The Unity of Experience1
Shadow And Act.
by Ralph Ellison.
Random House. 317 pp. $4.95.
Even if Ralph Ellison were not the author of Invisible Man, his recent collection of essays, Shadow and Act, would be a very significant work. There are astute commentaries on literature, music, and society, and the commentaries are enriched and validated by an underlying sense of a life being lived with energy, sympathy, and joy. But Ralph Ellison is the author of Invisible Man and of an impending novel which, if we are to judge from excerpts, promises to illustrate new powers and to extend his fame; and this fact inevitably imputes a further significance to the essays. Here we can see how, over more than a score of years, in another dimension, the mind and sensibility of Ellison have been working, and we can hope to see some enlightening relations between that dimension and the dimension of his fiction.
In the preface to Shadow and Act, Ellison says of his struggle to become a writer:
I found the greatest difficulty for a Negro writer was the problem of revealing what he truly felt, rather than serving up what Negroes were supposed to feel, and were encouraged to feel. And linked to this was the difficulty, based upon our long habit of deception and evasion, of depicting what really happened within our areas of American life, and putting down with honesty and without bowing to ideological expediencies the attitudes and values which give Negro American life its sense of wholeness and which renders it bearable and human and, when measured by our own terms, desirable.
In other words, the moral effort to see and recognize the truth of the self and of the world, and the artistic effort to say the truth are regarded as aspects of the same process. This interfusion of the moral and the artistic is, for Ralph Ellison, a central fact and a fact that involves far more than his literary views: for if “truth” moves into “art,” so “art” can move backward (and forward) into “truth.” Art can, in other words, move into life. Not merely, Ellison would have it, by opening our eyes to life, not merely by giving us models of action and response, but by, quite literally, creating us. For him, the high function of technique is “the task of creating value,” and in this task we create the self. This process is a life-process—a way of knowing and experiencing in which is growth: a growth in integrity, literally a unifying of the self, of the random or discrepant possibilities and temptations of experience.
Now, “ideological expediency” would have Ralph Ellison formulate his “difficulty” somewhat differently. It would prompt him to slant things so that the special problems of the Negro writer would be read as one aspect of the Negro’s victimization by the white man. A very good case—in one perspective, a perfect case—can be made out for that interpretation. But Ellison refuses that gambit of the alibi. In various ways, he repudiates the “Negro alibi” for the Negro writer. For instance, in the essay “The World and the Jug,” he says: “. . . when the work of Negro writers has been rejected they have all too often protected their egos by blaming racial discrimination, while turning away from the fairly obvious fact that good art—and Negro musicians are present to demonstrate this—commands attention to itself. . . . And they forget that publishers will publish almost anything which is written with even a minimum of competency.”
Ellison is, in other words, more concerned with the way a man confronts his individual doom than with the derivation of that doom; not pathos, but power, in its deepest inner sense, is what concerns him. He is willing, pridefully, to head into responsibility. But in the last sentence of the above quotation from the preface to Shadow and Act. Ellison flouts even more violently “ideological expediencies” which dictate that the Negro advertise the blankness, bleakness, and misery of his life. Instead, Ellison refers to its “wholeness,” its desirability, and elsewhere in the same preface he refers to “the areas of life and personality which claimed my mind beyond any limitations apparently imposed by my racial identity.”
