Monday, August 8, 2011
Falling Into the Rabbit Hole of Irony: The Underground Man and Woman
In Mary McCarthy’s The Company She Keeps and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, sentiment, ideology, personal ambition, and even romantic love are shown as obstacles to authentic self-awareness. The two protagonists of the novels are outsiders in New York City; they have come to the big city to make their marks. The beginnings and endings of both books reflect a loss of innocence and an ironic self-awareness that can be considered as a heroic victory in itself, but one that certainly comes with a cost. It is also unclear where the main characters are going next; they are not conventionally redeemed in the endings. The novels show the painful challenge of becoming fully awake to the world and one’s place in it. In The Irony of American History, Reinhold Niebuhr develops a theology of irony in human consciousness that is beyond tragedy, comedy, and pathos, though individual awareness may include all of these at times. Niebuhr, Ellison, and McCarthy wrestle with the burden and responsibility of authentic human consciousness through modern explorations of Original Sin and the human condition. The Fall is the birth of ironic awareness, both biblically and personally, and human beings can then truly assess their lives through critical thinking, once innocence and ignorance are lost. A person can then find his or her voice. While the future may be unclear for Margaret Sargent and the unnamed protagonist, it is clear they will not be fools in the future, nor will they suffer them. They have chosen to live with their eyes open.
In The Company She Keeps, Mary McCarthy experiments with the ironic dilemma of the self and whether anyone can be truly aware as a participant in their own lives. Is irony the sole property of observation, rather than something that can be directly experienced in the moment by the participant? McCarthy begins the novel in the third person in her narration, moves to the first person, explores the second briefly, returns to the third, and then finishes in the first person in the context of psychoanalysis for Margaret Sargent. Reinhold Niebuhr proposes that irony requires the essential detachment of the observer, except in the rare occasions of an exceptional character: “These ironic contrasts and incongruities, though obvious, are not always observed because irony cannot be directly experienced…Since the participant in an ironic situation cannot, unless he be very self-critical, fulfill this latter condition, the knowledge of irony is usually reserved for observers rather than participants.”(1) Intellectual detachment through objective observation are Niebuhr’s terms of the ironic discipline, one which is difficult to master, even in hindsight. Margaret Sargent is often the keen observer of others in The Company She Keeps, and all six chapters show the protagonist in relationship to a male character that is a catalyst for her own ironic self-reflection. She better knows herself through knowing the men, though this does not necessarily make for successful romance; neither does it guarantee failure. “Rogue’s Gallery,” “The Genial Host,” and “Portrait of the Intellectual as a Yale Man” are all developed portraits of male figures through close observation, and “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Suit” includes elements of portraiture by the narrator in the first person, which is Niebuhr’s exceptional moment. Perspicacious observation is what Margaret Sargent does best, and she is able to observe herself and others with radical honesty. Sargent is able to move beyond the category of irony as delineated by Niebuhr because she knows irony as a participant, as well as an observer. Singer is an exceptional character in her self-awareness, and this character trait is a major theme for McCarthy in her work. Women can be self-aware, and critical thinking must include self-criticism and irony to fully free the mind.
The protagonist in The Invisible Man is much more faithful to Niebuhr’s ironic limitation. He is significantly impaired from observing himself, and understanding himself, while in the action of the novel. He is blinded to his plight while he is living it, as are most people according to Niebuhr. The character is baffled by the absurdity and pain of his experience as a young, middle class black man who wants to make something of himself. However, the voice of irony is possible in the text because the protagonist begins his journey with the awareness of who he has become in the opening of the novel. He has become the invisible man. The storyteller is very much awake to irony; he is the alpha and omega of his experience. The beginning and the ending of the novel reveal the ironic voice, the self-critical protagonist who can now tell his own story: “Before that I lived in the darkness into which I was chased, but now I see. I’ve illuminated the blackness of my invisibility—and vice versa. And so I play the invisible music of my isolation. The last statement doesn’t seem right, does it? But it is; you hear this music simply because music is heard and seldom seen, except by musicians.”(2) Illuminating blackness and seeing music may sound like impossible propositions, but these paradoxes reflect the ability that the narrator has achieved in order to tell his story, even though he is blind in the midst of it. The ironic gap of awareness can always be closed by the reader in remembering where the novel started, and who is really telling the story--the invisible man who the reader will meet again.
