Invisible Man: Embodiment of Emerson's Ideals

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According to Hanlon's "Eloquence and Invisible Man" Emerson's essays and philosophical teachings had a great impact on Ellison and his novel. The speeches made by the narrator, the musical components of the novel, and the idea of complete invisibility all stem from, at least in some manner, the writings of Emerson. Emerson saw oration as "composing [the audience] as a social organism." To both he and Ellison, as it becomes apparent in Invisible Man, speaking is more than sharing one's thought with a group who has come to listen. The speaker must draw upon their energy and create an atmosphere. Often, the atmosphere is musical. This is evidenced by the obvious musical components in the narrator's first speech with the Brotherhood which included "call-and-response oration." Interestingly, Hanlon claims that it is this moment, this speech, that the narrator begins his re-humanization through his rebirth. Though he is not exposed to the de-humanizing racism that he was before, his purpose is still not his own. It is unrealistic to believe, as Hanlon does, that the narrator can experience a true rebirth without developing any sense of self. He is becoming someone else, but it is another production of society. Musical references are not limited to the narrator's speech making. Ellison is constantly mentioning jazz music. Finally, the idea of invisibility is taken from or heavily influenced by the writings of Emerson. Emerson describes the point "where transcendentalist selfhood comes on at the price of selfhood itself 'Standing on the bare ground...all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all...'" This idea of invisibility is translated into Ellison's novel. His narrator is constantly referring to himself as invisible as he observes those around him. Though he does not interfere or judge their actions, he is often observing other characters' actions, countenances, and perceived motivations. Ellison leaves his audience with the final idea that the narrator can now confidently claim "I am an invisible man." He has lost all his "mean egotism." Hanlon's perception of Emerson's and Ellison's works leaves the audience with the impression that much of Ellison's philosophical ideas are adopted from Emerson. "Ellison reads Emerson in an Emersonian way."


I laughed out loud when I read that last sentence you mentioned. Although I don't really think he's saying that Ellison got all his ideas from Emerson. I took "reading Emerson in an Emersonian way" to mean reading it while supplying your own ideas and appropriating it in a new way that's different from what the author intended. Hanlon certainly seems to be saying Ellison drew some ideas from Emerson, but instead of just incorporating them without any sort of questioning Ellison picks apart different ideas that come from Emerson and analyzes them. Like how he has the two different characters named Emerson that represent two different ways of thinking. And then you have Norton's mentioning of Emerson and the debate over how accurately Norton interprets Emerson's ideas. I never really realized it, but it does seem possible that Ellison is examining and critiquing a lot of Emerson's ideas throughout the novel, which is different than him just completely stealing all his ideas. It's hard for me to tell because I'm not extremely familiar with Emerson.

That is what I meant, Matt--that to read in an Emersonian way is to conduct a kind of transformative reading, an active reading wherein you are able to dialogue with a text, to shape it while still being transformed by it. Alyssa, this is a really careful and smart commentary--I'm flattered to have been read by someone so perceptive. I see your point about the trouble with calling the protagonist's first speech for the brotherhood a true moment of rebirth, since he is as you point out just becoming what someone else wants him to be. There's nothing Emersonian in that, which is why I think, when the protagonist passes that scene of the childbirth, the doctor shouts something like, "it didn't come when we expected, did it?" I now think this is Ellison's little joke on us--that we are at this moment being lulled into thinking this is the boy's birth into manhood, but come to find out (as you already seem to realize) this isn't it at all. Anyway, keep reading in an Emersonian way.

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