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Epictetus, the Greek Stoic philosopher, said, “First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.” Defining one’s personal identity may coincide with this ancient Stoic principle, but what is not mentioned is the human transformation that must take place to accomplish such an aspiration. In both Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, there is a quest for personal definition that requires breaking the societal conventions of a chaotic culture. The Invisible Man is trapped in a world where his grandpa believes the best response to the white man’s racism is unparalleled, insincere kindness. In The Crying of Lot 49, Oedipa Maas exists in a community consumed by the ‘everydayness’ of suburban living. While both the Invisible Man and Oedipa Maas have been alienated by their respective cultures, Invisible derives a personal identity while Oedipa Maas continues to struggle in a world that disintegrates around her because of her inability to connect and communicate with her chaotic society.
Early in the novel, Invisible presents himself to the reader as a black man who has been forgotten by society; he lives underground and steals electricity from a power company for his fantastically well-lit lair. The company knows that someone is using up an exorbitant amount of electricity, but the culprit is strangely invisible to the rest of the grid. He opens his relationship with the reader as a man who has been forgotten by society, for better or for worse. Invisible says: “I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me” (3). The withdrawal from society that Invisible experiences is not one of peaceful sabbatical, but rather a anxious fragmentation from the world with which he desperately wants to interact. At times he is not sure of his own being, and must continually prove to himself what others do not acknowledge. This constant struggle for recognition is at times painful, as Invisible asserts that his efforts cause fatigue. He says: “You ache with the need to convince yourself that you do exist in the real world” (4). Invisible does not experience the fulfillment that is symptomatic of human interaction, and its absence causes an ache and fatigue that preempts him to reach out to the seemingly blind society from which he has been excluded.
Oedipa from The Crying of Lot 49 has also been segregated from society, but not in the same capacity as Invisible. She is certainly ‘visible’ to the rest of society, but she has cast herself in a “Rapunzel-like role of a pensive girl somehow, magically, prisoner among the pines and salt fogs of Kinneret, looking for somebody to say hey, let down your hair” (10). While Invisible desperately tries to be noticed, especially by the power company, his presence remains unknown.
Oedipa’s absence, or buffer between her, society, and the adventures of her dreams is based internally. She creates the fortress around her daily actions, and only lets down her guard when the time is right. For Invisible, the barriers he faces are external and based on the thoughts and judgments of those around him. However, like Invisible, Oedipa will gain knowledge through new experiences that will break down the walls of her isolation, but whether she develops a personal identity remains to be seen.
We know that the beginning of Invisible Man is actually the end, and the end the beginning. By the end of the novel, he has come full-circle and lives underground perhaps in preparation to make his first bold steps into society as a man comfortable with his own identity. However, he does not start out with such control over his persona, nor does he possess the savvy to choose his battles. At the beginning, he is a man who is admittedly invisible to society, and presents himself as such. Nonetheless, he does not always handle precarious situations like a man who knows he is invisible to society would. He mercilessly pummels a man who curses at him; he pounds the man’s chin with his forehead and kicks him repeatedly. This is a departure from the innocent, intimate nature in which the reader first sees Invisible as a man without any grasp in society. His violence shows the immaturity of his feelings; he tries to force the man to recognize his as a human through brute force, rather than by making a meaningful contribution to society. Still, Invisible claims that his were taken in the heat of an altercation, and that fighting is not his normal response to confrontation. He asserts: “Most of the time…I am not…overtly violent. I remember that I am invisible and walk softly so as not to awaken the sleeping ones…I learned in time though that it is possible to carry on a fight against them without their realizing it” (5). Either way, when he does not resort to violence he falls back onto his own invisibility to carry on his ‘fight’ that—at least at the beginning of the novel—he finds necessary.
Invisible has been alienated by his own culture. Thus, he must find a way to cope with the chaotic environment that surrounds him. When he takes Mr. Norton to The Golden Day sporting and gambling house, Invisible is both literally and figuratively forced into an environment foreign to him. He is forced to take Mr. Norton to the establishment because the trustee needs medical attention, but he did not expect the riotous atmosphere of The Golden Day. Here, he is not invisible (as everyone else is black), but rather chastised by the vet for his actions. The vet feels that neither Mr. Norton nor Invisible act genuine towards the other—they are simply acting parts that will lead them towards their supposed destiny. He says:
“[Y]ou both fail to understand what is happening to you. You cannot see or hear or smell the truth of what you see—and you, looking for destiny! It’s classic! And the boy, this automaton, he was made of the very mud of the region and sees far less than you. Poor stumblers, neither of you can see the other. To you he is a mark on the score-card of your achievement, a thing and not a man; a child, or even less—a black, amorphous thing. And you, for all your power, are not a man to him, but a God, a force.” (95)
In the midst of chaos—and its normally disengaging effect—Invisible hears for one of the first times a story that is different from his grandfather’s. The vet scolds Invisible for his ‘yes sir, no sir’ mentality towards the white people in charge, but later on Invisible wishes that he could tell Mr. Norton how ashamed he was with the frenzied atmosphere of The Golden Day. Rather, he believes that approval from the white man will bring him the social forum he desires. While he has only begun to define himself, Invisible still believes at this point that he can bring change as a servant to others.
