Danielle Allen is one of those U. of Chicago prof who has swept the MacArthur genius circuit. She is a scholar of classics and of African American literature, a pretty rare and cool combo. LI read her essay on Ralph Ellison in this season’s Raritan with an eye on what is happening in Iraq. The essay, “Ralph Ellison on the Tragicomedy of Citizenship”, speaks to – or is it for? an occupied population – and one occupied by people who claim, by some perpetually unfolding mystery, to speak for the occupied, even as they evacuate the place in the discourse where the occupied could, possibly, have a voice.
But to Allen’s fascinating essay. She begins by pointing out, as all scholars of Ellison have done before her, the key political disagreement between one important critic of the book, Irving Howe, and Ellison himself. Howe objected to the de-politicization of race in the novel -- and what he took to be Ellison's acceding to a liberal and conformist ethos that avoided the politics of race. Allen shrewdly understands that a great book’s critics say things that are already forecast in the book itself – in fact, great novels are prophetic to the extent that they contain characters, asides and symbols that already stage the argument with their future critics. In this case, Allan claims that Ellison’s often stated interest in ritual, especially rituals of humiliation, should serve us as a guide to just that political subtext of the novel that its critics claimed it lacked. Its critics weren’t reading hard enough.
Allen concentrates on three encounters that mark the Invisible Man’s career. The first of them is the famous Battle Royal, which remains in the memory of even the most casual reader of the book. Here’s a brief synopsis.
The narrator’s school speech about humility has won such praise in the community that a white group proposes to give him a scholarship, requiring only that he read the speech to them. He arrives to find the whites surly and drunk. A stripper comes in, and barely makes it through a few moves before she has to escape this crowd. Then a battle is staged between ten black boys who are blindfolded. The Invisible Man is, of course, thrown into the battle too.
This is what Allen says:
“Bloodied and debased, I.M. [Allen’s initials for the narrator] is finally allowed to speak and begins, among yells and laughter, in this context of humiliation, his paen to, of all things, humility. As the context for his speech has been shifted, however, so too his memory has been jolted out of place, for instead of pledging, in accord with his written text, that he will devote himself to ‘social responsibility,’I M resoundingly commits himself to social equality. Ellison writes: ‘the laughter hung in sudden stillness. I opened my eyes, puzzled. Sounds of displeasure filled the room…’Say that slowly, son!” Realizing his mistake, I.M. feels a flutter of fear before retracting his desire for ‘equality’, affirming his commitment to social responsibility, and finding himself rewarded.”
This is the Governing Council’s own situation. The social responsibility we want from the Iraqis shouldn’t encroach on our hierarchical edge over them – shouldn’t, in other words, presume on an equality so radical as to equate an Iraqi death – an invisible thing, something that Iraqis can, of course, mourn in private, but that can’t be allowed to intrude in any gross manner on the American public space – with an American death – a tremendous thing, something that must be revenged to the second and third generation. And the GC, after going through the Battle Royal of affirming every one of Bremer’s wishes, of rubberstamping even their own mock elevation to a power that is only an attenuated form of powerlessness, the power of Roman senators in the era of Caligula, are required, now, to rubberstamp Bremer’s closure of Sadr’s newspaper, and Bremer’s use of a corrupt court’s murder warrant, and the U.S. high command’s destruction of Falluja. This is a long crawl on the belly, and it has obviously hurt some of the Council. Most, mere lechers and bagmen, have proven themselves classically indifferent to everything but their own skins – or, in the case of Chalabi, have used the occasion to float various power-grabbing ideas through a bunch of D.C. proxies (see Jim Hoagland’s op ed piece in the Post yesterday for an especially greasy hint that now would be a good time for the U.S. to officially recognize Chalabi’s militia – a sort of 'bring on the death squads and freedom fighters, boys" to round out Bush's Reagan parody). Others, however, have steered a course between responsibility and abjection.
Well, do you trade a certain number of deaths for being cycled through the upward mobility promised by the system? Certainly that has to be on Iraqi minds. On the one hand, they are watching the U.S reward Israel’s conquests in the West bank, and on the other hand, they are having to endure an occupation that grows out of the U.S. claim that conquest – Saddam’s conquest of Kuwait – is such an ultimate evil that it justifies a decade of war and sanctions, crowned by an invasion. They have to stitch together the consistency here, which is wholly racial – the justice or injustice of a land grab depending on the ethnicity of the land grabber -- just as it is with the Invisible Man.
As Allen points out – with regard to the Invisible Man – humiliation, sacrifice, and acceptance have political aspects:
‘By presenting the I.M’s in terms of such categories as sacrifice, agreement and responsibility, Ellison lays bare how politics structures ordinary life and psychic experience. He names the rituals that give human life its meaning and that undergird our common actions. His writing is an X ray machine that reveals the skeleton of democratic life. The skeleton is made of what Ellison called rituals.”
One doesn’t have to read far, in analyses of the Iraq situation, to find people talking about how the Iraqis feel humiliated by the war, and of the psychological aftereffects of this. But there is an odd silence about the other side of that humiliation: is it such an accident that the Iraqis feel humiliated? Wasn’t humiliation written into the script, one of the great unconscious motives in this war? Didn't we want to humiliate them? Where there is an effect, as any Freudian can tell you, there is unconscious desire. The denial of the U.S. desire to humiliate is part of the greater discursive pattern, in which the Americans present themselves not as representatives of a state with appetites and interests, but rather as radiant spacemen of virtue, riding in on attack helicopters. As long as Americans treat their country as a moral force, rather than as a nation, they will have a debased and juvenilized foreign policy.
More on Allan's essay tomorrow.