‘Bartleby, the Scrivener’ — Herman Melville


This is not a review, so much as some delayed contemplation.

I took a course in my Masters called “The Literature of Sadness: The Mind-Body Crisis”. Of course, it wound up being my favourite subject. One of the elective readings was Herman Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener. Having come across Moby Dick, and not been too blown away by it (as an angsty, fantasy-obsessed teen, mind you) I was skeptical about how good this book would be. But as the only other option was to write a paper on Freud and melancholia, I opted for what I assumed was the shorter, simpler Bartleby. Needless to say, it is probably one of the most disturbing tales I have ever read and that came out in the 19th century, no less.

Bartleby, the Scrivener was first published in 1853. The story is centrally narrated by a lawyer at his new office in Wall Street, who hires copyists or scriveners to his office, to assist with copious amounts of handwritten legal documents:

At the period just preceding the advent of Bartleby, I had two persons as copyists in my employment, and a promising lad as an office-boy. First, Turkey; second, Nippers; third, Ginger Nut. These may seem names, the like of which are not usually found in the Directory. In truth they were nicknames, mutually conferred upon each other by my three clerks, and were deemed expressive of their respective persons or characters.

And then, to add on to this menagerie is Bartleby:

There was now great work for scriveners. Not only must I push the clerks already with me, but I must have additional help. In answer to my advertisement, a motionless young man one morning, stood upon my office threshold, the door being open, for it was summer. I can see that figure now—pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn! It was Bartleby.

After a few words touching his qualifications, I engaged him, glad to have among my corps of copyists a man of so singularly sedate an aspect, which I thought might operate beneficially upon the flighty temper of Turkey, and the fiery one of Nippers.

And so, Bartleby begins his work by being placed in a cubicle, and copying vast amounts of legal documents by hand. The Lawyer finds Bartleby’s output impressive, his speed and skill have been unsurpassed. He is convinced he has a model employee. Until, he decides he wants  Bartleby to do a little extra proofreading:

In this very attitude did I sit when I called to him, rapidly stating what it was I wanted him to do—namely, to examine a small paper with me. Imagine my surprise, nay, my consternation, when without moving from his privacy, Bartleby in a singularly mild, firm voice, replied, “I would prefer not to.”

I sat awhile in perfect silence, rallying my stunned faculties. Immediately it occurred to me that my ears had deceived me, or Bartleby had entirely misunderstood my meaning. I repeated my request in the clearest tone I could assume. But in quite as clear a one came the previous reply, “I would prefer not to.”

The genius of this clause is that it is neither the affirmative nor the negative. Bartleby does not refuse the work outright. He simply expresses his lack of desire to do it. Of course, expression of like or dislike is secondary in a lawyer’s office. But Bartleby repeats himself again when asked to contribute to other office functions, to even talk to his co-workers. The Lawyer is of course, thunderstruck, and unable to reason with Bartleby.

Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance…

I look back on the paper I wrote on this book for that course, and I cannot help but cringe. My attempt at understanding Bartleby was so juvenile, naïve and raw. I’d dissected the “I would prefer not to” clause with such devotion, idolising it as the polar stance taken against a system that dehumanises. But Bartleby is not really resisting a system, he is just resisting certain work. The avoidance of the work is a central point with him, one that I’d completely missed.

So, the ridiculous situation continues, until the Lawyer discovers one Sunday that Bartleby was still in the office, and may even have been living there:

Upon more closely examining the place, I surmised that for an indefinite period Bartleby must have ate, dressed, and slept in my office, and that too without plate, mirror, or bed. The cushioned seat of a ricketty old sofa in one corner bore the faint impress of a lean, reclining form. Rolled away under his desk, I found a blanket; under the empty grate, a blacking box and brush; on a chair, a tin basin, with soap and a ragged towel; in a newspaper a few crumbs of ginger-nuts and a morsel of cheese. Yet, thought I, it is evident enough that Bartleby has been making his home here, keeping bachelor’s hall all by himself. Immediately then the thought came sweeping across me, What miserable friendlessness and loneliness are here revealed! His poverty is great; but his solitude, how horrible! Think of it. Of a Sunday, Wall-street is deserted as Petra; and every night of every day it is an emptiness. This building too, which of week-days hums with industry and life, at nightfall echoes with sheer vacancy, and all through Sunday is forlorn. And here Bartleby makes his home; sole spectator of a solitude which he has seen all populous—a sort of innocent and transformed Marius brooding among the ruins of Carthage!

For the first time in my life a feeling of overpowering stinging melancholy seized me. Before, I had never experienced aught but a not-unpleasing sadness. The bond of a common humanity now drew me irresistibly to gloom. A fraternal melancholy! For both I and Bartleby were sons of Adam.

This is also where I stumbled. For the longest time, this has to me, been a story of the inhumanity of the capitalist system, of free society and its endless compartmentalisations, of hierarchies that cannot be penetrated or moved to the humane. And I completely missed this second paragraph, where the Lawyer’s empathy is meant to shine through.

