Writing Catalog

Oliver Posner

Grade: 12

University School - Hunting Valley

Instructor: Scott Boehnen

Powerful Minds and Mindful Power

Critical Essay

Powerful Minds and Mindful Power

In Ralph Ellison's "The King of the Bingo Game," a game the protagonist plays represents the lie of equal opportunity. It seems to hold out the promise of success for anyone, no matter the bad luck of circumstance. Ellison exposes the truth — that white systems of power are responsible for the protagonist's bad luck. However, the protagonist gains a certain power, which comes from what it brings about, fear in his white oppressors. With his finger on the button, in a brief moment of control, the protagonist is able to change his destiny. When he is captured, he sees the world for what it really is, a world where institutions systematically create bad luck for Blacks like the protagonist. The unnamed protagonist is not well off. He doesn't have a birth certificate, making it impossible for him to secure a job. He is hungry, vagrant, and searching for money to pay for his wife's medical care. Ellison suggests two possible ways he arrived in that dire situation. Either he has just had bad luck, luck that could turn around at any point, or he is up against a great force, ensuring his bad fortune. Ellison figures the protagonist's destiny as a bingo game. At first glance, the game seems like one anyone can win. All one has to do is win bingo and land the wheel on the double zero. Everyone has an equal opportunity. In fact, the protagonist appears even to have an advantage; the game is in his favor as he brings in an illegal five bingo cards. With his increased chance of success, he wins, further advancing the idea that the game is winnable for all, and that the protagonist, just like anyone else, just needed a bit of luck.

However, Ellison does not mean for it to be. His story is an allegory, not an idealization. Rather than showing that we all are created equal and everyone has the same chances in life, Ellison highlights the illusion cast by whites: the appearance of equality where it does not exist. He argues that white institutions are set up to make it seem like Blacks have an equal shot at life, when really they don't. The protagonist comes to this realization when he first approaches the wheel: "He felt vaguely that his whole life was determined by the bingo wheel; not only that which would happen now that he was at last before it, but all that had gone before, since his birth, and his mother's birth and the birth of his father. It had always been there, even though he had not been aware of it, handing out the unlucky cards and numbers of his days. The feeling persisted, and he started quickly away" (59). Ellison makes it clear that the bingo game was determining the protagonist's luck. Moreover, it is obvious that a Black man's luck is always bad, even though the wheel is supposed to offer equal chance.

Ellison develops the same theme in his essay, "What America Would Be Like Without Blacks." Using slightly different phrasing, he argues that the best way to extend the democratic process, to perfect America, is to promote the "inclusion — not assimilation — of the black man" (Ellison, 9). In his eyes, the bingo game is a type of assimilation. Blacks are invited to play in what appears to be a game in which all can succeed, and thus all are assimilated into society. Instead, the game is rigged against the Black contestants, preventing them from the real prize, inclusion. Inclusion, here, implies a deeper membership in society that truly — not seemingly — puts Blacks on the same level as whites.

Luckily for the protagonist in the bingo game, when he pushes the button he discovers a power, a destructive power that can dismantle the system. With his hand on the button, the protagonist does not let the game stop, and thereby he does not conform to the rules of whites. This act is especially devastating to the white power structure because the protagonist attempts to share his power with those in the Black crowd, the other subjects of white control. Similar to Plato's Allegory of the Cave, the protagonist is the prisoner who has left the cave and is now returning to spread his knowledge with those who are still captive. The captive's return is incredibly frightening for the jailors because the protagonist's gesture to the crowd is a potential source of real power that threatens to take down the entirety of the system. This part of the story is palpable. The protagonist tries to tell the crowd how to win the game, how to obtain the power he feels as he refuses to let the wheel stop, "'Live!' he shouted. The audience quieted like the dying of a huge fan" (62). He is the prisoner returning to the cave to inform his fellow prisoners, and his jailors, true to the script, try to stop him: "Then he saw them. Two men in uniform beckoned from the end of the stage. They were coming toward him, walking in step, slowly… 'Grab him!'" (63). The white captors stop him, rid him of his destructive power, making it impossible for him to be the powerful dissenter. After being captured, he loses his voice and wreckful power, but he is about to gain his enlightenment.

