Monday, February 27, 2012

The Outsider by Richard Wright

Since this is Black history month, I’m going to depart from my usual practice of reviewing contemporary fiction and, instead, talk about an often misunderstood novel by a truly great American black author, Richard Wright.

Most readers know of Wright because of his early works, Native Son and Uncle Tom’s Children. Some have also read the first part of his autobiography, Black Boy (the second half of which was intentionally suppressed because of Wright’s affiliation with the Communist Party, and only much later published under the title American Hunger). But for many and rather complex reasons, the novel that most explicitly states Wright’s philosophical views, as well as his understanding of and fascination with psychoanalysis, has been largely ignored. He called the novel The Outsider, and it is indeed an incredible exploration of a bright and deeply troubled man who is on the outside in almost all ways. He is outside the powerful white culture simply because he is black, and no one understands better than Wright the economic and social oppression of American Blacks. But he is also outside the black community that he lives in, because he is an atheist, and harshly critical of religion as simply a flight into illusion and myth in the face of this oppression. And finally, he is a morbidly self-reflective man with an acute sense of his own existential isolation and who understands always the distorting lenses through which others, both white and black, view him.

This novel was published in 1953, when McCarthyism was at a fever pitch in this country. No doubt anti-communist sentiment had much to do with the initial response to the book, along with a fear of even appearing to be interested in anything tainted with communism. But the novel was also met with suspicion on the Left, at least partly because Wright had severed his ties with the Communist Party and was thereafter overtly critical of Soviet style communism. Like Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the French Marxist who felt impelled to criticize the lack of democratic process in the Soviet controlled CP, and eventually to expose the Siberian work camps, Wright insisted that it was his very understanding of Marxism that led him to reject the Soviet Union and the control it exerted over the CP. Jean Paul Sartre, too, although not wanting to alienate French workers, and thus always portraying himself as a Fellow Traveler with the CP, used plays as a mechanism for criticizing the authoritarian structure of the Party. So, both left and right were uneasy with this dark and violent novel, and academicians in this country (including those in philosophy departments) were so resistant to European existentialism (especially French existentialism), that by and large they simply ignored it—literally rejecting it out of hand, that is, without bothering to read it.  Wright, on the other hand, had both read and comprehended the major themes in existentialism, understood it on an emotional as well as intellectual level. Iris Murdoch once said that Marx and Freud changed the course of intellectual history forever, and I would certainly argue this to be the case in Wright’s development as an intellectual.

Damon Cross, the lead character in The Outsider, is a very bright and very dangerous man. He is also the spokesman for Wright, and in long, intricate passages lays out both a thorough understanding of the existential condition and a total rejection of theological consolations. The story, itself, is a long and complicated one, and I have no intention of giving away the twists and turns of the plot. I will say however that Damon Cross, not by divine intervention, but by chance intervention, is given the opportunity to begin anew, in Sartre’s words, to become the author of his own existence, to be really and truly and frighteningly free.

Damon is trapped in a low paying civil service job; trapped by a deeply religious and disappointed mother whom he both loves and resents; trapped by an early marriage to a woman with whom he feels no commonality, but with whom he has three children; trapped by a sexual relationship with a very young woman whom he comes to learn is not even of age, but pregnant and insisting that Damon get a divorce. Alienated from his co-workers and lost in a whirl of alcohol and daily thoughts of suicide, chance delivers him via a subway accident that leaves many dead, one of whom Cross manages to switch identities with. He is abruptly free; no past, no identity. His insurance money will go to his wife, so he is more valuable to her dead than alive. The girlfriend, Dot, will now have to do the sensible thing and get an abortion that she has so far refused. Even, he thinks, less a disappointment to his poor mother dead than he would be alive.

Now a stranger in this very strange land, Damon Cross flees from Chicago to New York and becomes Lionel Lane, black intellectual working for the Communist Party.
As the train wheels clicked through the winter night, he knew where his sense of dread came from; it was from within himself, within the vast and mysterious world that was his and his alone, and yet not really known to him, a world that was his own and yet unknown. And it was into this strange but familiar world that he was now plunging.
Cross, like Wright, is an intensely proud man who cannot be made to feel or act inferior because of his blackness, nor to blame race for his own condition. But he sees how racism affects others, and he bridles at the injustices he witnesses much more than at anything that has happened to him. He sees how powerful white men in the CP use black people for their own ends, how they distort and misuse the very Marxist principles that he admires simply in order to further an agenda that in the end supports an authoritarian power-structure, denies the importance of the individual, and thwarts democratic process at every turn.

In describing a character in the book, Wright could well have been describing himself:
…he had the kind of consciousness that could grasp the mercurial emotions of men whom society had never tamed or disciplined, men whose will had never been broken, men who were wild but sensitive, savage but civilized, intellectual but somehow intrinsically poetic in their inmost hearts.
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