Civilization & Its Dispossessed

(or, Ellison’s Cruel Optimism)

So many hard times …
Sleepin’ on motel floors,
Knockin’ on my brother’s door,
Eatin’ spam, and Oreos,
And drinkin’ Thunderbird, baby …
— Baby Huey, “Hard Times”

… although, in an age so fantastical, I would hesitate to say precisely what a fantasy is.
— James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

Invisible Man tells the story of one foundational scene which is recast, restaged, and repeated ceaselessly over the course of the novel. It is the story of being bound by one’s desire, of being held in and by the impasses of hope. It is a book about having the electrified rug pulled out from beneath one’s feet; about the bitter humiliation that derives from discovering that what you want is simply not in the cards. It is about the lies you are willing to believe, the bargains you are willing to make, in order to maintain your investment in living a life that is worth the pain it causes you. It is about the promises you make to yourself that next time, things will be different; that those bastards will not fool you again. And ultimately, it is the story of how those bastards fool you again, and how you help them to do so.

What I am vaguely describing here is an affective structure, a form of optimism, which also serves to structure the narrative. The reading of Invisible Man that I attempt in this essay cues off phrases from Lauren Berlant’s theorization of “cruel optimism,” and is hugely indebted to the claims put forth in her work of the same name. Cruel optimism is, simply put, a desire for something that actually impedes an individual’s flourishing.[1] The main focus of my analysis will be to discern the relationship between optimism and the impediments to individual flourishing presented by invisibility. How does optimism operate as a technology of dispossession? In other words: how is the affective structure of cruel optimistic desire modulated into a different key of cruelty when transposed into the base clef of invisibility? I aim to chart cruel optimism in Ellison’s novel—but I mean “chart” in the sense familiar to musicians. I pose that cruel optimism is a standard jam, something like the first entry in the invisible fake book. One of my goals is to show that Invisible Man is not merely a story about the cruelty of optimism, but that the book itself is a cruel optimistic text, such that it performs in its telling of itself the affective experience of its characters, thus, as Berlant suggests, training the reader in a relation of cruel optimism.[2] In doing so, I hope to pick up a track in Berlant’s argument, in which she suggests that conceptualizing optimism as a disabling affect could potentially offer a viable mode of hermeneutic inquiry.

I. The Horizon of Optimism

Hope is a component of a particular affective machinery in Invisible Man, designed and engineered by the hegemony of white supremacist desire, which might be described as operating like a treadmill. This treadmill is the process Ellison describes as running, in the passive voicing of the verb run; it is the means by which IM is run and kept running. Cruel optimism is both its affect and its effect. The blueprint for this treadmill is drafted by Bledsoe’s “letter of recommendation” to the trustees:

…it is to the best interests of the great work which we are dedicated to perform, that he [IM] continue undisturbed in these vain hopes while remaining as far as possible from our midst… I beg of you, sir, to help him continue in the direction of that promise which, like the horizon, recedes ever brightly and distantly beyond the hopeful traveler.[3]

The invisible individual is made to run in place toward an ever-receding unattainable horizon, and in doing so generates the power needed to keep the lights on in the existing social order. My analysis will continually return to the dynamic bargain outlined here: the invisible subject attaches his desire to the fulfillment of white desire because of the promises perceived to be held by it. In effect, it means to consent to trade on one’s own depression and dispossession in order to kill those of another. This bargain is not the result of an informed decision; quite to the contrary, the treadmill does everything it can to make itself imperceptible. But despite its efforts, the hum of its machinery is always present beneath the discourse of desire and fantasy; it bleeds through in the quiet moments of the narration.

Three motivating forces run this treadmill: a) the hopes and dreams configured by white society, which are unattainable for an invisible subject; b) the shame and guilt produced by the history and attractions of an invisible subject, because they are incongruous with those of white society; and c) the fundamental absence in an invisible subject of a coherent identity, which results from living within a society that interdicts self-knowledge.

