American Gloom

Month: June, 2012

Striking Through the Mask: Part Six (Going to the Territory)

by Ezekiel Fry

Ralph Ellison’s work as an essayist truly rivals his work as a novelist. Actually, on second thought, this sort of comparison seems arbitrary and unnecessary. Ellison is an elegant novelist and essayist, and both forms come together to produce a total body of work that is quite astounding. In addition to these fairly subjective declarations concerning Ellison’s work, there is a theme—a common thread—which definitely runs through the best, if not all, of Ellison’s work. This is the theme of “the sacred principle.” This theme, first touched upon in this series of essays in the section on Invisible Man, comes to a head in essays from his final collection Going to the Territory such as “Society, Morality, and the Novel” and “The Novel as a Function of American Democracy,” but it is within “The Little Man at Chehaw Station” that the ideas first divulged by the narrator of Invisible Man truly come to a head.
“The Little Man at Chehaw Station” is a remarkably dense and diverse essay. Within its thirty odd pages many strands of thought which Ellison has endeavored in the past to bring to a conclusion find their resting point. Each of these threads will be examined in due time, but for now we will begin with “the sacred principle.” Ellison writes concerning the little man:

As representative of the American audience writ small, the little man draws upon the uncodified Americanness of his experience—whether of life or of art—as he engages in a silent dialogue with the artist’s exposition of forms, offering or rejecting the work of art on the basis of what he feels to be its affirmation or distortion of American experience. (7)

We see here that the little man stands to judge the work of any given artist, based upon his own subjective view of the “American experience.” Because this lens is so intensely subjective, shifting from viewer to viewer, there must be some place to plant what Ellison calls “Americanness.” While there is no true definition of this essential American mask (or shifting identity), Ellison, shortly after introducing the role of the little man writes of the truthful existence of the little man:

If he were not already manifest in the flesh, he would still exist in function as an idea and ideal because—like such character traits as individualism, restlessness, self-reliance, love of the new, and so on—he is a linguistic product of the American scene and language, and a manifestation of the idealistic action of the American Word as it goads its users toward a perfection of our revolutionary ideals. (7-8)

With this hodge-podge of Americanisms in tow we can better see what the function of the little man is, as he peers out from behind the stove. Everything within our country exists in a sort of flux. There is no single point to plant this idea of “Americanness,” but in our collective tropes, as listed above, we see that, as Ellison illuminates in his final sketch concerning the coal-stoking opera enthusiasts, the most important aspect of the American identity, that constantly evolving, intensely subjective and personal, national model is to expect the unexpected. In this way the only port in the storm is what Ellison calls “the American Word” (and that is in capitals for a reason).
“[T]he American Word” can be viewed, broadly, as our language as it spills forth from its roots in English and becomes permeated, saturated, and sometimes dominated, by the myriad languages that come together within our country. This is certainly the way that Ellison introduces it in the above mentioned passage, but the final piece, concerning the “perfection of our revolutionary ideals” draws the circle closer, moving from the broad strokes of our language as a whole to the meticulous single letters of the words upon which the country was founded—“the sacred principle.” These specific words, functioning, as Ellison states, as an ideal, a source of perfection and equality, dominate “the American Word” in its broader sense. Within the development of our motley language as a whole, this “sacred principle” (or “keyword” if that fits better within this linguistically driven analysis) forms the constant. It is perhaps rarely achieved, some might say it has yet to be achieved, but like the little man, it is always there, even when we think that it is not. Just as we think the conversation has nothing to do with our democratic ideals and “the sacred principal” it steps out from behind “the American Word” and resoundingly forces us to once again—and this is a gaseous solid here—to a new orientation. This process, as eluded to by the unexpected nature of the melting pot, is always on simmer, and new words, like new ideals, always step forth to have their moment in the sun, but the sacred word, the consistent upheaval of the American experience, and the little man, always remain beneath the seemingly brand new surface to bring us back into disorienting focus. The democratic mission remains in the form of “the American Word”—broad or specific. And it is only through the peoples’ exercising of this Word that our lives remain constantly striving towards the unreachable ideal. Life and art, art and life, both these provinces function as the proving ground for each new phase of American discourse.
Ellison writes of the artist’s task in American society:

In the field of literature it presents a problem of rhetoric, a question of how to fashion strategies of communication that will bridge the many divisions of background and taste which any representative American audience embodies. To the extent that American literature is both an art of discovery and an artistic agency for creating a consciousness of cultural identity, it is of such crucial importance as to demand of the artist not only an eclectic resourcefulness of skill, but an act of democratic faith. (9)

The broadness of “the American Word” makes for a difficulty in precise communication, Ellison seems to intimate, but, as put forth above, there is an intrinsic tone beneath the surface, an intangible quality, in both art and interaction that is founded upon the backbone of “the sacred principle” of democracy. Each artist, and each member of the American nation can be considered an artist of identity in this way, must have faith in this democratic underpinning or communication will fail—be it in the traditional rhetoric of the novel, or in the form of some seemingly baser, or loftier, form of communication. We must all take leaps of faith in this way. There is no established order within “the American Word” and it is through this word, and that which lies beneath it, that we craft our current system of existence, both as a people and as individuals. Without the faith to take this most American of leaps into newness, there is nothing but the stagnation of the older worlds waiting for us as a culture. We must remain pluralistic while striving for understanding through the central arch of “the sacred principle.”

