Bartleby is the role model for how to survive a cubicle job; an office is just a large cubicle

Melville and Bartleby: Facing the End of an Audienceby Jon Thompson
Posted: February 18, 2008

Everything is again set in motion–called into question–by writing.

-Edmond Jabès

§ What can we face? The face as mystery, sign, image. “Bartleby” stages the terrible unworkability of faces, the equally terrible unknowability of our own. Facing it, face offs, to turn one’s face to the wall, to lose face, to gain it. The tragedy of each is the tragedy of all…

§ The worker consents or faces death. This is Bartleby’s recognition. But in consenting, ironically, he also faces death, the death of the self. It doesn’t matter that the self is a fiction. In fact, the murder of the fictive self, the self that finds a place within society, that has basked in social approval, is more tortuous and painful than the death of any actual self. This is what it means to “lose face.”

§ Becoming a pariah is one thing; becoming exiled from who you thought you once were is another. Or is Bartleby’s slow, deliberate journey of self-exile a journey to freedom? So: Heaven has levels, degrees. In reality, it is only an idea.

§ The slow, sad spectacle of the self, staging its own death for an audience that doesn’t exist.

§ The audience that has not yet found the means to look about and see that the drama is in the clapping, not in the performance, the one loud roar of approval that sweeps aside both the past and the future.

§ Freedom from external restraint, unto death. “Freedom-from” versus “freedom-in”: in this most free of nations, there is no freedom-in being. Your freedom is guaranteed by the right to die by yourself, with whatever self you can covet unencumbered by love or relation. No one would dream of curtailing that freedom. Bartleby: the nineteenth-century ancestor to every homeless person wandering aimlessly on America’s streets, each one the sovereign of all he surveys.

§ Bartleby never argued with anyone; he never tried to prove a point, win converts, vanquish foes. What does this lack of rhetorical aggression signify? The fruitlessness of conversion via argumentation? The failure of rhetoric? The contamination of rhetoric by a culture in which most “disinterested” expressions cloak naked self-interest? Bartleby’s “I prefer not to” exists as an assertion of will–but not will-to-truth.

§ The most destructive of all faces: benign tolerance. This is the face of Bartleby’s employer. It disguises its own intolerance within a mask of benevolence. Worse: because that intolerance cannot be admitted, it does not exist. And because it does not exist, it is free to become pitiless.

§ Behind the narrator’s courteousness, theatrical benevolence, and good manners lurks the threat of violence. Without these rhetorical forms, manners, forms of self-presentation, capitalist society would be undressed, its violence made manifest. With them, it is dressed up as civilized, moral, benevolent. Bartleby forces it to undress; he forces it to endure the shame of exposure, the danger of self-recognition. Therefore society takes its revenge upon Bartleby.

§ About Bartleby, the narrator says, “No materials exist, for a full and satisfactory biography of this man.” In being unknown and unknowable, Bartleby exists as a threat to society’s will-to-know, to narrative itself. That which is un-narratable must be narrated, must be known.

§ Everyone, everything must be faced, categorized, reported upon. To be unknown and unknowable is to incur the wrath of custom and law that demands a modest amount of submission.

§ Those about “whom nothing is ascertainable” defy the order of things, which rests on the ability to recognize, ascertain, assess. One death meets another.

§ “What my own astonished eyes saw of Bartleby, that is all I know of him.” Astonishment polices reality: it turns it into heaven or hell. Hell is what is unrecognizable; heaven is only a name for what can be recognized.

§ The voice of doxa is the voice of comfort and reassurance. It speaks–not in terms of certainties, but givens. It refuses its own name.

§ To trade in “bonds,” “mortgages” and “title deeds” is to trade in articles of possession. Within this world, language–writing–becomes the guarantor of ownership. The language of the law attempts to contain the irreducible play of meaning in language, its fundamentally mercurial dynamic nature, by means of complete discrimination, complete description. Through exactitude and precision it attempts to forestall all contingency, all unforeseen contexts. Bartleby’s refusal to yield his soul defies a social order possessed by the desire to possess everything and to translate its own imperial ambition into an idiom of benevolence and generosity.

§ The soul is what is withheld; the soul is that which is proffered without being acknowledged as such. It is then material and invisible. The achievement of Bartleby is that he maintains, in large part, the invisibility of his soul. This, too, is his tragedy; it is also the tragedy of the society that demands it.

