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
I didn’t expect to see the green book in our library here at Northwestern University in Qatar, but there it was, the 2007 volume of The Best American Essays, guest edited by the late David Foster Wallace, a book I read in Chicago a few years ago and now again in Doha. I had been living in the Arabian Gulf for about six weeks when I learned of Wallace’s suicide in September 2008. The tragic event received a good amount of newspaper coverage and, later, expanded magazine pieces in such places as The New Yorker. Some have called Wallace a postmodern writer, and others, dropping the ideology, claimed that he had serious qualms with modern obsessions and with the complacency and low quality of thought they reward. If the latter is true, then Wallace was part of an undercounted demographic of people who have sustained dissatisfaction with the ways things are and who doubt that things can actually change anytime soon. A thoughtful writer of Wallace’s sensitivity and cynicism does not address the problem in a straight line; instead he makes it the bezel of the narrative and even style so that it’s never far from the reader’s indirect attention. As an essayist and novelist, Wallace had a skilled hand at shrewd deconstruction—someone who can take apart, for example, cultural staples of leisure, like a county fair or cruise trip, to reveal what he sees as stifling banality that distracts and sedates. I’m a regular reader of the Best American series, but I generally skip reading the guest editors’ introductory essays, doing my best to avoid the word “Montaigne” and explanations of how the essay defies a crisp definition. But this time in Doha I went directly to Wallace's introduction to see what I had missed, and there he mentioned Montaigne (Chesterton, too) and he remarked that “essay” is not his word of choice for what is really “literary non-fiction.” Still, Wallace’s piece turned out to be especially meaningful because he confronted some “bad news” about our times and supported it in his introduction with very clever meta-interpretation of the editor’s role, and he supported it more implicitly with his choice of essays. The 2007 green anthology has an urgency to it that goes beyond what is commonly said about thoughtful and well-written essays. The writers speaking in Wallace’s volume don’t do Disney. Rather, they confront the pathologies of our age that apparently won’t go away. I realize that three or four years isn’t a long time, but there’s something about this passage of time and its indolence (despite compelling promises of change) that speak about the collective lethargy that spooked Wallace and, actually, many others who live with their eyes open. In his introduction, Wallace writes almost cordially about his part in the “deciderization” process, but he then breaks character to rail against the American loss of mental free agency. Just as he is part of an outsourcing tradition of a venerable anthology, Wallace notes that “we are starting to become more aware of just how much subcontracting and outsourcing and submitting to other Deciders we’re all now forced to do, which is threatening (the inchoate awareness is) to our sense of ourselves as intelligent free agents.” True to his style, Wallace couldn’t help but see symbolism in an otherwise flattering role as guest editor. The impish shape he saw in the shadow of an editorial temp was the burden of human thought and moral resolve gladly surrendering to others because, in part, big issues are made to seem too complex and impossible to grasp, which, of course, suggests that we need specialists to delegate our minds to. He says, “And yet there is no clear alternative to this outsourcing and submission. It may possibly be that acuity and taste in choosing which Deciders one submits to is now the real measure of informed adulthood. Since I was raised with more traditional, enlightenment-era criteria, this possibility strikes me as consumerist and scary.” An intrepid literary voice associates scariness with the outsourcing of individual thought and decision making to others, which means that powerful people (fewer and more messianic than usual) become deciders for things far more serious than essays. But I think that Wallace’s fears are evinced more by the fact that these kinds of penetrating and honest essays (and others widespread for many years now, including many books) have shown little power to change minds, alter course, or even slow down the descent, which infers that the very conscience of society is badly wounded. Wallace says, “In sum, to really try to be informed and literate today is to feel stupid nearly all the time, and to need help.” Wallace admitted important essays into the book, including lengthy pieces on the war in Iraq; torture; the right to offend; Mel Gibson’s inebriation and anti-Semitism; warfare of neo-absolutists; the sexualizing of youth and the modern marketing imagination; rifles and race; a gripping narrative that is non-fiction, but you wonder about the amazing details that you would expect in omniscient third-person fiction; an imaginary letter from a real Darwinist to a phantom pastor; and personal essays about pain, music, and other such things. There’s also a piece on earth when it shakes and a Cynthia Ozick short essay on mysticism that’s not really believable. Still, the weight-bearing essays of the book, its abs, are really those that examine the “issues” of the very modern era and its listlessness, with a subtext that raises the pounding question about how these things passed public approval in the first place. Malcolm Gladwell has a piece on the work of a pet psychologist, which interests me for some reason, a rather thoughtful narrative about a dog and sensitive family dynamics. Gladwell’s piece does not throw the reader off-scent to the pathos that Wallace’s choices bring to the fore. Gladwell’s essay, in a way, brings indoors those global matters that the other essays probe. Most anthologies make no requirements of order. You can start anywhere with no consideration to your place in a narrative, if there is one. Wallace’s anthology, organized alphabetically, has a quasi-narrative kept related by a number of contemplative accounts of recent human blunders and their etiology. When taken altogether there’s something like an indictment in the black box, especially when you allow into the reading experience those events and