The Music of Moby-Dick

by Ezekiel Fry

There are loads of songs inspired by great works of fiction. Hell, there are even bands that have taken on the name of a particular book, poem, or whatever. As an official Whale nut I am always interested in music, art, and film that arises from Moby-Dick. There has never been (and I firmly believe there never will be) a decent film adaptation of the book, and I have already discussed some great artwork of “The Whale,” (see here) but there are a number of songs that capture certain aspects of the book that I have yet to put forward. As the case usually is, some work better than others. This is, of course, as subjective an analysis as you could ever hope (or fear) to encounter. I’ll leave the judgement of these songs up to you, but here are three of my favorites. (Note: the final song is my personal favorite.)

So there you have it. Three very different (and yet strangely similar) takes on that “devil of a book” that still captures the particular lunacies dwelling in so many of our minds. Please feel free to add your own findings on Moby-Dick: The Musical! (Which sounds like it would probably be a pretty rad endeavor in and of itself.)

Striking Through the Mask: Part Five (The Confidence-Man)

by Ezekiel Fry

Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade is a difficult book. Okay, there. It is out of the way. The easy part, the difficult part, has been established from the outset. It is now our job to turn to the book itself, and the ambiguities within it—not the ambiguities that swirl around it. The Confidence-Man presents a vision of a steamer departing from St. Louis and progressing down the Mississippi towards New Orleans. The important factor in this assessment is the word towards. The Fidele never arrives at its destination. It stops at several defined locations throughout the course of the book, but at the close of the book it still remains, shifting downwards, towards the mouth of the Father of Waters, in transition and flux. The final sentence of the book highlights this quality, “Something further may follow of this masquerade” (Melville 350). There is a beginning, but, and this is especially true if we are looking at The Confidence-Man as a novel, there is no defined ending; the journey, from St. Louis to somewhere in between, is the book. This feature is readily applied to the late 20th century’s so-called “Post-Modern” movement in both literature and visual art and what the critic H. Bruce Franklin calls “the Theater of the Absurd” (Melville XV). This is certainly true to some degree. It is true that the form with which The Confidence-Man plays is quite similar to the works of the latter-half of the 20th century, but, as the poet Charles Olson intimates, form is but an extension of content. There is something—beyond the revolutionary construction of the book itself—that ties The Confidence-Man to the works of post World War II writers (and chroniclers of the American experience in particular) and this connection is to be found in the content—not the form—of the book. It is to be found in the intrinsically American discussion that constitutes the book. Whether read as complex religious allegory or social commentary the experience that Melville endeavors to create is so wholly American that it may as well be wrapped in a bloodied, warped and stretched Stars and Stripes. It is this American discussion for better or worse that creates the book.
Much like Moby-Dick’s Pequod, the Fidele can be viewed as a floating embodiment of the motley United States. The characters, in all their guises, which filter in and out of the setting are as varied and representative as the many peoples of the country. Unlike the Pequod however, the Fidele’s departure point is U. S. soil, and its journey (and supposed destination) runs, not away from the land, but through the very heart of it. The Mississippi, as is so artfully illustrated later in the 19th century by Twain, is true to its name—Father of Waters. It meanders more or less down the entirety of the country, serving as both a literal and metaphoric heart to the nation’s being. The journey begins in daylight, on the southern soil of St. Louis across the river from the northern soil of Illinois, the contrast of the two halves of the nation are present from the beginning. The journey however ends in the depths of night, somewhere within the darkness of the slave-south. As the ship passes Cairo, and the Ohio, it leaves behind the side of freedom and plunges into the slave-south fully. Within the book this passage is an eerie, ghostly descent into a world of death and shadows. The river itself seems not to have changed, but the lands which definitely surround the water have changed dramatically, giving the world of the Fidele an entirely different feeling from Cairo onward. There is no continuity, no certainty, even upon the Father of Waters. The land is in flux as much as the river itself. The north and the south are contrasted, as they have always been and will remain even to this day, and the figures which step forward into the light of dialogue are equally contrasted, or perhaps conflicted (or afflicted) is the proper word here, and in the American sense I believe it is.
In the first chapter of The Confidence-Man, a mute walks aboard the Fidele. He holds a placard up to the masses which displays Biblical verses. With each silent display the crowd becomes increasingly agitated with the mute. He responds by erasing the previous verse from his slate and putting forth a new one. This process culminates in a violent attack upon the mute and his subsequent lapse into slumber (presumably for the duration of the book) (Melville 3-9). This figure, due to both his dress and manner, may be viewed as Christ and his silent pleas to the masses as the lost word of spiritual truth, but by examining the figure, and his interactions with the crowd, through the lens of America, something else becomes visible. Here is a silent figure, only capable of communicating through the written word, perhaps beyond the scope of life itself—dead as it were. He uses words of power, but cannot voice them, cannot alter them but to change their referential point, and cannot fight back with the violence of the moment—in all truth he exists outside of even the most basic reality of the moment. He is at once the “lamb-like figure” and the silent, inert, and unmoving presence of the Constitution (Melville 9). The crowd dismisses him for the flavor of the moment, a written placard describing a notorious confidence man on the river. The past is swallowed up, the foundation—be it religious or socio-political—is pushed aside and violently forgotten, left to slumber in a corner. If Christ is asleep for the duration of the book, then the Constitution, and its vital qualities, is asleep as well. The Fidele exists as an equivalent of Antebellum America, moving boisterously after red-herrings and seemingly momentous nothings while violently dismissing the fundamentals of the country itself. Everyday is All Fool’s Day.
With the Constitution in hibernation, as much a symbol of the potential of humankind as Christ himself, the confidence man is given free-reign aboard the ship. A mockery of duty is played out amongst the many variations of this swindler or pacifier. As Christ, or the artist, the philosopher, the philanthropist, or the doctor, seek to give humanity purpose and happiness, so too does the confidence man, disguised as all these things, seek to subdue the tensions of the passengers aboard the Fidele. Using fraudulent logic and playing upon the sentimentalities of the passengers these artful figures look for “confidence” again and again. They seek to lessen doubt and ease the passage, even while apparently stealing money from their patient’s pocket. Most importantly, they attempt to obscure Truth with ease and comfort. The confidence man wishes to reestablish “a confidence in man” among his fellow travelers, but he wishes to do so, as Ellison will echo one hundred years later in Invisible Man, “outside of history” without the foundation of the Constitution. Religious supplication and social optimism are used to gloss the lurking serpent of a silent, and yet restless conscience.
This conscience is finally brought out of its slumber, if only for a moment, in the final chapter of the book. As the Fidele winds its way southward conversations abound concerning the qualities of humanity for good or ill, but there is never a firm conclusion as to how much confidence one (perhaps the reader) ought to put in humankind. The debate rages, but nothing is clear. Within the light of the solar lamp the Cosmopolitan finally touches upon the Truth. He begins to discuss some troublesome pieces he has found in the Bible with an old man. These selections draw into question his unflinching confidence in man (and religion). The old man (who may very well be the confidence man as well) quickly dismisses the Cosmopolitan, stating:

