Masquerade, Magic, and Carnival in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man

By Shinn, Christopher A. | African American Review, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Masquerade, Magic, and Carnival in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man


Shinn, Christopher A., African American Review


The element of carnival-masquerade offers a wide lens through which to view black-white race relations by mirroring and magnifying racial practices in the United States. Perhaps no work of African American literature exemplifies this point more sharply than Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952), which intensifies the narrator's perceptions of race by viewing various images of whiteness and blackness through carnival's distorted mirrors. (1) While this grotesque exaggeration reflects the particularly jaundiced twentieth-century condition of race in the United States, it also involves a re-assessment of carnivalesque perception itself, for precisely in the simultaneously distorted and imagined field of vision, the Invisible Man gains a sense of his own potential to maneuver, be creative, and magically "see around corners" (13). Carnival, as it were, includes an ambiguous space in which subjects assume several racial and class positions to negotiate as well as consent to specific power relations through psychic a nd social forms of masquerade: not just during carnival but also in the more normalized "carnivalisms" that appear in the cross-cultural and intra-racial performances of everyday life. (2) The discussion that follows analyzes the theoretical terms of engagement concerning the concept and practice of carnival-masquerade and then addresses how these ideas on carnival relate to Ellison's Invisible Man and African American culture more generally. Along these lines I suggest that carnival emerges in the text--and in historical context--in a complex mutuality of U.S. racial imagining that involves masking, magic, and ritual sacrifice. These elements create the condition of possibility for a distinct carnival poetics that the Invisible Man can use to redefine himself in terms of the socially responsible and artistic role that he intends to play. This carnival poetics, I argue, is significantly mediated through play itself--the space of creative distortion and experimentation in the African American tradition.

Theoretical Considerations: From the "Carnivalesque" to a New World Carnival Poetics

The festival of carnival, as a concept and cultural practice, has been expressly noted by literary critics such as Mikhail Bakhtin, Julia Kristeva, Robert Da Matta, and Richard D. E. Burton, among others. It often facilitates a nostalgic return to the familiar pre-Lenten street world of lavish costumes and masquerade, laughing choruses, parades, pageantry, and grotesque consumption of drugs, food, and intoxicants. Ellison's work indeed includes elements of carnival-masquerade that have led a number of literary scholars to propose theoretical connections and critical analyses of Ellison's Invisible Man and the carnivalesque. These critics include, among others, Elliott Butler-Evans, Dale Peterson, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Houston Baker, and Wilson Harris. With the exception of Wilson Harris, whose inventive references to "carnival muses" and "carnival twinship" place Ellison's Invisible Man within the wider spatio-temporal configuration of the Americas, these other writers almost exclusively apply Mikhail Bakht in's notions of the "carnivalesque," "heteroglossia," or "parody" to the study of African American culture, proposing multiple theoretical affiliations of the Bakhtinian "carnivalesque" and a distinct, socio-linguistically-coded "blackness."

Butler-Evans, Peterson, Gates, and Baker connect Bakhtin's "carnivalesque" and Ellison's double-voiced narrator and narrations in terms of African American signifying practices and Bakhtin's analysis of parody. In The Signifying Monkey, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., uses Bakhtin's definition of parody to illustrate how Signifyin(g) in African American culture enables its speaker to pose challenging and oppositional verbal self-assertions. For Bakhtin parody fundamentally operates in the form of disguise: Its dialogic exchanges parade as versions of the "same" (characteristically using similar figures of speech), yet within these utterances deliberately incisive double meanings and implied cut-downs are introduced. …

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