The mechanics of this machination are perceptible in Rev. Barbee’s Founder’s Day speech. When Barbee pauses before his conclusion, IM notes that  “the silence was so complete that I could hear the power engines far across the campus throbbing the night like an excited pulse.” (132) Barbee resumes his oration, extolling the growth and progress of the college. He is awed in particular by the campus’s throbbing generators: “Ah! and the marvelous plant supplying power to an area larger than many towns—all operated by black hands. Thus, my young friends, does the light of the Founder still burn.” (132–33) This context takes the power plant as a metaphor and invests it with irony and salience. Further, this figurative comparison suggests that the total project of exploitation symbolized by the power plant is the teleological realization of the Founder’s principles, the value to be derived from his teachings. Just as the power plant throbs perpetually beneath the surface of speech, so hums the structure of white supremacy itself. The rhythmic pulse of the power plant is thus no different in significance from the stream of speech into which it irrupts. Both are the sound of the “Nigger-Boy” kept running.

II. “Please, a definition:”

Cruel optimism, as Berlant defines it, is a desire for something that actually impedes an individual’s flourishing. All attachments are inherently optimistic, insofar as any object of desire represents a “cluster of promise” which we hope the object will make possible for us, either through obtaining the object or being in proximity to it.[4] “Optimism” therefore can be understood as naming the affective structure of attachment, in which one feels a sustained inclination “to return to the scene of a fantasy that enables you to expect that this time, nearness to this thing will help you or a world to become different in just the right way.” (2) Optimism is a motivating force that compels the subject to return to a scene of promise and possibility. But not all optimistic attachments are inherently cruel. Rather, optimism becomes cruel, as distinct from tragically naïve or inconveniently disappointing, when “the object/scene that ignites a sense of possibility actually makes it impossible to attain the expansive transformation for which a person or a people risks striving.” The cruelty of these relations lies in the continuity offered by the affective structure of attachment to the subject’s sense of “what it means to keep on living on and to look forward to being in the world”—such that the loss of the cruel object/scene of desire is felt as the loss of the subject’s “capacity to have any hope about anything,” and thus can be felt as a threat to living on itself. (24) Cruel optimism, therefore, ensnares the subject in an “affectively stunning double bind: a binding to fantasies that block the satisfactions they offer, and a binding to the promise of optimism as such that the fantasies have come to represent.” (51)

The present condition for which a reformulation of cruel optimism needs to account is the experience of attachment by a subject to a promise or set of promises that have not only shown themselves to be empirically unattainable for everyone, but which were historically intended to exclude the group to which the subject belongs, and which have historically been pursued through the social, political, and economic exploitation of said group. I am speaking, of course, about the American Dream and its relation to black Americans.

Ellison uses the language of “invisibility” to describe the condition of life for black Americans in American society. In his usage, invisibility is produced by “a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with whom I come in contact. A matter of the construction of their inner eyes, those eyes with which they look through their physical eyes upon reality.” (3) The mechanism of invisibility, the process by which one is made invisible, is a refusal to see the subject: “When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, anything and everything except me.” Berlant enters this encounter from the opposite side. “Misrecognition” is the term she offers to describe “the psychic process by which fantasy recalibrates what we encounter so that we can imagine that something or someone can fulfill our desire… To misrecognize is not to err, but to project qualities onto something so that we can love, hate, and manipulate it for having those qualities—which it might not have.” (122)

In the context of this analysis, I understand invisibility to refer to a state of being in which one is constantly misrecognized by others, to such an extent that one begins to misrecognize oneself and thus becomes unable to see one’s own invisibility. To this point, Ellison notes that being invisible often entails “doubt[ing] if you really exist. You wonder whether you aren’t simply a phantom in other people’s minds… You ache with the need to convince yourself that you do exist in the real world, that you’re a part of all the sound and anguish.” (4) This is what I call “disrecognition”: my selection of this term emphasizes the absence of a static and concrete identity within the subject, and points to the anxiety produced by a sense of self that only arrives through the arbitrary and capricious misrecognitions of an audience. To experience disrecognition is to search for comfort in the chaos and instability of a self that is exclusively public; it is to consent to strive to become whatever figure is conjured by the desires of the present audience; it is to ask, when the lights are off and the crowd dispersed: “How else could I save myself from disintegrating?” And it is to have no other answer.

