In fugitive slave narratives of the nineteenth century, and continuing in neo-fugitive works like Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower, freedom requires migration north on foot, master and his minions often in hot pursuit, as in the story of Harriet Tubman. It also involves extrication out from under the master’s religion, imposed over the course of the slave’s upbringing. Divinity has to be understood and believed in by the slave as something other than the wretched white tyrant who runs the farm. This understanding emerges surreptitiously, through what Fred Moten calls “fugitive study.”
“Chapter XI,” the final chapter of Douglass’s Narrative but for a brief appendix, is where the author describes how he “planned and finally succeeded in making” his escape from slavery (94). How does Douglass escape, and what role does literacy play in his plan? Does he, in effect, write his way to freedom? Or is writing but a small part? One arrives to the chapter excited to read further. But Douglass tells us immediately that he’ll have to withhold some of the facts of the escape. Too much of the particular, and others might come to harm. Because of slavery’s persistence as a system, he must deprive himself of the pleasure to speak freely the facts of the matter; otherwise, he would run the hazard of closing doors of use to those still enslaved. Means of flight must be kept secret. At most, no more than hinted at. Of the slaveholder, from whom knowledge of this sort must be kept, Douglass says, “Let him be left to feel his way in the dark; let darkness commensurate with his crime hover over him” (95).
Every book is a monument of sorts. Which ones do we want on our shelves? Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave appears on mine — or in my hands, rather. Acquisition of language — or more accurately, the acquisition not just of orality but also of literacy, learning to read and write: this is a major event in Douglass’s Narrative, as it is in Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein. For the creature in Shelley’s book, this event is a tragic one. It’s that for Douglass, too, in that it brings him great sorrow. “It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things,” he writes, “with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty — to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man.” But for Douglass, this understanding brings with it a thing to be prized. “From that moment,” he tells us, “I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom” (44).
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”?
Those who interrogate Being come upon days of self-questioning. “What potentials, what hidden latencies, what secret understandings,” we wonder, “lie unactivated by our current life-practices?” Our inertness, our passivity might under these circumstances begin to alarm us. We might become angry with ourselves for certain of our behaviors. We attach labels to these behaviors, we regard them as symptoms of newly-developed neurotic or obsessive-compulsive tendencies. By then, it’s too late. Interpellated. Game over. Once we accept the terms of the Other’s discourse, we’ve agreed to our own subjection, we’ve signed away our future labor-hours, our lives become the dumbest and most ordinary of tragedies: Wilhelm Reich’s The Murder of Christ. If instead we wore the crown of eternity and possessed free rein in creation of a self-determined rather than custom-built environment, in what ways and with what materials would we fashion our days? Purple majesties, where we sing to ourselves? Of course not! It would be more like yesterday. Let 4/20 serve as our guide. Play hooky, call in sick. Announce oneself a refusenik. In this one small step, glimpse the giant leap. Having expropriated the expropriators, we stand equipped with our labor-hours free of the usual impositions. Let us use them now as we see fit.