No one is really sure, but March 1 was either Ralph Waldo Ellison’s 99th or 100th birthday. We have at least three copies of Invisible Man floating around our house. More than likely, if you ask, all three of my sons will tell you that was their favorite book from high school. In addition, my bookshelf holds a hardback edition of his collected essays as well as his story collection Flying Home and his under-appreciated 1101-page unfinished novel, Three Days Before the Shooting…. I posted the very short essay, below, on my first blog 8 years ago. I offer it again in appreciation and honor of this master and genius of American Letters.
Ralph Ellison and the Floating Self
It seems to me that Ralph Ellison may be this country’s most important writer. Not so much for his production or even his style, but because of his deep wisdom and his remarkable understanding of the links between literature, politics, and our national struggle with the culture of identity. Every time I read essays like “Indivisible Man,” “The Novel as a Function of American Democracy,” or “Going to the Territory,” I find a new perspective on life and am constantly amazed by the little jewels of truth that sparkle beneath the waters of Ellison’s words.
The greatest influence on Ralph as a writer was Fyodor Dostoevsky. Invisible Man was Ellison’s “Notes from the Underground.” To me, however, Ralph Ellison did so much more than elevate Dostoevsky to the 20th century. He pointed at the universality of true human experience, that push and pull of soul, identity, culture, politics, and livelihood that goes on always just beyond our ability to understand and verbalize. We are inside ourselves, but we are also out there, floating in the world. This “floating” self is what is invisible. This floating self is where we are all one–connected, pure, blending, formally occurring. And he wasn’t alone either.
At their best, all of this country’s great writers provide us with a glimpse of our invisible selves, pointing at what is floating out there just in front of us like little puffs of breath on a winter’s morning. Certainly, Whitman, Emerson, and Thoreau up through Hemingway, T.S. Elliot, Pound, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and Kerouac and Kesey understood the same thing that Ellison did. What makes Ellison so special, though, besides his extreme intellect and devotion to literature as the highest form of art, is the poignancy of the metaphor of the invisible man delivered through the alienated experience of the cast off intellectual (who just so happened to be black and wandered up from the rural south).
But somehow, over the past thirty to forty years, we have lost track of what Ralph Ellison and his colleagues were pointing at. It’s as if there is a competition to do away with individuality. I see fear and hesitancy all around me. The object of life now seems to be about belonging to something — religion, political parties, a racial group, or some other form of tribe. This need is made all that much worse by TV, “the social network,” and mainstream media. Conform. Follow the rules. Read my advice. Conform. Conform. Conform.
But the self is still out there floating, whether you like it or not. The only question is whether you want to take on the challenge of following it, or whether you wish to ignore what and who you are–do what you are told, ask no questions, bury your head in the sand.
If you dig down deep in this website, you’ll find pieces of the story I’ve written about searching for answers to my adoption. The book-length account is called The Formality of Occurrence. I do not know if I have made sense of the experience my family and I went through trying to find my birthmother. But I know I would not have been able to write that entire story without the understanding of life that Ellison provides. The very notion of race in America is a wound in each individual psyche. No one is immune. Even those proud to be a certain color and physique bleed away a little bit every day when they ignore the floating self.
There is no skin on the self, no body, no special milk in the eyes. The true self cannot be touched and it cannot be wounded. And yet, all would have it otherwise. It is so easy to slide into the protection of the body and live in the context of the body’s particular place in the material world. Yes, it is hard to conceive of oneself as separate from one’s body and place in the world. It’s very hard. But it’s also real. It may be one of the only things real about being alive in the world.
We are all invisible, floating inside our bodies. When we love, we float into the world. When we read, we float into the world. When we sing and dance; when we laugh; when we walk in the woods; when we pray or meditate. This is our task and our purpose–to be floating in the world–yet so few really know this, so few are aware that they hover out in front of themselves sometimes. If you’re invisible, how can you see yourself?
In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man finds it easy to hide.A modified version of this essay got and “Editor’s Pick” at OpenSalon. Read it here. For more on the importance of Ellison’s work, see Adam Bradley’s Ralph Ellison in Progress: From “Invisible Man” to “Three Days Before the Shooting . . . “