The protagonist's original goal was to win the jackpot, for the wheel to land on the double zero. And it does, but only after he is captured. However, even as he was playing the game, he still believed that he could win. Ellison writes, "He fought them slowly to a stop. Without surprise he saw it rest at double-zero… And seeing the man bow his head to someone he could not see, he felt very, very happy; he would receive what all the winners received" (63). He believed that he was still entitled to the prize, even though he had attempted to destroy the game.

The last sentence of the story suggests a change, an epiphany in the mind of the protagonist. Ellison explains, "And he knew even as it slipped out of him that his luck had run out on stage" (63). By luck, Ellison does not mean chance of success. Instead, the author contends that the protagonist has finally realized the reason for his own misfortune. He is now cognizant of the system working against him, creating what he had misconstrued as bad luck. He finally comprehends that he is a Black man in white America, a Black man without a birth certificate, a Black man with an empty stomach, a Black man without a home, and a Black man with a sick wife. He finally understands, and that understanding gives him a much greater sense of power over his oppressors.

Overall, the protagonist obtains a kind of power that surpasses that of the institution: a destructive power. The power is supported by his enlightenment, an understanding of the system he lives in. A mix of these two ideas, destructive power and enlightenment, are the only way in which the human mind can triumph over oppressive institutions.

From Voltaire to Sacha Baron Cohen: The Picaresque

Critical Essay

From Voltaire to Sacha Baron Cohen: The Picaresque

The picaresque is a classic of literature, with an author parading its protagonist around the world with little character development or plot. Rather, the protagonist appears in a variety of settings, purposefully set up to make the author's point. Candide, A Cool Million, and Borat are all examples. They each contain a protagonist, Candide, Lemuel Pitkin, and Borat, respectively, that is put in a variety of situations to target the author's identified societal problem. Each satire's protagonist is naive and develops little throughout the story. Furthermore, each employs side props — characters and places — that exist to represent an idea or simply to get beat up. Although the three satires are structurally similar, they were received in different ways. Ultimately, it is the response of the audience more so than the work that dictates the legacy of a work. Because of that, Borat will be most remembered, and celebrated as a work of satire. All three satires contain a main character who is both naïve and ignorant, a protagonist who is utterly clueless about the realities of their worlds. Candide, whose name has become a synonym for "guileless, is extremely innocent, gullible, and faithful in the teachings of his mentor, Pangloss. He blindly accepts Pangloss's exceedingly idealistic philosophy as a young man, and sticks to it, even as he sees the horrors of the world develop in front of him, such as earthquakes, rape, war, and torture. Even after seeing his mentor hanged, being completely taken advantage of in Suriname and while sick in Paris, and losing all his money in a card game, Candide still believes that all is for the best. He explains, "I have seen worse than all that; and yet a learned man, who had the misfortune to be hanged, taught me that everything was marvelously well, and that these evil you are speaking of were only just the shadows in a beautiful picture" (93). He is simply unaware of the vices of the world and is ravaged by it because of his innocence. Voltaire demonstrates the idiotic obstinacy in trying to rationalize the horrors that Candide witnesses. Nathanael West's Lemuel Pitkin is no different. Rather than a belief in theodicy, Lemuel Pitkin is a believer in the rags to riches story — that he can go out from his small town to New York City and earn himself a living if he is simply honest and works hard. Lem's "incurable optimism" (16) allows for him to be taken advantage of, much like Candide, as he is subjected to pickpockets, scummy lawyers, and exploitative employers, losing an eye, hand, and leg along the way. Both Voltaire and West repeatedly beat up their protagonists, demonstrating that the ideals that they represent are nothing but ideals with no bearing on actual circumstances. Baron Cohen's Borat is quite similar in that he is also an ignorant protagonist, as he is naïve to the ideas and customs of contemporary America. Much like Candide and Lem, Borat is a fish out of water, oblivious to American ways of life. He attempts to kiss people when greeting them, laughs at the role women play in the U.S., and doesn't understand how to use a toilet. Overall, Borat is simply a pawn of his author, as are Candide and Lemuel, taken around the world to make the author's point. Their exaggerated innocence is key in satirizing the author's target, as they are shown to be so outlandishly stupid, such that no one could possibly believe what they believe. A reader could simply not be as optimistic as Candide or Lemuel, and not as misogynistic, racist, and antisemitic as Borat after seeing how out of place they look in their worlds. The naïve protagonist thus serves to distance the reader from the idea that the satirist is criticizing, to show how ludicrous it is to believe it. Voltaire and West show the consequences of believing in the best of all possible worlds and the American Dream, whereas Borat is so laughably different, that he can't possibly be taken seriously.