Disrecognition points to the affective structure of optimistic attachment as it is (dis)figured by invisibility. In disrecognition, the subject understands desire primarily in the context of the desires of others. This sounds on the surface like a hellish misreading of Lacan brought to life, which, essentially, it is. Disrecognition organizes the subject’s desire for what Berlant would term “a less-bad life” by attaching the promise of an improved future to the satisfaction of another’s needs and wants. The shape of the subject’s lack is cast from the mold of the other’s lack, such that the subject desires not the same object as the other, not the conditions by which the other would be satisfied, but rather the satisfaction of the other’s desire itself. This is not to say that the subject feels a “need to please others” and sets about meeting their expectations, but rather that the subject recognizes the possibility of becoming happy as bound up in another person’s investment in happiness, and thus seeks to become not the Santa Claus of affective wish-fulfillment (well, maybe sometimes), but rather the spokesman of desire. It is less a “need to feel needed” as it is a need to feel another’s need. In essence, disrecognition creates the subject who “lives upon the sunshine of your lordly smile.”[5]

The phrase “cruel optimism” is inflected by the context of the present analysis in an invisible way which would be productive if brought to light. My refiguration of cruel optimism has been focused necessarily on how visual perception is colored, desaturated, or otherwise distorted by fantasy—which, as Berlant claims, is “the means by which people hoard idealizing theories and tableaux about how they and the world ‘add up to something.’” (2) When placed alongside the language of (in)visibility, and when used to address concerns of sight and non-sight, the word “optimism” begins to hum on those lower, etymological frequencies. It suddenly becomes a cognate of optic, suggesting a possible kinship between the former’s Latinate root, ops (“power to help”) in optimus (“best thing”), and the latter’s derivation from the ancient Greek ὄψ (óps, “eye, face”). The suggestion becomes more likely when considering the semantic range attached to the Greek word ὀφθαλμός (ophthalmós): “eye; sight; understanding; that which is dearest or best.” One is reminded of the common cynicism that dismisses optimism as “seeing the world through rose-colored glasses,” that being optimistic must necessarily require a degree of self-blinding to how things “really are.”

The most significant distinction to be made between Berlant’s formulation of cruel optimism and the form of cruel optimistic attachment that predominates in Invisible Man—what might be better termed a relation of cruel opticism—is that the latter is engineered to trap the subject. Whereas the former can be characterized by the affective double bind it produces, the latter results in something more like a double blinding: the subject, surrounded by a society that regards him as “a mark on the scorecard of [its] achievement, a thing and not a man,” is himself unable to see his reciprocal relation to the world.[6] What I’m positing is that, under cruel opticism, it is only when one puts on the glasses that one can perceive the oppressive and exploitative structures which surround them. It’s not until IM begins to pass as Rinehart that he approaches a full comprehension of how others misrecognize him, and he’s disgusted by a similarity between himself and the crown pimp of fantasy, a similarity which runs deeper than mere wayfarers and porkpie hats. It is by putting on the glasses that IM deludes not himself, but the world—to the extent that Rinehart’s lady friend doesn’t even believe him when he unmasks himself.

