Writing Discussion : Excerpt from a 1954 interview with Ralph Ellison

Discussion in 'Short Stories - Authors - Writing' started by skuderjaymes, Oct 19, 2012.

  1. skuderjaymes

    skuderjaymes Contextualizer Synthesizer MEMBER

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    INTERVIEWER
    Then you consider your novel a purely literary work as opposed to one in the tradition of social protest.
    ELLISON
    Now, mind, I recognize no dichotomy between art and protest. Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground is, among other things, a protest against the limitations of nineteenth-century rationalism; Don Quixote, Man’s Fate, Oedipus Rex, The Trial—all these embody protest, even against the limitation of human life itself. If social protest is antithetical to art, what then shall we make of Goya, Dickens, and Twain? One hears a lot of complaints about the so-called protest novel, especially when written by Negroes, but it seems to me that the critics could more accurately complain about the lack of craftsmanship and the provincialism which is typical of such works.
    INTERVIEWER
    But isn’t it going to be difficult for the Negro writer to escape provincialism when his literature is concerned with a minority?
    ELLISON
    All novels are about certain minorities: the individual is a minority. The universal in the novel—and isn’t that what we’re all clamoring for these days?—is reached only through the depiction of the specific man in a specific circumstance.
    INTERVIEWER
    But still, how is the Negro writer, in terms of what is expected of him by critics and readers, going to escape his particular need for social protest and reach the “universal” you speak of?
    ELLISON
    If the Negro, or any other writer, is going to do what is expected of him, he’s lost the battle before he takes the field. I suspect that all the agony that goes into writing is borne precisely because the writer longs for acceptance—but it must be acceptance on his own terms. Perhaps, though, this thing cuts both ways: the Negro novelist draws his blackness too tightly around him when he sits down to write—that’s what the antiprotest critics believe—but perhaps the white reader draws his whiteness around himself when he sits down to read. He doesn’t want to identify himself with Negro characters in terms of our immediate racial and social situation, though on the deeper human level identification can become compelling when the situation is revealed artistically. The white reader doesn’t want to get too close, not even in an imaginary recreation of society. Negro writers have felt this, and it has led to much of our failure.
    Too many books by Negro writers are addressed to a white audience. By doing this the authors run the risk of limiting themselves to the audience’s presumptions of what a Negro is or should be; the tendency is to become involved in polemics, to plead the Negro’s humanity. You know, many white people question that humanity, but I don’t think that Negroes can afford to indulge in such a false issue. For us, the question should be, what are the specific forms of that humanity, and what in our background is worth preserving or abandoning. The clue to this can be found in folklore, which offers the first drawings of any group’s character. It preserves mainly those situations which have repeated themselves again and again in the history of any given group. It describes those rites, manners, customs, and so forth, which insure the good life, or destroy it; and it describes those boundaries of feeling, thought, and action which that particular group has found to be the limitation of the human condition. It projects this wisdom in symbols which express the group’s will to survive; it embodies those values by which the group lives and dies. These drawings may be crude, but they are nonetheless profound in that they represent the group’s attempt to humanize the world. It’s no accident that great literature, the product of individual artists, is erected upon this humble base. The hero of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground and the hero of Gogol’s “The Overcoat” appear in their rudimentary forms far back in Russian folklore. French literature has never ceased exploring the nature of the Frenchman. Or take Picasso—

    INTERVIEWER
    How does Picasso fit into all this?
    ELLISON
    Why, he’s the greatest wrestler with forms and techniques of them all. Just the same, he’s never abandoned the old symbolic forms of Spanish art: the guitar, the bull, daggers, women, shawls, veils, mirrors. Such symbols serve a dual function: they allow the artist to speak of complex experiences and to annihilate time with simple lines and curves; and they allow the viewer an orientation, both emotional and associative, which goes so deep that a total culture may resound in a simple rhythm, an image. It has been said that Escudero could recapitulate the history and spirit of the Spanish dance with a simple arabesque of his fingers.
    INTERVIEWER
    But these are examples from homogeneous cultures. How representative of the American nation would you say Negro folklore is?

    ELLISON
    The history of the American Negro is a most intimate part of American history. Through the very process of slavery came the building of the United States. Negro folklore, evolving within a larger culture which regarded it as inferior, was an especially courageous expression. It announced the Negro’s willingness to trust his own experience, his own sensibilities as to the definition of reality, rather than allow his masters to define these crucial matters for him. His experience is that of America and the West, and is as rich a body of experience as one would find anywhere. We can view it narrowly as something exotic, folksy, or “low-down,” or we may identify ourselves with it and recognize it as an important segment of the larger American experience—not lying at the bottom of it, but intertwined, diffused in its very texture. I can’t take this lightly or be impressed by those who cannot see its importance; it is important to me. One ironic witness to the beauty and the universality of this art is the fact that the descendants of the very men who enslaved us can now sing the spirituals and find in the singing an exaltation of their own humanity. Just take a look at some of the slave songs, blues, folk ballads; their possibilities for the writer are infinitely suggestive. Some of them have named human situations so well that a whole corps of writers could not exhaust their universality. For instance, here’s an old slave verse:

    Ole Aunt Dinah, she’s just like me
    She work so hard she want to be free
    But ole Aunt Dinah’s gittin’ kinda ole
    She’s afraid to go to Canada on account of the cold.

    Ole Uncle Jack, now he’s a mighty “good ******”
    You tell him that you want to be free for a fac’
    Next thing you know they done stripped the skin off your back.

    Now ole Uncle Ned, he want to be free
    He found his way north by the moss on the tree
    He cross that river floating in a tub
    The patateroller* give him a mighty close rub.

    It’s crude, but in it you have three universal attitudes toward the problem of freedom. You can refine it and sketch in the psychological subtleties and historical and philosophical allusions, action and whatnot, but I don’t think its basic definition can be exhausted. Perhaps some genius could do as much with it as Mann has done with the Joseph story.
     
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