And the Lawyer unfolds more mystery:

I now recalled all the quiet mysteries which I had noted in the man. I remembered that he never spoke but to answer; that though at intervals he had considerable time to himself, yet I had never seen him reading—no, not even a newspaper; that for long periods he would stand looking out, at his pale window behind the screen, upon the dead brick wall; I was quite sure he never visited any refectory or eating house; while his pale face clearly indicated that he never drank beer like Turkey, or tea and coffee even, like other men; that he never went any where in particular that I could learn; never went out for a walk, unless indeed that was the case at present; that he had declined telling who he was, or whence he came, or whether he had any relatives in the world; that though so thin and pale, he never complained of ill health. And more than all, I remembered a certain unconscious air of pallid—how shall I call it?—of pallid haughtiness, say, or rather an austere reserve about him, which had positively awed me into my tame compliance with his eccentricities, when I had feared to ask him to do the slightest incidental thing for me, even though I might know, from his long-continued motionlessness, that behind his screen he must be standing in one of those dead-wall reveries of his.

I also, in my enthusiastic literariness, came up with the simplistic rationale that the blank wall had existential symbolism – a return to the blank slate of birth, a negation of life experiences. In his existential angst, I argued that ‘Bartleby has ceased to be human, lost a certain spark of life, was reduced to being a formless, wordless non-entity’.

It’s remarkable in retrospect that my understanding in recent re-reads has shifted to the polar opposite direction. Bartleby comes to the Lawyer as a machine, is hired for his superior mechanical copying skills. Like Henry Ford’s assembly line technique had perfected the means of mass production, Bartleby had perfected the skill of reproducing documents, a conveniently ideal human photocopier. But when he ceases to function as anything but a photocopier, he is asserting his humanity, his inability to function as a thoughtless machine. It’s almost as if the request to proofread breaks some essential functioning part inside of him and suddenly, he is unable to function as demanded.

And that elaborate description of Turkey’s and Nipper’s constitution and personality at the beginning of the  book had before seemed to contrast their humanity with Bartleby’s non-humanity. In retrospect again, I see that Turkey and Nipper function as caricatures of office yes-men and are contrasted with Bartleby’s profoundly human resistance.

What I saw that morning persuaded me that the scrivener was the victim of innate and incurable disorder. I might give alms to his body; but his body did not pain him; it was his soul that suffered, and his soul I could not reach.

And this, this is the whole sole core I had missed previously – Bartleby’s story is not just that of one insignificant man against the uncaring, brutally efficient system, so much as it is also an internal withdrawal into the self, a rejection of everything the world has to offer, including empathy and kindness. Bartleby is not affected by the Lawyer’s overtures at understanding him or helping him. He has withdrawn to an inner experience of humanity that nothing can get through.

Bartleby continues to degenerate to the point he produces no work. When he is reluctantly fired, he does not vacate the office. In resigned consternation, the Lawyer moves his own offices instead, so he does not have to be faced by the spectre haunting his cabin. And yet, Bartleby doesn’t leave the old premises, even when the new occupants request the Lawyer to intercede.

The end is unsurprisingly depressing. Bartleby winds up in prison, a place aptly called the Tombs, the “Halls of Justice” and by the time the Lawyer visits him, he has even stopped eating. The next time the Lawyer turns up, Bartleby is in the yard having gone for a walk. When the Lawyer finds him, he is dead.

After his death, the Lawyer finds out that prior to being a scrivener, Bartleby worked at a Dead Letter Office – an office where undelivered postal mail was sorted through. He assumes that this was why Bartleby had lost the will to keep living.

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 that of 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!

My interest in Bartleby today stems from a few things, one of which is the position and structure of ‘work’ in society, and it’s not just a capitalist exploration. Bartleby’s drive to inaction, to literally do nothing, to feel nothing strikes at the heart of post-industrialised societies.  Having seen and understood unemployment, this brings questions of what it means to feel fulfilled. Albert Cossery, the Egyptian-French novelist argued for dandy-ism, believed it was the natural way to be, in fact.

But this ties in with another interesting event this last year, and that is of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which will turn six months old on 17 March. Several writers were quick to see the parallel between Bartleby’s “I would prefer not to” and the active ambivalence of OWS in not having a leadership, immediate demands or even any overt political ideology. I’d highly recommend reading the excellent Hannah Gersen with her “If Occupy Wall Street has any goal, it should be to have the same effect that great literature has — to unsettle.” And also, this and this. Which makes Bartleby as a political statement tremendously profound.

But to me, where his profundity lies is in the rejection of the anti-human, and of the futility of all connection. Bartleby underscores the uselessness of kindness more profoundly than any other literary character. He preceded the other futility-expert I adore, Kafka, by nearly 70 years, and foresaw Wall Street inhumanity over 150 years before it cracked open. Read him.

Bartleby is available freely on the Internet here and here.

3 responses »

    • I’m not entirely sure on how Google reader works, but I’m pretty sure if you click the ‘Follow’ button on the WordPress header when my blog page is open, it channels my posts to the Google reader feed. That’s the only thing I did for the blogs I follow. Have you already done that?

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