My brain is like the Bermuda Triangle. Information goes in and then it’s never found again.

Reading Ellison’s Invisible Man through the magnifying glass of mind and consciousness can follow his (unconscious?) rhetorical style towards those subjects. After the explosion scene that left our narrator hospitalized, we come across two doctors who decide to play mind games (both physically and verbally) with the protagonist. They use a machine that will perform just like a prefrontal lobotomy: a “surgical procedure in which the nerve pathways in a lobe or lobes of the brain are severed from those in other areas. The procedure formerly was used as a radical therapeutic measure to help grossly disturbed patients with schizophrenia, manic depression and mania (bipolar disorder), and othermental illnesses” (Encyclopedia Britannica). The following source from Live Science explains how Dr. Barron Lerner, a medical historian, and professor at NYU Langone Medical Center, explained that “The behaviors [doctors] were trying to fix, they thought, were set down in neurological connections. The idea was, if you could damage those connections, you could stop the bad behaviors.”

 frontal-lobe

After taking a brutal hit from an explosion and having been around chemicals that cause skin irritation, the narrator wakes up with what seems to be a migraine and says “My head–that burning eye . . . ” (232). I wasn’t sure if the narrator was talking about his eye burning specifically or it was a literary technique used by Ellison to refer to the “third eye” in terms of the pineal gland. I’m no doctor, but I don’t think a lobotomy-like procedure is necessary for a patient who just regained consciousness after a brutal life-threatening explosion. I take this scene as an allusion to white supremacy and its attempt to control sociocultural consciousness (definition: the awareness that a person’s worldview is not universal but is profoundly influenced by life experiences, as mediated by a variety of factors, including race, ethnicity, gender, and social class).

 

Another allusion I came across was the narrator’s mention of ice throughout the night at Mary’s. The page consists of “. . . emotion-freezing ice . . . A remote explosion…had caused the ice cap to melt and shift the slightest bit. But that bit, that fraction, was irrevocable. Coming to New York had perhaps been an unconscious attempt to keep the old freezing unit going . . . I was wild with resentment but too much under “self-control,” that frozen virtue, that freezing vice. . . And while the ice was melting to form a flood in which I threatened to drown” (page 259-260). I considered this passage to be a reference to Freud’s mental iceberg image. The lobotomy-like procedure damaged certain levels of the mind of our narrator. Although he is still able to communicate in some forms, he lost his identity and a few memories. The ice cap is still stable but like he mentions, it started to melt and shift in ways that were “irrevocable.”

 

freuds-iceberg-2



14 Comments so far

  1.    on September 27th, 2016

    I like how you considered the possibly of the eye wasn’t literal and it was a literary technique to reference the pineal gland and how that’s often associated with a place deep in our consciousness. My question though would be why can’t it be both literal and figurative? It seems even though the procedure wasn’t surgical, it was intended to cause cognitive changes through neurological changes, specifically changes to a black man’s brain that the white doctor’s find strange and inherently different from their own.

    Making him read the flashcards with the names of southern folktale characters (hoping he forgot them) hints that there is something eugenic about the whole situation and that’s a very concrete approach. The accident feels more like an excuse to perform experiments on him and less about fixing his injuries.
    You bring up an interesting point because I’m not sure if racist doctors like these would believe in sociolcultural consciousness. It sounds more like the lobotomy approach means that if they can damage the neurological connections they’ll fix the “problems”.

  2.   Michelle Coleman on September 28th, 2016

    Wow! You really thought into these allusions deeply, and it really changes my perceptive of the plot as well as what Ellison was trying to do. When I read the part about the eye, I thought that the third eye was the headlamp of the doctor (like old fashioned doctors), and the light was what was burning the narrator (like when it’s too bright in the morning when you first get up). But I like your interpretation too! Also, it’s just a plot-understanding problem, but I didn’t realize the lobotomy actually happened. I thought the doctors decided against it. That leads into your second point about the iceberg. I’ve heard about it in different psychology classes, but I really find it interesting how you applied it to the narrator’s mention of ice. The ice melted and changed shape in a way that the narrator’s mental capacity is permanently affected.

  3.   Jason Tougaw on October 2nd, 2016

    If anybody is interested, there’s a great book about the history of lobotomy–Jenell Johnson’s American Lobotomy. Johnson is a great writer and tells a fascinating and disturbing story. It could be an interesting research project to investigate representations of lobotomy in literature.

    Also, I’m with Sumaria: I think the eye is both literal and figurative–as is the whole scene, really. I think Ellison is training us to live with multiple meanings, even when they are contradictory, because we’ll need to do that to read the novel as a whole.

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