- Birthday, Books, Politics, Quotes, Reading, Writing

Ralph Ellison on Writing, Art, Life, and More


Happy birthday, Ralph Ellison! Here are some quotes from his writing.


“The act of writing requires a constant plunging back into the shadow of the past where time hovers ghostlike.”


“When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.”


“Words are everything and don’t you forget it, ever.”


“Whence all this passion toward conformity anyway?—diversity is the word.”


“Life is as the sea, art a ship in which man conquers life’s crushing formlessness, reducing it to a course, a series of swells, tides and wind currents inscribed on a chart.”


“The understanding of art depends finally upon one’s willingness to extend one’s humanity and one’s knowledge of human life.”


“Beware of those who speak of the spiral of history; they are preparing a boomerang. Keep a steel helmet handy.”


“So why do I write, torturing myself to put it down? Because in spite of myself I’ve learned some things. Without the possibility of action, all knowledge comes to one labeled ‘file and forget,’ and I can neither file nor forget. Nor will certain ideas forget me; they keep filing away at my lethargy, my complacency. Why should I be the one to dream this nightmare?”


“The blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism. As a form, the blues is an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically.”


“Power, for the writer, it seems to me lies in his ability to reveal if only a little bit more about the complexity of humanity. And, in this country, I think it’s very, very important for the writer to, no matter what the agony of his experience….he should stick to what he’s doing, because the slightest thing that is new, or the slightest thing that has been overlooked, which would tell us about the unity of American experience—beyond all considerations of class, of race, or religion—are very, very important. I think that the nation is still in the process of becoming, of drawing itself together, of discovering itself. And when a writer fails to contribute to this, then he’s played his art false, and he probably does violence to our political vision of ourselves.”


“[T]here must be possible a fiction which, leaving sociology and case histories to the scientist, can arrive at the truth about the human condition, here and now, with all the bright magic of the fairy tale.”


“Our task then is always to challenge the apparent forms of reality—that is, the fixed meaning and values of the few—and to struggle with it until it reveals its mad, vari-implicated chaos, its false faces, and on until it surrenders its insight, its truth.”


“Every serious novel is, beyond its immediate thematic preoccupations, a discussion of the craft, a conquest of the form, a conflict with its difficulties and a pursuit of its felicities and beauty.”


“Perhaps the novel evolved in order to deal with man’s growing awareness that behind the facade of social organisations, manners, customs, myths, rituals and religions of the post-Christian era lies chaos. Man knows, despite the certainties which it is the psychological function of his social institutions to give him, that he did not create the universe, and that the universe is not at all concerned with human values. Man knows that even in this day of marvelous technology and the tenuous subjugation of the atom, that nature can crush him, and that at the boundaries of human order the arts and the instruments of technology are hardly more than magic objects which serve to aid us in our ceaseless quest for certainty.”


“We cannot live, as someone has said, in the contemplation of chaos, but neither can we live without an awareness of chaos, and the means through which we achieve that awareness, and through which we assert our humanity most significantly against it, is in great art.”


“In our time the most articulate art form for defining ourselves and for asserting our humanity is the novel. Certainly it is our most rational art form for dealing with the irrational.”


“Closed societies are now the flimsiest of illusions, for all the outsiders are demanding in.”


“When American life is most American it is apt to be most theatrical.”


“The blues is an art of ambiguity, an assertion of the irrepressibly human over all circumstances, whether created by others or by one’s own human failing.”


“At best Americans give but limited attention to history. Too much happens too rapidly, and before we can evaluate it, or exhaust its meaning or pleasure, there is something new to concern us. Ours is the tempo of the motion picture, not that of the still camera, and we waste experience as we wasted the forest.”


“Injustice wears ever the same harsh face wherever it shows itself.”


“When I write, I am trying to make sense out of chaos.”


“Play the game, but don’t believe in it.”


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