of his own “fading of the subject.”
Finally, one more passage from the Prologue and the Epilogue of Invisible Man will be examined. The Lacanian analysis, in conclusion, will be used to understand part of the lesson that the invisible man tries to teach his readers:
I sell you no phony forgiveness. I m a desperate man but too much of your life will be lost, its meaning lost, unless you approach it as much through love as through hate.(38)
What in the invisible man s character makes him look at the need to approach life through love and hate? The answer to this question relates to the concern he has with finding “meaning” in life. The following passage, drawn from Lacan s lecture “Alienation,” will help answer this question:
Let us illustrate this with what we are dealing with here, namely, the being of the subject, that which is there beneath the meaning. If we choose being, the subject disappears, it eludes us, it falls into non-meaning. If we choose meaning, the meaning survives only deprived of that part of non-meaning that is, strictly speaking, that which constitutes in the realization of the subject, the unconscious. In other words, it is of the nature of this meaning, as it emerges in the field of the Other, to be in a large part of its field, eclipsed by the disappearance of being, induced by the very function of the signifier.(39)
Part of what Lacan says, relates to the underground life of the invisible man. The invisible man admits that he is becoming a new person, as was talked about in relation to Jungian rebirth, and in the passage that is now being examined, it seems that one thing new about the invisible man is his choice of meaning. He says to his readers, “too much of your life will be lost, its meaning lost.” Part of what will help him to resurface, or to reappear to counter the Lacanian “disappearance,” is his new choice of meaning.
Continuing, the process of approaching life through both love and hate relates to the debate between being and meaning that Lacan addresses. The information that meaning emerges in the Other can be drawn from Lacan. Through that, it can be seen that the invisible man identifies life as a process that needs to be related to the Other. Love and hate are emotions that humans direct toward each other, thus, the meaning that the invisible man seeks and tells the reader to seek, comes from the direction of two emotions toward the Other. Also, the Lacanian signifier appears again in this passage. The invisible man signified himself as invisible when he felt hate from and for society. His realization that life must be pursued through love and hate puts his being in touch with meaning. That is, he reduces the use of the signifier Invisible Man, and in turn finds more meaning. As Lacan says, his meaning is “induced by the very function of the signifier.”
Having a literary representation of psychoanalytic theory makes both the literature of Invisible Man and the theories of Freud, Jung, and Lacan more accessible. However, simply relating the theories to passages in the text does not seem to do either justice. Thus, an interpretive analysis of the relationships will be given at this time. If Freud were to meet the invisible man as a patient, he would be much more interested in the workings of his life leading up to the Prologue and the Epilogue. The information within the text about the grandfather, the grandfather s expectations, the women, the sexual and near sexual encounters with women, and the role of mother figures like Mary and father figures like Bledsoe would shape Freud s opinions on the overall mental health of the invisible man. However, the psychoanalysis in this paper tries to maintain a focus on the current invisible man, despite the events that led to his current state. Because of that, it seems safe to say that the invisible man has moved beyond his instincts; he has curbed his aggressive drives and now strives to work with society. He is no longer one of civilizations discontents.
Even though Jung overthrew Freud in the psychoanalytic world in an dipal struggle, his views on psychoanalysis took him away from exploring the infantile sexual drive that brought Freud so much fame. Because of this, it seems that Jung would enjoy studying the invisible man for only the events which occur or are of importance to him in the Prologue and the Epilogue, in his current mental life. The invisible man s admittance that he lives in a cave would greatly interest Jung because of the story of the cave in the Koran. Jung would believe that the invisible man had, in the past, some psychological troubles relating to his sheep-like follower s mentality; however, the archetype of Rebirth is now at work in his mind. Despite the fact that sense perception will not allow members of society to see the reborn invisible man, Jung the psychoanalyst will be able to see it and will agree with the invisible man s self-diagnosis of page 581: “Perhaps that s my greatest social crime, I ve overstayed my hibernation.”(40) Necessarily, it must be concluded that the invisible man will re-emerge from his cave and that, when he does re-emerge, the Rebirth archetype will no longer be functioning in him, no longer affecting his relationship with society.
