Thursday, February 24, 2011

Invisible Man, Take 2

I have already listed Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man among the books I've written about, but as I looked over my previous entry, I realized that I didn't spend much time discussing the book itself.  Instead, I reflected on the idea of rereading, which is an interesting conversation topic, but certainly not adequate as the only response for one of my favorite novels of all time.  So although I feel like I'm cheating a little to talk about a book twice, please indulge me.

If you haven't read the novel, it is about an African-American man who struggles to understand his identity through the various social structures he encounters.  Over the course of the novel, he is part of a variety of these systems, including that of the college student, the blue collar worker, the political activist, and the public speaker, before he retreats from society altogether.  We are never given the protagonist's name, which adds to the sense that he is, (as he so eloquently states in his opening line), an "invisible man."

There are so many things I could talk about with this novel.  For example, it is full of fascinating symbolism.  Every poster that is described on the wall or name that is uttered seems to be symbolic of some idea Ellison is conveying.  I have read scholars select even just one scene in the story and reveal all the messages hidden behind the text.  There is also an interesting political dimension in the novel, which I completely missed in my first reading.  The "Brotherhood" that the protagonist joins represents the Communist party of Ellison's day.  Ellison had been involved with the Communist party at one point in his life and grew to be greatly disillusioned with their unfulfilled promises and party platforms.  In the novel, the protagonist also becomes disillusioned with the Brotherhood and discovers that they don't actually care for him and the causes they pretended to support.  Unpacking this political comparison would take a lot more work and intellect than I have to offer, but if you are interested, I certainly encourage you to pursue it further.

Despite all the things I continually learn to appreciate, I cannot deny that it is still the identity crisis that most interests me about this novel.  Earlier, I said that I read it in such a time in my life that it profoundly impacted me, but even when I have distance from that moment, I nevertheless am drawn to this aspect of the story.  The protagonist sees himself as an invisible man because for most of the novel, his sense of identity is shaped entirely by his circumstances.  When he is in college, he is an intellectual.  When he is at the factory, he is a worker.  When he is with the Brotherhood, he is an activist.  When he is a public speaker, he is a symbol.  There is almost no trace of an individual self-value that is maintained in each of these positions.  He blends so well in his surroundings that he himself becomes invisible.  I think this is a powerful insight in human nature, and it was something I personally needed to recognize in order to move forward in my own development.  It is very easy to identify ourselves by what we do.  And as cliche as this sounds, the trick is to discover who we are outside of the things we do and the people we know.  There are individual traits and pieces of character we must find within ourselves when we strip away all the other things that surround us.  In order for the protagonist to finally do this, he had to retreat alone to an underground home.  He had to work on himself away from all the other influences that affected him.

I realize this is getting a bit lengthy, so I'll wrap it up.  A critical component of the story occurs in the epilogue. Retreating is not the answer.  Although it was helpful for the invisible man to escape and spend time alone, he felt a social responsibility to emerge from his layer and rejoin society.  We need to understand ourselves in order to better interact with our communities.  We are social creatures, and the influences around us are not evil in and of themselves.  In my opinion, this is the profound message of Invisible Man, and I find myself returning to it over and over again to hear it.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Apocalyptic Lit: Some Thoughts

I'm going to temporarily end my series on apocalyptic literature, but I intend to pick it up again at some point.  Thus far, I have immensely enjoyed the conversation it has stirred in the various postings, and I am glad we have been able to chat about it in our little book blogging community.  I've been doing some additional research about this genre because of this short series I've been working on, and I feel I should clarify a few things.  First of all, "Apocalyptic Literature" is most often identified with books in the Bible that focus on the idea.  Perhaps it would have been more correct to refer to my series as that of apocalyptic fiction, or "dystopian literature", as someone else phrased it.  Nevertheless, I think the concept remains the same, and I hope it is not too misleading.

