The 1970’s Invisible Man series (with David McCallum), which portrayed the protagonist as a troubled but sympathetic character, was a far cry from Wells’ novel – a story of a scientist called Griffin who, after experimenting with optics, made himself invisible. This cloak of invisibility resulted in gargantuan levels of anger, bitterness and resentment, anger at the betrayal of his assistant, bitterness and resentment at the world in general, a world upon which he threatened to unleash a reign of terror.
For Griffin, respite from the unending judgement of others turned out to be a route to isolation, resentment and loneliness, a regression to the world of the child previously detailed in Absence as a presence that attacks, a child unable to hold the gaze of the mother, resulting in a world of confusion, fear and anxiety. In the great tradition of Horror movies, it turned out that invisibility for Griffin was not the promised land, in fact nothing like it, instead landing Griffin in a version of hell with no-one to notice the hell he was in.
As Griffin discovered, it is never good enough just to be able to see (no matter how detached) – one must also be seen; one’s action must be witnessed. Without an audience of some kind, actions are rendered meaningless, lacking context for their significance (no wonder workplaces are a battleground for visibility).
The problematic nature of the cloak of invisibility is also at the core of Ralph Ellison’s famous 1952 novel, also called The Invisible Man, and also a tale of anger and rage, but this time in the context of the African American experience in the Southern states of the 1940s. Rendered socially invisible by race, the act of witness was cruelly denied to Ellison’s unnamed narrator, a man looking back on his life and the ways in which he was ignored – ignored by the white man on the street, and ignored by the Communist Party, a party that saw in black America the unsullied purity of unreified man, a belief system that inevitably threw the cloak of invisibility over the very group they purported to represent. From ‘Battle Royal’ to the status of ‘heroes’, the struggle for representation, witness and notification turned out to be a long and arduous one, a core battleground for the Black civil rights movement and arguably still contested to this day.
Regardless of historical context, form, and purpose, the novels of Wells and Ellison share a common theme, a theme that comes in the shape of a question close to the heart of Dirty Looks: how do you make people look at you when they can’t even see you? How do you make them take notice in the first place?