Lacan, fundamentally, used other people s theories to his own ends. Through Maurice Merleau-Ponty, he examined the role of the gaze and of the eye. Thus, his philosophical interest in Merleau-Ponty would be inclined to take the invisible man of the Prologue and the Epilogue as a companion. Like Jung, Lacan would not care so much about the events leading up to the man s invisibility. Lacan s interest would be in the language used by the invisible man to describe his malady. That the invisible man would describe his invisibility as ” a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with whom I come in contact,”(41) would lead Lacan to recall his lecture on Merleau-Ponty. Lacan would be inclined to identify the invisible man as a self-alienator, or a hermit, because of his inability to deal with the gaze of others. In the end, the invisible man seems to begin to understand the role of the signifier and his problems with self-signification, but, while Freud and Jung dismissed him with a clean bill of health, he would not be so lucky with Lacan. Lacan may not have practiced psychoanalysis as a medicine, but, had he consulted the invisible man, he probably would not have accepted the invisible man s self-belief that he was ready for society. Lacan would see that, in the invisible man, some fundamentals of psychoanalysis relating to perception and alienation would still haunt this wraith-like man out of his cave.
Some would conclude that this particular research reaches its end when Invisible Man ends. However, a very odd cultural phenomenon has begun in which supposedly real people are afflicted with Ellison s fictional malady of invisibility. In this technological world, anyone can publish anything on the World Wide Web. Because of the open access to the Web, references to it must be couched in concern. Nothing about web pages indicates their validity. Creative web pages could be made to look like legitimate research, and vice versa. However, if a statement makes it to the Web, then it becomes a part of human culture; it becomes indicative of the thoughts and problems of at least part of society. Bearing this in mind, a pursuit of “true” human invisibility will be examined. According to the web page for The Monte Vista School for Invisible Boys, invisibility is a disease that affects .02% of all children. These children suffer from a translucence of the pigmentation in their skin and are not cared for. This school aims to aid invisible children.(42) In another area of humanity, adults are becoming invisible. A woman stands in line in the post office for hours with people continually pushing in front of her, and when she finally reaches the window, the clerk looks about, and seeing no one, closes for the day. Certified hypno-therapist (possibly a pseudo-scientist, possibly a doctor strictly a judgement call) Donna Higbee wrote a web paper entitled “Human Spontaneous Involuntary Invisibility” in which she related the above story and others. She cited history too: “Human invisibility has been written about for centuries.”(43) So, through carefully and doubtfully assuming the validity of these two web pages, one can see how a detailed psychoanalysis of Invisible Man can help others. Because fictional characters “are both more and less than real persons,”(44) according to The Critical Tradition, a psychoanalysis of them can serve as an example for psychoanalysis of real persons. Society contains people who believe in invisibility as a disease. Whether they can be trusted, because of publishing on the Web, or not, becomes irrelevant. That they did publish becomes key. If these people who truly believe in invisibility could see the psychoanalytic reasons for invisibility through an easily accessible novel, they might find the cure they ve been looking for.
This study, through the analysis of the modern American masterpiece Invisible Man, brings to life psychoanalysts of three generations: Sigmund Freud, Carl Gustav Jung, and Jacques Lacan. Though their theories are dense and sometimes difficult, relating them to an easily accessible novel turns them into easily accessible theories. The aim of this paper was to fill a void where psychoanalytic criticism of Invisible Man was lacking. The result has been the bringing together of psychoanalysis and literature in a way that makes each more enjoyable and alive. With people believing in invisibility now, this paper has a wider audience to reach than just members of academia; it may be able to aid the friends of the Web who care for those who suffer from invisibility. Take to mind that psychoanalysis can shed new light on any dark cave of the mind.