I yam what I am Ralph Ellison

[3 of 5] Invisible Man, Chapters 11-15, by Ralph Ellison (1947)

Author: Ralph Ellison

"Chapters 11-15." Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison, Random House, 1952.

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Chapter 11

I was sitting in a cold, white rigid chair and a man was looking at me out of a bright third eye that glowed from the center of his forehead. He reached out, touching my skull gingerly, and said something encouraging, as though I were a child. His fingers went away.

“Take this,” he said. "It's good for you." I swallowed. Suddenly my skin itched, all over. I had on new overalls, strange white ones. The taste ran bitter through my mouth. My fingers trembled.

A thin voice with a mirror on the end of it said, "How is he?" "I don’t think it’s anything serious. Merely stunned. "

"Should he be sent home now?"

"No, just to be certain we'll keep him here a few days. Want to keep him under observation. Then he may leave. "

Now I was lying on a cot, the bright eye still burning into mine, although the man was gone. It was quiet and I was numb. I closed my eyes only to be awakened.

"What is your name?" a voice said. “My head. . . ” I said.

“Yes, but your name. Address? "

“My head - that burning eye. . . ” I said. "Eye?"

“Inside,” I said.

"Shoot him up for an X-ray," another voice said. “My head. . . ”


Somewhere a machine began to hum and I distrusted the man and woman above me.

They were holding me firm and it was fiery and above it all I kept hearing the opening motif of Beethoven's Fifth - three short and one long buzz, repeated again and again in varying volume, and I was struggling and breaking through, rising up, to find myself lying on my back with two pink-faced men laughing down.

"Be quiet now," one of them said firmly. "You’ll be all right." I raised my eyes, seeing two indefinite young women in white, looking down at me. A third, a desert of heat waves away, sat at a panel arrayed with coils and dials. Where was I? From far below me a barber chair thumping began and I felt myself rise on the tip of the sound from the floor. A face was now level with mine, looking closely and saying something without meaning. A whirring began that snapped and cracked with static, and suddenly I seemed to be crushed between the floor and ceiling. Two forces goal savagely at my stomach and back. A flash of cold-edged heat enclosed me. I was pounded between crushing electrical pressures; pumped between live electrodes like an accordion between a player’s hands. My lungs were compressed like a bellows and each time my breath returned I yelled, punctuating the rhythmical action of the nodes.

“Hush, goddamit,” one of the faces ordered. "We're trying to get you started again. Now shut up! "

The voice throbbed with icy authority and I quieted and tried to contain the pain. I discovered now that my head was encircled by a piece of cold metal like the iron cap worn by the occupant of an electric chair. I tried unsuccessfully to struggle, to cry out. But the people were so remote, the pain so immediate. A faced moved in and out of the circle of lights, peering for a moment, then disappeared. A freckled, red-haired woman with gold nose-glasses appeared; then a man with a circular mirror attached to his forehead - a doctor. Yes, he was a doctor and the women were nurses; it was coming clear. I was in a hospital. They would care for me. It was all geared toward the easing of pain. I felt thankful.

I tried to remember how I’d gotten here, but nothing came. My mind was blank, as though I had just begun to live. When the next face appeared I saw the eyes behind the thick glasses blinking as though noticing me for the first time.

"You're all right, boy. You're okay. You just be patient, ”said the voice, hollow with profound detachment.

I seemed to go away; the lights receded like a tail-light racing down a dark country road. I couldn't follow. A sharp pain stabbed my shoulder. I twisted about on my back, fighting something I couldn't see. Then after a while my vision cleared.

Now a man sitting with his back to me, manipulating dials on a panel. I wanted to call him, but the Fifth Symphony rhythm racked me, and he seemed too serene and too far away. Bright metal bars were between us and when I strained my neck around I discovered that I was not lying on an operating table but in a kind of glass and nickel box, the lid of which was propped open. Why was I here?

“Doctor! Doctor! " I called.

