Reading Invisible Man always helps me to keep it real: every time I think I’ve got it all figured out, when I think I have constructed some kind of a plausible justification, the book simply knocks all that bullshit down and slaps me around a couple of time, mockingly, but also affectionately, to tell me that I don’t know shit.
Which is good, because one can never get complacent and think that it’s all figured out.
Take, for instance, the situation of my imminent graduation from college and entrance into the real world, wherever and whatever that is. And it so happens that in my fifth time of reading it, I happen to come across the part of the story when the narrator, the titular invisible man, leaves college and is going to Harlem on a bus. He meets this veteran, who may or may not be crazy, and receives some difficult advice.
In so many words, the veteran basically puts a scapel to the narrator’s hopes and dreams, exposing the deep fear and insecurities that underlie them. For example, he talks about the “freedom” that the narrator will experience in the North that the South simply cannot afford him. And with penetrating psychological insight, the veteran breaks down such “freedoms” by saying
Most of the time he’ll be working, and so much of his freedom will have to be symbolic. And what will be his or any man’s most easily accessible symbol of freedom? Why, a woman, of course. In twenty minutes he can inflate that symbol with all the freedom which he’ll be too busy working to enjoy the rest of the time.
And there, in that one passage, the veteran not only destroyed the narrator’s notion of freedom, but also my notion of freedom. You see, why the fuck would I pick myself up and move my sorry ass across the continent? Because, in my mind, DC represents freedom: freedom to start somewhere new in a place–a stranger in a strange land you might say; a freedom from what I perceive to be a future of conformity, by doing something that Asian Americans usually don’t do–work in politics. But are those also not so many lies and insecurities? Are those also nothing but mere empty, grandstanding, self-righteous rhetoric wrapped in so many hollow notions of individualism? In the end, whatever “freedom” I may have envisioned for myself in the future will probably be little more than symbolic.
The vet then goes on to tell the invisible man about “the game,” with a tone of mixed cynicism and wisdom, a tone that at once says both that the game is corrupt and also that it must be played, and played well.
But for God’s sake, learn to look beneath the surface. Come out of the fog, young man. And remember you don’t have to be a complete fool in order to succeed. Play the game, but don’t believe in it–that much you owe yourself. Even if it lands you in a strait jacket or a padded cell. Play the game, but play it in your own way–part of the time at least. Play the game, but raise the ante, my boy. Learn how it operates, learn how you operate. You might even beat the game.
And that, friends, is how I feel about the future. In the end, one necessarily compromises one’s principles and learn to “play the game” and play it well. But therein lies the difficulty: how to both play and excel at the game without believing it, without becoming a part of the game. The vet seems to believe that there is a right balance that one can strike, such that one can both succeed and not be assimilated, but personally, I somehow doubt that. Or have I compromised fatally by accepting compromises of any kind, to any extent?
Finally, the vet talks about the people out there, the “they,” and this passage strikes me as very Heideggerian:
They? Why, the same they we always mean, the white folks, authority, the gods, fate, circumstances–the force that pulls your strings until you refuse to be pulled anymore. The big man who’s never there, where you think he is.
That, I suppose, is also my fear as well. Not so much directed towards white people, but toward things out there beyond my control.
But in the end, this too, this very blog post, is just all bullshit talk. Yet even then, the vet has an appropriate answer:
Sure, I’m a compulsive talker of a kind, but I’m really more clown than fool.
That’s probably what I am–a compulsive talker who’s full of shit most of the time.