The point is not so much that these capitalists despise their rats, but that they despise themselves and all mankind. To keep their rats contented, they strive to convince them that their rats’ lives are more glorious, better, richer than at any time in history, and, in the end, they come to believe their own lies. Consequently today the content of human life on earth is what these cheap-minded men say it is. They are jealous and uneasy, these men, of anyone who tries to lure their rats away. They preach to their rats that their nation is the best of any of the nations, and that as rats they are the very best of all possible rats. They even have I-AM-A-RAT days…As long as this works, it’s wonderful. The only real enemies of this system are not the rats themselves, but those outsiders who are conscious of what is happening and who seek to change the consciousness of the rats who are being controlled. In situations like this, public consciousness is the key to political power.
Most kids read Black Boy or Native Son in school (the story of Bigger Thomas), but this passage is from my favorite Richard Wright novel, The Outsider. It’s a little harder to find, and about 600 pages, but worth it if you’re in a certain state of mind (something like utter alienation, maybe). Written during his ex-patriot period in France when he was hanging out with Sartre and Albert Camus, and had been forced through humiliating and near-fatal betrayals by the Communist Party in Chicago and New York, The Outsider tells the story of Cross Damon, a man who ghosts himself from society through a series of violent outbursts. Can’t escape yourself though.
If you liked Norman Mailer’s poetically unsettling An American Dream—a novel that deals with a privileged white man who kills his wife and the way in which his life spirals into descent and ruin as he looks to evade capture—The Outsider deals with similar existential themes of humans and actions alone in the universe, but is told through the mind and movements of a black protagonist and the racially hostile world he inhabits (Chicago and New York, late 50’s). Richard Wright’s talent—in a way, like Mailer’s— is that he clings to Damon’s individuality the whole way through and leaves no stone unturned in Cross’ justification of his escape to a life where he feels he can live freely.