Invisible Man and Commonwealth Literature Does Not Exist
Every since I read Rushdie’s “Commonwealth Literature Does Not Exist,” I can’t help but see the essay’s similarities to the opening of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), a novel about the struggle of an un-named African American narrator prior to the Civil Rights Movement (though in categorizing the book in this way, I may be dissatisfying Rushdie’s argument in the article…oh, Rushdie, always so difficult to please).
Both Rushdie’s essay and Invisible Man comment on ghosts created by society. These ghosts exist because society wants them to exist, not because the ghosts exist in themselves. For instance, Rushdie says that Commonwealth literature is a ghost created by the critics to pigeon-whole a certain form of writing. By classifying in this manner, critics are focusing on their fabricated construction as opposed the literature in-and-of itself and its artistic value. In Invisible Man, the African American identity as unintelligent and violent is a ghost created by white society. By classifying African Americans in this manner, society is not looking at the actual person but only at what he desires to see.
The main difference between Rushdie’s essay and Invisible Man is this: the un-named narrator turns into a ghost and accepts his position as a ghost in society (as you recall, readers begin and end with the narrator underground, away from society and soaking up the lights of 3,169 light bulbs). On the other hand, Rushdie refuses to have his literature be transformed into a ghost. He will not accept the current schema for critiquing literature.
And considering that this is Rushdie and he has rubbed off on me, I am compelled to now analyze what I have just analyzed (jump ship now if you are content with not being confused).
By comparing Rushdie and his literature to the Invisible Man, I am drawing connections between literature as an art form, regardless of its classification as Western or Indian…and I am thus doing exactly as he wants in his essay. However, I am also comparing an Indian writer to an African American writer. Both are minorities that were not considered part of the Western tradition during their respective times. Furthermore, I am comparing Rushdie to a book of the Western world, as if the Western world is the center and Rushdie is the periphery. My argument may have been better if I used some non-Western example.
Anyways: Here are the actual texts the opening of Invisible Man and Rushdie’s essay
“I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood movie ectoplasms…I am invisible, understand, because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me.”
“It strikes me that my title may not really be accurate. There is clearly such as thing as ‘Commonwealth literature’, because even ghosts can be made to exist if you set up enough faculties, if you write enough books and appoint enough research students…So perhaps I should rephrase myself: ‘Commonwealth literature’ should not exist. If it did not, we could appreciate writers for what they are…we could discuss literature in terms of its real groupings….and if all English literatures could be studied together, a shape would emerge which would truly reflect the new shape of the language in the world.”