Joanna Ruocco’s Dan is a book I read with students. Dan is a place and a state of mind, through which moves a perplexed, brilliant young woman, the book’s protagonist Melba Zuzzo. Melba travels via bicycle, accosted by men and townspeople, en route to and at her place of work, the town’s bakery. Her morning customers include Officer Greg, who suspects Melba of a crime, and Don Pond, a man who brings her back to his apartment on behalf of a conspiracy involving all of the town’s men. The apparent head of this conspiracy is the book’s villain, Dr. Buck. Melba suffered Buck’s hands. He touched her inappropriately and claimed to be her father when she visited his office about chronic congestion of her sinuses as a child. She remembers the event over the course of her day. Buck haunts her, in a sense. He gaslights Melba, using his status as expert and authority to call into question her ability to know. She lays quietly on a sheet of paper in his office by book’s end. Some of my students unfortunately begin the book siding unknowingly with Buck. The course is designed, though, to demonstrate harms done to women by male doctors. Patriarchal patterns of abuse appear, for instance, once Dan is read in light of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-Paper” and Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams.
A rainy evening. Streetlights help us symbolize a mood. Slim branches of bushes bend beneath weight of falling water. I sit watch and bear witness beside a window, dazing, dreaming, pondering the relationship between Ernst Bloch’s theory of an eternal utopian spirit and Aldous Huxley’s presentation of that spirit as a will for self-transcendence. How do we who find ourselves here in language preserve what Fredric Jameson, in a book of 48 years ago, saw fit to describe as “the almost extinct form of the Utopian idea” (Marxism and Form, p. 116)? How do we pry this idea out of the clutches of a total system that even then, as Jameson could see, “may yet ultimately succeed in effacing the very memory of the negative, and with it of freedom, from the face of the earth” (115)? Huxley called this system the Brave New World. To forestall that outcome, let us imagine freedom and then go there! “Complete the thoughts of the past,” as Marx wrote in his “Letter to Ruge” of 1843. This has always been our duty: to develop a clear idea of what the world has long dreamt. Let us confront Huxley’s mystical consciousness so as to awaken in it an Egalitarian Giant. Let us restore to the dreaming subject the political direction which rightfully belongs to it. I do this in my classroom with my assembly for students of “a hermeneutic which offers renewed access to some essential source of life” (Jameson 119). For Paul Ricoeur, Jameson claims, this source is the sacred. What about for Huxley? Is the latter’s positive hermeneutic secular or religious in its orientation? Who or what is it that winks at us in recognition in the wake of ego-dissolution? We could ask the same question of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Who is the woman who escapes from the yellow wallpaper? Identification shifts over the course of Gilman’s story. Of course as readers, we, too, are in the same position as the story’s narrator: observing the movement toward freedom of the woman in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” who herself is observing the movement toward freedom of the woman in the yellow wallpaper. All stories are the same story. But it matters, I suppose, whether the prison from which we dream ourselves is to be transcended or transfigured. “This to that,” or “that in this”?