The relationship to one’s irony is an important way to understand the narrative choice of each chapter in The Company She Keeps. The third person choice for “Barbarous and Cruel Treatment” presents Margaret Sargent as an actress in her own life, one who is being keenly observed by herself, by the author, and by both together. There is a constant, witty stream of introspection, enjoyable self-criticism, and cynical self-congratulation. The sense of detachment that is self-aware and ironic is presented through the motif of acting—of being an actor in one’s life and observing one’s actions, like a director might: “Actually, she doubted whether she could have ever been an actress, acknowledging that she found it more amusing and more gratifying to play herself than to interpret any character conceived by a dramatist.”(3) Playing herself is a way of getting outside herself; the self is doubled to allow effective observation. A motif of public performance abounds in the chapter (and in the novel); the hyper-analytical character is constantly assessing her role in the unfolding drama of her divorce. Her detachment allows her to be far beyond guilt and shame, good and evil. Hers is not a bad fall, but, like the freedom of the Serpent in the garden, it is beyond conventional morality. She even gets pleasure from her circumstances through her radical lens of self analysis. It is, in a way, difficult to decide if the character is at a height of objectivity or subjectivity, detachment or solipsism; the two oppositional tendencies mutually inform each other.
Margaret Sargent is both the writer and the participant in the scenes of her own drama, and she is certainly in the power position with the two men through her detachment: “She was both doer and sufferer: she inflicted pain and she participated in it.”(4) The roles of wife, mistress, husband, and lover are thoroughly, even scientifically, inspected and explored, and the female character is not the only person to use irony as a discipline, and a defense: “Already she sensed that behind her husband’s good manners an ironical attitude toward herself had sprung up.”(5) Irony is the choice fruit of genuine detachment and objectivity, and it makes painful circumstances strangely endurable, even pleasurable. This is an extraordinary power, one that is possessed by an exceptional character. For his part, the husband achieves a version of his wife’s detachment from himself, and this new capability both intrigues her and makes her wary. She even begins to love him again, and to prefer him to her lover. Irony is presented as a kind of weapon, and a potential weakness if it is incompletely embraced: “And although her husband’s irony remained, it was frequently vulnerable. It was not, as she had at first thought, an armor against her, but merely a sword, out of Tristan and Isolde, which lay permanently between them and enforced discretion.”(6)
The chapter “Barbarous and Cruel Treatment” is catty and cynical certainly, but it is much more than that. The first chapter shows that the hyper analysis of the main character is a source of pleasure and truth, and that the two can work together as ironic bedfellows. There is a sensual quality to the doubling of self that produces self-understanding through irony; the knower and the known being the same person. Sargent is actually surprised when she discovers that divorce can be depressing too, which is what it is for most people: “She was now suddenly overcome by a sense of depression and loss that was unprecedented for being in no way dramatic or pleasurable.”(7) Most people do not, and cannot, operate this way, as Niebuhr directly acknowledges in his theology of irony. For the most part, self-revelation is presented as an enjoyable activity in The Company She Keeps. Introspection and the intellectual life are sensual and life-giving, a kind of alchemy which converts painful tragedy into a different genre. Margaret Sargent is almost always able to see her pain in a funny light in the book. A legitimate question in McCarthy’s novel is why people go to such great lengths to keep from telling the truth. It is so much more painful to tell yourself lies than to truly open your eyes.
The ironic line between comedy and tragedy is explored in “Rogue’s Gallery.” After “Cruel and Barbarous Treatment,” McCarthy goes back in time to Margaret Sargent’s first job in New York City with Mr. Sheer. Mr. Sheer is the entertaining example of the human capacity for self-deception: “As for Mr. Sheer himself, he was careful to wrap all his affairs in such a cocoon of falsehoods that, of all the people associated with him, only the colored boy, whose job it was to call and deliver merchandise, had any suspicion of the truth. Like all my discoveries about Mr. Sheer, this one was made painfully and by accident.”(8) Deception is related to economic self-interest in the second chapter. Self-interest helps to keep people ignorant of their own motives, and Mr. Sheer is quite ignorant of himself initially. He is able to deceive himself and others, and his business operation is an unworkable daily strategy of stealing from Peter to pay Paul. Sargent calls this “the nub of his business tragedy: he was continually being forced, by the impatience of a creditor, to sell somebody’s property below cost.”(9) The chapter is a story of a character’s fall from innocence and ignorance, but the awakening is ironic for McCarthy because the character becomes more successful economically when he becomes more self-aware, rather than the expected opposite of impending tragedy.