§ What is safety in a world made “safe” by money? The mansion becomes the mausoleum.

§ “Poetic enthusiasm” will always be an embarrassment in the face of prudence and method. Prudence–thou knows not what thou art!

§ In a society in which the lack of “poetic enthusiasm” is judged to be good, any evidence of it will be seen as a weakness, a failure of restraint.

§ Wall Street. Even the name is mythological: destiny materialized within the flux of numbers rising or falling on the stock exchange. The market depends upon fluctuation, but fluctuation within limits. Wall Street creates walls, as well as the need for them. It also creates a demand for a limit to tolerance. In a market society, tolerance must be limited else there will be no profit. To be infinitely tolerant, that is, to be meaningfully tolerant, would require unending expenditure. Thus in market societies, tolerance becomes a most precious commodity; its value is dependent upon it being “cashed in” only rarely.

§ In 1653, Wall Street was named for a “barricade built by Peter Stuyveysant to protect the early Dutch settlers from the local Indians,” writes Peter Geisst in Wall Street: A History. Wall Street has always been then a place of barricades, an instrument of separation, a means to distance “entrepreneurial” settlers from the locals, a place of appropriation and exploitation. Indeed, it marks a border, a boundary, a space designed to produce both wealth and alienation. It marks a frontier; a defensive establishment already prepared against the backlash of the people beyond it. It thus exists as a predatory commercial site, though so “normalized” it virtually ceases to look or feel like one. Necessarily, it is a place of self-righteousness; wealth must be a sign of God’s favor. Yet there is uneasiness here too, rooted in the partially repressed recognition of the illegitimacy that comes from appropriation, which must always be legitimized. The aggressor must always be the victim.

§ Through his unorthodoxy, Bartleby challenges the liberal definition of benevolence. His employer, however, writes to convince us of his unsullied liberalism. The reader too is called upon to confirm the narrator’s own skewed self-image. In doing so, Melville shows the insecurity of the liberal mind–and its monstrosity. The entire world exists to confirm it in its essential benevolence. But since at some level it knows that it is not benevolent, the world exists to prop up a tattered fiction. Everything is sacrificed. The liberal mind: pitiless, egotistical, endlessly benign, endlessly serene.

§ Wall Street is presented to us as dialectic of “industry and life” by day an “emptiness” and “vacancy” by night. Bartleby shows, by contrast, the emptiness and vacancy of industry itself. Even to the narrator, Wall Street is a “Petra” and a ruined “Carthage.”

§ To blot a document for a scrivener is a mortal sin, for it reminds the reader that the law is not a distant, Olympian arbiter of right and wrong, but a frail, imperfect human institution… lawyers, not surprisingly, want to exorcise blots form their records. As if the law could be unblemished.

§ The impertinence of Bartleby: he does not negotiate the terms of his employment; he decides and acts off his own bat. Despite his mildness, his is the grossest kind of insubordination. Subordinates who take their own preferences in hand and follow them up challenge the legitimacy of authority. Thus the latent, nearly extinguished utopianism of “Bartleby”: what would be if all the wretched of the earth declared, “I prefer not to”?

§ Bartleby alone appears to be self-conscious, undeceived. This degree of self-awareness renders him unfit for labor which depends, to varying degrees, upon a dimming of self-knowledge, self-consciousness. Within American capitalism, self-knowledge brings the individual to a state of unfreedom. Its price: exile. To be self-conscious in America is to become an exile, a social outcast. Individualism becomes the compensatory myth for a society intolerant of it.

§ What is the black wall that Bartleby sees through his windowpanes? It is nothing but sheer blankness, Necessity, the limitation that he endures, the sum of limitations upon individual desire by the rule of law and social custom. It is the pitilessness of all laws, written and unwritten, that demand conformity and obedience. It is the primal scene of socialization in which the implacable order of things confronts human desire with its inhuman face.

§ To write the law over and over again, to copy it repeatedly, is to perform the individual’s subjection to the law: he is embodying it within language, enabling it to take material form; he is giving it his life force. The scrivener is not writing the law; it is writing itself through him. It is impervious to death and decay; the scrivener, by contrast, is mortal, temporal, frail, corruptible. The scrivener embodies the fate of the subject: to be subjected to the law is to be its subject. Which is synonymous with being subject-less. The irony of Melville’s parable: fleeing the death of the subject only hastens it.