In addition to simple-minded protagonists, all three satires have side props that act as puppets or tools for their satirists, existing simply to prove points or present a separate idea. Candide has his Pangloss, Lem has his Shagpoke, and Borat has Kazakhstan. Pangloss and Shagpoke are essentially the same character. They serve to represent the ideas that the satirist is attacking, deterministic optimism for Voltaire and the Horatio Alger version of the American Dream for West. As such, they are ravaged by the author. Pangloss is hanged and sold into slavery, while Shagpoke is repeatedly injured and fired, and suffers from just plain bad fortune. Nevertheless, to demonstrate that these ideas will never die, neither do the characters. They keep reappearing for the satirist to abuse them once more. Borat is a little different. He doesn't have a character at his side throughout the whole narrative, reinforcing the idea that the author is criticizing. Rather, he is influenced by the ideas of his country. Still, just as Candide and Lem repeatedly call upon the ideals of their mentors, he has forever ingrained in him the values of his country, including misogyny, sexism, and homophobia. These props are critical for the satire, as they allow the satirist to create situations and take shots at them; they wouldn't have anything to criticize without them. Secondly, each satire also contains a character representing the ideal, what our protagonist believes in. For Candide, it is lovely Cunégonde. He chases her around the world, always so tantalizingly close, yet so far. She is the best of all possible worlds, and Candide even leaves a utopia in order to pursue her. For West, there is Betty, Lem's childhood crush whom he pursues throughout the story. Both Cunégonde and Betty are raped, abused, and taken advantage of. They are pawns for the satirist to demonstrate that this isn't the best of all possible worlds, but rather the opposite. For Baron Cohen, there is Pamela Anderson, the all-American girl whom Borat falls in love with, and sets on a quest to marry. Anderson is Borat's idea of the American dream, but when he finds out that she is no longer a virgin, his dream crumbles. His world view falls apart. His collapse after this realization once again shows how preposterous Borat is. Overall, these characters are consistent across all quest satires: the character that is targeted by the satirist, and the side characters that influence that protagonist to make choices that the satirist views as wrong.

All three satires use a similar structure, with a naive protagonist and side props, especially characters that are simply pawns for their satirist. The author is able to create situations that emphasize his point, such as James the anabaptist drowning, followed by Pangloss commenting that he was destined to drown in that exact harbor, instead of saving him. Overall, Borat is the most successful of these satires, as it changed our world. Baron Cohen saw problems in the U.S., such as anti-Semitism, racism, and homophobia. He created a movie that would call attention to these vices, and it did. By using the medium of comedy, by portraying our sins as comedic, he was able to draw a much broader audience and bring more attention to our problems. Unfortunately, the comedy went over some heads, which is always to be expected. That is why Borat is the most outstanding satire, because for some, its exaggeration exposed many of the flaws in our society, but for others, it validated their own perverse ideas.