This attitude, which permeates Ellison’s work, comes to focus in two essays which are probably destined to become a classic statement; they were written as a reply to Irving Howe’s essay “Black Boys and Native Sons.”2 Howe’s piece takes Richard Wright’s work to be the fundamental expression of the Negro genius. The day Native Son appeared, he says, “American culture was changed forever. . . . A blow at the white man, the novel forced him to recognize himself as an oppressor. A blow at the black man, the novel forced him to recognize the cost of his submission.” Though Howe admires the performance of both Baldwin and Ellison, he sees them as having rejected the naturalism and straight protest of Wright, as traitors to the cause of “clenched militancy”; and then, to quote Ellison, Howe, “appearing suddenly in black face,” demands: “What, then, was the experience of a man with a black skin, what could it be here in this country? How could a Negro put pen to paper, how could he so much as think or breathe, without some impulsion to protest . . .?” And he goes on to say that the Negro’s very existence “forms a constant pressure on his literary work . . . with a pain and ferocity that nothing could remove.”3
This, to Ellison, is the “ideological proposition that what whites think of the Negro’s reality is more important than what Negroes themselves know it to be”; and this, to Ellison, is Howe’s “white liberal version of the white Southern myth of absolute separation of the races.” That is, the critic picks out the Negro’s place (i.e. his feelings and his appropriate function) and then puts him in it. “I fear the implications of Howe’s ideas concerning the Negro writer’s role as actionist more than I do the State of Mississippi,” Ellison writes. Howe’s view is another example of a situation that “is not unusual for a Negro to experience,” as Ellison says in a review of Myrdal’s An American Dilemma, “a sensation that he does not exist in the real world at all—only in the nightmarish fantasy of the white American mind.” That is a violation of “the basic unity of human experience,” undertaken in the “interest of specious political and philosophical conceits”:
Prefabricated Negroes are sketched on sheets of paper and superimposed upon the Negro community; then when someone thrusts his head through the page and yells, “Watch out there, Jack, there’s people living under here,” they are shocked and indignant.
We must not fall into the same error and take his attack on the white liberal’s picture of the Negro to be Ellison’s concealed version of the common notion that no white man can “know” a Negro. By his theory of the “basic unity of human experience,” which we shall come to presently, and by his theory of the moral force of the imagination, such a view—except in the provisional, limited way that common sense dictates—would be untenable. What Ellison would reject is the violation of the density of life by an easy abstract formulation. Even militancy, if taken merely as a formula, can violate the density of life. For instance, in “The World and the Jug,” he says: “. . . what an easy con game for ambitious, publicity-hungry Negroes this stance of ‘militancy’ has become.” He is as ready to attack a Negro on this point as a white man. In a review of LeRoi Jones’s study of Negro music, Blues People, he says that Jones “attempts to impose an ideology upon this cultural complexity” and that even when a Negro treats this subject “the critical intelligence must perform the difficult task which only it can perform.”
The basic unity of human experience—that is what Ellison asserts; and he sets the richness of his own experience and that of many Negroes he has known, and his own early capacity to absorb the general values of Western culture, over against what Wright called “the essential bleakness of black life in America.” What he is saying here is not that “bleakness” does not exist, and exist for many, but that it has not been the key fact of his own experience, and that his own experience is part of the story. It must be reckoned with, too:
For even as his life toughens the Negro, even as it brutalizes him, sensitizes him, dulls him, goads him to anger, moves him to irony, sometimes fracturing and sometimes affirming his hopes . . . it conditions him to deal with his life and with himself. Because it is his life, and no mere abstraction in somebody’s head.
Not only the basic unity, but the rich variety, of life is what concerns him; and this fact is connected with his personal vision of the opportunity in being an American: “The diversity of American life is often painful, frequently burdensome and always a source of conflict, but in it lies our fate and our hope.” In many places, Ellison insists on his love of diversity and a pluralistic society. For instance, in “That Same Pain, That Same Pleasure”: “I believe in diversity, and I think that the real death of the United States will come when everyone is just alike.” The appreciation of this variety is, in itself, a school for the imagination and moral sympathy. And, for Ellison, being a “Negro American” has to do with this appreciation, not only of the Negro past in America, but with the complex fluidity of the present:
It has to do with a special perspective on the national ideals and the national conduct, and with a tragicomic attitude toward the universe. It has to do with special emotions evoked by the details of cities and countrysides, with forms of labor and with forms of pleasure; with sex and with love, with food and with drink, with machines and with animals; with climates and with dwellings, with places of worship and places of entertainment; with garments and dreams and idioms of speech; with manners and customs, with religion and art, with life styles and hoping, and with that special sense of predicament and fate which gives direction and resonance to the Freedom Movement. It involves a rugged initiation into the mysteries and rites of color which makes it possible for Negro Americans to suffer the injustice which race and color are used to excuse without losing sight of either the humanity of those who inflict that injustice or the motives, rational or irrational, out of which they act. It imposes the uneasy burden and occasional joy of a complex double vision, a fluid, ambivalent response to men and events which represents, at its finest, a profoundly civilized adjustment to the cost of being human in this modern world.
