Culture: Literary Imagination and Cultural Thesis

Excerpt from Thesis :

This earns him the grudging respect of his peers, who were unpleasantly impressed by what Mrs. Fretag, his teacher, referred to not as deceitful, but "very creative." The narrator discovers one of the novel's main truths: "So, that's what they wanted: lies. Beautiful lies. That's what they needed. People were fools. It was going to be easy for me." This conclusion is in reaction to the discovery of his deceit. Mrs. Fretag, the teacher, had indeed attended the event, and confronted Henry about his deceit. Upon telling the truth about his absence, the narrator is nonetheless praised as "remarkable." He is not punished, but rewarded for lies that sound beautiful, but are no less deceitful for that. In this, the author makes a comment about the society in which the narrator operates, and how to gain power in that society. His creative work earns him the respect of and power over his peers. Even those who used to oppress him leave him alone because of the power of his words. In this way, the narrator uses language deceitfully, although not with the original aim to gain power. But he learns that language, and especially language in the use of deception for specific purposes, can provide power in a variety of contexts. It is also significant that this episode is combined with politics, making the moment all the more poignant and indeed remarkable, as Mrs. Fretag duly noted.

Linda Hutcheon's assessment of postmodernism as a contradictory phenomenon can be applied to the power of deceit as provided for in both novels. Deceit and truth are juxtaposed by both Ellison and Bukowski in terms of the paradigms of power entailed in these concepts. According to Hutcheon (178): "From the earlier Marxist notion of ideology as false consciousness or as an illusory belief system, current critical discourse has moved to a different notion of ideology as a general process of production of meaning." This is the illusory and contradictory nature of postmodernism. For Ellison's protagonist, deceit is manifest in his initial and apparent acceptance of those in power around him. The hidden truth, juxtaposed with this, is the fact that he is attempting to undermine this power in order to empower himself. Bukowski's protagonist writes an essay that constitutes a lie in its entirety. Yet he is not punished for this, as expected. He is praised, and he begins to understand the power of the lie in a society that in fact professes the value of truth.

The concept of truth and illusion are also depicted by Plato in his "Allegory of the Cave." In this work, Plato uses the cave as a symbol of society-imposed ignorance. This is similar to the intellectual darkness and naivete from which the Invisible Man initially suffers. His darkness is so severe that he is in fact invisible to others. It is only when he retreats into physical darkness at the end of the novel that he can enter the light of his own intellect.

Postmodernism furthermore departs from other literary interpretations in terms not only of its fundamentally contradictory nature, but also in terms of its fluidity. It does not interpret meaning, but rather produces meaning itself. This connects with Bakhtin's (263) depiction of language in the novel, which is neither static nor singular in nature: "a combining of languages and styles into a higher unity is unknown to traditional stylistics; it has no method for approaching the distinctive social dialogue among languages that is present in the novel." Both Bakhtin and Hutcheon appears to understand that the nature of language and its various stratified uses towards power in society cannot be divorced from the world in the novel. In depicting the postmodern world, the novel needs a postmodern interpretation of language and the relation of this language to collective power structures, along with the struggle of the individual to gain what power he can.

In both novels, then, there is a juxtaposition of collective power with individual powerlessness. Both protagonists use language as their means of gaining power in their respective ways. The Invisible Man at first uses language to feign humility, and later to become both separate from society but personally powerful. According to Smith (in O'Meally 27), the Invisible Man "discovers the true meaning of his life only after he assumes responsibility for naming himself by telling his own story." This provides him with personal power, although not social or collective power. At the end of the novel, the reader does not know whether he will indeed reenter society successfully or indeed regain the social power he pursued from the beginning. However, the personal power he gains provides hope as a vehicle for the potential of such power in society that prefers beautiful lies over an ugly truth. How the narrator will survive in such a society is uncertain. Yet there is a type of satisfaction in a sense that the Invisible Man has finally gained some self knowledge and could be able to use this to not only set himself apart from, but also above a society that maintains its concern for the well-being of all when in fact this is not true.

In Ham on Rye, the narrator also faces, as seen above, the power of the beautiful lie as opposed to the distasteful truth. He experiences this in terms of his own deceit. The scene of his public narrative deceit as mentioned above can for example be juxtaposed with his private efforts at writing fiction on a typewriter his parents had given him. Henry sees his stories as "very bitter and ragged… the stories seemed to beg, they didn't have their own vitality." In opposition to this, his equally fictional depiction of the presidential visit impressed even Henry himself: "the words sounded good to me. Everybody was listening. My words filled the room, from blackboard to blackboard, they hit the ceiling and bounced off, they covered Mrs. Fretag's shoes and piled up on the floor. Some of the prettiest girls in the class began to sneak glances at me." By writing this beautiful but deceitful work, the narrator connects powerfully with his social environment. He receives admiration, even from those who do not like him. His deceit is socially powerful but personally destructive. In the same way, Ellison's protagonist experiences his own deceit as both socially powerful and personally destructive. Although he is frequently betrayed as a result of his honest gullibility, he is nonetheless able to gain some social power through his pretense at humility. The same gullibility is depicted by Kafka in his "Before the Law." A sincere but uninformed man from the country searches for entry into the law and is told that such entry cannot be granted at the time. This happens throughout his life and he die without gaining entry. When he dies, he learns the truth that entry was in fact open to him, and the he needed only have tried. In this way, the Invisible Man is also deceived by those he perceives as powerful. In contrast to Kafka's character, however, he learns the truth of his own power while he is still in a position to access this power. His personal annihilation drives him into seclusion, where he can learn to be honest first with himself and rebuild his life and his own identity.

Hutcheon's idea of the novel as a potentially dangerous construct within the society from which it emerges can be applied to both Ellison and Bukowski's respective works: "…the novel is potentially dangerous not just because it is a reaction against social repression, but because it also works to authorize that very power of repression at the same time. What postmodern fiction does, however, is to reverse that doubled process: it installs the power, but then contests it." The protagonists in both novels do the same to varying degrees of success. The Invisible Man's success is his connection with a world of power that he can nonetheless never feel himself part of, while Henry wields the conscious power of deception by an understanding of the human nature that needs such deception. Both novels therefore make a rather dark comment about the societies they depict. Postmodern society is beautifully deceitful. Those who understand the lie and how to use it narratively are those who wield power over others and themselves.

Ancient writings such those by Plato also frequently consider the concepts of truth and deception. In applying these to the postmodern novel, however, it is often necessary to reverse the juxtaposition offered by the ancients. Plato's Allegory of the Cave, for example depicts a cave as symbolic of ignorance: "my opinion is that in the world of knowledge the idea of good appears last of all, and is seen only with an effort; and, when seen, is also inferred to be the universal author of all things beautiful and right…" (Plato). Plato makes…

Sources Used in Document:


Allen, Danielle. "Ralph Ellison on the Tragi-Comedy of Citizenship." In Ralph Ellison and the raft of hope ed. By Lucas E. Morel. University Press of Kentucky, 2004.

Bakhtin, Mikhail M. The Dialogic Imagination. University of Texas Press, 1990.

Bukowski, Charles. Ham on Rye. Harpercollins, 2007.

Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. Vintage International, 1980

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