As Long As Books Have Existed, Invisibility Has Been a Dream

We just have to look to literature to learn that there’s always been a real danger to the prospect of being invisible

Illustration by Erik Marinovich

Who hasn’t wanted to be invisible? The endless possibilities for sneaking around, spying, playing tricks or just disappearing when relatives come to visit have made for a recurring fantasy in pop culture from slapstick to sci-fi: 1951’s Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man to Arnold Schwarzenegger battling an invisible alien in 1987’s Predator. Farce aside, there’s a serious moral dimension to the idea of a human being no one can see. For thousands of years invisibility has embodied (disembodied?) a unique contradiction, warning us of the consequences of unaccountable power while raising our awareness of those among us who are made to feel powerless. Perhaps the best early example is Plato’s Republic, in which a character, Glaucon, tells the fable of Gyges, a shepherd who discovers a magic ring that renders him invisible. With his newfound power, Gyges infiltrates the royal court, seduces the queen and murders the king. Glaucon argues that anyone who possessed the ring would be corrupted. Our devotion to justice, he says, is kept in check only by the fear of punishment and public approbation.

H.G. Wells took that idea and ran with it in the 1897 novella The Invisible Man, about a scientist named Griffin who creates an invisibility formula for the sake of his own self-aggrandizement. Wells’ tale illustrates that unethical individuals who believe themselves to be immune from discovery and punishment might well bring about their own downfall. Griffin soon learns that invisibility isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. When he eats, he must wait for his food to completely digest, since the contents of his stomach are visible. He risks discovery if he ventures outside in the rain or snow. The man who believed he had discovered the ultimate power is reduced to the status of a vagabond who must murder and steal to obtain money and food. That Griffin is killed by a mob of townspeople, and the full extent of his pathetic state is revealed when his corpse becomes visible, only underscores Wells’ view that science divorced from ethics is a nasty, hopeless business.

Perhaps no 20th-century American novel captured the essence of racism—and the lasting wounds it inflicts—better than Ralph Ellison’s 1952 Invisible Man, whose unnamed African-American narrator, paradoxically, is simultaneously too visible, by virtue of his skin color, and invisible, in that society does not recognize him as a person but only as an aggregation of stereotypes. “What and how much had I lost by trying to do only what was expected of me,” he asks himself, “instead of what I myself had wished to do?”

Sixty years after its initial publication, Invisible Man has never been out of print and has been translated into more than 20 languages. The Library of Congress lists it as one of the 88 books that shaped the United States. Lucas Morel, editor of the 2004 book Ralph Ellison and the Raft of Hope: A Political Companion to “Invisible Man,” credits the novel for its mesmerizing portrayal of the “fundamental contradiction” in American history and politics—the existence of discrimination in a nation founded on the principle of universal equality.

Ralph Ellison’s use of invisibility as a metaphor extends beyond the issue of race, Morel says: “He wasn’t simply making the point that whites don’t see blacks and blacks don’t see whites because of the color line; he was saying that individuals don’t see individuals for any host of reasons. He used the racial issue in the United States to get at that human inability to get past preconceived notions of what we think of people who don’t look or sound like us.

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