From the beginning descriptions, Mr. Sheer is a character of comic contradictions, a contrarian con man and whimsical idiot savant, one who is capable of highly complex lying, both to others and to himself. Contradictions are normal in McCarthy’s portraits of characters; the myth of psychological unity is exposed in The Company She Keeps. Mr. Sheer is fighting for his economic life, but misfortune and death still amuse him greatly. He doesn’t quite make sense in Margaret Sargent’s observations, but his oddities and paradoxes are what make him so deeply human: “Death was always comic for him, and even while he was telling you that so-and-so’s end was ‘a terrible thing,’ you could see the tension with which his face was held grave and almost hear the laughter bubbling underneath.”(10) From Mr. Sheer, Sargent learns that she can convert personal tragedy into comedy, a talent evident in the first chapter, which takes place later in her life, after the time period of “Rogue’s Gallery.” Mr. Sheer is a kind of father figure to Sargent, an introductory course in bizarre economics and crazy human psychology. His fall is also hers because she learns his life lessons for herself through ironic observation. After his disappearance from creditors, Sargent assumes that Sheer has returned to something less respectable, possibly activity in the criminal world. The next time she meets him his economic fortunes have indeed changed for the better: “The radiant prosperity of his appearance led me to conclude that he had returned to that mysterious underworld from which he had come. There was a pathos of moral defeat about the idea; nevertheless it was a relief to think that Mr. Sheer had ceased to strive.”(11) The irony for Mr. Sheer is that he succeeds by being himself, and that’s why his rich clients actually trust him: “And it was precisely his character as a discoverer that endeared him to his clients, gauche and untried themselves in the mysteries of connoisseurship.”(12) The deeper irony is that Mr. Sheer preferred the con of the old days when he was fooling himself and others, pretending to be something he was not: “It was plain at last, that Mr. Sheer had not imposed on the business world and used it for his own delight, but that the business world had used Mr. Sheer, rejecting the useless or outmoded parts of him. He had not, as he first thought, outwitted anybody, but he had somehow, imperceptibly, been outwitted himself…He could not bear to succeed in his own personality, any more than an attractive woman can bear to be loved for herself.”(13) The two selves of the past and present Mr. Sheer can only be shared with Margaret Sargent; she makes him whole through understanding his irony. There are still small risks and death itself to bring excitement for him, but it’s not as much fun as the old life of lies on the edge of catastrophe. The irony of Mr. Sheer can only be fully experienced by an observer, and the implication and pleasure of this relationship is that Margaret Sargent knows Mr. Sheer better than he knows himself. The truth is a kind of sensual secret or pact, something like what lovers know about each other, that is invisible to everyone else.
Like “Rogue’s Gallery,” Invisible Man has many absurdist moments. It is full of them. The novel is an absurdist comedy of un-awareness or blindness as the protagonist refuses to learn from his powerful and extraordinary experiences. Of course, Invisible Man is much more than a comedy. There is a close relationship between folly and rhetoric in the novel, and Ellison presents oratory as untrustworthy at best. The book is full of speeches, but they are dangerous if you really believe any of them. The comedy of the main character is that he is a true believer, and that’s his biggest problem. Oratory is capable of getting people in the audience, if they lack critical thinking and ironic awareness, to do most anything. Christian preaching and Marxist oratory are both equally tricky, and the main character has to search through conflicting messages from the beginning. The first strange homily in the novel is a short one, and it comes from his grandfather on his deathbed: “’Son, after I’m gone I want you to keep up the good fight. I never told you, but our life is a war and I have been a traitor all my born days, a spy in the enemy’s country ever since I give up my gun back in the Reconstruction.’”(14) The grandfather encourages the main character to keep his eyes open—to be aware of the game even as he plays it, and this is exactly what the main character is unable to do during his journey.