§ The labor of the scrivener: writing without thinking, writing that faithfully and mindlessly duplicates the signifier, writing that has as its sole object the reproduction of the word of law–is this not a symbol of the co-opted labor of the intellectual working under the aegis of a reifying capitalism?

§ Bartleby arrives at his employer’s premises as an adult, but an adult without a history. It is this emptiness, this lack of a knowable past, the silence of his past, his solitude and lack of connection that distinguishes him, paradoxically, as history’s subject. His silence about his past only amplifies that untold drama. That past, that history, becomes too monumental to be written. It is unrepresentable, but in becoming unrepresentable, it acquires a ghostly presence. History haunts Bartleby. It is unseen but everywhere it makes itself felt with its uncanny presence. (Bartleby, too, becomes a wraith.)

§ Bartleby is stricken with life, with the burden of living.

§ Why does Bartleby begin his employment with an orgy of productivity? To obliterate the past? To identify himself with social expectation in a failed attempt to conform? The reasons are unknowable, perhaps to himself as well as Melville. That is respect for fiction.

§ Alternatively: Bartleby’s orgy of productivity at the beginning of his employment is the sign of the unconsciousness responding to the demands of everyday life. Bartleby’s frenzy mimics the law of productivity, becoming a grotesque parody of it. To live as a conformist is to live as a parody, to live as a mimic man. Bartleby prefers to live as a grotesque.

§ For Bartleby’s employer as for most representatives of the law, civil disobedience–“I prefer not to”–is a species of madness. In Paradise, refusal has always been a form of heresy, of madness. “What right do you have to reject Eden, my Eden”? (Even Ginger Nut thinks Bartleby is “luny.”)

§ For Bartleby, “reason” is unreason. Its tyranny is met by mildness, mildness that exists as reproach, gentle condemnation, a refusal to enter into the ugly economy of compulsion. Bartleby’s mildness, then, is utopian–or at least a faint sign of the utopian in a world degraded by imperatives. By contrast, Turkey affirms his employer’s rules “with submission.”

§ Bartleby is regarded by his employer as unreasonable, the very embodiment of unreason. What Bartleby forces us to see is that reason is a fiction authored by certain interests (the legal profession, the middle class, etc.) in order to legitimize themselves. Reason, of course, is always what you have but the other person does not. Since the Enlightenment, reason has been deified as Truth, but in so doing it betrays its own idealization. That which cannot be proven wrong becomes, by definition, an article of faith. We should speak of reasons rather than Reason. In actual practice, Reason has little to do with itself.

§ “Come forth and do your duty ” declares Bartleby’s employer to Bartleby. Duty: every society induces it to ensure its own reproduction. Duty is needed to overcome the inevitable revulsion toward the menial, the abhorrent, as well as the mundane. Doing one’s duty always involves an annihilation of the self–as well as a fulfillment of it.

§ Without irony, the master looks to the slave for confirmation of his essential benevolence; similarly, the employer demands of his employee that he confirm his employer’s sense of tolerance and benevolence. The annoyance Bartleby’s employer feels toward Bartleby is, if anything, exceeded by the irritation the other scriveners feel toward Bartleby for “shirking” his work. Turkey and Nipper’s inflamed response to Bartleby’s non serviam–“Shall I go and black out his eyes”–expresses the narrator’s own rage against Bartleby, a rage he cannot express himself inasmuch as it would give the lie to his own magnanimity. But it also allows him to act the role of the liberal, long-suffering employer (which in truth he is). “Bartleby” thus explores the psychic organization of labor under capitalism in which the wage earner expresses the anger and frustrations of his boss, which also become his. Melville reveals a system in which one class not only exploits another, but it also expects the exploited class to voice the angers, the frustrations, and the point of view of the dominant class, that is, the middle class. For Melville, this system is essentially two-faced. The question of voice or expression (the representation of what is internal) then becomes immensely fraught, caught up in the unconscious social imperative to speak for interests that are not one’s own. In part this explains Bartleby’s linguistic miserliness: to speak more would be to invite his speech to be infected by the speech and interests of another class. Bartleby’s linguistic minimalism resists this enforced class-based ventriloquism.

