Bartleby the Scrivener (Hesperus Classics)

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Bartleby’s Occupation of Wall Street

1.
After a couple days of hemming and hawing, I decided to join the protesters of Occupy Wall Street. I was hesitant to go because until very recently, I worked as an administrative assistant at a prominent Wall Street law firm. I didn’t know how, in good conscience, I could rail against The Man when my primary responsibility had once been to keep track of incoming phone calls from Goldman Sachs. But then I heard one of the protest’s organizers on the radio saying that the Occupy movement wasn’t against capitalism, corporations, or even big banking. He was for income equality. And democracy. The reporter pressed him to be more specific, but he refused.

“Why do they have to be more specific?” I yelled at the radio. “Isn’t it obvious why they’re upset?”

I was getting annoyed at the way Occupy Wall Street was being covered — as if it was insane to gather in a public space and protest. As if it had never happened in America before. Wasn’t the whole point of passive resistance to just be there? To not make any demands? As I tried to come up with a good parallel, I found myself thinking of Bartleby, the Scrivener, Herman Melville’s short story about an office worker, Bartleby, who decides out of nowhere that he doesn’t feel like working anymore, but continues to show up at the office every day. Bartleby’s idleness baffles and then infuriates his boss, who begs Bartleby to give some reason for his behavior. But Bartleby refuses to disclose his interests, and over the course of the story, his needs become so few that he dies of starvation. It’s a bleak, mysterious story, and as I returned to my copy to reread it, I was stilled to rediscover its subtitle: “A Story of Wall Street.”

2.
I first read Bartleby the Scrivener last summer, when I was completely burned out on office life. I actually read it at work, during a slow afternoon — “down time”, in office parlance — and was surprised by how funny and contemporary it seemed. The story is narrated by an unnamed, well-to-do-lawyer, who describes himself as “one of those unambitious lawyers who never addresses a jury, or in any way draws down public applause but in the cool tranquility of a snug retreat, do a snug business among rich men’s bonds and mortgages and title deeds.” In the narrator’s employ are two scriveners and one office boy — or, in modern terms, two administrative assistants and one intern. One scrivener is old, and something of a drunk; the other scrivener is young, and from the narrator’s description, something of a hipster: “Nippers, the second on my list, was a whiskered, sallow, and, upon the whole, rather piratical-looking young man of about five and twenty. I always deemed him the victim of two evil powers — ambition and indigestion.”

One day, the narrator decides that he needs to hire a third scrivener. He interviews Bartleby, a “pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn” man. Bartleby is of “so singularly sedate an aspect” that the narrator can’t help thinking he will be an exceptionally cooperative employee. And so he hires Bartleby, installing him at a desk in front of a window with an airshaft view and behind “a high green folding screen which, might entirely isolate Bartleby from my sight, though not remove him from my voice.” In other words, he sticks Bartleby in a cubicle.

Bartleby’s job is to copy legal documents by hand, like a human Xerox machine. During his first couple days at the office, Bartleby works at a ferocious pace, and is always the first to arrive and the last to leave. But on the third day, when the narrator asks Bartleby to assist with some proofreading, Bartleby utters what will become his trademark phrase: “I would prefer not to.” The reply surprises the narrator, but he doesn’t become annoyed until later in the week, when Bartleby refuses a second time, with the same vague reply: “I would prefer not to.” Upon questioning Bartleby, the narrator learns that Bartleby would prefer not to do many things, including running errands, mailing letters, and talking to his co-workers. All Bartleby wants to do is copy legal documents. The narrator decides he can live with this, and assigns all proofreading to the other scriveners. This arrangement works well, until one Sunday when the narrator happens to stop by his Wall Street office on the way to Trinity Church. He is startled to discover Bartleby there, and even more startled when Bartleby asks him to circle the block a few times, so that he might conclude his affairs. When the narrator returns to his office, Bartleby is gone, but the narrator finds evidence that Bartleby has been living there, all along.

