Friday, April 22, 2005

When the Blind Lead the Blind: Rhetoric in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man

The fifth chapter of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man finds the Narrator sitting in chapel utterly entranced by the words of Reverend Homer A. Barbee, who entrances the audience by beautifully eulogizing the life and death of the school's beloved founder many years before. After hearing the moving speech, the Narrator notes, "For a few minutes old Barbee had made me see the vision and now I knew that leaving the campus would be like parting of the flesh" (120). Barbee made the Narrator want to be a part of this vision more than anything, and the Narrator knows this desire is ultimately to be denied. Yet, moments later, the Narrator "...hurried past the disapproving eyes of teachers and matrons, out into the night" (121). This seems to contradict his desire to be a part of the vision, his leaving of the place where the vision is being forged and reinforced. Instead, he finds himself feeling "resentment" toward Barbee's address. One part of this reaction is certainly his not wanting to leave, but knowing he will be forced out. Yet, on another, as of yet undefined level the Narrator is for the first time reacting against the novel's recurring theme of rhetoric as a manipulative device of power and control.

On the surface, Barbee's speech does little more than give a moving eulogy about the Founder and praise Dr. Bledsoe's accomplishments in having "...kept his promise a thousandfold" (119). Barbee begins by relating to the days before the Founder as "...this barren land after Emancipation...this land of darkness and sorrow..." (107). He then speaks of the Founder's birth, escape, education, and accomplishments, referring to the Founder as "the great sun" (114) and similar illuminative imagery throughout. The Founder is clearly the one to change "...this land of darkness and sorrow..." into something brighter. Barbee speaks of the Founder's death followed by Dr. Bledsoe's charge and successful fulfillment of the Founder's deathbed wish that Bledsoe "...take on the burden. Lead them the rest of the way" (116). Then Barbee relates how Bledsoe has become the great figure who vastly increased the size of the university and even conducted the President himself around campus (119).

All in all, Barbee's speech strikes the reader at first as nothing more than a simple, if inspiring and flowery, narration of fact. But it has, in fact, done much more than that. As has already been pointed out, the Narrator has already been made to "see the vision" and in doing so become reconnected to it. No doubt the same effect has taken place on the other students in attendance. It inspires confidence and admiration for the administration in place to do what is right and best for the black people. Yet, in order to accomplish this end, this seemingly harmless speech has become a form of power, control, and manipulation. It starts by nearly deifying, or at least mythologizing, the founder through its lauding of virtue and celestial comparison upon him (making a reverend the perfect messenger). Then, at the end, we see what is probably the true purpose of the Reverend's speech: The reinforcement of Bledsoe as the new leader, and one who is as great, if not greater, than the Founder, through such direct comparison as even claiming, "For has not your present leader become [the Founder's] living agent?" (119). Barbee is implicating that the Founder and Bledsoe are at least equals, before going on in the very next paragraph to explain how Bledsoe has surpassed the accomplishments of the Founder in the ways listed above.

The purpose of this manipulation is to re-establish Bledsoe's authority in the eyes of those who may doubt him. This speech is only minimally meant to influence the trustees. Bledsoe has other, more effective ways to manipulate them. Rather, it is to improve his image and re-emphasize the necessity of fidelity with the students and teachers of the university. To be frank, up to this speech, Bledsoe is not portrayed as the equal of the founder. He fawns over the trustees (Norton being a prime example [94–95]) in a way that, unlike the vision Barbee gives us of the Founder, does not inspire respect so much as comfort on the trustees' parts. The students refer to him as "Old Bucket-head" (92), certainly a less respectful appellation than the universally revered "Founder." Disregarding what we learn in chapters following the scene in the church, there is ample evidence to suspect this influencing of opinion may be the true purpose of the Reverend's speech.

At this point, it would certainly be reasonable to assume that I am perhaps reading too deeply into this by implying the purpose of the speech was more devious than it superficially appears, but there is a key hint for both the Narrator and for the reader that such an interpretation may very well be valid. As the Narrator puts it, "Homer A. Barbee was blind" (120). The use of the full name after so many references to the Reverend as just "Barbee," combined with the simplicity of the declarative, seems to imply some shock, almost of incomprehension, on the part of the Narrator. In other words, this physical deformity seems to have quite an effect on the Narrator. Superficially, the physical aspect of this blindness calls into question the veracity of Barbee's tale about the founder. For instance, what should the Narrator (or the reader for that matter) make of Barbee's story of the dying star:

"For against that great—wide—sweep of sable there came the burst of a single jewel-like star, and I saw it shimmer, and break, and streak down the cheek of that coal-black sky like a reluctant and solitary tear..." (115)
Certainly it is possible Barbee lost his sight after that, but there is nothing in the text to suggest this is the case. If this incident is perhaps made up, what else might be?