The novel has a whole parade of absurd father figures offering advice to the ambitious young man. If he believed all of them, he would go insane. The grandfather, the superintendent, Mr. Norton, Trueblood, Reverend Barbee, Dr. Bledsoe, and the doc all offer advice and wisdom, and their collective message is insane and contradictory. Somebody has to be right, and somebody has to be wrong. The main character’s ambition makes it impossible for him to sort through the mixed messages of race and the American Dream. Even after being a participant in the superintendent’s pornographic boxing smoker—after being sexually aroused, beaten senseless, and even electrocuted for the entertainment of white men, the main character is still ready to give his valedictory speech about humility and racial progress. The main character can never forget the Battle Royale, but he learns nothing from it. The protagonist is an ambitious kid who really likes to give speeches, and Invisible Man is full of moving oratory. But all of it leads to greater disillusionment, and another fall for the main character. Ambition allows him to be swallowed up in the oratory—to be duped by rhetoric, to be fooled again. Before he gets to know the real Dr. Bledsoe, the protagonist wants to be just like him. This is his life’s dream: “But more than that, he was the example of everything I hoped to be: Influential with wealthy men all over the country; consulted in matters of race; a leader of the people; the possessor of not one, but two Cadillacs, a good salary and a soft, good-looking and creamy complexioned wife.”(15)
The main character hasn’t learned to be careful what he wishes for, and his college experience is summed up by two competing moments of oratory: by Reverend Barbee and by Trueblood. In his long speech, Reverend Barbee virtually deifies the Founder of the Institute, and by apostolic succession Dr. Bledsoe as well. This speech is directly contradictory to Dr. Bledsoe’s true character. He is more like the Anti-Christ than he is like Jesus; Bledsoe is a monster. From Reverend Barbee, the main character hears the power of oratory through black Christianity, a rhetorical style that seamlessly combines the religious and the political. Trueblood’s oratory comes from an entirely different world. His eyes are wide open to his flawed humanity and awful sin, while Reverend Barbee is blind to the world and himself, literally and figuratively. In Trueblood’s story of incest, one which literally makes Mr. Norton swoon like a sinner in church, the speaker represents a more untamed, possibly more authentic voice of race, from the days of slavery untouched by Reconstruction, from the world of his grandfather’s unfinished war. The implication is that Trueblood speaks the truth and is able to take the real journey of the black spiritual, from the depths of personal hell to the sunrise of amazing grace. For the protagonist, this is a nightmare. It is insanity to even consider the truth of Trueblood’s world. In between the moments of competing oratory is the insanity and bedlam of the Golden Day. At this epically strange drinking establishment, a veteran in a mental hospital ironically becomes the voice of reason for the confused main character: “’But for God’s sake, learn to look beneath the surface…Come out of the fog, young man. And remember that you don’t have to be a complete fool in order to succeed.’”(16) Doc gives the narrator the best advice after his expulsion from the Institute: “’Be your own father, young man.’”(17) Being a critical thinker is like being the good parent to yourself; it is like being both God and Adam in the garden. However, the main character isn’t ready for this wisdom, and there is greater absurdity to come. He will have to fall further until he is ready to think for himself.
That idealism and ambition can produce folly in a black youth—or in any character who is coming of age—is not an idea one often encounters in a major literary text. It is deeply pessimistic. It is not an idea that politicians want voters to have as they listen to their speeches. Both Mary McCarthy and Ralph Ellison seem to be encouraging deep cynicism in their texts because it keeps the reader from being a fool, which is exactly what Dr. Bledsoe calls the protagonist: “You’re a black, educated fool, son.”(18) Sentiment, ideology, and ambition make us wide open for someone else’s agenda, and Invisible Man shows that an ambitious young man can be a tool of racial propaganda. As a woman, Margaret Sargent gets the ironic picture from the first chapter; she is armed with irony. The unnamed protagonist in Invisible Man is more like Franz Kafka’s Josef K. in The Trial who is arrested and executed for an unknown crime. K. lives and dies in a truly absurd world, without understanding the truth behind the absurdity. The main character in Invisible Man is guilty of believing in the American dream as a young black man. That is his unspecified crime. The idealism, ambition, innocence, and ignorance produce absurdist elements in his total failure, until the main character literally blows himself up. At Liberty Paints, Lucius Brockway is the most absurd father figure of all, the lunatic underground mentor from hell. But Brockway is at least able to acknowledge that he is a cog in the white capitalist machine: “’All right, but I’m warning you to keep an eye on ‘em. You caint forgit down here, ‘cause if you do, you liable to blow up something. They got all this machinery, but that ain’t everything; we the machine inside the machine.’”(19) The main character remains clueless about his status as a pawn and fool, and then Brockway wants to kill him for no apparent reason. The protagonist is nearly as clueless as K., but he manages to survive to fall again.