“Ah! Cried the old man, brightening up, “now I know. Look,” turning the leaves forward and back, till the Old Testament lay flat on one side, and all the New Testament flat on the other, while in his fingers he supported vertically the portion between, “look, sir, all this to the right is certain truth, and all this to the left is certain truth, but all I hold in my hand here is apocrypha.” (Melville 337)

The doubts that have so plagued the Cosmopolitan’s seemingly sincere love of humanity are thrust aside as belonging to a doubtful section of the fundamental scripture. The old man holds the doubtful part of the text in his had, pulling it apart from the “certain truth” of the Old and New Testaments, further emphasizing its place in the canon, but also subtly attempting to remove it from the book. This curious moment mirrors the process of the book itself, and, in a broader sense, the passage of the United States from concept into contradictory reality. To quote the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” Here is the apocryphal moment in the foundation of the United States, the doubtful part. The document, like the book in the old man’s hand, holds truth on either side of the doubtful section, but the worrisome bit cannot be removed without shattering the document entirely. As this interplay is happening, in the dead of the night, passengers begin to awaken to the conundrum being discussed, and, much like their reaction to the “lamb-like figure” at the outset of the voyage, they want to hear nothing more. They wish for the argument to remain asleep. The argument however, as embodied by the two interlocutors, cannot sleep. Neither the Cosmopolitan, nor the suspicious old man, reach any ultimate conclusion regarding the quality of humanity. They are headed towards sleep (apparently) at the conclusion of the text, but there is no certainty that they shall rest. All discussion remains in flux, much like the masquerade itself, and the river.

*pagination for The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade is from the most excellent Dalkey Archive edition. If you are interested in reading this book I highly suggest acquiring this edition. (And don’t read the introduction first!)

Striking Through the Mask: Part Four (Shadow and Act)

by Ezekiel Fry

As I continue to examine connections between Ellison and Melville it dawned on me that there may very well be a truly Ellisonian lens through which to view Melville’s Moby-Dick. Within Ellison’s collection of essays Shadow and Act, a great many references to Melville, and to Moby-Dick in particular, are intimated. While many of these are overarching remarks regarding Ellison’s personal literary heritage and American literary heritage as a whole, there is one remark that seems to hint towards this new reading of Moby-Dick specifically. Within his essay “Twentieth Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity” Ellison, in a discussion of the great writers of the American 19th century references Melville and then states in a parenthetical aside, “([Melville] whose symbol of evil, incidentally, was white)” (32). This incidental statement, thrown into the milieu of a larger discussion, and trapped within the seemingly subsidiary parentheses is far from obscured to the seasoned initiate of Melville’s titanic leviathan. What the white whale represents to Ahab we have explored, what the white whale means to Ishmael has been hinted at, but what the white whale means to the American identity as a whole has yet to be determined. In this aside Ellison begins to construct a vision of Moby Dick that steps out of the metaphysical and into the humanistic—the cultural and everyday meaning of American existence and humanity. When we begin to use Melville’s incidental use of whiteness in characterizing evil we will see that there is very little that is incidental about it. Moby Dick is far more representative of a tangible feeling within the American character than we may truly wish to believe.
In Shadow and Act, within the essay “Brave Words for a Startling Occasion,” Ellison writes of his 19th century literary antecedents:

I came to believe that the writers of that period took a much greater responsibility for the condition of democracy and, indeed, their works were imaginative projections of the conflicts within the human heart which arose when the sacred principles of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights clashed with the practical exigencies of human greed and fear, hate and love. (104)

This statement, which speaks also to the concept of a technically beautiful, but morally bankrupt fiction in the 20th century put forth in “Twentieth Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity,” also encapsulates one of Invisible Man’s narrator’s final epiphanies. As the riddle of his grandfather is deciphered (for the time being at least), Ellison’s narrator begins to understand the truth of the American dilemma. It is a theme rooted not only in the history of our nation, but also in the role of the Theodicy motive in both modern literature and the Gnostic texts of early Christianity. Ellison writes:

Did he mean say “yes” because he knew that the principle was greater than the men, greater than the numbers and the vicious power and all the methods used to corrupt its name? Did he mean to affirm the principle, which they themselves had dreamed into being out of the chaos and darkness of the feudal past, and which they had violated and compromised to the point of absurdity even in their own corrupt minds? Or did he mean that we had to take the responsibility for all of it, for the men as well as the principle, because we were the heirs who must use the principle because no other fitted our needs? (574).