No answer. Perhaps he hadn’t heard, I thought, calling again and feeling the stabbing pulses of the machine again and feeling myself going under and fighting against it and coming up to hear voices carrying on a conversation behind my head. The static sounds became a quiet drone. Strains of music, a Sunday air, drifted from a distance. With closed eyes, barely breathing, I warded off the pain. The voices droned harmoniously. Was it a radio I heard - a phonograph? The vox humana of a hidden organ? If so, what organ and where? I felt warm. Green hedges, dazzling with red wild roses appeared behind my eyes, stretching with a gentle curving to an infinity empty of objects, a limpid blue space. Scenes of a shaded lawn in summer drifted past; I saw a uniformed military band arrayed decorously in concert, each musician with well-oiled hair, heard a sweet-voiced trumpet rendering “The Holy City” as from an echoing distance, buoyed by a choir of muted horns; and above, the mocking obbligato of a mocking bird. I felt giddy. The air seemed to grow thick with fine white gnats, filling my eyes, boiling so thickly that the dark trumpeter breathed them in and expelled them through the bell of his golden horn, a live white cloud mixing with the tones upon the torpid air.

I came back. The voices still droned above me and I disliked them. Why didn't they go away? Smug ones. Oh, doctor, I thought drowsily, did you ever wade in a brook before breakfast? Ever chew on sugar cane? You know, doc, the same fall day I first saw the hounds chasing black men in stripes and chains my grandmother sat with me and sang with twinkling eyes:

“Godamighty made a monkey

Godamighty made a whale

And Godamighty made a ‘gator With hickeys all over his tail. . . ”

Or you, nurse, did you know that when you strolled in pink organdy and picture hat between the rows of cape jasmine, cooing to your beau in a drawl as thick as sorghum, we little black boys hidden snug in the bushes called out so loud that you daren't hear:

“Did you ever see Miss Margaret boil water? Man, she hisses a wonderful stream, Seventeen miles and a quarter,

Man, and you can't see her pot for the steam. . . ”

But now the music became a distinct wail of female pain. I opened my eyes. Glass and metal floated above me.

"How are you feeling, boy?" a voice said.

A pair of eyes peered down through lenses as thick as the bottom of a Coca-Cola bottle, eyes protruding, luminous and veined, like an old biology specimen preserved in alcohol.

“I don't have enough room,” I said angrily. "Oh, that's a necessary part of the treatment."

“But I need more room,” I insisted. "I'm cramped."

"Don't worry about it, boy. You'll get used to it after a while. How is your stomach and head? "


"Yes, and your head?"

"I don't know," I said, realizing that I could feel nothing beyond the pressure around my head and the tender surface of my body. Yet my senses seemed to focus sharply.

“I don't feel it,” I cried, alarmed.

"Aha! You see! My little gadget will solve everything! " hey exploded.

"I don't know," another voice said. “I think I still prefer surgery. And in this case especially, with this, uh. . . background, I'm not so sure that I don't believe in the effectiveness of simple prayer. "

"Nonsense, from now on do your praying to my little machine. I'll deliver the cure. "

"I don't know, but I believe it a mistake to assume that solutions - cures, that is - that apply in, uh. . . primitive instances, are, uh. . . equally effective when more advanced conditions are in question. Suppose it were a New Englander with a Harvard background? "

"Now you're arguing politics," the first voice said banteringly. "Oh, no, but it is a problem."

I listened with growing uneasiness to the conversation fuzzing away to a whisper. Their simplest words seemed to refer to something else, as did many of the notions that unfurled through my head. I wasn't sure whether they were talking about me or someone else. Some of it sounded like a discussion of history. . .

"The machine will produce the results of a prefrontal lobotomy without the negative effects of the knife," the voice said. “You see, instead of severing the prefrontal lobe, a single lobe, that is, we apply pressure in the proper degrees to the major centers of nerve control - our concept is Gestalt - and the result is as complete a change of personality as you 'll find in your famous fairy-tale cases of criminals transformed into amiable fellows after all that bloody business of a brain operation. And what's more, "the voice went on triumphantly," the patient is both physically and neurally whole. "

"But what of his psychology?"

"Absolutely of no importance!" the voice said. “The patient will live as he has to live, and with absolute integrity. Who could ask more? He’ll experience no major conflict of motives, and what is even better, society will suffer no traumata on his account. "

There was a pause. A pen scratched upon paper. Then, "Why not castration, doctor?" a voice asked waggishly, causing me to start, a pain tearing through me.

