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I believe the deepest human desire is to be seen by others.
This is nowhere more aptly expressed than in Ralph Ellison’s 1952 classic Invisible Man. Written by an African American in the age of segregation, this novel conveys the fictional experience of a young black man who travels from the south to New York City to uncover his identity.
But after being used time and time again, by whites and blacks alike, he rejects the notion of identity altogether and comes to embrace his outlook as an invisible man.
Nobody sees him. He is a means to an end. His blackness is an asset, like a coin tossed in a slot machine—his body and mind only a political currency that is used for power.
“I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me, they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination, indeed, everything and anything except me.” ~ Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
As there is nothing more beautiful than when we are seen by another, having our humanity be embraced by our fellow humans, there is nothing more painful than invisibility.
Nobody sees the invisible man—he is like a shadow to others, an echo in the wind. He learns to find comfort in his invisibility, a depraved and comical sense of aliveness, where his joys and his sorrows are no longer contingent on the eyes of others. The world refuses to see him, to give him an identity that feels right, and he chooses to bask in the cosmic joke of it all.
Although he had given up on life, on love, on identity, on recognition, there remains a glimmer of hope in his feelings. He knows something that the reader does not, that society does not know, that his fellow human beings do not yet know, alluding to a personal calm that arrives through the storm of invisibility.
Life makes sense, in some strange way. The absurdity has meaning.
I believe we all feel invisible. This is why the book can resonate. We all feel that we are not being seen, and our true identity and deep feeling of “self” cannot find their way to the light.
Everyone is moving so fast, so automatically, so rhythmically swift, that little time and emotional energy are left to hold space for one another. It is painful. We need to be seen, and yet we need to be blind simply to move through the world while keeping our strength intact.
That blindness is a human universal—but it can be a vice, a pathology, a means to power. When we are blind to others, we become blind to ourselves.
“I was pulled this way and that for longer than I can remember. And my problem was that I always tried to go in everyone’s way but my own. I have also been called one thing and then another while no one really wished to hear what I called myself. So after years of trying to adopt the opinions of others I finally rebelled. I am an invisible man.” ~ Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
What is the path forward? We must be seen, but many of us are blind. How can we sequester our blindness and expand our capacity to see?
The invisible man tells us we must take responsibility for our own lives. We can’t make everyone happy, and when we try, we lose that precious thing we call “myself”—that thing that vibrates eternally.
He tells us to play the game of society, but never to wholly believe in it. He tells us not to take our invisibility too personally. He tells us to live now. He tells us to love. He tells us to be an individual, not part of a group.
At heart, he tells us to reject all identities imposed upon us by the outside world and carve our own identity out of granite.
“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 it all, I find that I love.” ~ Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
Despite invisibility, despite pain, despite hopelessness, there is a specialness in just being human. Our strength lies in our impulse to live, to be rather than to become. I know that now. After seven years of illness, I know that now. After more broken hearts and shattered dreams than I can count, I know that now.
Life is what we decide it to be. Not what other people insist. Not what institutions or cultures insist. Not power. Just life, and living, breathing, and feeling.
“I was never more hated than when I tried to be honest. Or when, even as just now, I’ve tried to articulate exactly what I felt to be the truth. No one was satisfied.” ~ Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
We can move toward seeing other people and being seen by other people, through noticing that we are alive—of flesh and bone—we have about as much significance as anyone else.
Worldly power is often an illusion to disguise insecurity. As an autonomous organism, how we feel and what we think and how we love is the only thing. It is not that our feelings are more important than something else, it is that this is the only thing we’ll ever have. It resonates out, eternal.
Our consciousness is connected to everything out there.
“Life is to be lived, not controlled; and humanity is won by continuing to play in face of certain defeat.” ~ Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
Yes. How else could it possibly be?