At this point, the plot of Bartleby escalates rapidly and absurdly, like a comedy sketch. Bartleby announces that he has “given up copying” and stops working entirely. The narrator cajoles Bartleby to “be a little reasonable.” Bartleby’s reply: “At present, I would prefer not to be a little reasonable.” The narrator then dismisses Bartleby, giving him his paycheck, plus twenty dollars — a kind of severance package. But Bartleby refuses to be dismissed. The narrator demands: “Will you, or will you not quit me?” Bartleby’s reply: “I would prefer not to quit you.” Eventually, the narrator decides to ignore Bartleby until he leaves of his own accord. But Bartleby never leaves. He stays at his desk, staring out the window, day in and day out. The narrator becomes accustomed to his unmoving presence, but when other lawyers visit, they are suspicious of Bartleby, and in turn, suspicious of the narrator, a man apparently unable to fire his employees. Gossip begins to circulate. And so the narrator decides he must leave Bartleby, if Bartleby is not going to leave him. He finds a new office to rent.

This tactic works; Bartleby does not follow the narrator to his new offices. Instead, Bartleby continues to lurk around the old office, even after new tenants move in. At night, he sleeps in the building’s entryway. Eventually, the building’s new tenants visit the narrator, to complain about Bartleby. “You are responsible for the man you left there. He refuses to do any copying; he refuses to do anything; he says he prefers not to and he refuses to quit the premises.” The narrator, who is not without pity for Bartleby, goes to visit him.
“Bartleby,” said I, “are you aware that you are the cause of great tribulation to me, by persisting in occupying the entry after being dismissed from the office?”

No answer.

“Now, one of two things must take place. Either you must do something, or something must be done to you. Now what sort of business would you like to engage in? Would you like to re-engage in copying for someone?”

“No; I would prefer not to make any change.”
The passage goes on, at length, with the narrator suggesting all sorts of work that Bartleby might do, and with Bartleby dismissing each suggestion. The exchange ends when Bartleby repeats: “No: at present I would prefer not to make any change at all.”

3.
When I first began working at the law firm, I was a temporary employee, but after a few months, I became permanent. Around that time, I had a dream that I got a tattoo of the word CHANGE on my right arm. The meaning was obvious: I was uncertain of my decision to settle down at the firm, and struggling with the feeling that what I was telling myself was a day job was actually one I would be stuck with for a long time. For a while, I considered actually getting a tattoo of the word CHANGE, to remind me of the dream, and of my fears, but then the Obama campaign happened, and the word change began to lose its meaning for me. I’m not saying I was never taken in by Obama’s promises — I was — but just seeing the word, everywhere, on buttons, on billboards, on T-shirts, on TV, turned the idea of change into a kind of golden fantasy, whereas before, I had thought of it as something I could do.

4.
Bartleby is very sad in its final pages. After the narrator leaves him, he is arrested as a vagrant and taken to the Tombs, a prison downtown. The narrator goes to visit him there, but Bartleby refuses to speak to him. Feeling guilty, the narrator arranges for special meals to be brought to Bartleby, but Bartleby refuses to eat them. A few days later, the narrator returns to the Tombs again, to check on Bartleby, but he can’t find him. Another prisoner directs the narrator to the prison yard, where Bartleby was seen lying down to take a nap. The narrator finds him. Bartleby is not asleep; he is dead.

5.
I went to Occupy Wall Street with my friend Maura, who at 57 has already survived one protest era. “People are complaining that it’s just a bunch of spoiled college kids, but that’s what it was like in the 1960s,” she told me. Having lived through the 1970s, when much of Manhattan was dirty and dangerous, Maura doesn’t spend much time wringing her hands over the hipster gentrification of Brooklyn and Queens. To her, the bigger story is the way the middle and working-class families that have traditionally lived in outer-borough New York are slowly leaving the city. She doesn’t think hipster kids are responsible for that particular migration; instead, it’s related to the corporate mentality that is taking over all of New York City.

“Everyone, even people in regular jobs, suddenly feels like they need to make a lot of money to be successful,” she says. “It wasn’t always like that. My father was happy just to own his house and support his family. He thought it was an honor to be able to pay his taxes, because he knew other people were worse off. I’m not saying you have to be a saint, but you should be able to be a normal person and live here.”

As we’re talking, a union organizer with a white beard hands us a flier and invites us to march with him the next day. After he leaves, I tell Maura that I would go, but I have dinner plans at seven, and I would feel bad cancelling. She laughs and says she would go too, but she’s too old to be arrested. “We’re not very radical are we?”

On our way out, we see a twenty-something guy in a suit holding a brown cardboard sign: I’M FOR REGULATING THE BANKS. APPARENTLY THAT MAKES ME A RADICAL.

