The Metaphysics of Sight and Sound
Throughout Invisible Man there are recurring images of waves and rhythms, which create a reality in which everything has its own frequency and wavelength. This concept operates as an underlying theme, which once examined is revealed to play into the idea of the narrator’s invisibility, and to help compose the overall metaphysical structure of the novel. This notion of frequencies appears many times in both visual and auditory contexts, eventually revealing the nature of the narrator’s invisibility: living on a different wavelength.
The narrator begins simply with: “I am an invisible man.”(Ellison 3) Immediately this claim sparks thoughts in the mind of the reader about what this invisibility means: “I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see… everything and anything except me.”(Ellison 3) Mirrors create images, which are exclusively visual. The simplicity of the sentence’s structure contributes to its mysterious nature and even though in the next lines the narrator gives an abstract explanation as to what his invisibility is, the reader never attains a literal explanation simply because the narrator’s invisibility is not literal. The narrator goes on to provide a more detailed description“[I am not] one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind.”(Ellison 3) The ironic tone of this passage, shown by his sarcastic and satirical statements convey a sardonic awareness of his situation.
There is a lot of optic imagery in the novel, which makes sense when one considers how central the idea of invisibility is. A vital theme to the novel is of course race, and civil rights, and it can be argued that the Invisible Man acts as a symbol of black struggle in an oppressive society. As Richard Kostelanetz puts it: “Ralph Ellison defines the purpose of novelistic writing as ‘converting experience into symbolic action,’ and this phrase incidentally captures the particular achievement of his novel, Invisible Man, in which he creates a nameless narrator… [who]represent[s] in symbolic form the overall historical experience of the most politically active element of the American Negro people.” (Kostelanetz 5) The novel ties these two themes of race and optics together, for instance: “If It’s Optic White, It’s the Right White.” (Ellison 168) Not only does the word optic appear, but this phrase is strongly reminiscent of the racist phrase “white is right.” The notion of race is largely an optic idea (the whole idea of skin color), and is completely socially constructed. The importance of color is emphasized here, and when tying this into the proposed metaphysics of the novel, one can connect these ideas of race and color by considering that color is simply the reflection of different wavelengths of light, and so the idea of frequencies once again plays a crucial part in the composition of the novel and the concepts it creates.
In addition to the prevalent optic imagery, an acoustic theme is also present. The last line of the novel, “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?” both connects to and creates a contradiction with the first line. The idea of invisibility is a purely visual phenomenon, however, the idea of speaking on a “lower frequency” (Ellison 450) produces an auditory impression, which suggests that the invisibility is more than just visual. Creating the themes of both optic and otic invisibility suggests that invisibility is not exclusively being unseen, but is also being unheard. The idea and language of acoustics, including music, extends throughout the length of the novel to give insights into the metaphysics of invisibility and time. The narrator uses the ideas of rhythm and waves as an active way to describe the world he is experiencing. “The uptown rhythms were slower and yet were somehow faster; a different tension was in the hot night air.” (Ellison 328) The idea of a place having a rhythm, or even a frequency at which it is vibrating, is apparent here. The idea that it has a faster rhythm (higher frequency) or slower rhythm (lower frequency) creates a dichotomy between rapid and sluggish rhythms .
In addition, there is musical language other than rhythm that is used to reinforce the underlying sense of musical time. “Tension” while having different meanings in different contexts, has a musical sense to it in this case, considering its association with rhythm. Tension is a fundamental idea in Jazz, a musical style which is also a theme in the novel. Often tension is created by dissonance or chords itching to resolve, however, in this case there is a dichotomy between the fast and slow pulses of uptown. Wilfried Raussert, in “Jazz, Time, and Narrativity,” discusses this very idea in a different context: “the short interruption of the flow recalls breaks in jazz through which rhythmic tension is achieved.” (Raussert 532) However instead of an interruption in flow, Ellison uses simultaneity of rhythms to create this tension. Like the optic imagery, otic imagery also brings forth the fundamental theme of race, as Jazz was born out of black culture. These ideas of rhythm, pulse, and music contribute to the metaphysics of the novel to ultimately explain the narrator’s invisibility.
The concept of waves is also firmly embedded in the novel’s sense of time, which is a fundamental part of anything’s metaphysical identity. As has been shown above, the idea of rhythm and waves is established as part of the feeling of a place. To further establish this concept, these ideas are present in the perception of time as well. “Great invisible waves of time flowed over me, but that morning never came.” (Ellison 440) The word “waves” connotes a rhythm, beat, and pulse. Great suggests large in breadth, which in turn creates the image of a slow and steady pulse evoking the notion of wavelengths. Slow and steady pulses convey a sense of hypnotism, which contributes to the idea of perpetually waiting for something, in this case, morning. Introducing this conception of pulse into time further suggests a connection to rhythms, and continues to suggest a world described by frequencies. “Invisibility, let me explain, gives one a slightly different sense of time, you’re never quite on the beat. Sometimes you’re ahead and sometimes behind. Instead of the swift and imperceptible flowing of time, you are aware of its nodes, those points where time stands still or from which it leaps ahead. And you slip into the breaks and look around. That’s what you hear vaguely in Louis’ music.” (Ellison 7) This quote packs a lot of substance. Here the narrator is not only breaking the fourth wall as he does in the beginning and the epilogue, but he is also attempting to communicate the concept of his invisibility. He uses the abstraction of having a different sense of time, which has musical connotations. He again introduces the idea of being off beat, suggesting that the the world has a beat, and he is not in the same time signature as the rest of the world. This idea, connected to the previously-established concept of frequencies, creates the idea that he operates on a different wavelength from the rest of the world. Just like a radio and a receiver operating on two different frequencies, neither one exists to the other, so is the narrator’s relationship with the world: creating his invisibility. The construction of frequencies in the novel is symbolic of a core problem in society, that people operate on different “frequencies.” Ellison demonstrates the critical issues created by operating on disparate wavelengths. Living in metaphorically different realities allows people to view others with a sense of disconnect and disregard, which leaves room for discrimination. There should be no separation in frequencies in seeing or hearing, everyone should see and hear each other. Nobody should “refuse to see.” (Ellison 3)
Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Vintage International, 1995. Print.Kostelanetz, Richard. Politics of Ellison’s Booker: Invisible Man As Symbolic History. Place of publication not identified: publisher not identified, 1967. Print.Raussert, Wilfried. “Jazz, Time, and Narrativity.” Amerikastudien / American Studies. 45.4 (2000): 519-534. Print.
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