§ Failing to reform Bartleby, his employer takes it upon himself to read Bartleby’s protest as an opportunity to exercise his own moral improvement. That he fails is not a sign of his moral turpitude but a sign that moral improvement in a Puritan society is impossible.

§ Bartleby repossesses his employer’s premises. He has a fine indifference for property. Is it any wonder he must die?

§ “Immediately then the thought came sweeping across me, what miserable friendlessness and loneliness are here revealed.” To have his life interpreted for us by one with such suspect motives: this is Bartleby’s fate and that of all the dispossessed. He cannot narrate his own life, tell his own story in his own words. In Melville’s America, identity is not something you have or own; it is instead something conferred upon you by others. Identity is a function of how you are seen. In a society possessed by the drama of individualism, the social rears its ugly head by silently and efficiently forging an identity for every American, an identity that is never wholly available for inspection and understanding by the individual. The American self: one who thinks he knows himself utterly.

§ Spectre, spectator, specimen: Bartleby cannot escape the imprisonment of categories, more carceral than mortar.

§ The narrator says he feels a “bond of a common humanity” with Bartleby, yet his actions do not acknowledge the sanctity of any such bond. This then is the fate of the liberal mind: to feel one thing, but to have that feeling, that liberal sentiment, overborne by the “more practical” demands of class and the conformities a market society exacts.

§ “Pallid,” “miserable,” “silent,” “pale” “cadaverously gentlemanly”: Bartleby is not only deathly in appearance; he is death. Death to social convention, death to social custom, to normative expectation, to social behavior. Negating social expectation, Bartleby is negated. That is, he becomes more like who he is. He approaches the horizon of his identity, which is paradoxically nothing as well as being the unspeakable form of his resistance to social law. This is why the narrator pities him, hates him, loves him. As an object of pity, Bartleby’s unspoken critique of everything that narrator stands for (professionalism, class, respectability, tolerance, etc.) does not have to be engaged. Indeed, once made an object of pity his unspoken condemnation can be dismissed as eccentricity or lunacy.

§ The laws of property permit all kinds of plunder, invasion, appropriation. Because the narrator observes that Bartleby’s desk “is mine,” it, too, can be penetrated by him. He has in law, if not in ethics, a right to rifle Bartleby’s desk. The narrator possesses a will-to-truth vis-à-vis Bartleby: his mysteriousness, his reserve, his enigmatic taciturn character must be made explicable. That it is not defies the narrator’s complacently bourgeois worldview, which demands attribution, causal hermeneutics, simplicity, clarity. Bartleby gives this will-to-truth, which is also a will-to-power, no relief. What knowledge cannot know it must dismiss, pity or deligitimize as contemptible or a mere object of curiosity.

§ Bartleby: the exemplary American. He tries–and fails–to make a home for himself within the ever-mutating, ever-the-same precincts of capitalism and ends up being imprisoned by it.

§ “… standing in one of those deadwall reveries of his”: the reverie, long the ally of American self-invention, self-fashioning, can also be its undoing, especially when reverie becomes a substitute for doing. Bartleby is Benjamin Franklin’s nemesis, the presence of a horrific unproductivity in American culture that Franklin sought to annihilate or at least shame out of existence. The narrator (Benjamin Franklin’s alter ego in the story) initially feels pity for Bartleby, a pity that transmogrifies into repulsion. It is not only that Bartleby represents an entirely different principle of living; it is that he cannot be changed to be in alignment with the narrator’s complacent establishment values (“What I saw that morning persuaded me that the scrivener was the victim of an innate and incurable disorder.”) Hence Bartleby must be cast out.

§ The initial test of Bartleby’s excommunication will be whether he will divulge the particulars of his deliberately veiled history. If he refuses to do so, the narrator is determined to fine him. Significantly, he is not first asked to become more efficient. He is asked to reveal his soul, to become transparent before the gaze of his employer, to lose his identity as a separate, equal, and distinctive life, indeed to lose his private history. He is asked, in short, to become a case, an aggregate of facts, an object of narration, a known story, an employee instead of an individual. To the question, “Will you tell me anything about yourself?” Bartleby responds “I would prefer not to.”