Here we find the hidden wisdom within the affirmative “yes” of the narrator’s grandfather’s threat. The whole absurd reality of the American experiment, as it has been played out by the actors themselves, is thrown into a new light. The principle, which Ellison speaks to in Shadow and Act, and the responsibility to the ideal remain, while the execution, the human element of the equation, is thrown asunder. The experiment has failed, but the parameters remain solid and true. This vision of America, and the shadow which lies upon our existences—be it black or white—gives hope that one day the shadow may be erased by the principal—by the ideal. This concept, as mentioned above, is a complex reworking of Leibnitz’s Theodicy, which strove to defend the world that God had created, to alleviate God from direct responsibility for the frailties of the human world. In essence, the Theodicy motive of pre-19th century literature looks very much like John Milton’s mission statement at the beginning of Paradise Lost : “I may assert Eternal Providence/ And justify the ways of God to men” (1.25-26). It is my contention that these motives—to justify God—shift in the latter half of the 19th century and culminate in the works of such writers as Ralph Ellison. The motive merely shifts. We no longer examine a means to justify God in a world of death and pain, but we instead look to justify the American Principle, as Ellison and his narrator help define, in the face of contrary human history and the absurd doings of those who espouse the “sacred principles.” It is a saying “yes” to the principle and a denial of the result. In this way, Ellison’s narrator’s summation of America begins to touch on the Gnostic interpretations of Genesis, which are fundamentally seeped in the age old Theodicy motive as well.
Within the Gnostic gospels (and particularly the teachings of Marcion) the creation of Genesis is seen as the work of a usurper, or demiurge. This demiurge takes the idea of creation from the alien or allusive God, and puts it into practice. Hence, the suffering and pain that is manifest in the world is the result not of the omnipotent God’s work, but instead is that of a devilish and malignant entity. From this origination the alien God sends his emissary, Jesus, to severe the bond between humanity and the demiurge’s world, granting freedom in the next world. This system strives to justify the works of God to men, but it also serves as a framework for an Ellisonian reading of Moby-Dick. In the same way that Gnostic theology praises the idea (the concept of creation in the consciousness of the alien God), Ellison’s narrator’s deciphering of his grandfather’s words praises the “principle.” Neither appraisal has very kind words for the execution of events, be they the world in totality or the realities of a single country, and lurking behind the difficulties of both systems is, as Melville writes in Moby-Dick, “one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air” (22).
With this in mind we now turn back to the interpretation of Ellison’s words concerning the color of Melville’s symbol. The “grand hooded phantom” of slavery and its incumbent contradictions to the American “principle” created the actualities of American existence out of the pure ideal. Its presence, much like that of Moby Dick, causes disharmony in an otherwise placid situation. Moby Dick is the demiurge of Gnostic theology, and it is also the very much alive specter of slavery that lurks beneath the doings and grand propositions of The Continental Congress. While this specter exists there can be no peace for Ahab and his crew, and while the inequities and terror of slavery and its consequences exist there can be no peace for America.
The shadow cast upon Don Benito’s existence in Melville’s Benito Cereno may now be given a hue—it is white; the whiteness of Moby Dick himself and the whiteness of the evils of slavery and an unjust execution of the American “principle.” The shadow cast by Babo is white. This shadow, which so haunts both Ahab and Ishmael, cannot be allowed to endure in the world. This is the quest of the Pequod. A motley array of men joined together for one purpose—to destroy the absurd reality that the existence of slavery has created within the United States. The whale is the symbol of this ubiquitous evil, and the Pequod is the national vessel—it is symbolic of a nation tossed before the flood—and its captain is the hopeful deliverer—perhaps the emissary of the alien God sent to rectify the wrongs of the nation, and to return the “principle” to the forefront rather than the background of the scene. Each member of the crew is an active member of the American experiment hell-bent upon reinvigorating a poisoned system, taking, as Ellison calls it “responsibility for the condition of democracy.” Whether or not this mission is successful is another matter entirely, but the very act of “strik[ing] through the mask,” as Ahab calls it, of the superficiality and contradictory nature of the “principle” in action is a victory in itself. With this in mind the words of Ishmael ring with new found fury, “Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?” (Melville 165).

Striking Through the Mask: Part Three (Moby-Dick)

by Ezekiel Fry

Hark ye yet again,—the little lower layer. All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event—in the living act, the undoubted deed—there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. (Melville 140)

I have discussed at length a part of the significance found in these pivotal words from Ahab during his famous quarter-deck speech in my previous work. Now however, it is perhaps time to step out of the metaphysical, and step deeper, into “the little lower layer” in fact, and look at these words in connection to tangible, everyday realities. Although Ahab’s rage is seemingly directed entirely upon the form of Moby Dick himself, it is the inability to see the waking world in full, the inability to recognize the everyday—the human essence—that seems to lurk at the “lower layer” of Ahab’s difficulty and subsequent anger. Kenneth W. Warren in his book So Black and Blue: Ralph Ellison and the Occasion of Criticism quotes Robert Park who invokes the philosopher William James’ statement that each human carries with them a “personal secret” that will not yield itself to another’s view (88-9). It is within this realm of the hidden self that the humanist nature of Ahab’s quest may be found.
The idea of an unknowable aspect, or personality, within each human body is certainly true of Ahab and his crew, as it is perhaps of all humanity. Aboard the Pequod, as much as anywhere else, each individual holds their own true self behind their “pasteboard mask” as it were. We walk through life very much as Ahab puts it, prisoners not only to the whim of some unknowable God, but prisoners to ourselves and to those who we would truly know, and who would truly know us. Ahab seeks not only to tear the mask from the creator, but from himself, and all those who stand within his proximity. The nature of his quest, of his obsession, is hinted at time and again by Ishmael, but the secret self, that which lies at the “lower layer” of Ahab’s soul, and the souls of those who follow him, is something that is beyond Ishmael’s reach. Melville writes, concerning the hidden motivations of each individual:

How it was that they so aboundingly responded to the old man’s ire—by what evil magic their souls were possessed, that at times his hate seemed almost theirs; the White Whale as much their insufferable foe as his; how all this came to be—what the White Whale was to them, or how to their unconscious understandings, also in some dim, unsuspected way, he might have seemed the gliding great demon of the seas of life,—all this to explain, would be to dive deeper than Ishmael can go. The subterranean miner that works in us all, how can one tell whither leads his shaft by the ever shifting, muffled sound of his pick? (158)

This passage displays Ishmael’s appraisal of the outward show—the cries that go out from each individual (and yet strangely in unison)—and his fumbling surmises around the hidden nature, or source, of these shows. It is very much akin to Hamlet’s pivotal statement concerning the “lower layer” of his person. Hamlet introduces the outward show and then proceeds to hint at the “subterranean miner.” Shakespeare writes, “For they are actions that a man might play;/ But I have that within which passeth show—/ These but the trappings and the suits of woe” (1.2.84-5). Here again we do not get any closer to understanding that “which passeth show,” but it is upon this personal truth (that Hamlet may not even be fully cognizant of himself) that the weight of the entire play rests upon. Claudius, Polonius, Guildenstern and Rosencrantz, and the rest all attempt to “dive” beneath the surface of Hamlet’s “trappings” to gain an understanding of the internal workings of his being. It is telling that each of these divers is fated to die. Hamlet, and perhaps through him Shakespeare, seems to tell us that there is a segment of each individual that will be forever beyond another human’s reach. Ishmael himself surmises, but this as far into the maw as he will venture. Even in the end, much as it is with Hamlet, Ahab does not give us a true indication of his hidden self. His final tirade seems to speak around the actualities of the situation. Hamlet tells nothing in the end of his truth either, but leaves it to Horatio. In this way it is the outward story that is passed onwards, and not that “lower layer.” Ahab’s attempt to “strike through the mask” fails, just as the attempts of Hamlet’s adversaries fall short of their mark. The question lingers through these moments: can anyone know the Truth of another?
That which lies beyond the mask, which is glimpsed at moments, Ahab tells us, is a source of both knowledge and consternation. In seeing this “personal secret” behind all tangible actions the viewer is forced to reorient themselves, to add a new set of hints to their assumptions of the mask which they are viewing. While these hints give forth knowledge of a kind, and Ahab certainly believes this, it does not give a better indication of what the identity of the figure behind the mask might be. It may in fact be that each glimpse of movement in the depths further obscures the subject being viewed. Each new hint brings the figure further into shadow rather than into light. Here rises the consternation for both Ahab and all who would look beyond. The only way to truly know someone—to touch their “personal secret”—is to “strike through the mask!” But how is this to be done?
If we return to Melville’s Benito Cereno we will find some of these same humanist questions lingering. As previously discussed (see part one), the identity and the motivations of Babo are never deciphered. Like Iago, of Shakespeare’s Othello, Babo gives forth subtle indications throughout the text, and certain key factors may be ascertained simply from his position in the world. However, also like Iago, the moment that he is exposed, the instant that the inner-workings show themselves behind his mask, he becomes silent. Not a word is uttered by the now exposed rebel. Once the mask is removed, we begin looking for an explanation. If Babo (again, much like Iago) has used his tongue to further establish the truth of his own mask, then once that mask is seemingly shattered his tongue can no longer be of use to him. His silence becomes his only weapon, his only hope of retaining his personal power, and within this power lives his “personal secret.” To the flummoxed observer (Be it Captain Delano or Don Benito or the reader themselves), who has been jarred by the sudden removal of the mask—the ripping aside of their own assumptions and prejudices—Babo’s powerful silence works as a catalyst for further disorientation. Within this silence lies both Ahab’s idea of a “still reasoning thing” and the fear that “there’s naught beyond.” The latter fear, which manifests itself to Ishmael in the form of the “colorless, all-color of atheism,” is perhaps more terrifying than the words that seem to exist unspoken within Babo’s silence. The concept that there is nothing but the mask, especially when applied to a human being, that the “personal secret” and unknowable nature of the human heart is nothing but a cruel joke, is as Ishmael states in regards to atheism, something from which we “shrink” (Melville 165).
This fear, that the mask is all, leads to the need to dehumanize, the need to subdue and destroy. In this way, Ahab places all his woe upon Moby Dick, a figurehead for all that is wrong within (and without of) the human spirit, and Babo’s head (which was the source of his power, as Melville’s narrator adroitly states) must be removed from his body. In the case of Iago, Othello must view the now silent figure no longer as a man, but as a demon incarnate. In the face of the nothingness beyond Iago’s mask, Othello must ground himself in something. Iago ceases to be a man, but his power remains. Othello stands in front of the workings which one may never see and must turn the blade on himself rather than attack that which was once Iago. It is in this way that Babo’s head continues to dominate the tale of Don Benito long after it has been removed from his body—long after his human essence has been destroyed. Moby Dick too, who is kin to the sperm whale’s head which Ahab attempts to converse with, holds his silence. The spear may be darted into the whale’s side, but the head will never speak, even when it is severed from the body and hoisted on board. The mask for Ahab is pervasive. It is everything. The “naught beyond” is never experienced that we witness, but who is to say what happens when Ahab takes his final dive? Pip returns from such a sounding, but without the ability to disseminate his findings. Madness may very well be the only living relic of too deep a search, but the humanist concern remains: May we truly know one another? Judging from the fates of Don Benito, Ahab, Hamlet’s foils, and Othello it would seem that the answer is a tragic no. This may very well be, but the desire to know, the desire to understand that which lies beyond our personal mask and the masks of our fellows, are motivations that drive the world forward in every way. Death lies at the end of the struggle for all, with little to no resolution, but the dance continues. The very fact that there may be no answer to the question is most assuredly reason enough to continue searching for one.

