An Analysis of the Influence of European Existentialism on the Work of the African-American Writer, Ralph Ellison
THE INFLUENCE OF EUROPEAN EXISTENTIALISM ON THE WORK OF THE AFRICAN-AMERICAN WRITER
Existentialism is a philosophical approach in which a person believes that he/she can exist as a free person who can achieve his developments willingly without the influence of another person (Cleary, 2015). It is an independent mindset that revolves around self-belief and dedication towards achieving stellar performance. The approach has been influencing lifestyle of many individuals in Europe and other parts of the world presently. In the European context, existentialism refers to works done by European philosophers such as Soren Kierkegaard, Jean-paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Fyodor Dostoevsky in the 19th and 20 centuries. They believed that human philosophy is derived from the human subject such as the individual feelings and actions. In other words, each is driven by his/her own emotions towards performing certain duties.
In particular, Soren Kierkegaard is regarded as the first European writer to bring clearly out the idea of existentialism in the 19th century. In his writings, he asserted that human beings were responsible for the nature of life and standards of social engagement in the world, meaning that every individual contributes to the meaning of life. According to Languilli (2008), Kierkegaard proposed that it was the responsibility of every individual to make life meaningful by living it in a sincere and passionate way. This encourages social integration and economic advancement in societies.
Existentialism starts by the idea of an “existential attitude”. This refers to the feeling of how absurd and meaningless the world is to an individual. With that in mind, the individual takes action to make the world around him/her better and more meaningful. By doing so, the individual unconsciously becomes an existential individual. However, most existential people become existentialist by choice. In history, existentialism was better known the 1940s a during and after the world war two.
The Invisible Man prolog – Ralph Ellison
In the prolog, Ralph introduces himself as an invisible man. He continues by describing himself as a man of substance, liquids, fiber and flesh. He adds that he has a mind; he can think for himself without the assistance of others. He then clarifies that he is not invisible by choice but because others have declined to see him. He says that when others are near him, they only see themselves and the surrounding (Cleary, 2015). They notice anything and everything expect him. Also, his invisibility is not because of the change in his skin but due to the disposition of the eyes of those around him. He defends himself by saying that he is neither protest nor is he complaining. For him, it was sometimes advantageous not to be seen even though he was getting tired and irritated by it. He tells the reader that they often doubt their existence in the world and that they wonder if they were phantom an in other people’s mind like a creature in a nightmare which the sleeper is trying to wipe out.
He concludes the first paragraph by saying that most people feel that they are alone and start to bump people, but they are usually unsuccessful. In the article, Ralph begins by narrating a story of how he bumped into another person in darkness. The person did not understand and he started insulting him. He courageously bounced back and demanded apology from the man. The author then describes how beats the person to near death. It then occurred to the author that he (the unseen one) was going to kill a person. He began laughing like a crazy person while the thoughts of a poor fool being mugged by a phantom. The author chose to be invisible so as not to awaken the sleeping ones.
The Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison review
The novel generally speaks on how Ralph (the author) perceived life to be. In the novel the writer highlights how he ran from the real world to the underground world (where he is alone) to hide and write to the reader what he perceived life to be. As a young person, the author wanted to be successful in life and when he was invited to give a speech in front of a group of white men, being a black person, he did not hesitate. Ralph (1952), arrived at the particular venue only to realize that it was a fake deal. He was forced to fight for his life in a ring blindfolded.
The author then goes to college after some years where he attends a sermon where the preacher preaches about a poor black man who impregnated his daughter. This sermon was one of the factors that influenced the author’s life. He is eventually expelled from the institution. He then migrated to New York where he became the spokesman of Harlem branch of the Brotherhood. This post came with several challenges including being seduced by a white woman. He soon finds himself in violence as he thinks of himself as invisible.