“There goes your love of blood again,” the first voice laughed. "What’s that definition of a surgeon, cher A butcher with a bad conscience’? "

They laughed.

"It's not so funny. It would be more scientific to try to define the case. It has been developing some three hundred years - "

“Define? Hell, man, we know all that. "

"Then why don’t you try more current?" "You suggest it?"

"I do, why not?"

"But isn't there a danger. . . ? ” the voice trailed off.

I heard them move away; a chair scraped. The machine droned, and I knew definitely that they were discussing me and steeled myself for the shocks, but was blasted nevertheless. The pulse came swift and staccato, increasing gradually until I fairly danced between the nodes. My teeth chattered. I closed my eyes and bit my lips to smother my screams. Warm blood filled my mouth. Between my lids I saw a circle of hands and faces, dazzling with light. Some were scribbling upon charts.

"Look, he's dancing," someone called. "No, really?"

An oily face looked in. “They really do have rhythm, don’t they? Get hot, boy! Get hot! " it said with a laugh.

And suddenly my bewilderment suspended and I wanted to be angry, murderously angry. But somehow the pulse of current smashing through my body prevented me. Something had been disconnected. For though I had seldom used my capacities for anger and indignation, I had no doubt that I possessed them; and, like a man who knows that he must fight, whether angry or not, when called a son of a bitch, I tried to imagine myself angry - only to discover a deeper sense of remoteness. I was beyond anger. I was only bewildered. And those above seemed to sense it. There was no avoiding the shock and I rolled with the agitated tide, out into the blackness.

When I emerged, the lights were still there. I lay beneath the slab of glass, feeling deflated. All my limbs seemed amputated. It was very warm. A dim white ceiling stretched far above me. My eyes were swimming with tears. Why, I didn't know. It worried me. I wanted to knock on the glass to attract attention, but I couldn't move. The slightest effort, hardly more than desire, tired me. I lay experiencing the vague processes of my body. I seemed to have lost all sense of proportion. Where did my body end and the crystal and white world begin? Thoughts evaded me, hiding in the vast stretch of clinical whiteness to which I seemed connected only by a scale of receding grays. No sounds beyond the sluggish inner roar of the blood. I couldn't open my eyes. I seemed to exist in some other dimension, utterly alone; until after a while a nurse bent down and forced a warm fluid between my lips. I gagged, swallowed, feeling the fluid course slowly to my vague middle. A huge iridescent bubble seemed to enfold me. Gentle hands moved over me, bringing vague impressions of memory. I was laved with warm liquids, felt gentle hands move through the indefinite limits of my flesh. The sterile and weightless texture of a sheet enfolded me. I felt myself bounce, sail off like a ball thrown over the roof into mist, striking a hidden wall beyond a pile of broken machinery and sailing back. How long it took, I didn't know. But now above the movement of the hands I heard a friendly voice, uttering familiar words to which I could assign no meaning. I listened intensely, aware of the form and movement of sentences and grasping the now subtle rhythmical differences between progressions of sound that questioned and those that made a statement. But still their meanings were lost in the vast whiteness in which I myself was lost.

Other voices emerged. Faces hovered above me like inscrutable fish peering myopically through a glass aquarium wall. I saw them suspended motionless above me, then two floating off, first their heads, then the tips of their finlike fingers, moving dreamily from the top of the case. A thoroughly mysterious coming and going, like the surging of torpid tides. I watched the two make furious movements with their mouths. I didn't understand. They tried again, the meaning still escaping me. I felt uneasy. I saw a scribbled card, held over me. All a jumble of alphabets. They consulted heatedly. Somehow I felt responsible. A terrible sense of loneliness came over me; they seemed to enact a mysterious pantomime. And seeing them from this angle was disturbing. They appeared utterly stupid and I didn't like it. It wasn't right. I could see smut in one doctor’s nose; a nurse had two flabby chins. Other faces came up, their mouths working with soundless fury. But we are all human, I thought, wondering what I meant.