*All pagination for Moby-Dick is from the Norton Critical Edition.

Striking Through the Mask: Part Two (Invisible Man)

by Ezekiel Fry

From our first introduction to Ralph Ellison’s narrator in Invisible Man we are given only the slimmest window by which to view the speaker. The entire drama that shall unfold will be viewed as the unnamed teller desires it to be. He will be the controlling force of the narrative. It is through this technique of control that the voice of the unseen, unheard, and unwanted may assert itself, and form (or destroy) an identity within a carefully constructed frame of words and ideas. The deference that may be necessary in the actual events of the novel themselves will never intrude upon the fierce independence that is afforded for this underground voice through this technique of narrative control. Although the speaker may remain invisible, his voice carries and resounds. Nothing makes its way outward to the reader that the narrator—Ellison’s subordinate in this sense—does not first inspect and certify. While the authoritative figures of the novel continue to keep the narrator running, it is only through the narrator’s own story, his realm of creation, that we see these seemingly powerful figures. They are as much his creation as he is theirs. This relationship leads to an epilogue that, as the narrator states, ends with the beginning (Ellison 571), and this too is an assertion of control. Invisible Man lies in a tradition of narrative control and creation that functions most extraordinarily when applied to the figure of shadow—unseen, unheard, and unwanted.
By examining two of Ellison’s forebears the role of his own narrator, the power of the technique itself, and perhaps even a window into the identity of the invisible man himself may become clearer. These two literary precedents are Herman Melville’s Ishmael, and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “Underground Man.” Firstly, I would like to compare the first sentence of each figure’s narrative disclosure. In Moby-Dick, Ishmael’s first utterance is, “Call me Ishmael” (Melville 18); in Notes From the Underground, the “Underground Man’s” is, “I am a sick man” (Dostoevsky 1); The narrator of Invisible Man begins with, “I am an invisible man” (Ellison 3). All three of these marginalized figures, who give us our only glimpses into the worlds which they inhabit, begin by tersely identifying themselves. This is not to say that they begin by telling us who they are, but instead what they are. Ishmael instructs the reader to call him an outcast, the “Underground Man” states bluntly that he is deficient in some way, and Ellison’s narrator, just as bluntly and matter-of-factly, tells us that he is invisible. These descriptions do not definitively tell us anything about the man himself, but, through the application of a negative, they may bring us closer to understanding the what, if not the who of the question. Ishmael does not have a home, the “Underground Man” is not healthy, and Ellison’s narrator cannot be seen. These distinctions, between the positive and negative viewing of the statement, may appear arbitrary, but they form the foundation upon which each narrator will divulge his tale. They are the parameters which are set from the very first word.
Each narrator tells us flatly how not to view them, but Ellison’s narrator takes this method one step further, he tells us that we cannot view him. Period. By stating this as the opening thought of the novel, all subsequent events must refer backwards to this moment of definition through negation. Ishmael will always be the outcast who stands outside of events as they unfold upon the Pequod, the “Underground Man’s” actions will always be predicated by an intrinsic lack of balance (be it physical or spiritual), and Ellison’s narrator’s story will always portray an outward figure—an invisible shell—which houses a very visible, tangible soul. Within his cloak of invisibility, the narrator holds the keys to what is, but from his first line he will endeavor to display this knowledge through the examination of what is not. Looking back, he knows how each event will end, but it is as if, in the course of the novel, he experiences them again for the first time. This is not so. Like Ishmael before him, Ellison’s narrator recreates his story in the telling, but his preternatural knowledge of the outcome is always present, forcing the reader to look through the mask of innocence and see the inner-workings of the tale long before they appear in the text explicitly. With this referential thought in mind, the repetition of the narrator’s line, in the prologue, “the end is in the beginning” (Ellison 6), and at the end of chapter 25, “the end was in the beginning” (Ellison 571), become book-ends for the story, which is told during the ending, and finished where it began. Everything that lies between these two invocations references the knowledge that the narrator possesses in the end, which he possesses from the very beginning. In this complicated way, as with Ishmael, the narrator is free to create the past, to, as Clifton states, “plunge outside history” (Ellison 377). The backward glance is alive and well within the character of Ellison’s narrator, much as it is in those numerous tell-tale lines of foreshadowing from Melville’s Ishmael.
This narrative structuring allows for a calculated build-up to the ultimate moment. While Ishmael places the “grand hooded phantom” (Melville 22) at the end of his first statement (chapter one), we will not see Moby Dick himself until the final scene of the book. In the same way Ellison’s narrator places the description of his grandfather, and the subsequent dream, as the capstone of his first tale (chapter one as well), but it will not be until the final moment, or the beginning found in the ending, that this vision of his grandfather, and the turmoil surrounding his final words, will be exposed. The narrator has the knowledge of this conclusion from the very outset, for he has lived the events of the novel, but he may not expose this truth until he has made that which is invisible visible. Where Ishmael cannot drop Moby Dick into the path of Ahab until the whale has been given shape and vigor through the telling, Ellison’s narrator cannot show the pertinence of his hard-fought conclusion until he has given breath and blood to a life that cannot be seen. The invisible man must make himself visible, in order to shift back into the underground. It is telling that the chamber in the beginning of the novel is filled with light, while the pit in which the narrator finds himself at the end of chapter 25 is filled with coal and darkness. The light must be present to illuminate that which cannot otherwise be seen. Once the tale has been told darkness may return, much as Ishmael states in the final line of chapter 135, “and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago” (Melville 427). The “shroud”, the darkness, settles back upon the scene only when the narrator commands it. Every aspect of the tale, be it whaling expedition or communist disillusionment, is carefully controlled by the narrator, leading (but not at the exclusion of the events which create the bulk of the work) to one final moment, a purging of sorts. This is certainly the case for Ellison’s narrator, who waits until the scene has dimmed back to darkness before releasing the secret of his grandfather’s Truth.
Placing the seemingly new found knowledge of a hidden truth within his grandfather’s dying words atop his initial fears concerning the old man’s apparently traitorous secret, and the failed attempt to integrate this traitorous element into his own life, Ellison’s narrator draws on both these momentary beliefs, these misinterpretations of a troubling statement. The struggle with his grandfather’s words changes and shifts throughout the many episodes of the novel, but lurking behind all these is that final epiphany that within the statement lives a beautiful affirmation. Experience has shown the reader the truth of this theory. It has not shown the narrator, for, as mentioned above, he has known the outcome all the while. He has turned all the lights on, has grappled with the controls and taken charge for a brief moment in order to elegantly lead the reader out of the light of the personal, into the shadowy realm of the universal. The personal narrative, the creation of identity (or loss of identity as the case may very well be), has been spoken of in the glaringly bold light of the subterranean prologue, but the wisdom of his grandfather’s words are uttered in the darkness of the epilogue. Within a country—within a world—in which we all, whether knowingly or unknowingly, live beneath a shroud of darkness a voice may rise out of this shadow and, through the mechanism of narrative control and foreknowledge, create a speck of light in the gloom. As the scene dims once again the narrator draws attention, ever so subtly, to the possibilities that lie within this universal shroud. The connection that has been established through the “disembodied voice” (which is the true voice of all Americans) may be drawn ever closer. Norton’s destiny becomes inescapable, and the final words of the novel echo for us all, “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?” (Ellison 581). The identity of the invisible man becomes strangely clear. Until we accept Grandfather’s truth, until we acknowledge that reality and ideal are separate entities, we are all invisible, all lost beneath the shroud.