However, more important than Barbee's physical blindness is what it suggests about his inner blindness. As pointed out above, Barbee does not seem to be talking about the same Dr. Bledsoe that everyone else knows. He may really believe everything he says about Dr. Bledsoe. On the other hand, we also find out soon after that Bledsoe is willing to "...have every Negro in the country hanging on tree limbs by morning if it means staying where I am" (128). With this in mind, it isn't a far-fetched idea that an interpretation of Barbee's speech as I outlined above is easily justified, and that Barbee is little more than Bledsoe's tool to manipulate the student body, and Barbee is the blind man who cannot see to what end his power is being used. He seems to truly care about the Founder and what the Founder stood for. He sees himself as serving those ends in allowing his gift to be used to reinvigorate the student population. As a reverend, he doesn't see that he's really helping a corrupt man who has betrayed the ideals of the Founder. Although the Narrator does not realize any of this at the time of Barbee's speech, this revelation of blindness and manipulation is the tipping point that turns the Narrator from seeing "the vision" to resisting it and feeling "resentful." Barbee is merely the first example of a theme that runs throughout the novel: Those with the command of rhetoric as being blind to its true use as employed by those with power.

Whether the speaker is Ras the Exhorter/Destroyer or the Narrator himself, those who posses the power of persuasion are never able to make their gift work the way they intend. As the Narrator points out about Ras to his followers, "...but [the Brotherhood] counted on this man [Ras], too. They needed this destroyer to do their work...They want you guilty of your own murder, your own sacrifice!" In other words, the Brotherhood has been manipulating events and counting on Ras to stir up bad feeling into a race riot, which is exactly what Ras is doing. Knowing how Ras operates, the brotherhood was able to manipulate a situation where they knew Ras would "...come uptown with guns and rifles" because the Brotherhood understands what Ras is about politically. They know that he will use his influence to create a situation where the Brotherhood can "...turn your death and sorrow and defeat into propaganda...'Use a nigger to catch a nigger.' Well, they used me to catch you and now they're using Ras to do away with me and to prepare your sacrifice" (482–483). Ras' command over people's hearts through his own peculiar, earnest rhetoric is being used against him and the Harlem community by the Brotherhood because, like Barbee, Ras is too blind by his own sense of righteousness and self-importance to believe that he could be used by his enemies.

Even more than Ras, the Narrator himself is the primary example of manipulation in the novel. Though he senses something wrong with Barbee's speech, he does not make the connection between rhetoric and manipulation until the end of the novel. The Brotherhood first found interest in the Narrator as he used reverse psychology to stop an eviction. As Jack says, "With a few words you had them involved in action!" (251). Jack sees the manipulative power and wants to hire the Narrator as a tool. He works well for the Brotherhood. He is the one who generates interest in "No more dispossessing of the dispossessed" (295) in that initial speech as well as at his first rally. The Brotherhood uses him first to drive up membership, a seemingly noble task at the time. Yet it isn't until later that we discover that the Narrator's charisma is a double-edged sword for the people of Harlem. The Brotherhood reassigns him on a plot ultimately revealed as engineered by Jack ("That he, or anyone at that late date could have named me and set me running with one and the same stroke of the pen was too much" [491]) that turns the sentiments of Harlem from one of hope with their new leader to one of abandonment. Amazingly, the Narrator is amazed to find upon his return, those who once he considered "Brothers" are now set against him ("I wouldn't be his kin even if I was..." [366]). He remains blind. The Narrator thinks it was simple mismanagement on behalf of the Brotherhood, but they really used the Narrator's rhetorical skill to drum up false hope in order to plant the seeds of the race riot and provoke Ras into action in the passage quoted above.