6.
Melville published Bartleby in 1853, at what was likely a personal low point. Not only had his masterpiece, Moby Dick, received mixed reviews, but his follow-up book, Pierre, was so universally disliked that one paper ran a review titled: HERMAN MELVILLE CRAZY. His career as a writer was beginning a steep decline, and he must have known it. It’s easy to see Bartleby as Melville’s alter ego, the depressed writer who sees no point in going on. Bartleby even says that he has “decided upon doing no more writing.” But the interesting thing about Bartleby the Scrivener is that it isn’t told from Bartleby’s point of view, and so even if Melville intended the story to be an illustration of his own neglected genius, he also ended up telling the story of a Wall Street lawyer’s brief brush with despair.

The most moving passages of Bartleby occur around the story’s midpoint, after the narrator discovers that Bartleby is homeless, and has been living in his office. The narrator is struck, not only by Bartleby’s poverty, but also by his loneliness, which he imagines must be greater on Wall Street than in any other Manhattan neighborhood:
Of a Sunday, Wall Street is deserted as Petra; and every night of every day it is an emptiness. This building too, which of weekdays 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… I remembered the bright silks and sparkling faces I had seen that day, in gala trim, swan-like sailing down the Mississippi of Broadway; and I contrasted them with the pallid copyist, and thought to myself: Ah, happiness courts the light, so we deem the world is gay; but misery hides aloof, so we deem that misery there is none.
The parallels between Bartleby’s peculiar form of rebellion and the protestors of Occupy Wall Street should be obvious. The point of Occupy Wall Street — and the Occupy movements around the country — is to put a face to America’s dwindling middle class. There is no need to be any more specific than that. In fact, it seems that the less specific, less reasonable, and less demanding the protesters are, the more likely they are to unnerve those who actually have the power to make a change. Bartleby is disturbing not because of what he says or doesn’t say, but because he seems to have lost some aspect of his humanity:
Had there been the least uneasiness, anger, impatience or impertinence in his manner; in other words, had there been any thing ordinarily human about him, doubtless I should have violently dismissed him from the premises.
Here’s the narrator again, when he is trying to convince Bartleby to help with the proofreading:
But there was something about Bartleby that not only strangely disarmed me, but in a wonderful manner touched and disconcerted me.
A few pages later:
Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance.
And finally, the story’s famous last line:
Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!
If Occupy Wall Street has any goal, it should be to have the same effect that great literature has — to unsettle. Let the pundits complain about vagueness, and let the reporters ask their condescending questions. (As an example, here’s one I heard put to a young man standing near me: “Is it true that you want to put all the bankers in jail?”) Let them tease, let them pacify, let them cajole, let them argue. But don’t move, Occupy Wall Street.

 

Image: a.mina/Flickr

The Stockholm Syndrome Theory of Long Novels

I used to be the kind of reader who gives short shrift to long novels. I used to take a wan pleasure in telling friends who had returned from a tour of duty with War and Peace or The Man Without Qualities with that I’ve-seen-some-things look in their eyes—the thousand-page stare—that they had been wasting their time. In the months it had taken them to plough through one book by some logorrheic modernist or world-encircling Russian, I had read a good eight to ten volumes of svelter dimensions. While they were bench-pressing, say, Infinite Jest for four months solid, I had squared away most of the major Nouveau Romanciers, a fistful of Thomas Bernhards, every goddamned novel Albert Camus ever wrote, and still had time to read some stuff I actually enjoyed.

I was a big believer, in other words, in the Slim Prestige Volume. Nothing over 400 pages. Why commit yourself to one gigantic classic when you can read a whole lot of small classics in the same period of time, racking up at least as much intellectual cachet while you were at it? I took Hippocrates’ famous dictum about ars being longa and vita being brevis as a warning against starting a book in your twenties that might wind up lying still unfinished on the nightstand of your deathbed. Aside from the occasional long novel––one every twelve to eighteen months––I was a Slim Prestige Volume man, and that seemed to be that.

Even when I went back to college in my mid-twenties to do a PhD in English literature, I still relied on a kind of intellectual cost-benefit analysis that persuaded me that my time was better spent broadening than deepening—or, as it were, thickening—my reading­­. Had I read Dostoevsky? Sure I had: I’d spent a couple of rainy evenings with Notes From Underground, and found it highly agreeable. Much better than The Double, in fact, which I’d also read. So yeah, I knew my Dostoevsky. Next question, please. Ah yes, Tolstoy! Who could ever recover from reading The Death of Ivan Illych, that thrilling (and thrillingly brief) exploration of mortality and futility?

