Thesis: Culture: Literary Imagination and Cultural Identity Language

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¶ … Culture: Literary Imagination and Cultural Identity

Language and discourse are at the root of all human societies. No human world can exist without communication. This communication occurs on many levels and frequencies. In addition to the everyday language used to communicate ideas and decisions, these ideas and decisions can be taken to a further level, on which power is depicted. Power is often a collective, sociological construct, in which the power of the collective is greater than the power of the individual. Indeed, individuals tend to submit to the power of the greater whole; the power of society as a collective entity. In many ways, such power is necessary in order to ensure the smooth functioning of society. However, it is inevitable that, even in the democratic society, some individuals will suffer while others will benefit from the power structures that are designed not only to ensure the smooth operation of society, but also to ensure that individuals submit to a certain format of conduct and being. This type of collective power is then depicted in novels such as Charles Bukowski's Ham on Rye and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. Both protagonists serves as anti-heroes who are at first oppressed by the power structures or indeed perceived power structures of their respective societies. Ultimately, both use language in order to not only communicate their sense of repression, but also to break the power that imposes this repression upon them. In the language of the novels, various constructs of communication serve as important themes, including the concepts of truth and the already mentioned power as perceived on both the individual and social levels. In order to consider the various constructs of social and individual use of discourse and power in Bukowski's and Ellison's respective novels, concepts from the works of Mikhail Bakhtin and Linda Hutcheon will be used. In addition, the idea of power and discourse will also be considered from the wider viewpoints presented by works such as those by Kafka and Plato.

In considering the issue of language use in the novel genre, Mikhail Bakhtin calls for a recognition that language connects individuals and society: "Form and content in discourse are one, once we understand that verbal discourse is a social phenomenon -- social throughout its entire range and it each and every of its factors…" (Bakhtin 259). If this is not recognized, Bakhtin holds that the language will be "flat and abstract." (259) In Ellison's "Invisible Man," language plays precisely the important role of connecting the individual protagonist with his society. In this, his society exercises power over him.

According to Valerie Smith (in O'Meally 27), the protagonist's various encounters with individuals in power, such as Norton, Bledsoe and the Brotherhood, is precisely what maintains his oppression: indeed, they "impose false names or unsuitable identities upon him. His experiences teach him that the act of naming is linked inextricably to issues of power and control." The issue of identity is vitally and importantly connected with discourse in the novel. Up to the end, the Invisible Man remains nameless. Despite their attempts and minor success, the powerful individuals and entities, as well as society as a whole, does not manage to impose their concept of identity upon the protagonist. This is something that only he can do. And he does this by means of seclusion and narrative; when he realizes that there is no way in order to truly be himself while he is at the mercy of those around him, the main character secludes himself to write his own narrative, which only he controls.

In the Bukowski's work, language and identity also play an important role. In Chapter 22, the narrator describes his encounter with a boy named Eli LaCrosse. The latter attempts to hide his true nature behind language: "He used a cuss word in almost every sentence, at least one cuss word, but it was all fake, he wasn't tough, he was scared. I wasn't scared but I was confused so maybe we were a good pair." In this case, Eli uses language he perceives to be tough in order to hide his true reactions to a world and society he perceives as decidedly hostile. Symbolically, he can be seen as a springboard for the narrator's own feelings regarding his place in society: he does not fit well with the requirements of his society or his world. He does not enjoy his interactions with the world around him for a variety of reasons. In addition to self-destructive actions such as drinking and violence, the narrator also connects with outcasts such as Eli much more easily than with the "normal" children at his school. He does this despite professing that he does not particularly like Eli. However, he identified with his status as an outcast and social reject. Thus he did not have the heart to join the rest of society in their rejection of the boy.

In both novels, Bakhtin's (261) assertion of the novel as "a phenomenon multiform in style and variform in speech and voice," is clear. The social worlds in which the protagonists move, live, and attempt to find their identities, use a different linguistic mode than the protagonists themselves. In Invisible Man, for example, the protagonist remains nameless for the duration of the novel. All around him, those with power are those who are aware of their place in the world and how to use language in order to ensure their power. Even the Invisible Man's grandfather has maintained his own subtle power in the world, in his own view, by a pretense of power. He tells his grandson to "…overcome 'em with yeses, undermine 'em with grins, agree 'em to death and destruction…" (Ellison 16).

It is this pretense of power that the protagonist attempts to impose and maintain, but finds inadequate for his purposes. The Invisible Man has two fundamental character flaws that separates him from the power he seeks. The first is his tendency to trust people, and the second his fundamental inability to be untruthful or insincere. His grandfather advises him to pretend humility, and for a time the protagonist succeeds in doing this, but eventually he finds himself overwhelmed an attempting to play a role while in fact his meaning is insincere. In reaction, he needs to separate himself from a society that would require of him such insincerity in order to take responsibility for the narration of his own life. Only in this way can he make his own meaning (Smith in O'Meally 47).

This, according to Danielle Allen (in Morel 38), is the fundamental problem with the social system of democracy within which the Invisible Man attempts to operate: "Democracy puts its citizens under a strange form of psychological pressure by building them up as sovereigns, and then regularly undermining any individual citizen's experience of sovereignty." The Invisible Man cannot secure his individual sovereignty in a society which, although claiming democracy, does not acknowledge his right as a sovereign. All those exercising power over the Invisible Man make decisions regarding his identity and the actions in which he is to engage in order to secure his own well-being and sovereignty in the world. Ironically, this very attempt is what most harms him, both physically and psychologically.

Symbolic of such harm is the destruction the Invisible Man suffers after the accident at Liberty Paints. According to William R. Nash (in Morel 108), it is not difficult to infer the meaning of the "white" world in which the injured narrator finds himself: "…the clinical discussion is a loose acknowledgment of the history of racial oppression melded with speculation about how best to handle this particular case." The doctors around the Invisible Man indeed treats him as invisible; not acknowledging any individuality or personality apart from the fact that he is indeed not white like them or like his surroundings. The episode sets him clearly and painfully apart from the world in which he has tried to make his own way by feigning humility. Yet the world, and particularly those in powerful, privileged positions, believe themselves to be democratic and aimed towards the well-being of all citizens (Allen in Morel 38). This is however proven to be deceptive to an even greater degree than the mild deception the Invisible Man attempts. Not being deceptive by nature, the protagonist believes others to be sincere in their attempts to help him make his way in the world. As a result he is betrayed time and again, until he learns that the only way to find his true self in a way that is not untruthful to himself, is to separate himself both physical and mentally from the society where deception is the only way towards power.

Political deception and the need of society for tasteful lies is also a theme that Bukowski addresses. In Chapter 19, the narrator tells the story of a class assignment that he was unable to complete truthfully. Unable to attend the President's visit to… [END OF PREVIEW]

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