III. “Boo’ful,” she said, “life could be so different—”
“But it never is,” I said.[7]

Love, in Freud’s conceptualization, is a limited affair: it creates a kind of dyadic privacy outside of the authority of law, and in this way it “comes into opposition to the interests of civilization.”[8] Civilization obeys an erotic impulsion to combine single human beings into one great unity, which results in a love that is as impersonal as the law that commands it.[9] However, love is not indiscriminate; its entire value comes from the fact that it is given freely out of a preference for the love-object over all others. To fall in love is to seek solitude, to retreat from the publicity of life in common; in effect, it is to escape the garrison of the super-ego.[10] The commandment of the cultural ideal to “love one’s neighbor as oneself” is impossible to fulfill because it is contrary to the nature of love; yet the response to this objection is that the frustrating difficulty of the commandment indicates its moral value and the importance of obeying it.

This paradox is precisely the function of the commandment, and, as I am arguing, of the affective structure of cruel optimism—love is evacuated and becomes an empty shell of a reaction-formation, a holding cell for the aggressive instinct.[11] In this way, the radical capacity of love is conquered by the power structure of white supremacist society. The love that all individuals are demanded to use as their default mode of relation is a tasteless, derelict, inoculated, fictive rebranding of love. It creates the sort of “cheap enjoyment” of Freud’s metaphor, the negative pleasure derived from “putting a bare leg from under the bedclothes on a cold winter night and drawing it in again”[12]—it is a love whose warmth is simply the absence of frigid hostility. To this same effect, IM notes: “Perhaps everyone loved someone; I didn’t know, I couldn’t give much thought to love; in order to travel far you had to be detached, and I had the long road back to the campus before me.” (177) The road to which he refers is not, as I have argued, a road at all, but the conveyor belt of a treadmill. To be run is to agree to be detached; it is, as Freud says of being-in-common generally, to exchange a portion of one’s possibilities of happiness for a portion of security.[13]

Sybil’s fantasy of being raped by a black man illuminates the commodity-status given to affective experience by the treadmill of white supremacy. Rape, more specifically the experience of being raped, becomes marketable as a consumer good; Sybil envies her friend’s rape the way one might envy the status symbols of one’s neighbors. Sybil’s desire is structured such that she understands the value of a life as determined by the quantity of one’s experiences, regardless of what they are. Traumatic experience is figured as a kind of tourist industry, in which IM is both the site of attraction and the service provider. Sybil’s desire for trauma and the promise of satisfaction which she attaches to it is projected bodily onto IM; as he puts it, Sybil casts him “in fantasies in which I am Brother Taboo-with-whom-all-things-are-possible.” (517) Sybil’s affection for IM, or what passes for affection, is one that necessarily has no regard for him. She never calls him by name, claiming at one point not to know it. He exists for her entirely as an incoherent specter of her fantasy: “Anonymous brute ‘n boo’ful buck.” (528) As IM attempts to ditch her on a stoop, Sybil calls out to him tenderly. IM observes: “Hear the true affection, I thought, the adoration of the Boogie Bear, moving away. Was she calling me beautiful or boogieful, beautiful or sublime… What’d either mean? I am invisible… I waved without looking back. Never again, no more, no more.” (529)

This scene offers painful insight on the (im)possibility of finding genuine expressions of affection, compassion, and love, when the desire for such an encounter is filtered through a relation of cruel opticism. In the most intimate sphere of shared existence—the potential site for an encounter that could reaffirm the mutual humanity of each individual, a place where the injunctions and prohibitions of civilization lose their influence—one suddenly finds that he has been contracted in the project of desolating the object of affection. The individual sees that love has been expropriated by the perverse and sinister authority of misrecognized desire, and he must now watch as it is used to humiliate and impoverish that which is most precious to life. From the moment that IM and Sybil entered the room, the possibility of true intimate connection was interdicted by the very nature of the engagement.

The true weight of this moment’s cruelty, I believe, obtains in the symbolic content of the characters’ positioning. In effect, IM becomes Bledsoe, the Founder, and everyone else who has any purchase in keeping Nigger-Boys running. His intention in staging the interaction with Sybil was to extract information from her about her husband and the machinations of the Brotherhood, by manipulating her apparent attraction to him. But things do not go as planned: drunk, Sybil describes her fantasy to him, making clear in her description the cruel optimistic promise which she believes is attached to the experience of being raped by a black “buck.” Despite the liquor, this registers in IM’s consciousness—and to some extent, in his conscience—and causes him to hesitate briefly in consideration of the didactic relationship between power and desire. In other words, he recognizes the harm which is being asked of him.