Another thing I've discovered is that there are a number of apocalyptic novels out there I have yet to read.  I stumbled upon a couple lists different people have provided, and I am keenly interested.  I've even discovered that someone has dedicated his entire blog to this genre.  If any of you are reading this and have some suggestions for me, I certainly would appreciate the feedback and will take note!

Finally, I want to share a cartoon with you that you may find interesting.  I found this on a news site a while ago, and it was part of the inspiration for doing this series in the first place.  Someone has drawn up a comparison between Brave New World and 1984, which I find easily accessible and quite interesting.  You can click on this link to check it out.  I find the implications of the novels today to be rather eerie in their relevance.

Thanks again for your participation.  I look forward to continuing to hear from you all!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Apocalyptic Lit: 1984

Of course, I could never do a series on apocalyptic literature and leave out George Orwell's 1984.  I've placed him third in my list because he published it after both Huxley and Rand, in 1949.  Yet over the course of time, Orwell's novel has arguably become the most recognizable and celebrated piece of apocalyptic literature in the canon.  The term "Big Brother" has seeped into popular culture and is referenced all the time, and the novel has even produced a term just for George: "Orwellian."

I hardly know how to address this book because I don't want to make my entry too lengthy.  To summarize quickly, the world in 1984 is in a state of constant war and oppression.  The government controls the news and maintains 24/7 surveillance on all of its citizens.  The main character is Winston Smith, who like all dystopian protagonists, has defied the restrictions of the government and rebelled against the rules.  Significantly, he writes down all his unfavorable thoughts about the government in a private journal and he carries on a secret and forbidden love affair.  There are so many different layers to analyze within the text, including themes of totalitarianism, power, individualism, love, and betrayal.

For now, I want to focus on the role of language in this totalitarian society.  One of the most powerful ways the government controls its citizens is by controlling the information they receive.  Winston's job, in fact, is to rewrite records and change history so that people don't know about the former way of life.  Orwell created a language called "Newspeak," in which grammar and vocabulary are simplified and stunted.  He was so thorough in this invention that he even attached an entire appendix to explain it in depth.  In the story, Orwell indicates that when verbal creativity is taken away from people, they lose the ability to express themselves and thus to even think for themselves.  Big Brother has compelled people to accept terms of "doublethink," in which two contradictory words are combined and expected to be equally accepted as true, such as blackwhite.  Eventually, people become so accepting of blaring contradictions that they accept the government's slogans of "War is Peace," "Freedom is Slavery," and "Ignorance is Strength."

As a great lover of language and literature, I passionately believe that our access to language affects every aspect of our lives.  I've heard people try to dismiss the liberal arts as impractical components of society, but the formation of language and the ability to express oneself is absolutely critical to individuals.  This is how we come to understand our identities and position ourselves in society.  If it is controlled or restricted, we - as Orwell indicates - are lost.  In fact, the language becomes so embedded within the people that they have succumbed to it in their thoughts, which infects them at the core.  And in Orwell's dystopian novel, it is nearly impossible to regain personal strength when confronted with this level of total control and oppression.

There's a reason 1984 is so widely esteemed in apocalyptic literature: it's fantastic.  There really is much more to say about it, and I encourage you all to read it if you have not done so yet.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Apocalyptic Lit: Anthem

I think an appropriate follow-up to Brave New World is Ayn Rand's novella, Anthem.  Written in 1937, Rand's story shares some noticeable similarities with Huxley's earlier novel.  However, for Rand, the greatest problem in the apocalyptic future is the loss of individualism.  Huxley certainly alludes to this problem, but it is absolutely the central issue in Anthem.

Right away, readers learn that the word "I" has been removed from society's vernacular.  The narrator refers to himself as "We," which can be a bit confusing but has a powerful impact on the reading.  We also learn that nobody has an individual name.  People are identified by an idealized noun like "Equality" or "Liberty", followed by a serialized number.  As in Brave New World, babies are raised without families and later assigned their occupations by the government.  The narrator then guiltily confesses his great sins of spending time alone, forming a friendship, and writing down his thoughts.

