Monday, 5 May 2008


It's up there on the list of favourite superpowers. "Would you rather be invisible or able to fly?" the quizzes ask. I'd go for flying any day - so long as it's not in a plane. I don't like being shut in. And invisibility, however much fun it might be at first, is a kind of prison.

H.G. Wells' Invisible Man came out of the same era as Sherlock Holmes and pre-dates (but only by a little) the spy stories of the Edwardian era. Their heroes gained a kind of invisibility through their mastery of disguise but would return to safe visibility in the world of comfortable rooms, a housekeeper and a London club. Temporary invisibility was a kind of power. It could even be a route to power. W.H. Auden is thinking of the commnist agent when, in his poem "Our Hunting Fathers", he compares the perfect life of animals with the "mature ambition" to "hunger, work illegally/And be anonymous." He's recalling an account of Lenin given in Ralph Fox's biography.

But permanent invisibility - the kind where you look in mirrors and can't expect to see yourself - that's not such fun. Listening to the follies of others loses its attraction if you can't be seen laughing at the joke. And in the end the invisible are vulnerable to all kinds of cruelty. Unless they're caught by chance in a picture or seen in the background of a story, it's as though they don't exist. They can slip beyond the law and beyond compassion. They are rarely seen as equal or fully human.

There's a sinister term "the disappeared", used mostly of those who vanished in South American states. It's sometimes put another way - that they "were vanished" or "were disappeared". The passive verb alludes indirectly to the involvement of government torture squads or death squads. But the practice of "disappearing" people is older than that. It happened in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union - and in democratic France in 1961 when the police massacre of Algerians in central Paris went largely unreported.

Today we have the "ghosts" of Abu Ghraib, who rarely made it into the photos, and the anonymous victims of extraordinary rendition. Presumably they are still carried through British territories and bases at home and abroad. I complained to my MP once. He responded that the British could hardly be expected to search United States planes on a regular basis and that, in any case, the prisoners being "rendered" could always make representation in the British courts through their lawyers. This seemed such a wilful misunderstanding of the facts that I gave up.

Those are the extremes of invisibility. Others choose invisibility because the alternative is worse. The nameless Nigerian deported on a B.A. charter flight last month was briefly noticed, because his fellow passengers objected to his treatment. It didn't help him. He was still deported but the other passengers were thrown off the flight for complaining. One man, on his way to attend his brother's wedding, was held in police cells where the British police confiscated all his money before dumping him, penniless and without a ticket, back at Heathrow. I don't know what happened to the man B.A. deported. I hope he's still alive, and safe.

For others, invisible is a daily fact. Some office workers literally don't see the cleaners in their buildings. Shoppers walk past the beggars and Big Issue sellers and don't pause to look them in the face.

Detective stories between the wars sometimes used invisibility as a clue. The housewife would open the door and take a delivery but later comment on the emptiness of the street. And the readers, accustomed to not seeing the people who served them, would ignore the implied presence of the man, woman or boy who made the delivery. In those stories, the invisible man would often be the killer. Sometimes invisibility is an excellent disguise. And sometimes people who are ignored want to make their presence felt.


Anonymous said...

I recently saw a documentary about the Chagos islands ("Stealing a Nation" by John Pilger). A reminder that sometimes entire populations can be made invisible.

Kathz said...

You will find references to this at Areopagitica if you follow the link in the sidebar - the treatment of the Chagos Islanders is a very important and telling matter.