Lukács’ Notion of Art and Objective Truth in Ralph Ellison’s “Battle Royal”

-Anup Joshi
Lukács’ Notion of Art and Objective Truth in Ralph Ellison’s “Battle Royal”

            This research paper explores the ideas on Art and Objective Truth of twentieth century prominent Marxist Philosopher and Aesthetician Georg Lukács with reference to an extract “Battle Royal” from Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man. This extract picked from the opening part of the novel, represents the “artistic reflection of reality” of the white-centric America during early twentieth century. The story as a work of fiction is not reality itself but an artistic reflection of the reality. The brutal life of blacks is reflected in the story. As Luckacs claims, “Every work of art must present circumscribed, self contained and complete context with its own immediately self evident movement and structure” (60). The extract has also captured the historical context of that time when whites brutally treated blacks as animals, fueling to Lukács’ concept of “objective totality”. Though the story is the representation of particular event of a time period, it shows the picture of the whole social system. The unnamed narrator of the novel says, “On my graduation day I delivered an oration in which I showed that humility was the secret, indeed, the very essence of progress” (Ellison, 406). At that time in America, colored people had to go through several steps of humility to receive some reward from whites. The unnamed narrator originally gone to preach a speech during graduation day had to go through shameful excursion in a battle royal because of his racial identity. He is even made to grab electrocuted fake gold coins. Only after going through several humiliations, he is able to get the scholarship for studying in a black state college.
            The protagonist is the representative of all the black people of then America who were victim of the racial fanaticism. Blacks were deprived of their basic rights. It was whites who ruled the state and decided the fate of blacks. The state affairs along with education system were in their control and their view mattered on who should get to study. As Lois Tyson puts it, “Literature does not exist in some timeless, aesthetic realm as an object to be passively contemplated. Rather, like all cultural manifestations, it is a product of the socioeconomic and hence ideological conditions of the time and place in which it was written, whether or not the author intended it so” (66). This story is also a part of history, culture and depicts the social hierarchy and the ideological condition of that time. The socio-economic condition of the protagonist is very worse. He is considered socially inferior and is economically poor. The protagonist is the victim of the prevalent social conventions which oppressed blacks. His pathetic condition in story is product of his socio-economic factors. Being a Marxist critic, Lukács also advocates on the influence of socioeconomic factors on shaping a person’s life. According to Lukács:

