Monday, October 19, 2009

The Rest is Silence

Hilarious, inscrutable, disturbing, Melville's Bartleby both tempts and rebuffs interpretation. The basic facts are two: that we do not and cannot know what troubles Bartleby or why he ceases copying; and that the lawyer is a decent man.

In a fashionable reading, obtuseness about these matters is combined. Bartleby is Thoreau in "Civil Disobedience," set against "the numbing world of capitalist profit and alienated labor." The lawyer is a vain and self-deceived protagonist of that world.

Dan McCall's inspiring book demolishes this line.
Bartleby is Thoreau? No, the whole point of Bartleby, the maddening and precious thing about him, is that he is a lost cause. He is inconsolable.
Nor would things be different if the lawyer were an anarchist or a labour organizer. When critics condemn him, they fail to see that they are doing so in his own words: "Here I can cheaply purchase a morsel of delicious self-approval." The lawyer sees through himself: "The truly remarkable thing about [him] is just how reliable he really is." Can we question an observer whose adjectives are so generous and so sincere?
I can see that figure now – pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn.

"I prefer not to," he respectfully and slowly said, and mildly disappeared.
What vanity in the critic not to recognize that by "decoding" Bartleby, he recapitulates the lawyer's "helpless reaching" in the Dead Letter paragraph. And how humourless. Bartleby's demurral is comic, a mild assessment of options – when I compare doing it with not, on balance – not a petulant "don't want to" or an oppositional-defiant "I won't."

To the catalogue of readings refuted by McCall, we may add a few that have tempted me.

Bartleby as Meursault: "one wouldn't be far wrong in seeing ["Bartleby"] as the story of a man who, without any heroic pretensions, agrees to die for the truth." (So Camus wrote of L'Étranger in the Afterword written in 1955.) But Bartleby does not die for anything we can divine. We have no more reason to think he tells the truth because he hates hypocrisy than for any other reason.

Bartleby as furniture: "Nippers would sometimes impatiently rise from his seat, and stooping over his table, spread his arms wide apart, seize the whole desk, and move it, and jerk it, with a grim grinding motion, as if the table were a perverse voluntary agent, intent on thwarting and vexing him"; "Yes, Bartleby, stay there behind your screen, thought I; I shall persecute you no more; you are harmless and noiseless as any of these old chairs". But Bartleby is not inanimate: his will is implacable.

Bartleby as non-rational agent: "the occurrence of other answers to the question 'Why?' besides ones like 'I just did', is essential to the existence of the concept of an intention or voluntary action." (Anscombe's Intention, §20) But Bartleby neither refutes nor confirms this conjecture: we do not know why he prefers not to, nor do we know that there is no reason.

What moral can be drawn from such critical pathologies? For McCall, that confinement in symbols "parochializes literature and limits rather severely its claims on our attention." Worse, it does Bartleby "great violence – it takes his silence away from him." In reading Bartleby, we assault his dignity more severely and more evasively than the lawyer ever does. Unlike most of us, he honestly confronts his task. McCall concludes:
The deepest question in the story is what you do with Bartleby. The deepest answer the story provides is that you can do nothing.


Blogger Aaron Garrett said...

Deleuze has a very funny piece on Bartleby -- I think the last piece he wrote before his suicide -- where he suggests that Bartleby's response is the only successful way of dealing with Hegelians. Since Melville was enamored of Hegel at some point, it might even be a historically supportable interpretation.

7:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As well as Deleuze, there are Bartlebys by Agamben, Badiou, Blanchot, Derrida, and Zizek. Surely others, too...

10:56 AM  

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