Out of this view of the life of the “Negro American”—which is a view of life—it is no wonder that Ellison does not accept a distinction between the novel as “protest” and the novel as “art”—or rather, sees this distinction as a merely superficial one, not to be trusted. His own approach is twofold. On the one hand, he says “protest is an element of all art,” but he would not limit protest to the social or political objection. In one sense, it might be a “technical assault” on earlier styles—but we know that Ellison regards “techniques” as moral vision, and a way of creating the self. In another sense, the protest may be, as in Oedipus Rex or The Trial, “against the limitation of human life itself.” In yet another sense, it may be—and I take it that Ellison assumes that it always is—a protest against some aspect of a personal fate:
. . . that intensity of personal anguish which compels the artist to seek relief by projecting it into the world in conjunction with other things; that anguish might take the form of an acute sense of inferiority for one [person], homosexuality for another, an overwhelming sense of the absurdity of human life for still another . . . the experience that might be caused by humiliation, by a harelip, by a stutter, by epilepsy—indeed, by any and everything in life which plunges the talented individual into solitude while leaving him the will to transcend his condition through art.
And the last words of this preceding quotation bring us to the second idea in his twofold approach to the distinction between the novel as protest and the novel as art: the ideal of the novel is a transmutation of protest into art. In speaking of Howe’s evaluation of his own novel, Ellison says:
If Invisible Man is even “apparently” free from “the ideological and emotional penalties suffered by Negroes in this country,” it is because I tried to the best of my ability to transform these elements into art. My goal was not to escape, or hold back, but to work through; to transcend, as the blues transcend the painful conditions with which they deal.
And he relates this impulse toward transcendence into art to a stoical American Negro tradition which teaches one to master and contain pain; “which abhors as obscene any trading on one’s own anguish for gain or sympathy”; which deals with the harshness of existence “as men at their best have always done.” And he summarizes the relevance of this tradition: “It takes fortitude to be a man and no less to be an artist.”
In other words, to be an artist partakes, in its special way, of the moral force of being a man. And with this we come again, in a new perspective, to Ellison’s view of the “basic unity of experience.” If there is anguish, there is also the possibility of the transmutation of anguish, “the occasional joy of a complex double vision.”
For in this “double vision” the “basic unity” can be received, and life can be celebrated. “I believe,” he says to Howe, “that true novels, even when most pessimistic and bitter, arise out of an impulse to celebrate human life, and therefore are ritualistic and ceremonial at their core.” The celebration of life—that is what Ellison sees as the final nature of his fiction, or of any art. And in this “double vision” and the celebration which it permits—no, entails—we find, even, the reconciliation possible in recognizing “the humanity of those who inflict injustice.” And with this Ellison has arrived, I take it, at his own secular version of Martin Luther King’s conception of agapé.
If, in pursuing this line of thought about Ralph Ellison, I have made him seem unaware of the plight of the Negro American in the past or the present, I have done him a grave wrong. He is fully aware of the blankness of the fate of many Negroes, and the last thing to be found in him is any trace of that cruel complacency of some who have, they think, mastered fate. If he emphasizes the values of challenge in the plight of the Negro, he would not use this to justify that plight; and if he applauds the disciplines induced by that plight, he does so in no spirit of self-congratulation, but in a spirit of pride in being numbered with those people.
No one has made more unrelenting statements of the dehumanizing pressures that have been put upon the Negro. And Invisible Man is, I should say, the most powerful artistic representation we have of the Negro under these dehumanizing conditions; and, at the same time, a statement of the human triumph over those conditions.
1 Copyright © 1965 by Robert Penn Warren.