The goal for all great art is to provide a picture of reality in which the contradiction between appearance and reality, the particular and the general, the immediate and the conceptual, etc., is so resolved that the two converge into a spontaneous integrity in the direct impression of the work of art and provide a sense of inseparable integrity. (Lukács, 51).
In Ellison’s text also, we can find the conflict between appearance and reality. The humiliation faced by the narrator is appearance which we can easily visualize on reading story. All the perturbing phases he has to go through the battle royal is what we speculate. But in reality, the cause for all these prejudice is his racial identity. Being a black man and belonging to a proletariat family, he is despised and has little significance in the country where whites are demigods. The narrator describes himself as an “invisible man” (405). It is not that he is physically invisible but he is invisible to the society and to the superior world of whites because he is just a Negro boy.
Similarly, the grandfather of the narrator at his deathbed utters:
Son, after I'm gone I want you to keep up the good fight. I never told you, but our life is a war and I have been a traitor all my born days, a spy in the enemy's country ever since I give up my gun back in the Reconstruction. Live with your head in the lion's mouth. I want you to overcome 'em with yeses, undermine 'em with grins, agree 'em to death and destruction, let 'em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open. (Ellison, 406)
In his statement, the grandfather doesn’t really mean that he is a traitor. Indeed he is a real hero. He spied whites by secluding his anger and even lived with them. He suggests his son to overcome white supremacy with grins and by influencing them. Only by this method he can “Keep This Nigger-Boy Running” (Ellison, 417). Ellison resolves the conflict between appearance and reality at the end of the story when the narrator deciphers the actual connotation of his grandfather’s last words.
            The story also involves the contradiction between particular and general. By presenting the particular story of the narrator, the story generalizes the issue of whole black community. Though the story portrays hardships of the blacks during twentieth century, it also reflects how they strived for their progress and achievements despite all the humiliations. The story is almost rooted in the real society and even reflects the reality more vividly and dynamically as pointed out by Raman Seldon, “…the novel reflects reality, not by rendering its mere surface appearance, but by giving us a ‘truer, more complete, more vivid and more dynamic reflection of reality” (Seldon, 29). Likewise, the story resolves the conflict between immediate and conceptual. The picture that suddenly is projected to our mind is immediate. Whereas when we judge all of its quality, it becomes conceptual. When we analyze the picture presented by the story, we can assimilate the darker side of racial supremacy, not only in America but throughout the world. The story clearly suggests us the gruesome consequences of any form of prejudices, be it racial, theological, ethnic, lingual or sexual.
            George Lukács strongly argues in favor of marginalized group, to which he names “partitionship of objectivity”. As M.A.R. Habib writes about Lukács, “ The realist artist expresses a vision of the possible totality embracing these contradictions, a totality achieved by embodying what is ‘typical’ about various historical stages…Socialist realists, moreover, view reality from the viewpoint of the proletariat” (Habib, 541). Ellision’s story also argues for the human rights of Blacks in America. He criticizes the oppression of Whites by characterization of the protagonist as a black person himself. The narrator lucidly portrays hypocrite society of white supremacy and ultimately yearns for the end of racial prejudices. The progressive idea of the text is highly compatible with the philosophy of Lukács. When the narrator uses the word “social equality” during his speech, all the white audiences turn against him. They are so stereotypical that they cannot endure even a word about black’s right. So expecting a possible riot, he immediately replaces the word by “social responsibility” and the tension is resolved. The narrator somehow develops this belief throughout the story that he needs to pursue education at any cost, even if he has to befriend whites for that. As a gifted orator, he is determined to flourish his aptitudes. This certainly motivates the marginalized readers to keep struggling for their goal.
            Ellison creates a fictional world in his story which though corresponds with the reality of society, is in reality an illusion. As Lukács points out, “…this non-correspondence is merely an illusion, though a necessary one, essential and intrinsic to art” (Lukács 61). Lukács valorizes the artfulness fabrication of art over the objectivity of science. Similarly, as Lukács believes a story cannot present the totality of life but can portray the whole totality just by portraying a fragment of it. Ellison’s story does not present every event that happened during twentieth century racist America. He only presents a part where a black person has to go through several humiliations in a battle royal to achieve an scholarship. The writer objectively portrays the eccentric white mentality. The crowd of whites yell vulgarly to the black boys who are about to fight each other blindfolded, “I want to get at that ginger-colored nigger. Tear his limb from limb” (409). The attitude of white people towards blacks is barbaric and they do not consider blacks any more significant than an animal. The crowd totally humiliates those black boys, and entertains their battle. Even the black people are deeply strangled by hesitation that they are indifference to their own community. Tatlock severely beats the protagonist despite his request and offer to hand him all the prize collections. The black boys’ battle and the naked dance of the woman is just a source of enjoyment to the so called “prestigious” whites. They enjoy by the sight of other people’s suffering. Through his story, Ellison reflects the pathetic life of black during twentieth century.
            Lukács, as an advocate of objective realism, focuses on the artistic refection of reality in literature.  According to him, no work of realistic literature is isolated from the part of history and society. Ellison’s “Battle Royal” which vividly portrays the horror of racist America during twentieth century can be taken as a perfect text in regards with Lukács’ idea. The story successfully presents the barbaric treatment of blacks by white Supremes. Though the story is the fabricated work of fiction, it is rooted in real society. The readers can enjoy it along with the sense of aesthetic art. The disgrace narrator has to undergo in the story not only reflects the brutality of white-centric society, but also establishes idea among readers that prejudice has very tough consequences upon the life of victim and appeals them to denounce any form of prejudice. The narrator’s approval of his grandfather’s suggestion to keep going in his life motivates readers to strive hardships in life. Ellison by standing on the side of marginalized community confirms Lukács’ notion of “partitionship of objectivity”.
Works Cited

Ellison, Ralph. “Battle Royal”. Elements of Literature. 4th ed. Scholes, Robert, Nancy R.
Comley, Carl H. Klans, and Michael Silverman, eds. New Delhi: OUP, 2009. 405-417. Print.
Habib, M.A.R. A History of Literary Criticism and Theory. London: Blackwell, 2008. Print.
Luckacs, Georg. “Art and Objective Truth”. The Theory of Criticism From Plato to The
Present.Ed. Seldon, Raman. London: Longman Group, 1990. 59-66. Print.
Seldon, Raman. A Reader’s Guide To Contemporary Literary Theory. 2nd ed. New York:
Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1998. Print.
Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today: A User Friendly Guide. 2nd ed. New York & London.
Routledge, 2006. Print.

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About Anup Joshi

Anup Joshi is an emerging young writer searching for space in Nepali literature. He writes poems, stories and lyrics for songs. As a student of English literature he loves reading books. He is also a passionate photographer and enjoys travelling.
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