On Hubris, Humor and the Invariable Social Itch
“The antidote to hubris, to overweening pride, is irony, that capacity to discover and systemize ideas. Or, as Emerson insisted, the development of consciousness, consciousness, consciousness.”
Sharing the same first and middle name as the famed Transcendentalist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ellison had finished Invisible Man as both an iconoclast and the source of his own great irony. He was an African-American man torn between using his identity as a means for deconstructing the meaning of American life, and the same means by which he was bound to ethnic tyranny and the confines of institutional praise.
Even more ironic was Ellison’s later homage to the great American novelists in Going To the Territory, which included the prolific Southern storyteller William Faulkner, whose quote about the human condition in The Sound and The Fury is as resonant today as it ever was:
“... No battle is ever won, it is only fought, as the field reveals to man his own folly, for victory is the illusion of philosophers and fools.”
But that’s just it: Ellison never felt he had won, and with two follow-up essay collections – brilliant, no less – he slipped into relative obscurity. From 1955 until his death in 1994, Ellison never actually finished his second novel, Juneteenth (it was later published as an edited piece). Despite having received more than a handful of honorable awards and inductions during that period, he was never handed the world stage. By some accounts, he never transcended. He remained invisible.
So what did Ellison, Emerson and Faulkner have in common?
Aside from their indelible legacies, their irony was so tragic that it created a wholly curious context for us mere mortals in the world to laugh at ourselves. I say context with considerable discretion.
I’m not talking about their accomplishments. I’m talking about personal failures. The disbelief in oneself. Believing in the outside disbelief of oneself. Drinking. Drugs. Financial failure. Failed relationships. Unfinished novels. Seemingly the sacrifices of a creative mind, but perhaps something much bigger than all of us. The pain of the world wrought within us, something so big in scope, so incomprehensible in theory, that language could not possibly assuage its propensity to dominate and lash out. It all seems so strikingly familiar.
Yet if genius like this can fail, then how can we not accept our own failures?
And so is the role of hubris. A mask, an affront, to hide all that we inherently do not know, or feel we cannot possibly accomplish.
Unless, of course, we seek the comforts of laughter. And each other.
You see, we haven’t won. There is nothing to win. Nothing materially, or even spiritually, to fight for. The battles we seek are internal, spiritually endemic. Yet we have our irony. Our comedy of errors. Our spiritual selves who are quiet and calculating, and our emotional selves who are loud and illustrious. Borne from this come our suite of imperfections, and the incredible stories to be told around them.
Such arrogance to think that our wisdom can be summoned any other way. Without submitting ourselves to all things social. To the realm of real possibility.
So instead of being saddled by fear, go into the world strong. Declare yourself into existence. Scratch the social itch, the desire to be heard, to connect. But know that acknowledgment is fleeting. Use conversation, pictures and the written word to evoke consciousness. Cherish those moments. Do not take them for granted, or give in to all the whims of the Ego.
Using context as an example of fate, remind yourself that your success will never be measured by where you go or end up, but where you are now.
And as irony ambles along, slowly fading into the background, your legacy, right here, right now, is forever.
All else is... Laughable.