While obviously the Narrator is aware he is being used for a purpose (what else is employment?), he remains blind until far too late to do anything to prevent the riots that are starting at the time of his epiphany. He begins to understand after Clifton's funeral that he is a pawn, and he decides to play the part of good pawn, thinking that he is harming the brotherhood. Yet still he is blind. Through it all, he thinks that the Brotherhood ultimately wouldn't do anything that would directly harm the people of Harlem. In the interview with Jack after the Narrator's speech at Clifton's funeral, Jack's response to the Narrator's assertion that the people of Harlem believe that the Brotherhood has betrayed them is to say, "That's an indefensible lie...We do not shape our policies to the mistaken and infantile notions of the man in the street. Our job is not to ask them what they think but to tell them" (408)! After the interview, the Narrator is convinced it is the Brotherhood that is blind (410), yet he is to discover that he was wrong; it was him all the time. The Brotherhood really did know what Jack claimed was a lie about the sentiments of Harlem. But that was part of the plan to which the Narrator was still blind.

The last, most important question that remains is to explore why Ellison seems to see the use of rhetoric as so inherently deceitful and manipulative. As explored above, every overt use of it in the novel turns out to be sinister when it is meant to be well-meaning because of the blindness of those who possess it. It is evident why those in power wish to use those who posses the skill. It is a powerful form of manipulation. Ellison notes in the prologue how people perceive the world around them: "A matter of the construction of their inner eyes, those eyes with which they look through their physical eyes upon reality" (7). In other words, people live in their own reality to the extent their experience is filtered through "inner eyes" that only see the world in the way they expect to experience it; people can create their own experience of reality. In essence, people can create themselves through the narratives their "inner eyes" tell them. Using this notion of the "inner eyes" as a framing device, mastery of rhetoric is possibly the most powerful form of manipulation there is. A powerful speaker has the power to change how the "inner eyes" of others experience reality through powerful techniques of persuasion. A master speaker can make people literally see the world—reality&mash;in the way that the speaker wants them to see it. Barbee can change the reality of Dr. Bledsoe as "Old Bucket-head" to the reality of Dr. Bledsoe as one of the greatest black leaders. Dr. Bledsoe didn't have to change, only the perceptions of those in the audience. The same goes for the power of Ras and the Narrator to turn normally "law-abiding" (239) people into an angry mob bent on riot.

While this ability to alter a person's perception of the world is certainly a powerful tool, perhaps the reason Ellison is afraid of its power can be found in the Narrator's self-identification as a "thinker tinker" (11). As Dr. Malcolm Griffin points out, the Narrator comes to believe his responsibility is only to define himself through his expression. Yet the purpose of rhetoric is to change the way others define themselves. This inevitably leads to a mob mentality in the novel, whether a chapel full of like-minded students or a rioting mob, that kills of individuality and self-expression. The speaker who uses rhetoric is taking the responsibility for self-definition away from those whose duty to themselves should be to be able to express their own thoughts, which is often hard when the mob mentality is firmly entrenched. For example, in the Narrator's second-to-last confrontation with Ras, the Narrator has supporters among Ras' followers who ask to "Give the brother a chance to answer!" (415) and ultimately Ras' followers remember the good the Narrator has done for the community. By the final confrontation, Ras has wiped out the memories of the Narrator's good deeds from the mind of his followers. He has no more supporters.

Given this view of rhetoric by Ellison, it is no wonder that all the rhetorically accomplished speakers in Invisible Man are blind to being used. To speak rhetorically is to speak artificially. It is used to express not the speaker's voice, but to express the voice that the crowd will best react to and the agenda of those in power. Barbee, Ras, and the Narrator are all puppets of other people, either Bledsoe or the Brotherhood, and they say what their manipulator wants them to say and what the audience will best respond to. As a result, instead of self-defining themselves as unique individuals, they are defining themselves as only a part of the mass crowd they are set to manipulate, and as a result, they cannot help but believe their own rhetoric after a while. All three of Invisible Man's narrators succumb to this. Thus, they lack the ability to create a self-definition in the way the Narrator as "thinker-tinker" ultimately understands how to do, and if they can't define themselves as individuals, how can they possibly separate themselves from the homogenous crowd who only see what they are told to see. And as a crowd will follow the speaker, so will the rhetorician follow the ideas he is fed. He best expresses them, how can he not believe them?


At February 5, 2008 at 7:30 PM, Blogger Fred Montas, Jr. said...

Nice essay on Invisible Man, Nathan. I'm teaching this novel to high school seniors in an AP Lang class and I would like them to read your essay (especially your observations on Barbee and Bledsoe) as an example of the kind of analytical writing they should aspire towards. (If you're not familiar with it, AP Lang focuses on rhetoric, especially through non-fiction. It is modeled on first-year college composition courses.) My students just started Invisible Man and I am certain that a number of them will find it difficult, especially since we're focusing on its rhetorical, rather than literary, aspects. Thanks for posting your work.


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