§ Bartleby’s presence, his example, is a contagion that must be contained. Within the highly conventionalized world of employer-employee relations, preference cannot be allowed to have much more than a rhetorical significance. Preference speaks to individual will, which in Melville’s America, exists only ideologically, or at the level of enunciation. Individual will haunts America, its brick and mortar, its devil-deal with Wall Street, its boom times and its bust ones; it is dead, but its uneasy spirit is everywhere, a reminder of what has been lost, or perhaps what once was envisioned but never realized.

§ In the face of society’s “thou must,” Bartleby heroically maintains his own sense of will. He cannot be bribed to conform; he will not acknowledge the coercion of politeness, the ascendancy of manners. Yet he is not free. Obedience to social law and defiance of it are seen by Melville to be equally constraining. Defying social law defines Bartleby, almost absolutely. Wherever he turns there are walls. Bartleby is an individual who cannot free himself from his narrator, even from his author. Melvillean tragedy: narration itself as a form of subjection, unless the reader rewrites the story…

§ Self-interest, too, dictates the ultimate removal of Bartleby from the narrator’s law offices; the narrator decides he cannot afford generosity beyond the recognized border of conventional liberalism: the silent uncooperative presence of Bartleby has begun to affect his “professional reputation.” In a society actuated in the main by the profit motive, self-interest will always be the cardinal value; other pretenders exist, but none command the same degree of allegiance.

§ “What earthly right do you have to stay here? Do you pay any rent? Do you pay my taxes? Or is this property yours?” In nineteenth-century America, as now, rights are, in practice, guaranteed by money and property, not by “higher” ethical, legal, or constitutional principles. Melville’s postmortem on the body politic reveals not so much a divide between ethical and political life but a conquest of ethical principles by capitalist premises such that thinking beyond them requires an immense act of the imagination. By 1854, the “cash-payment nexus” had thoroughly colonized America; the only space outside it was the space of the imagination. The great achievement of capitalism is that it forces its dissidents and critics into exile, it forces us to inhabit the territory of the imagination, which it then delegitimizes as unreal, as mythical, a place of childish fantasy, a land of improbability. From whence will come the beast, slouching toward Bethlehem.

§ Horror–that Bartleby should dispossess his employer. He worries that “…in the end [he might] perhaps outlive me, and claim possession of my office by right of his perpetual occupancy.” Fear of dispossession leads to dispossession. Fear the devil! Possession, the devil! Legitimacy, the devil!

§ From valued employee to recalcitrant employee to enigma to apparition: by the end of the story Bartleby is made to metaphorse again: in a final incarnation he is seen to be an “intolerable incubus.” This is no exaggeration; he is an incubus. He haunts the living by his mere being. Merely being in a nonconformist fashion becomes an affront to bourgeois propriety, to professional decorum, to normativity itself. Bartleby becomes burdened with the socially unsaid in America, particularly the gap between our idealistic image of the American body politic and the harsher reality. Bartleby is–the worst sin of all–an embarrassment. He embarrasses the narrator’s notion of himself as a generous individual; he embarrasses society’s pretense to be a society in which action is grounded in principle. His mere presence mocks the American claim to have established a uniquely free polity.

§ “Bartleby” is about the magical power, the horrific power, of representation to transform lives. The narrator defines Bartleby’s life; his definition of Bartleby as an outsider, an “intolerable incubus,” becomes material, actual, in the body of Bartleby, wraithlike in prison, by the wall, awaiting death. In representing others as inhuman, supernatural, mythical, fantastic, they are metamorphosed into fiends, spirits, ghosts, devils, diseases, witches. Via this magic they can be annihilated, burned, slaughtered, converted, exorcised, chained, imprisoned, starved and mocked–made to gabble, made to flee, made to fly.

§ Once Bartleby’s employer deserts his law offices, he is finally able to separate himself from any sense of responsibility to Bartleby. But his departure does not signify a new disavowal of Bartleby, only the acting out of a disavowal that has already taken place. The disavowal merely becomes visible, public, as he makes clear to the new occupant of his former premises on Wall Street: “‘I am very sorry, sir,’ said I, with assured tranquillity, but an inward tremor, ‘”but really the man you allude to is nothing to me–he is no relation or apprentice of mine, that you should hold me responsible for him.'” What fear there is here:–fear of a social contract that would bind one individual to another, make one responsible to another, or merely genuinely responsive to another. Bartleby’s employer is desperate that he not be made “responsible for him.” He expresses a horror toward social responsibility. “Bartleby” is in this sense a dramatization of the American horror toward the notion of the social as the environment in which individual destiny receives completion. It ironizes–despairingly!–the narrator’s desire for the social to be replaced by an environment in which individuals pursue their ambitions limited only by the pressures of economic necessity, class, and a legal system firmly rooted in the prerogatives of wealth and property.