In Niebuhr’s theology of irony, “Irony however prompts some laughter and a nod of comprehension beyond the laughter; for irony involves comic absurdities which cease to be altogether absurd when fully understood.”(20) The reader is able to understand the ironic plight of the main character who remains mystified by the absurdity of life. Niebuhr posits irony as the intellectual force capable of understanding the story of wisdom being born from folly. The character in Invisible Man experiences the absurd, but the storyteller, the one who knows he is invisible, speaks with the authority of irony: “Ironic contrasts and incongruities have an element of the comic in them in so far as they exhibit strength and weakness; of wisdom through foolishness; or foolishness as the fruit of wisdom; of guilt arising from the pretension of innocency; or innocency hiding behind ostensible guilt. Yet contrasts are ironic only if they are not merely absurd, but have a hidden meaning.”(21) The reader is able to return to the hidden meaning of race at the beginning of the book, even as the character painfully attempts to reconstruct his identity in the factory hospital. Absurdity is converted to the hidden irony by the reader. Things are not what they appear to be, and the dilemma of critical thinking is that it will reveal ambition and idealism in its true comic state for the protagonist at some point. The main character’s ambition has taken him to the point of lobotomy and castration, so it is high time that he becomes aware of his essential comedy before he loses his balls and the front of his brain:
“Left alone, I lay fretting over my identity. I suspected that I was really playing a game with myself and that they were taking part. A kind of combat…I would solve the mystery the next instant. I imagined myself whirling about in my mind like an old man attempting to catch a small boy in some mischief, thinking, Who am I? It was no good. I felt like a clown. Nor was I up to being both criminal and detective—though why criminal I don’t know.”(22)
Sargent is able to be both director and actress, but the main character of Invisible Man is not yet able to ironically double himself, as detective and mysterious criminal. But he is making progress with his identity. Freedom becomes much more important than conventional success in the factory hospital, which is a major point of growth for the main character: “When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.”(23) The hospital is the paradoxical place of progress for the protagonist, according to Niebuhr, as he begins to assess the irony of his identity: “The crown of irony lies in the fact that the most obvious forms of success are involved in failure on the ultimate level.”(24)
Reinhold Niebuhr, Mary McCarthy, and Ralph Ellison all explore the meaning of the Fall and Original Sin, both directly and indirectly. For these modern thinkers, the old idea of Original Sin requires a deep contemplation of one’s flawed condition, and the certainties of Marxism will eventually be rejected by both protagonists: “For communism believes that it is possible for man, at a particular moment in history, to take the leap from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom. The cruelty of communism is partly derived from the absurd pretension that the communist movement stands on the other side of the leap and has the whole of history in its grasp.”(25) The ironic consideration of one’s flawed humanity should produce skepticism about systemic solutions, and it does in these novels. Margaret Sargent is both good and evil, and she has no plan to fool herself, or the reader, any longer. Sargent is completely aware of her self-interest in her actions, and she does not pretend to be virtuous: “Modern man’s confidence in his virtue caused an equally unequivocal rejection of the Christian idea of the ambiguity of human virtue.”(26) Original Sin doesn’t have easy modern solutions; yet being aware of one’s own crap is a big step forward for McCarthy, Ellison, and Niebuhr. Paradoxically, the Fall is a moment of progress because it increases self-awareness.