There’s a memorable moment in Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 where Amalfitano, the unhinged Catalan professor of literature, encounters a pharmacist working the night shift at his local drug store whom he discovers is reading his way diligently through the minor works of the major novelists. The young pharmacist, we are told, “chose The Metamorphosis over The Trial, he chose Bartleby over Moby-Dick, he chose A Simple Heart over Bouvard and Pécuchet, and A Christmas Carol over A Tale of Two Cities or The Pickwick Papers.” This causes Amalfitano to reflect on the “sad paradox” that “now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.”

Apart from being a powerful vindication of Bolaño’s own staggering ambition, and of his novel’s vast and unyielding darkness, I found that this passage reflected something of my own slightly faint-hearted reading practices (practices from which, by the time I had got around to reading the 900-page 2666, I had obviously started to deviate). A bit of a bookish pharmacist myself, I was content with netting minnows like Bartleby, while leaving the great Moby-Dick-sized leviathans largely unharpooned. I was fond of Borges’ famous remark about its being “a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books,” and tended to extrapolate from it a dismissal of reading them too—as though Borges, the great wanderer and mythologizer of labyrinths, would ever have approved of such readerly timidity.

And then, three or four years ago, something changed. For some reason I can’t recall (probably a longish lapse in productivity on my thesis) I set myself the task of reading a Great Big Important Novel. For another reason I can’t recall (probably the fact that it had been sitting on a shelf for years, its pages turning the sullen yellow of neglected great books), I settled on Gravity’s Rainbow. I can’t say that I enjoyed every minute of it, or even that I enjoyed all that much of it at all, but I can say that by the time I got to the end of it I was glad to have read it. Not just glad that I had finally finished it, but that I had started it and seen it through. I felt as though I had been through something major, as though I had not merely experienced something but done something, and that the doing and the experiencing were inseparable in the way that is peculiar to the act of reading. And I’ve had that same feeling, I realize, with almost every very long novel I’ve read before or since.

You finish the last page of a book like Gravity’s Rainbow and—even if you’ve spent much of it in a state of bewilderment or frustration or irritation—you think to yourself, “that was monumental.” But it strikes me that this sense of monumentality, this gratified speechlessness that we tend to feel at such moments of closure and valediction, has at least as much to do with our own sense of achievement in having read the thing as it does with a sense of the author’s achievement in having written it. When you read the kind of novel that promises to increase the strength of your upper-body as much as the height of your brow—a Ulysses or a Brothers Karamazov or a Gravity’s Rainbow—there’s an awe about the scale of the work which, rightly, informs your response to it but which, more problematically, is often difficult to separate from an awe at the fact of your own surmounting of it.

The upshot of this, I think, is that the greatness of a novel in the mind of its readers is often alloyed with those readers’ sense of their own greatness (as readers) for having conquered it. I don’t think William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, for instance, is nearly as fantastic a novel as people often claim it is. But it is one of the most memorable and monumental experiences of my reading life. And these are the reasons why: because the thing was just so long; because I had such a hard time with it; and because I eventually finished it. (I read it as part of an academic reading group devoted to long and difficult American novels, and I’m not sure I would have got to the end of it otherwise). Reading a novel of punishing difficulty and length is a version of climbing Everest for people who prefer not to leave the house. And people who climb Everest don’t howl with exhilaration at the summit because the mountain was a good or a well made or an interesting mountain per se, but because they’re overawed at themselves for having done such a fantastically difficult thing. (I’m willing to concede that they may not howl with exhilaration at all, what with the tiredness, the lack of oxygen and very possibly the frostbite. I’ll admit to being on shaky ground here, as I’ve never met anyone who’s climbed Everest, nor am I likely to if I continue not going out of the house.)

And there is, connected with this phenomenon, what I think of as Long Novel Stockholm syndrome. My own first experience of it—or at least my first conscious experience of it—was, again, with The Recognitions. With any novel of that difficulty and length (976 pages in my prestigiously scuffed and battered Penguin edition), the reader’s aggregate experience is bound to be composed of a mixture of frustrations and pleasures. But what I found with Gaddis’s gigantic exploration of fraudulence and creativity was that, though they were greatly outnumbered by the frustrations, the pleasures seemed to register much more firmly. If I were fully honest with myself, I would have had to admit that I was finding the novel gruelingly, unsparingly tedious. But I wasn’t prepared to be fully honest with myself. Because every couple of hundred pages or so, Gaddis would take pity on me and throw me a bone in the form of an engaging, genuinely compelling set piece. Like the wonderful episode in which one of the characters, under the impression that he is being given a gift of $5,000 by his long-lost father whom he has arranged to meet at a hotel, is in fact mistakenly being given a suitcase full of counterfeit cash by a failed confidence man. And then Gaddis would roll up his sleeves again and get back to the real business of boring me insensible with endless pages of direct-dialogue bluster about art, theology and the shallowness of post-war American culture.