A man dressed in black appeared, a long-haired fellow, whose piercing eyes looked down upon me out of an intense and friendly face. The others hovered about him, their eyes anxious as he alternately peered at me and consulted my chart. Then he scribbled something on a large card and thrust it before my eyes:


A tremor shook me; it was as though he had suddenly given a name to, had organized the vagueness that drifted through my head, and I was overcome with swift shame. I realized that I no longer knew my own name. I shut my eyes and shook my head with sorrow. Here was the first warm attempt to communicate with me and I was failing. I tried again, plunging into the blackness of my mind. It was no use; I found nothing but pain. I saw the card again and he pointed slowly to each word:

WHAT. . . IS. . . YOUR. . . SURNAME?

I tried desperately, diving below the blackness until I was limp with fatigue. It was as though a vein had been opened and my energy syphoned away; I could only stare back mutely. But with an irritating burst of activity he gestured for another card and wrote:

WHO. . . ARE. . . YOU?

Something inside me turned with a sluggish excitement. This phrasing of the question seemed to set off a series of weak and distant lights where the other had thrown a spark that failed. Wer bin ich? I asked myself. But it was like trying to identify one particular cell that coursed through the torpid veins of my body. Maybe I was just this blackness and bewilderment and pain, but that seemed less like a suitable answer than something I'd read somewhere.

The card was back again:


Mother, who was my mother? Mother, the one who screams when you suffer - but who? This was stupid, you always knew your mother’s name. Who was it that screamed? Mother? But the scream came from the machine. A machine my mother? . . . Clearly, I was out of my head.

He shot questions at me: Where were you born? Try to think of your name.

I tried, thinking vainly of many names, but none seemed to fit, and yet it was as though I was somehow a part of all of them, had become submerged within them and lost.

You must remember, read the placard. But it was useless. Each time I found myself back in the clinging white mist and my name just beyond my fingertips. I shook my head and watched him disappear for a moment and return with a companion, a short, scholarly looking man who stared at me with a blank expression. I watched him produce a child’s slate and a piece of chalk, writing upon it:


I looked at him, feeling a quick dislike and thinking, helped in amusement, I don’t play the dozens. And how’s your old lady today?


I stared, seeing him frown and write a long time. The slate was filled with meaningless names.

I smiled, seeing his eyes blaze with annoyance. Old Friendly Face said something. The new man wrote a question at which I stared in wide-eyed amazement:


I was filled with tower oil. Why should he think of that? He pointed to the question, word by word. I laughed, deep, deep inside me, giddy with the delight of self-discovery and the desire to hide it. Somehow I was Buckeye the Rabbit. . . or had been, when as children we danced and sang barefoot in the dusty streets:

Buckeye the Rabbit Shake it, shake it Buckeye the Rabbit Break it, break it. . .

Yet, I could not bring myself to admit it, it was too ridiculous - and somehow too dangerous. It was annoying that he had hit upon an old identity and I shook my head, seeing him purse his lips and eye me sharply.


He was your mother’s back-door man, I thought. Anyone knew they were one and the same: “Buckeye” when you were very young and hid yourself behind wide innocent eyes; “Brer,” when you were older. But why was he playing around with these childish names? Did they think I was a child? Why didn't they leave me alone? I would remember soon enough when they let me out of the machine. . . A palm smacked sharply upon the glass, but I was tired of them. Yet as my eyes focused upon Old Friendly Face he seemed pleased. I couldn't understand it, but there he was, smiling and leaving witrr the new assistant.

Left alone, I lay fretting over my identity. I suspected that I was really playing a game with myself and that they were taking part. A kind of combat. Actually they knew as well as I, and I for some reason preferred not to face it. It was irritating, and it made me feel sly and alert. I would solve the mystery the next instant. I imagined myself whirling about in my mind like an old man attempting to catch a small boy in some mischief, thinking, Who am I? It was no good. I felt like a clown. Nor was I up to being both criminal and detective - though why criminal I didn’t know.

I fell to plotting ways of short-circuiting the machine. Perhaps if I shifted my body about so that the two nodes would come together - No, not only was there no room but it might electrocute me. I shuddered. Whoever else I was, I was no Samson. I had no desire to destroy myself even if it destroyed the machine; I wanted freedom, not destruction. It was exhausting, for no matter what the scheme I conceived, there was one constant flaw - myself. There was no getting around it. I could no more escape than I could think of my identity. Perhaps, I thought the two things are involved with each other. When I discover who I am, I'll be free.