And yet he consents to this: he dons blackface and tries to get into character. Sybil verges on passing out; IM, in blackface (“I rapes real good when I’m drunk”) undertakes to write her request into existence. With her lipstick he writes the truth of the moment’s fiction: “SYBIL, YOU WERE RAPED / BY / SANTA CLAUS / SURPRISE.” (522) This inscription recalls, through its enjambment, the traditional formatting of a novel’s title page (the title here being Sybil, You Were Raped, written by Mr. Claus), as well as the chromatic interaction occurring in the act of writing (the pairing of red lipstick with white flesh parallels the red-and-white color scheme of the holly, jolly patron saint of manic holiday consumption). She urges him to hurry, “her face shaped by her emotion which [he] could not fulfill.” (523) IM sees reflected in her desire the disorder that engulfs them both, and his failure as a rapist. He fetches a damp towel, with which to erase “the evidence of [the] crime” not yet committed.

This is precisely the moment at which the scene shifts from tragic to brutal, and where we, as the reader, realize that the cruel optimism which the narrator is struggling to navigate has destabilized the narrative itself. It becomes apparent that in the moment of its telling, this text becomes itself a repetition of an attachment to cruel optimism. Sybil falls asleep. IM declares, “I decided again to end the farce.” After an interval, she revives and asks, “D’you do it, boo’ful?”—to which IM responds, “Yes, of course… Isn’t that what you wanted?” (523) He proceeds to construct in words an imagined event which could meet the promise of Sybil’s desire. Like so many other moments in the novel, and like so many other liars as well, IM speaks unreality into being. He conjures a fantasy-scene tailored to the particular contours of Sybil’s cruel and hopeful attachment to the image of her own violation. He manufactures the experience she sought, one that could only be had through these means, and installs it in her. In this way, IM willingly participates in sustaining Sybil’s belief in the cruel optimistic promise of her desire; he helps her to remain in suspended misrecognized relation to the object of her desire, encouraging the frustrating impossibility of her slow death.

IM does this for his own benefit. He exploits the hope and desire of another, fully aware that the content of her desire is the product and condition of her oppression. When he claims to have “decided again to end the farce,” IM attempts to place the reader on the treadmill alongside Sybil. She asks him if he’ll do it again, if he’ll secure the happiness that she is momentarily wobbling through, and, laughing, he agrees to schedule a standing appointment for something which he has not done and cannot do. He creates the framework for a desire that will recede forever, like the horizon.

IV. “The World (Is Going Up In Flames)”

At the scene of the Harlem Riot, shortly before the novel’s conclusion, Ellison explicitly politicizes the novel’s considerations of optimistic attachment. A milk wagon, pulled by a group of black men like a team of oxen, rolls past IM and his new buddies. A woman rides atop the wagon, drinking freely from a barrel of beer. Scofield sees this and expresses outrage at the perceived excess of the spectacle: “That’s what I call taking it too far… ‘Round here, throwing away all that good milk!” IM is unnerved by the scene, remarking simply, “Milk and beer—I felt sad, watching the wagon careen dangerously as they went around a corner.” (545) This image is perhaps the most accurate metaphor Ellison offers for the cruel optimism of invisibility: milk, the original sustenance, signifies the unity of the maternal relationship which is the template for all subsequent affective scenes of comfort encountered in human life. To drink milk from the breast is to be held, to be nourished by an organic love of which you were once a part; it is to be in communion with one’s source. (This is why our understanding of love is so deeply associated with food and the contented feeling of fullness, and perhaps why we say of some people that they are “starved for affection”).[14] Beer, a synthetic liquid, is the milk of delusion; it offers what Freud terms a “substitutive satisfaction”: it provides a means of achieving something that resembles the feeling of this primary comfort, but it is physically harmful, and the comfort it yields is not sustainable.[15]