§ Within this vision, the social makes no demands on individuals vis-à-vis other ones, and should not. It is a space populated only by a single individual and his solipsistic ambitions. Yet the emptiness of this social space demands the most rigorous policing. It must not be filled up, certainly not by a vision of the social as fulfilling. The social is defined by Melville as the space of the prison yard, demarcated by “the surrounding walls, of amazing thickness.”

§ Ironically, in so privatizing the dream of the social as a source of support and enrichment, the social domain actually is reduced to becoming barren, coercive and exploitative. Melville’s irony: horror at the horror we have allowed the social to become.

§ “As I afterwards learned, the poor scrivener, when told that he must be conducted to the Tombs, offered not the slightest obstacle, but, in his pale, unmoving way, silently acquiesced.” The shameless of false pity, false piety! Bartleby acquiesces in the face of death. Pity is death too–in this sense, Bartleby’s removal to the Tombs is merely the actualization of the living death that he has already endured. Bartleby faces this fate without flinching. He acquiesces not only because he knows his end is inevitable, but because it is the ineluctable fulfillment of the social law, of social life. (To say that the social does not exist in “Bartleby” would be to simplify and to miss a finer irony. The social exists–but it exists in its purest form only negatively, punitively; it exists as a coercive power applied to those who violate the law of unfettered individualism or the law that sanctifies existence as a process of accumulation.)

§ Bartleby is imprisoned with other social discontents as a way punishing him for resisting the dictates of individualism. The strongest social taboo in Melville’s America is a taboo against thinking beyond the narrow confines of individualism. If you cannot live as an individual conforming to a liberal worldview, then you will die as something unrecognized: a true individual. Whether or not you want to conform then becomes a superannuated consideration.

§ In refusing to become an object of his employer’s gaze, Bartleby becomes an object of the gaze of murderers and thieves. His dissident behavior is lower than that of the lowest of criminals. How ironic that this most private of individuals should suffer the indignity of having his privacy stripped away, made an object of curiosity, a spectacle for the amusement of society’s outcasts (who only violated the letter, not the spirit of the law). Glassed in, he lives under the gaze of society’s condemned; his unrecorded sentence is to suffer the loss of privacy endlessly. Having defied the imperatives of materialistic individualism, he is made to endure a degraded and grotesque sociality. This is his “freedom.” And in giving him the run of the prison, society can be persuaded of its own generosity. “Being under no disgraceful charge, and quite serene and harmless in all his ways, they had permitted him freely to wander about the prison, and especially, in the inclosed grass-platted yards thereof. And so I found him there, standing all alone in the quietest of the yards, his face towards a high wall, while all around, from the narrow slits of the jail windows, I thought I saw peering out upon him the eyes of murderers and thieves.”

§ Bartleby is never charged with any crime; to charge him with one would be to face the unacknowledgeable, the brutality of the unwritten law of individualism. He is, indeed, “under no disgraceful charge.”

§ Bartleby’s face is “toward a high wall,” the wall of Necessity, the wall of repression, the wall of the law that condemns Bartleby. Bartleby can see it; he knows what it is. Likewise when saluted by his former employer who visits him in the Tombs, Bartleby replies “‘I know you,’ he said, without looking around–‘and I want nothing to say to you.'”

§ And the meretriciousness of his former employer’s response! “‘It was not I that brought you here, Bartleby,’ said I, keenly pained at his implied suspicion. ‘And to you, this should not be so vile a place. Nothing reproachful attaches to you by being here. And see, it is not so sad a place as one might think. Look, there is the sky, and here is the grass.'” The narrative voice smoothly defines reality. There is no presumption in this–for he belongs to that class that has defined reality. For those who do not have to live with the falseness of representation, hell can be a form of heaven.

§ But there is meretriciousness here, meretriciousness based on an invincible form of self-deceit. While the narrator did not technically remove Bartleby from his premises, his own behavior made that all but inevitable. The narrator will not face his complicity in bringing Bartleby to this end. He will not accept responsibility for it, or for his own actions; his is the voice of individualism: not thou but I! His rhetoric transforms himself into a martyr to Bartleby’s unwarranted and unjust suspicion; likewise, it makes a heaven of hell.