It was as though my thoughts of escape had alerted them. I looked up to see two agitated physicians and a nurse, and thought, It's too late now,

and lay in a veil of sweat watching them manipulate the controls. I was braced for the usual shock, but nothing happened. Instead I saw their hands at the lid, loosening the bolts, and before I could react they had opened the lid and pulled me erect.

"What’s happened?" I began seeing the nurse pause to look at me. "Well?" she said.

My mouth worked soundlessly. “Come on, get it out,” she said. "What hospital is this?" I said.

"It's the factory hospital," she said. "Now be quiet."

They were around me now, inspecting my body, and I watched with growing bewilderment, thinking, what is a factory hospital?

I felt a tug at my belly and looked down to see one of the physicians pull the cord which was attached to the stomach node, jerking me forward.

"What is this?" I said. “Get the shears,” he said.

“Sure,” the other said. "Let's not waste time."

I recoiled inwardly as though the cord were part of me. Then they had it free and the nurse clipped through the belly band and removed the heavy node. I opened my mouth to speak but one of the physicians shook his head. They worked swiftly. The nodes off, the nurse went over me with rubbing alcohol. Then I was told to climb out of the case. I looked from face to face, overcome with indecision. For now that it appeared that I was being freed, I dared not believe it. What if they were transferring me to some even more painful machine? I sat there, refusing to move. Should I struggle against them?

"Take his arm," one of them said.

“I can do it,” I said, fearfully climbing out.

I was told to stand while they went over my body with the stethoscope.

"How’s the articulation?" the one with the chart said as the other examined my shoulder.

“Perfect,” he said.

I could feel a tightness there but no pain.

“I’d say he’s surprisingly strong, considering,” the other said.

“Shall we call in Drexel? It seems rather unusual for him to be so strong. "

"No, just note it on the chart."

"All right, nurse, give him his clothes."

"What are you going to do with me?" I said. She handed me clean underclothing and a pair of white overalls.

“No questions,” she said. "Just dress as quickly as possible."

The air outside the machine seemed extremely rare. When I bent over to tie my shoes I thought I would faint, but fought it off. I stood shakily and they looked me up and down.

"Well, boy, it looks as though you're cured," one of them said. "You're a new man. You came through fine. Come with us, ”he said.

We went slowly out of the room and down a long white corridor into an elevator, then swiftly down three floors to a reception room with rows of chairs. At the front there were a number of private offices with frosted glass doors and walls.

“Sit down there,” they said. "The director will see you shortly."

I sat, seeing them disappear inside one of the offices for a second and emerge, passing me without a word. I trembled like a leaf. Were they really freeing me? My head spun. I looked at my white overalls. The nurse said that this was the factory hospital. . . Why couldn't I remember what kind of factory it was? And why a factory hospital? Yes. . . I did remember some vague factory; perhaps I was being sent back there. Yes, and he’d spoken of the director instead of the head doctor; could they be one and the same? Perhaps I was in the factory already. I listened but could hear no machinery.

ACROSS the room a newspaper lay on a chair, but I was too concerned to get it. Somewhere a fan droned. Then one of the doors with frosted glass was opened and I saw a tall austere-looking man in a white coat, beckoning to me with a chart.

“Come,” he said.

I got up and went past him into a large simply furnished office,

thinking, Now, I’ll know. Now. “Sit down,” he said.

I eased myself into the chair beside his desk. He watched me with a calm, scientific gaze.

"What is your name? Oh here, I have it, ”he said, studying the chart. And it was as though someone inside of me tried to tell him to be silent, but already he had called my name and I heard myself say, "Oh!" as a pain stabbed through my head and I shot to my feet and looked wildly around me and sat down and got up and down again very fast, remembering. I don't know why I did it, but suddenly I saw him looking at me intently, and I stayed down this time.

He began asking questions and I could hear myself replying fluently, though inside I was reeling with swiftly changing emotional images that shrilled and chattered, like a sound-track reversed at high speed.

“Well, my boy,” he said, “you're cured. We are going to release you. How does that strike you? "

Suddenly I didn't know. I noticed a company calendar beside a stethoscope and a miniature silver paint brush. Did he mean from the hospital or from the job? . . .

"Sir?" I said.