*Pagination: Moby-Dick (Norton Critical Edition); Invisible Man (Vintage Edition); Notes From Underdground (Dover Thrift Edition).

Striking Through the Mask: Part One (Benito Cereno)

by Ezekiel Fry

Flights of troubled gray fowl, kith and kin with flights of troubled gray vapors among which they mixed, skimmed low and fitfully over the waters, as swallows over meadows before storms. Shadows present, foreshadowing deeper shadows to come. (Melville 161)

Benito Cereno, from this opening hint onwards, deals in the murky realms of human perception. In this establishing moment it is noted that shadows are present, but there is no mention of these shadows being visible to the human eye. They exist, however what is real and what is seen are very often two quite different things. Benito Cereno is a narrative of layers and fleeting glimpses of that which may lie beneath. Through these filters, these unseen shadows, Captain Delano is forced time and again to reorient his vision, and to examine his focus and look through the shadows. The narrator offers clues that either speculate upon Delano’s own perception, or, as in the case of the above passage, create deeper layers for the reader to sift through. It may be that at the bottom of this complex maze of perception there lurks something—or someone—that will not appear as the layers are pulled aside. The center of the shadow may be as allusive to the reader as it is to Delano. At the center of this complex web of deception and perspective is the true being of the slave, Babo, and just as Delano, and through him the reader, appears to have gained access to this key to the mystery of the San Dominick the figure recedes deeper into shadow, deeper into speculation and the unknowable.
Stripping aside the falsity of the human eye begins instantly. We are introduced to the context of the story, and immediately Delano is brought on deck of his vessel to function as our eyes. The narrator works in a secondary role within this tale. It appears that we view the world through the all-seeing eyes of the narrator, but this is not the case. The narrator drops back behind Delano, becomes his subsidiary, and only pokes his head out to further entangle the reader in the web. Delano is the primary lens. In this way everything viewed is witnessed through the eyes of a fallible being, one who is interacting within the tale. This is first exemplified by the way in which the San Dominick changes as Delano draws ever closer. The descriptions which the narrator gives are the truths of a human eye, second by second, as something seems to become clearer, to gain focus. This belief in the reality of human perception is itself subtly examined by a narrative editorial prior to Delano setting foot on the San Dominick:

Always upon first boarding a large and populous ship at sea…the impression varies in a peculiar way from that produced by first entering a strange house in a strange land. Both house and ship…hoard from view their interiors till the last moment: but in the case of the ship there is this addition; that the living spectacle it contains, upon its sudden and complete disclosure, has, in contrast with the blank ocean which zones it, something of the effect of enchantment. The ship seems unreal; these strange costumes, gestures, and faces, but a shadowy tableau just emerged from the deep, which directly must receive back what it gave. (Melville 166)