Invisible undergoes an invariable struggle to please those around him, in hopes of garnering the accolades of others and perhaps increasing his own self-worth. When Invisible joins the Brotherhood, he feels a bit disheveled from the beginning of his relationship with the strange Brother Jack and his eccentric mistress, Emma. Later, he reiterates his willingness to please those around him: “My mind fought desperately for acceptance. Nothing would change matters. They would shift me and investigate and I, still believing, still bending to discipline, would have to accept their decision” (407). Invisible, like so many times before, throws his preconceptions to the wind and allows himself to be swept up in the expectations of others for the promise of a public forum to speak to and perhaps gain recognition. We are also able to sense the insecurity that Invisible feels when he ponders whether Brother Jack still wants him or not. He has given up on the idea of servitude, but Invisible now believes that he can forge an Identity as a public speaker—even if he is promoting the ideas of secret, underhanded society.
While Invisible seeks to define himself through those around him, Oedipa’s search for truth requires the assistance of others, but is mostly a personal exploration. She seeks out Randolph Driblette after viewing The Courier’s Tragedy to ask about the bones and their connection to Pierce’s dealing with the Cosa Nostra. Instead, Driblette is brusque and secretive, answering questions with questions. Driblette says, “You can put together clues, develop a thesis, or several, about why characters reacted to the Trystero possibility the way they did, why the assassins came on, why the black costumes. You could waste your life that way and never touch the truth” (60). His quote coldly foreshadows the possibility that finding truth may not be possible at all for Oedipa, but she presses on because of the odd mentioning of the Trystero. Oedipa’s environment in which she must exist is chaotic in a way much different from Invisible’s. She must deal with characters with severe communication problems, while living in a haze-like awareness in which even she struggles to define reality with the recurrent Trystero symbol.
As the search deepens, the hunt that Pierce has sent her becomes increasingly complicated. Oedipa questions just how far she must go to find the essential reality; she wonders if “she too might not be left with only compiled memories of clues, announcements, intimations, but never the central truth itself, which must somehow each time be too bright for her memory to hold,” (76). The fragmented bits of a world undiscovered are similar to the differing opinions that Invisible receives from his grandpa, the vet, and Brother Jack. However, many of the experiences that Invisible encounters are authentic in their freshness, while Oedipa seems to be spiraling past face values into a web of incorrigible clues that only becomes more confusing. This realization is evident when “she glanced down the corridor of Cohen’s rooms in the rain and saw, for the very first time, how far it might be possible to get lost in this” (76). Invisible begins to make new realizations when he looks more closely at the intentions of those around him, while Pierce’s intentions only serve to confuse Oedipa when she immerses herself with the mystery.
Unfortunately, the reader does not learn of Oedipa’s ultimate vindication nor is there an insinuation of grand failure. The end of the novel is shrouded in a greater amount of mystery than its beginning, which is undesirable to both Oedipa and the reader hoping for an all-encompassing ending. Oedipa does, in fact, “let down her hair.” However, whether she or the reader is better off for her actions is debatable. She cannot communicate with the disordered society around her, nor can she communicate with Pierce, as Oedipa does not believe that the “dead really do persist” (79). Her struggles continue ad infinitum, which brings into question whether or not it was right to leave San Narciso in the first, and whether one can find central truth when a society is disjointed and consumed by white noise.
Only when Invisible begins to delve deeper and examine the intentions of those who require his services does he realize that society does not have the innocence that he once thought. He is able to recognize through the madness of public rallies, through the death of his friend, and by dealing with the pressures of being a public figurehead, that Harlem—perhaps even the rest of the world—is not always genuine. His experiences and willingness to listen to outside advice shapes his new world view. In his second encounter with the vet, Invisible is instructed to: “Learn to look beneath the surface…play the game, but don’t believe in it—that much you owe yourself. Play the game, but raise the ante…Learn how it operates, learn how you operate…You might even beat the game” (153-154). Finally, the riot prompted by Ras the Exhorter serves to put Invisible back underground, after he has gained knowledge of the world he did not previously possess. The scene of the riot is absolute bedlam, yet transcendent in nature. Through the fire, Invisible escapes to an underground world in which he can craft his own identity from the new knowledge that he has gained. Invisible says: “[T]he world is just as concrete, ornery, vile, and sublimely wonderful as before, only now I better understand my relation to it and it to me” (563). He realizes that he can better the public good solely through himself—rather than as a servant or figurehead to others—which is an artifact of experience and thoughtful introspection. After enough gin, jazz, dreams, and books, he is now ready to step back into the limelight as a man with definite identity.
For black Americans, the difficulty in forming a collective identity has been shown by several authors, and their reasons for this challenge are similar. When the early slaves were brought to America and separated from their families, much of their family history and lineage, for the time being, was lost. This fragmentation gave blacks no common experiences to draw from, aside from the fact that they all faced the same horrendous conditions in the journey to America. This group was also denied history and humanity under segregation as they had few options for enrichment or social activity. Without interaction, it is difficult for an ethnic group to form common opinions, much less a common identity.
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