The protagonist in Invisible Man can’t stop falling in the novel, not until he falls into an actual hole and becomes the underground man. It is in a hole in the earth, filled with coal, that a true ironist is finally born, once he stops moving, lies still, and stops lying to himself. For Niebuhr, the Genesis story is the cradle of irony: “The Biblical view of human nature and destiny moves within the framework of irony with remarkable consistency. Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden of Eden because the first pair allowed ‘the serpent’ to insinuate that, if only they would defy the limits which God had set even for his most unique creature, man, they would be like God.”(27) The Serpent offers an alternative version of the garden condition and the tree of knowledge. Like The Invisible Man, the man and the woman do not have names before the Fall; true identity comes with Original Sin and the coming of age. At this point, God has not deigned to speak with the female, but the Serpent is clearly intrigued with the nude woman. There are unequal relationships in the Garden of Eden, and the woman responds to this by forming a kind of alliance with the Serpent, as God formed one with the man directly. There is favoritism in the Garden. As with Reverend Barbee and Trueblood, there is competing oratory and rhetoric between God and the Serpent. The rhetorical problem in the Fall is that God and the Serpent are both right, and both wrong, as things turn out. The Serpent is correct in saying that they will not die immediately from eating the fruit, but mortality will be part of God’s judgment at some point in the future: “But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’”(28) But the Serpent also seems to be correct that they really have become like God; only knowing good and evil isn’t necessarily pleasant. It is a haunted divinity they now share, and God acknowledges the truth of the Serpent’s explanation: “Then the Lord God said, ‘Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, lest he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever’- therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden…He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life.”(29) As a birthplace of ironic consciousness, the man and woman should now be full of questions, aware of contradictions, and critical of their virtue. If we weren’t going to die in the first place, then why are we not supposed to eat the tree of life now? If we weren’t supposed to eat the tree of knowledge, why did God put it there? Why did God make the Serpent? Who are the other gods that God is talking to? No midrash can explain all of these questions away. All of the pain would have been unnecessary had the first version of the Garden reality been completely truthful.
The Garden story also combines ironic self-awareness with a sexual awakening for the man and woman. There is an aching quality to how one figures out the world by falling, and Margaret Sargent is an Eve figure in “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Suit” and “Portrait of the Intellectual as a Yale Man.” In “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt,” Mary McCarthy uses the first person to explore ironic consciousness and a sexual experience. As before the Fall, the man is not given a name in the chapter, though Jim Barnett gets the full curse of identity in “Portrait of the Intellectual as a Yale Man.” The woman has already fallen in the chapter on the train. Margaret Sargent has experienced romantic disillusionment, and she is on her way to Reno to get a divorce so that she can get married again. She is currently both married and engaged, but this doesn’t mean she can’t have an affair on a train with a stranger. Sargent is first intrigued by how she can observe herself, and her past, through the eyes of a strange man: “What she got from his view of her was a feeling of uniqueness and identity, a feeling she had when, at twenty, she had come to New York and had her first article accepted by a liberal weekly, but which had slowly been rubbed away by the years of being on the inside of the world that looked magic from Portland, Oregon.”(30) In her interaction with the Midwestern man, she is on fire with irony: “She could feel the power running in her, like a medium on a particularly good night.”(31) As a fully awakened Eve to the married man, Sargent is aware of her power. She is like a goddess, and she knows her power in terms of self-revelation: “As these multiple personalities bloomed on the single stalk of her ego, a great glow of clarity, like the flush of life, suffused her.”(32) There are many references to the Church in this chapter: “The Church could classify it all for you.”(33) With regard to Mary McCarthy’s atheism, Cranly’s observation of Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is an apt one for both the author and her main character: “—It is a curious thing, do you know, Cranly said dispassionately, how your mind is supersaturated with the religion in which you say you disbelieve. Did you believe it when you were at school? I bet you did.”(34)