But this spectacle also has racial significance — the intoxicating poisonous milk dragged around by these black bodies, sloshing its excess into the streets, is the milk of whiteness, corrupted and corrupting. It occupies the place of this originary comfort by passing itself off as nourishing care, maternal connection to one’s source. But it is the lactifying substance that Malcolm X sees being poured into society’s cup of “too black, too strong” coffee, which blunts the heat and bitterness of blackness, which makes blackness more palatable to whites, more easily comestible.[16] To borrow D.W. Winnicott’s langauge, this milk offers a peculiar kind of holding environment, one which is rather intended to hold one in one’s place.[17] It is therefore fitting, heartbreakingly so, that the riot is an event engineered by the monopoly of power and light that keeps its own lights on by keeping everyone else running in darkness.

In the book’s epilogue, IM offers an extended meditation on the principle of American democracy, giving a number of possible interpretations for his grandfather’s advice. Ultimately, IM recognizes that this principle is the same as the one that informed the actions of those who had been running him (as well as themselves). But he opts to affirm the principle, at one point suggesting that black Americans “were the heirs who must use the principle because no other fitted our needs.” (574) This is perhaps the moment at which Invisible Man becomes symptomatic of the cruel optimism which it depicted in countless scenes over the course of its narrative. Ellison remains optimistic about the promise of the American principle, in direct spite of the brutality incurred from attaching hope to its structure. The moral object lesson toward which the novel’s conclusion seems to point is emphatically not the one embodied by Dupree; Ellison makes clear that his goal with Invisible Man was neither to incite violent revolution, nor bring about a kind of Fanonian cultural apocalypse.[18]

The burning of the tenement is an act of liberation from cruel optimistic attachment through what might be called self-dispossession. Lottie, a pregnant woman, approaches Dupree in protest, pleading with him in desperation not to burn the building: “You know my time’s almost here…you know it is. If you do it now, where am I going to go?” Dupree, however, holds fast to the decision: “My kid died from the t-bees in that deathtrap, but I bet a man ain’t no more go’n be born in there.” (547) In this encounter, Lottie and her unborn child embody all of the hope and promise which attach to the potentiality of a new life. Her claim that her “time’s almost here” can be read as signaling both the end of her pregnancy, but also, in a more abstract sense, the future moment in which she will be happy, in which this “death trap” will no longer be such; her plea is to remain in an environment that takes rather than makes life, with the hope that this time, for her child, it might be different. Dupree’s refusal, which initially appears self-centered at best, is actually an act of radical compassion. He recognizes and adheres to the truth that it is not necessarily better to have something than nothing; that the residents of the tenement, like the old evicted couple, “ain’t got nothing, they caint get nothing, they never had nothing.” (279) By burning the tenement, they seek in effect to dispossess themselves of their dispossession. This is an impossible choice, but for those who reside within the project-housing structure of white supremacy, there is no other way out.

Once the fire is set, the group of arsonists are urged to hurry out of the building, because “it’s hell upstairs.” This entire scene, and thus this claim of my argument, recalls IM’s earlier pronouncement:

And that lie that success was a rising upward. What a crummy lie they kept us dominated by. Not only could you travel upward toward success but you could travel downward as well; up and down, in retreat as well as in advance, crabways and crossways and around in a circle, meeting your old selves coming and going and perhaps all at the same time. (510)

But it also gives concrete imagery to IM’s earlier confession, that “any act that endangered the continuity of the dream was an act of treason.” When this dream is not your dream, and not even a dream at all but a waking nightmare, treason becomes an act of survival: it is to avow one’s loyalty to one’s own life, to life itself against death, and to dissent from the sovereign power which seeks constantly to negate it. When the structures of the social order are finally fired, the only safe passage from the flames leads downwards, into the underground.