What first appeared to be a “whitewashed monastery” populated by “Black Friars” has now become clearly “a Spanish merchantman,” but this editorial description of enchantment draws even this seeming truth, the truth of Delano’s perception, into question (Melville 163). What we are shown, even at the moment of contact as Delano steps on board, may well be something very different than what is actually transpiring. The eyes of humanity are covered in layers, and there is no definitive moment when it can be safely stated that all of these layers have been thrown aside and the Truth of the situation stands bare to scrutiny.
This theme of layered perception is not only applicable to visual focus, but may be extended, and this is where the really magnificent aspects of Benito Cereno become evident, to the role of identity, and the role of the mask—both figurative and literal. In putting together this study of Melville and Ellison, two passages from Melville’s work immediately came to mind, and it may be helpful to now, rather tangentially, introduce the first of these. Discussing the intricate designs on the San Dominick, Melville writes:

But the principle relic of faded grandeur was the ample oval of the shield-like stern-piece, intricately carved with the arms of Castile and Leon, medallioned about by groups of mythological or symbolical devices; uppermost and central of which was a dark satyr in a mask, holding his foot on the prostrate neck of a writhing figure, likewise masked. (164)

This passage works in a similar fashion to the aforementioned passage concerning shadows and foreshadows. We see immediately the “dark satyr” and his victim, who seem to stand out against the other lesser shapes of the stern-piece, and they are “uppermost” and “central” to the design. They are perhaps the prime “symbolical devices” of the entire tale, but we, nor Captain Delano, know what their significance is, they are merely there, shadows—or masks as the case may be—foreshadowing further shadows. The figures both wear a mask, and in this the difficulties of perception rise to the surface once again. Delano, and through him the narrator, have spent the first several moments of the story establishing the inability, on this “peculiar” day to see anything as it is—to strip aside both layers of enchantment, and masks of identity. The symbol of the mask, one which will remain a constant throughout this study, is first displayed here. The significance of the faces beneath these masks feels important, and there is an intense desire, at least for this reader, to see beneath the mask, to examine the “dark satyr” and his victim. The truth of the matter may well be that, as Ahab says in Moby-Dick , “there’s naught beyond.”
As we finally arrive at a seeming resolution and Benito Cereno is restored and Babo is brought to justice, the scene of the story shifts. We no longer sit aboard the San Dominick with its mysteriously carved stern-piece and its grisly figure-head. Even so, these components are as present as Babo’s voice in his Iago-like silence and his sentient glare from the headsman’s pike. Benito Cereno is intrinsically linked with his captor, or was it his captive? Here is where the identities of the figures behind the mask begin to come into focus, and then quickly fade back into the shadow of their intrinsic coverings. Could it be Benito Cereno who lies prostrate on the ground, while Babo wields the whip above him? Or is it Benito Cereno, or his comrade Aranda, the slave-holders, who stand above the prone figure of Babo? There is no easy answer to this question. There is perhaps no answer, but the very fact that the question arises, which it most certainly does, throws an uneasy light upon the entire affair of the San Dominick. In a statement that will serve as the epigraph to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Delano discusses the end of the ordeal with Cereno. Melville writes:

‘You are saved,’ cried Captain Delano, more and more astonished and pained; ‘you are saved: what has cast such a shadow upon you?’
‘The negro.’ (257)

This chilling moment, which may be viewed from many an angle, seen in context with the question of the identities of the masked figures, shows that perhaps Cereno sees the “dark satyr” as Babo, with his shadow cast down upon the Spaniard for eternity. This may very well be Cereno’s truth in this moment, but the conversation ends on that final statement, and in fact “The negro” is the final line of spoken dialogue within the tale itself. The “pall” that seems to hang around the two men as they allow those two words to sink in is felt throughout the conclusion of the story, and can be felt floating back over the entire incident of the San Dominick. These words, spoken at the penultimate moment of the tale, are now present throughout. Unlike the seemingly carefree Delano, Cereno, and the reader with him, cannot view the past without the presence of this shadow. Everything leading up to this moment has shifted. The layers of perception have been pulled back yet again, and the vision of the whole is no clearer than it was in the first moments of Delano’s ship sighting the San Dominick. If anything, the shadow of Babo—the shadow of the slave or the shadow of slavery itself—has further obscured the reality of the situation. All that is left is an empty mask and an incomplete—impossible—maze.
The figures behind the masks do not exist. There is nothing beneath. Neither Babo nor Cereno exist as these masked symbols. Much like the figure head of the leader, the skeletal remains of the slaveholder, the figures behind the masks are long dead. The machinations continue on, lead by a corpse into the depths of depravity. From moment to moment the occupants of the mask may shift, but the masks themselves are as much a component of the rotting system of slavery. The slave trade obscures humanity, and even a seemingly innocent observer like Delano (and he is far from innocent) occupies a role, or mask, in the machine of slavery. The entire ship, with its crumbling decadence, functions as a terrifying example of the course of slavery. A ship headed by the dead, floating beyond control in a dangerous direction, with no relief for slave holder, slave, or complicit by-stander alike. The thing behind the mask is hideous, for it is human, and the mask itself a creation of the entity which dons it, and the words, the shadow, linger in the pestilent air.

*The edition of Benito Cereno which all pagination is from is the Penguin Classics edition: Billy Budd and Other Stories

Striking Through the Mask: An essay series (Introduction)

by Ezekiel Fry

I have decided that a wonderful way to ease myself back into the habit of adding regular essays to this Gloomy sphere will be to reprint a series of essays that I completed this past winter. The essays focus on the relationship between the works of Ralph Ellison and Herman Melville. Each one is truly an essay into the subject and should in no way be considered a definitive proclamation on any of the works covered. These are but fledglings, but there is meat here nonetheless. Lets get started!