Despite the similarities with other apocalyptic literature, Rand has nevertheless explored this concept in a unique way.  She takes notions that are essentially good in concept, such as equality, and illustrates what would happen if such concepts were actually fulfilled.  Equality, for example, is a nice idea.  We would like to think that everyone is equal.  However, Rand shows that having a preference for some people over others is not only good but necessary in our society.  A friendship, for example, means that you like someone more than most people in the world and enjoy spending time with them in particular.  Likewise, a romantic relationship means that you prefer one person more than everyone else and want to be with them alone.  Rand also shows that allowing for differences in people is fundamental for progress.  When we are allowed to be individuals, we can be leaders and inventors.  On the other hand, when her protagonist brings his potentially life-changing invention to the House of Scholars, he is scolded and rejected because he dared to think of something on his own.

I have to say that this book caused me to rethink some of my beliefs.  I have often been critical of the severe individualism in our culture, which I think has affected politics, community, and religion.  And although I still think these effects have some detrimental aspects, I feel more strongly that individualism in its essence is a good thing.  There is something beautiful about the discovery of the self or "ego" in Anthem as the protagonist continues to push the boundaries of his society.  His friendship and romance are pure and inspiring.  His courage and innate leadership are challenging and wonderfully admirable.  It's quite a short story, but I think it nevertheless holds some important truths and demonstrates a future apocalypse without people's vital senses of individualism and identity.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Apocalyptic Lit: Brave New World

I want to do a short series on some of the apocalyptic literature that I think is part of Classic Literature canon.  Many authors have written novels about a possible future, filled with some variety of disaster.  Although I am not usually a big fan of science fiction, I have really enjoyed some of these apocalyptic stories.  So the first one I'm going to discuss is Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, written in 1931.

Ironically, the great problem with Huxley's society is that everyone is happy.  The whole world has been united in a global peace and universalism, but this can only be accomplished through the government's excessive control.  Everyone has enough money and resources to survive without complaint.  Within each class, people are 100% equal in what they have.  Competition and jealousy are extinct.  Every citizen is encouraged to indulge in a dream-like drug called "soma" that allows them to escape into fantasy.  Yet people are severely limited in what they are allowed to do, think, and feel.  No one is allowed to be in a relationship with anyone else, nor is anyone allowed to spend time alone.  The population has a maximum that cannot be surpassed, which is enforced by replacing natural reproduction with a sort of hatchery.  With no sense of family, the baby's development is further stunted by being assigned a specific class status at birth.  People have no control over the direction their lives take.

With all of these controlling forces, individual identity has been eliminated.  People cannot think for themselves, nor do they want to.  In the story, the main character, Bernard Marx, leaves civilization to visit a "savage" reservation in which people have maintained the old version of community.  In this reservation, the people are horrified by the lack of emotion and individualism the "civilized" people display.  Bernard takes two exiles back with him: John, who was born in the reservation, and his mother, who escaped there and yet never fit in.  When John comes to the "perfect" society, he instantly becomes a celebrity because of his individual attitude and yet he is absolutely miserable in this society.  I won't give away the ending, but it's worth reading what happens.

The moral of the story is that "happiness" is not as valuable as it appears.  Perhaps our end goal in life is not to be happy.  Perhaps we just need to redefine happiness.  Many philosophers over the years have claimed that all we want is happiness.  But in my life, I think it is the difficult things that have made me learn and grow the most.  It is in the tough times that I was able to figure out who I am and become better.  Yes, I treasure being happy, but that is not what life is all about.  In the form of satire, Huxley criticized many of the ideals that were held in his society.  Moreover, he did this explicitly, giving his characters easily recognizable names of his contemporaries.  I loved this book and ate it up in just one day.  I think it illustrates some very important problems within our culture in an interesting, apocalyptic way.