The cruelty of optimistic attachment to the promise of justice constantly avowed and broken by white supremacist society is pathological: Considering the rate at which black people are killed by agents of state or vigilante law enforcement, there is scarce evidence to support the belief that justice will be available or even possible for persons of color under the jurisprudence of white supremacy. And yet the hope persists that perhaps this time, despite the history of anti-black racist violence in America— committed not simply under the auspices of the law but by the system of law itself— perhaps this death, this loss, this one will be enough. Indeed, there is a painfully familiar hum discernable beneath the surface of Ellison’s rhetorical reinvestment in principle.

Works Cited

Berlant, Lauren. Cruel Optimism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011.
Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man (1952). New York: Vintage, 1995.
———. Three Days Before the Shooting . . .: The Unfinished Second Novel. Edited by John F. Callahan & Adam Bradley. New York: Modern Library, 2011.
———. Conversations with Ralph Ellison. Edited by Maryemma Graham & Amritjit Singh. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1995.
Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents (1930). S.E. Introduction by Christopher Hitchens. New York: W.W. Norton, 2010.
———. Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921). SE. New York: W.W. Norton, 1959.
Malcolm X. Malcolm X Speaks: Selected Speeches and Statements. Edited by George Breitman. New York: Grove Press, 1994.
Winnicott, D.W. Playing and Reality. London: Routledge, 2005.


[1] Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism, 1. Subsequent citations for direct quotations appear in text.

[2] Berlant, 178.

[3] Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man, 190-91. Subsequent citations appear in text.

[4] Berlant, 1, 23.

[5] Ellison, 432.

[6] Ellison, 95, 576.

[7] Ellison, 527.

[8] Freud, Civilization, 83.

[9] Freud, Civilization, 111, 128.

[10] Cf. Freud, Group Psychology: “Two people coming together for the purpose of sexual satisfaction…are making a demonstration against the herd instinct, the group feeling. The more they are in love, they more completely they suffice for each other,” 93.

[11] Freud, Civilization, 146.

[12] Freud, Civilization, 61.

[13] Freud, Civilization, 100.

[14] The imagery of maternal corruption here is deeply related to another of Ellison’s abiding concerns, one that receives significant attention in his unfinished second novel—that of the love of black women for the white children they raised, and the required abjection of this love in the formation of white identity. As Ellison will go on to ask: “‘Cause what can be right if the first, the baby love, was wrong […] where’s the foundation of the world?” Cf. Ellison, Three Days Before the Shooting . . . , 343.

[15] Freud, regarding the “palliative measures” brought by intoxicating substances, writes: “The service rendered by intoxicating media in the struggle for happiness and in keeping misery at a distance is so highly prized as a benefit that individuals and peoples alike have given them an established place in the economics of their libido. We owe to such media not merely the immediate yield of pleasure, but also a greatly desired degree of independence from the external world… As is well known, it is precisely this property of intoxicants which also determines their danger and their injuriousness. They are responsible, in certain circumstances, for the useless waste of a large quota of energy which might have been employed for the improvement of the human lot.” Cf. Civilization, 44-47.

[16] Malcolm X, “Message to the Grass Roots,” November 10, 1963, in Malcolm X Speaks, 16.

[17] Cf. D.W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality, 111-113

[18] In fact, Ellison made this point explicitly in his 1974 interview with John Hersey: “Someone asked me about all the burnings of tenements which occurred during the period after Invisible Man had been published; I had to point out that I had covered the Harlem Riot of 1943 for the New York Post, and I certainly wasn’t recommending that people burn buildings but was suggesting that this was a negative alternative to more democratic political action.” However, he then goes on to say, in characteristically ambiguous fashion: When it is impossible to be heard within the democratic forum, people inevitably go to other extremes. There is always somebody to suggest that we live in an era of revolution.” See “‘A Completion of Personality’: A Talk with Ralph Ellison,” in Conversations with Ralph Ellison, 300–301.

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