I kept at it, doughtily ploughing my way through this seemingly inexhaustible stuff, holding out for another interlude of clemency from an author I knew was capable of entertaining and provoking me. At some point towards the end of the book it occurred to me that what I was experiencing could be looked at as a kind of literary variant of the Stockholm syndrome phenomenon, whereby hostages experience a perverse devotion to their captors, interpreting any abstention from violence and cruelty, however brief or arbitrary, as acts of kindness and even love. Psychologically, this is understood as a defense mechanism in which the victim fabricates a “good” side of the aggressor in order to avoid confronting the overwhelming terror of his or her situation. Perhaps I’m stretching the bonds of credulity by implicitly comparing William Gaddis to a FARC guerilla commander, but I’m convinced there’s something that happens when we get into a captive situation with a long and difficult book that is roughly analogous to the Stockholm syndrome scenario. For a start, the book’s very length lays out (for a certain kind of reader, at least) its own special form of imperative—part challenge, part command. The thousand-pager is something you measure yourself against, something you psyche yourself up for and tell yourself you’re going to endure and/or conquer. And this does, I think, amount to a kind of captivity: once you’ve got to Everest base camp, you really don’t want to pack up your stuff and turn back. I think it’s this principle that explains, for example, the fact that I’ve read Gravity’s Rainbow but gave up halfway through The Crying of Lot 49, when the latter could be used as a handy little bookmark for the former. When you combine this (admittedly self-imposed) captivity with a novel’s formidable reputation for greatness, you’ve got a perfect set of conditions for the literary Stockholm syndrome to kick in.

In order for a very long novel to get away with long, cruel sessions of boredom-torture, it has to commit, every so often, an act of kindness such as the counterfeit cash set piece in The Recognitions. This is why Ulysses is so deeply loved by so many readers—as well it should be—while Finnegans Wake has been read almost exclusively by Joyce scholars (of whom I’m tempted to think as the Patty Hearsts of literature). After the grueling ordeal of the “Scylla and Charybdis” episode, in which Stephen stands around in the National Library for dozens of pages boring everyone to damn-near-literal tears with his theories about the provenance of Hamlet, we are given the unrestrained pleasure of the “Wandering Rocks” episode. Ulysses might treat us like crap for seemingly interminable stretches of time, but it extends just enough in the way of writerly benevolence to keep us onside. And this kindness is the key to Stockholm syndrome. You don’t know when it’s going to come, or what form it’s going to take, but you get enough of it to keep you from despising your captor, or mounting a brave escape attempt by flinging the wretched thing across the room. According to an article called “Understanding Stockholm Syndrome” published in the FBI Law Enforcement Bullettin:

Kindness serves as the cornerstone of Stockholm syndrome; the condition will not develop unless the captor exhibits it in some form toward the hostage. However, captives often mistake a lack of abuse as kindness and may develop feelings of appreciation for this perceived benevolence. If the captor is purely evil and abusive, the hostage will respond with hatred. But if perpetrators show some kindness, victims will submerge the anger they feel in response to the terror and concentrate on the captors “good side” to protect themselves.

If you’re the kind of reader who doesn’t intend to give up on a Great Big Important Novel no matter how inhumanely it treats you, then there’s a sense in which Joyce or Pynchon or Gaddis (or whoever your captor happens to be) owns you for the duration of that captivity. In order to maintain your sanity, you may end up being disproportionately grateful for the parts where they don’t threaten to bore you to death, where there seems to be some genuine empathic connection between reader and writer. Machiavelli understood this truth long before a Swedish bank robbery turned into a hostage crisis and gave the world the name for a psychological condition. “Men who receive good when they expect evil,” Machiavelli wrote, “commit themselves all the more to their benefactor.” When he wrote that line in the early sixteenth century, the novel, of course, did not yet exist as a genre. I’m inclined to imagine, though, that if he’d been born a century later, he might well have said the same thing about Don Quixote.

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