non-events of the recent past—winners of an anti-war platform making more war; a thriving fear-Islam industry as a pretext for many disagreeable decisions that touch upon core issues, like privacy; debilitating debt to rescue debilitating debt; the blurred line between happiness and appetite, between what is important and what is popular; and the defeat of shame. Mark Danner’s essay, “Iraq: War of Imagination” (originally published in the New York Review of Books and the longest piece in the green book), includes an anecdote of a policy believer who is filled with speaking-in-tongue certitude that the referendum of Iraq’s constitution will land in favor of the proposed constitution in unlikely Anbar province. Per Danner, “With all his contacts and commitment, with all his energy and brilliance, on the most basic and critical issue of politics on the ground [in Iraq] he had been entirely, catastrophically wrong.” Being wrong in itself is not worthy of a 12,000-word essay. But Danner’s devastating point is that the salvation narrative for Iraq was all wrong. And my point is that no matter how widespread the news has spread about the “wrong,” intentional or errant, no one has been taken to task over the years; in fact, a broader war has been waged elsewhere. And long before that, in 2004, the sitting president was rewarded with reelection, about which Wallace proffers, “There is just no way that 2004’s reelection could have taken place—not to mention extraordinary renditions, legalized torture, FISA-flouting, or the passage of the Military Commissions Act—if we had been paying attention and handling information in a competent grown-up way.” It’s not the politics behind these scenarios that interests me at all but those forces of modern life that condition the soul to be either uncaring or unequipped to make a sacred stand for what is right. Read, then, the essay by Marilynne Robinson (“Onward, Christian Liberals”), who writes almost thematically about holiness and sacred tradition and still does well in the mainstream secular publishing. (Her remarkable book Gilead won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.) Robinson says in her essay, “Emily Dickinson wrote, ‘The abdication of Belief/ Makes the Behavior small.’ There is a powerful tendency also to make belief itself small, whether narrow and bitter or feckless and bland, with what effects on behavior we may perhaps infer from the present state of the Republic.” For many reasons, I recommend the volume, which, in my view, is the most relevant of the Best Essays series. There are no pieces about the death of a goldfish as a pretext to dive into tendentious discussions about the theories of life and consciousness. Nor is there a reverie about a childhood hideout or one’s first encounter with a private part. If you’re worried that product placement of good ideas is the modern hope for truth and transcendence and are even vaguely sure that there must be a better way—a better discourse—then the voices of this volume will resonate. The best line in the anthology goes to Jo Ann Beard in her essay “Werner,” a detailed piece about a man who works in a catering outfit. After work on a cold December evening, Werner goes home and calls his mom as usual. But it so happens that in the wall of his building an exposed electrical wire begins what will eventually become a full-blown fire. The essay moves like silk through the details of a 1991 fire; it’s a narrative that speaks of memory, survival, desperation, time, and human dignity. Werner at one point, a poignant and perhaps symbolic point, finds himself like this: “He was trapped, nearsighted and naked in a burning building.” Of course I don’t know for sure, but I imagine that Wallace stopped at that line and said, “This essay is in.” Postscript: Decades back, another author that I enjoy reading, John Gardner, died before he too was done with literature. In September 1982 he crashed his motorcycle at the age of 49. I have a vague, decades-old memory of standing before a glass case in the surprisingly elegant atrium of Morris Library of Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, looking at the cover of an SIU Press book of Gardner’s. For a while, Gardner taught at SIU, which is just a couple of hours south of where Wallace once taught, Illinois State University in Bloomington. The early 1980’s was probably the start of the inertia that many writers now comment about. The overrated activism of the 1960’s slowly gave way to the underrated idealism and pop culture of the 1970’s, which itself surrendered (after John Lennon’s murder) to the ethos of such things as Reagan’s trickle down theories of economics, which overly and foolishly trusted the collective greed of a people to take care of the spread of prosperity and relief for the underprivileged—a notion that confronts thousands of years of sacred tradition and its obligations of charity. Trickle-down economics did not create self-adoration, as some claim, but it promoted it as a virtue, almost part of economic patriotism. This probably infected many other notions, including the realm of high ideas: this notion of a passive and undirected development of enlightenment and responsibility. Wallace says, “Part of our emergency is that it's so tempting to do this sort of thing now, to retreat to narrow arrogance, pre-formed positions, rigid filters, the ‘moral clarity’ of the immature. The alternative is dealing with massive, high-entropy amounts of info and ambiguity and conflict and flux; it's continually discovering new areas of personal ignorance and delusion.”
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Dave Eggers has a new novel out this week, while Neil Gaiman has an illustrated version of a previously published story on shelves. Also out: I Love You More by Jennifer Murphy; The City Son by Samrat Upadhyay; and The Last Magazine by the late Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings.
He's the world's most wanted fugitive, yet somehow the man wearing the red-striped shirt and nerd glasses escaped us until now. Yes, we're talking about Where's Waldo? At Slate, Ben Blatt found Waldo's pattern, so you can spot him every time and impress your relatives this holiday season.
Christine Sismondo believes bars deserve more credit for "produc[ing] a particular type of public sphere in colonial America." She discusses her new book America Walks Into a Bar with The Smithsonian's Rebecca Dalzell.