"I said, how does that strike you?"

“All right, sir,” I said in an unreal voice. "I'll be glad to get back to work."

He looked at the chart, frowning. "You'll be released, but I'm afraid that you'll be disappointed about the work," he said.

"What do you mean, sir?"

"You've been through a severe experience," he said. "You aren’t ready for the rigors of industry. Now I want you to rest, undertake a period of convalescence. You need to become readjusted and get your strength back. "

"But, sir -"

"You mustn’t try to go too fast. You're glad to be released, are you not? "

“Oh, yes. But how shall I live? "

"Live?" his eyebrows raised and lowered. “Take another job,” he said. “Something easier, quieter. Something for which you're better prepared. "

"Prepared?" I looked at him, thinking, Is he in on it too? “I'll take anything, sir,” I said.

"That isn’t the problem, my boy. You just aren't prepared for work under our industrial conditions. Later, perhaps, but not now. And remember, you’ll be adequately compensated for your experience. "

"Compensated, sir?"

“Oh, yes,” he said. “We follow a policy of enlightened humanitarianism; all our employees are automatically insured. You have only to sign a few papers. "

"What kind of papers, sir?"

“We require an affidavit releasing the company of responsibility,” he said. “Yours was a difficult case, and a number of specialists had to be called in. But, after all, any new occupation has its hazards. They are part of growing up, of becoming adjusted, as it were. One takes a chance and while some are prepared, others are not. "

I looked at his lined face. What he doctor, factory official, or both? I couldn't get it; and now he seemed to move back and forth across my field of vision, although he sat perfectly calm in his chair.

It came out of itself: “Do you know Mr. Norton, sir?” I said. "Norton?" His brows knitted. "What Norton is this?"

Then it was as though I hadn't asked him; the name sounded strange. I ran my hand over my eyes.

“I'm sorry,” I said. “It occurred to me that you might. He was just a man I used to know. "

"I see. Well ”- he picked up some papers -“ so that's the way it is, my boy. A little later perhaps we'll be able to do something. You may take the papers along if you wish. Just mail them to us. Your check will be sent upon their return. Meanwhile, take as much time as you like. You'll find that we are perfectly fair. "

I took the folded papers and looked at him for what seemed to be too long a time. He seemed to waver. Then I heard myself say, "Do you know him?" my voice rising.


“Mr. Norton, ”I said. “Mr. Norton! " "Oh, why, no."

“No,” I said, “no one knows anybody and it was too long a time ago.”

He frowned and I laughed. "They picked poor Robin clean," I said. "Do you happen to know Bled?"

He looked at me, his head to one side. "Are these people friends of yours?"

“Friends? Oh, yes, ”I said,“ we're all good friends. Buddies from way back. But I don't suppose we get around in the same circles. "

His eyes widened. “No,” he said, “I don't suppose we do. However, good friends are valuable to have. "

I felt light-headed and started to laugh and he seemed to waver again and I thought of asking him about Emerson, but now he was clearing his throat and indicating that he was finished.

I put the folded papers in my overalls and started out. The door beyond the rows of chairs seemed far away.

"Take care of yourself," he said.

"And you," I said, thinking, it's time, it's past time.

Turning abruptly, I went weakly back to the desk, seeing him looking up at me with his steady scientific gaze. I was overcome with ceremonial feelings but unable to remember the proper formula. So as I deliberately extended my hand I fought down laughter with a cough.

"It's been quite pleasant, our little palaver, sir," I said. I listened to myself and to his answer.

“Yes, indeed,” he said.

He shook my hand gravely, without surprise or distaste. I looked down, he was there somewhere behind the lined face and outstretched hand.

“And now our palaver is finished,” I said. "Good-bye."

He raised his hand. “Good-bye,” he said, his voice noncommittal. Leaving him and going out into the paint-fuming air I had the

feeling that I had been talking beyond myself, had used words and expressed attitudes not my own, that I was in the grip of some alien personality lodged deep within me. Like the servant about whom I’d read in psychology class who, during a trance, had recited pages of Greek philosophy which she had overheard one day while she worked. It was as though I were acting out a scene from some crazy movie. Or perhaps I was catching up with myself and

had put into words feelings which I had hitherto suppressed.