Epilogue excerpt

“So why do I write, torturing myself to put it down? Because in spite of myself I’ve learned some things. Without the possibility of action, all knowledge comes to one labeled “file and forget,” and I can neither file nor forget. Nor will certain ideas forget me; they keep filing away at my lethargy, my complacency. Why should I be the one to dream this nightmare? Why should I be dedicated and set aside-yes, if not to at least tell a few people about it? There seems to be no escape. Here I’ve set out to throw my anger into the world’s face, but now that I’ve tried to put it all down the old fascination with playing a role returns, and I’m drawn upward again. So that even before I finish I’ve failed (maybe my anger is too heavy; perhaps, being a talker, I’ve used too many words). But I’ve failed. The very act of trying to put it all down has confused me and negated some of the anger and some of the bitterness. So it is that now I denounce and defend, or feel prepared to defend. I condemn and affirm, say no and say yes, say yes and say no. I denounce because though implicated and partially responsible, I have been hurt to the point of abysmal pain, hurt to the point of invisibility. And I defend because in spite of all I find that I love. In order to get some of it down I have to love. I sell you no phony forgiveness, I’m a desperate man-but too much of your life will be lost, its meaning lost, unless you approach it as much through love as through hate. So I approach it through division. So I denounce and I defend and I hate and I love.

Perhaps that makes me a little bit as human as my grandfather. Once I thought my grandfather incapable of thoughts about humanity, but I was wrong. Why should an old slave use such a phrase as, “This and this or this has made me more human,” as I did in my arena speech? Hell, he never had any doubts about his humanity-that was left to his “free” offspring. He accepted his humanity just as he accepted the principle. It was his, and the principle lives on in all its human and absurd diversity. So now having tried to put it down I have disarmed myself in the process. You won’t believe in my invisibility and you’ll fail to see how any principle that applies to you could apply to me. You’ll fail to see it even though death waits for both of us if you don’t. Nevertheless, the very disarmament has brought me to a decision. The hibernation is over. I must shake off the old skin and come up for breath. There’s a stench in the air, which, from this distance underground, might be the smell either of death or of spring-I hope of spring. But don’t let me trick you, there is a death in the smell of spring and in the smell of thee as in the smell of me. And if nothing more, invisibility has taught my nose to classify the stenches of death.
In going underground, I whipped it all except the mind, the mind. And the mind that has conceived a plan of living must never lose sight of the chaos against which that pattern was conceived. That goes for societies as well as for individuals. Thus, having tried to give pattern to the chaos which lives within the pattern of your certainties, I must come out, I must emerge. And there’s still a conflict within me: With Louis Armstrong one half of me says, “Open the window and let the foul air out,” while the other says, “It was good green corn before the harvest.” Of course Louis was kidding, he wouldn’t have thrown old Bad Air out, because it would have broken up the music and the dance, when it was the good music that came from the bell of old Bad Air’s horn that counted. Old Bad Air is still around with his music and his dancing and his diversity, and I’ll be up and around with mine. And, as I said before, a decision has been made. I’m shaking off the old skin and I’ll leave it here in the hole. I’m coming out, no less invisible without it, but coming out nevertheless. And I suppose it’s damn well time. Even hibernations can be overdone, come to think of it. Perhaps that’s my greatest social crime, I’ve overstayed my hibernation, since there’s a possibility that even an invisible man has a socially responsible role to play.

“Ah,” I can hear you say, “so it was all a build-up to bore us with his buggy jiving. He only wanted us to listen to him rave!” But only partially true: Being invisible and without substance, a disembodied voice, as it were, what else could I do? What else but try to tell you what was really happening when your eyes were looking through? And it is this which frightens me: Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?”

From “Invisible Man” (1952) by Ralph Ellison.


Ellison on his first attempt at a novel.

“In my first attempt at a novel–which I was unable to complete–I began by trying to manipulate the simple structural unities of beginning, middle and end, but when I attempted to deal with the psychological strata–the images, symbols and emotional configurations–of the experience at hand, I discovered that the unities were simply cool points of stability on which one could suspend the narrative line–but beneath the surface of apparently rational human relationships there seethed a chaos before which I was helpless.  People rationalize what they shun or are incapable of dealing with; these superstitions and their rationalizations become ritual as they govern behavior.  The rituals become social forms, and the its one of the functions of the artist to recognize and raise them to the level of Art.”


–   Ralph Ellison, From The Art of Fiction: An Interview
the Paris Review (Spring 1955), 53-55 via
Conversationswith Ralph Ellison, ISBN:0878057803,
University of Mississippi Press (1995), page 6.

Living with Music: Ralph Ellison’s Jazz Writings

Utopian Rhythms: Ralph Ellison and the Jazz Aesthetic

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