The self-revelation is a kind of liturgy between the modern Adam and Eve on the train. She describes him listening to her as a priest, and she asks him questions with a “messianic earnestness.”(35) The ironic self-awareness of the liberated woman does not make her a man hater or a destroyer, though her fiancé might claim otherwise. Sargent is Eve, not Lilith, and the man in the Brooks Brothers shirt is more than satisfied with the self-revelations and consequent carnal knowledge: “’Right now I think I can live with on this day for the rest of my life.’”(36) If she has caused his fall from his marriage vows, he is truly happy with the experience, a satisfied customer fondling the existentialist meaning of the encounter. It is also not the first time for him, so there is no need to pretend virtue or innocence. The male character in “Portrait of the Intellectual as a Yale Man” is not so lucky because he was innocent and ignorant of himself. McCarthy is explicit in how Sargent has functioned as Eve for Jim Barnett at the end of “Portrait of the Intellectual as a Yale Man.” Because of her, he is now cursed with self-awareness: “It was self-knowledge she had taught him; she had showed him the cage of his own nature. He had accommodated himself to it, but he could never forgive her. Through her he had lost his primeval innocence, and he would hate her forever as Adam hates Eve.”(37)
Both In The Company She Keeps and Invisible Man present characters who have come out on the other side of Marxist theory and rhetoric. Modern consciousness is explored outside of the Marxist science of history, and nothing could represent that rejection more fully than invoking the Christian idea of Original Sin by two religiously ambiguous writers in their novels. That’s about as ironic as it gets. Original Sin is the victory of irony for McCarthy and Ellison, and it doesn’t have an easy ending or redemption in either novel. By discovering their ironic voices, Margaret Singer and the invisible man transcend pathos and tragedy: “Irony must be distinguished as sharply from pathos as from tragedy.”(38) In addition to motif of Original Sin, both authors use Freudian theories and models, conflating the Fall with an exploration of the human unconscious. Along with falling in a hole, the invisible man also opens his eyes like in Alice in Wonderland by putting on the dark glasses and experiencing the world of Rinehart. He becomes the black Alice. Through the green vision of the sunglasses, the protagonist is id, ego, and superego, all at the same time. He is serial lover, bookie, and Christian minister simultaneously; he is the ultimate shape shifter. The invisible man opens himself to alternative realities in the green world, which is Rinehart’s daily reality, where all is possible. The vision is too much for the invisible man to live in as reality, and it is in the underground that he finally finds his ironic voice: “I laughed all the way back to my hole.”(39) While in therapy, Margaret Sargent, the atheist, seems to be saying a strange prayer to allow greater human sight: “If the flesh must die, let the spirit see. Preserve me in disunity.”(40) The ironic consciousness doesn’t bind up the wounds of Sargent and make her whole; her ironic vision is far beyond that, looking at the whole of human experience. Her disunity allows her to see further. In The Irony of American History, Reinhold Niebuhr helps the reader understand how far Ellison and McCarthy have each seen in their modern explorations of irony, Original Sin, and the human condition.
“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend and foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.”(41)
Niebuhr’s words reconnect the ironic individual to the human community in need, and even to future generations. To Ellison and McCarthy, the individual is no longer an embarrassment, a fool or a pawn for rhetoric and dictators. The individual ironic voice is the prayer for all humankind to be whole and free one day: “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?”(42)
1. Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1954), p. 153.
2. Ralph Ellison, The Invisible Man, (New York: Vintage International, 1947), p. 13.
3. Mary McCarthy, The Company She Keeps, (New York: Harcourt, Inc., 1942), p. 6.
4. McCarthy, p. 11.
5. Ibid, p. 13.
6. Ibid, pgs. 14-15.
7. Ibid, p. 18.
8. Ibid, p. 38.
9. Ibid, p. 57.
10. Ibid, p. 58.
11. Ibid, p. 69.
12. Ibid, p. 71.
13. Ibid, p. 76.
14. Ellison, p. 16.
15. Ibid, p. 101.
16. Ibid, p. 153.
17. Ibid, p. 156.
18. Ibid, p. 143.
19. Ibid, p. 217.
20. Niebuhr, p. 2.
21. Ibid, p. 154.
22. Ellison, p. 242.
23. Ibid, p. 243.
24. Niebuhr, p. 160.
25. Ibid, p. 3.
26. Ibid, p. 4.
27. Ibid, pgs. 158-159.
28. The New Oxford Annotated Bible, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962), Genesis 3:4-5.
29. Ibid, Genesis 3: 22-24.
30. McCarthy, p. 89.
33. Ibid, p. 101.
34. James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, (New York: Penguin Books, 1964), p. 240.
35. McCarthy. p. 89.
36. Ibid, p. 127.
37. Ibid, p. 146.
38. Niebuhr, p. 166.
39. Ellison, p. 579.
40. McCarthy, p. 304.
41. Niebuhr, p. 63.
42. Ellison, p. 581.
Works Cited List
James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, (New York: Penguin Books, 1964).
Mary McCarthy, The Company She Keeps, (New York: Harcourt, Inc., 1942).
The New Oxford Annotated Bible, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962).
Ralph Ellison, The Invisible Man, (New York: Vintage International, 1947).
Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1954).