Analysis of the novel
Existentialism is highly portrayed in the novel. The author has portrayed himself as an existential throughout the novel. For instance, in the prolog, the author asserts that he is an invisible person. He lives in his own world away from others. Ralph believes that he can make the world better. He and only he could improve his own world. As Kierkegaard stated, the meaning of life is influenced by an individual, the author influenced his world by choosing to live his life independently. The author narrates a story in the prolog of how he bumped into a stranger resulting to a fight in which he almost stabbed the other person. This depicted how what life meant to the author.
How the author beat the stranger in the darkness portrayed the essence of existentialism. This can be supported by the evidence that the author could have chosen to humble himself and forgive the stranger. Also, had the stranger been polite and not insulted the author, the author would not have been the stranger. The strangers choose to create a harmful environment around him and he eventually got hurt.
Another instance where existentialism is portrayed in the novel is evident when the other author chose not to collide with anybody so that he was not “seen” from his unseen nature. This showed the idea of how making good boundaries and having respects for your neighbors could make your life simpler and easier. Existentialist such as the European existential believed in individual contribution to make humanity better. According to Ralph, his idea of separating himself from the real world and choosing not to fight with other people was a clear illustration of existentialism. The author depicts throughout the novel how existentialism has influenced his personal life.
The protagonist in the novel tries to find satisfaction in religion, but it is all in vain. The author depicts how religion (congregation) could not satisfy the protagonist’s intention of living a self-fulfilled life. In the novel, the protagonist tries to attend church sermon with the intentions of finding fulfillment, joy and peace. He soon finds out that religion does not give him what he wants. This disillusion disappoints the protagonist in the novel who seeks for fulfillment by joining “the brotherhood”. This clearly indicates that the meaning of life does not depend on a group of people but in an individual. The inner peace and joy cannot be found by associating with other people but a positive life of oneself. Ralph clearly illustrated existentialism in a proper way and was a good piece of evidence of how the author was influenced by the European existentialism.
The novel also depicts existentialism when the protagonist tries to find fulfillment from romance. After the protagonist had joined “the brotherhood”, he became their public speaker. During this time, the protagonist finds temptations when he was seduced by a white woman in the congregation. He tries his luck in a romance with the woman but soon he discovers that it was all a lie to his life. He is faced with a dilemma of whether to continue with the relationship or not but eventually he stops. He neglects the relationship and tries to find fulfillment from elsewhere such as the “the brotherhood.” This depicts that the author was existential and believe in self-sufficiency. Ralph portrayed the lack of self-sufficiency in romance and that not even affection from another person could make somebody happy and joyful. The author is very existential and this is a good picture of how he is affected by the European existentialist as Soren Kierkegaard, Jean-paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Fyodor Dostoevsky.
The protagonist in the novel also indulged in revolutionary movements as a way of making sense of his life. After leading numerous revolutions, the protagonists still does not find the meaning of his life. The author illustrates very well the theme of existentialism in the context in which the protagonist decided to retreat from the revolutionary movements and concentrate on his own life. The largely depicts how the author is influenced by European existentialism.
At the end of the novel, the protagonist of the novel leaves all the activities that he thought would be fulfilling and decided to go back to his cultural ways and live like “an invisible person”. The protagonist found out the being a “seen” person could not satisfy his life fulfillments and joy. The author clearly illustrates existentialism in a great deal throughout the novel.
As discussed above, it is important to note that European existentialism had a huge impact on the other. The illustrations above illustrate very well the perception of life to the author. It is clear that the author believed in self-dependency upon the existence of sincere compassion from an individual and not a group of people or society. He concisely indicated that the achievement of his person developments was as a result of himself and not the community in which he existed. It can satisfactorily be concluded that European existentialism was very much depicted in the novel indicating that the author was very much affected by early European writers such as Soren Kierkegaard, Jean-paul starter, Albert Camus.
Cleary, S. (2015). Existentialism and romantic love. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire; New York: Palgrave Macmillan
Nino L, (2008). European existentialism. n.d.
Ralph, E, (1952). Invisible man Random House publisher. n.d.