§ In the narrator’s last attempt to convert Bartleby to accept the world as it is, he encourages Bartleby to accept the “grub-man” in the Tombs as his servant. Bartleby rejects the role of master just as he rejected the role of servant.

§ His emaciated, wraith-like body symbolizes his lack of visibility, his social invisibility. Bartleby is out of bounds, beyond the narrator’s ability to recognize him. Why then eat? What is there to eat? Eating is a form of hopefulness. It expresses a hope about the future, or at least the belief that the future will be responsive to individual human desire. What is there to sustain Bartleby? His frail body records the cost of defying the social law, which enshrines mastery and slavery as society’s modus vivendi. He becomes–another–invisible man.

§ “‘Deranged? Deranged is it? Well, now, upon my word, I thought that friend of yourn was a gentleman forger; they are always pale and genteel-like, them forgers. I can’t help pity ’em–can’t help it, sir.'” This, the grub man to the narrator, about Bartleby at the story’s end. Forgers pass off fake documents as manufactured ones, as “authentic” originals. Forgers thus exist as the doppelganger to scriveners. Scriveners produce copies, but copies recognized as copies. Their copies do not destabilize this economy of authenticity; indeed they affirm it. Bartleby’s refusal to work is also a refusal to work as a scrivener, as a worker who supports this economy of authenticity. Has not the law forged itself? Has it not declared itself authentic–indeed the source of authentic behavior for the body politic? Doesn’t the law’s excessively punitive stance toward forgery betray its own anxiety about its own “authenticity,” its own insecurity about its status as the embodiment of transcendent truths about justice? Doesn’t Bartleby’s wasted body declare the inauthenticity of the law, and the inauthenticity of the lawyer-narrator who presumes to narrate Bartleby’s life?

§ “Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men? Conceive a man by nature and misfortune prone to a pallid hopelessness, can any business seem more fitted to heighten it than by continually handling these dead letters, and assorting them for the flames. For by the cart-load they are annually burned. Sometimes from out the folded paper the pale clerk takes a ring–the finger it was meant for, perhaps, moulders in the grave; a bank note sent in swiftest charity–he whom it would relieve, nor eats nor hungers any more; pardon for those who died despairing; hope for those who died unhoping; good tidings for those who died stifled by unrelieved calamities. On errands of life, these letters speed to death. Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!”

§ The fact that the narrator–the agent of Bartleby’s destruction–is also his elegist is a sign of the text’s veiled outlook: he signifies either the first shoots of change, or the final cruelty of the dream of a New Jerusalem in the New World.

§ “Bartleby the Scrivener” is composed of dead letters: the dead letter of the law; the dead letters of a constitutional democracy; the death of individualism; the death of narrative’s power to transform social failure; the death of authenticity and benevolence; the death of humanity. Just as dead letters are letters sent too late to those who were despairing, and now are dead, so too “Bartleby” is a dead letter sent to a reading public, which by accepting, indeed internalizing, compromised versions of freedom and community, is also dead.

§ But the letter itself, like the letters Bartleby consigned to the flames, is also charged with redemptive energy, with the desire to redeem loss and failure. The irony is ineluctable: redemption for those who are beyond it. The imperative is to look at the death-face of the American body politic face on, to see it in all of its ghastly pallor. Seeing–recognition–is the necessary prerequisite for social transformation. Melville’s text is haunted by loss, by almost-extinguished hopes. Hauntings terrorize, but they may also be quests for redemption. Just as it awaits a general resurrection of all dead letters, Melville’s text awaits, still, its audience.

All references to “Bartleby the Scrivener” are from Herman Melville’s Billy Budd and Other Stories, edited and introduced by Frederick Busch (New York: Penguin Classics, 1986).

___

Jon Thompson teaches at North Carolina State University where he edits the online journal Free Verse: A Journal of Contemporary Poetry & Poetics and the new poetry series, Free Verse Editions. His first collection, The Book of the Floating World, has just been reissued in an expanded edition. Thompson’s essay on “Bartleby” is part of a book-length manuscript entitled After Paradise: Essays on the Fate of American Writing.

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