October 30, 2014
The Art of the Novella Challenge 1: Bartleby the Scrivener
by Jonathan Gibbs
Title: Bartleby the Scrivener
Author: Herman Melville
First published: in two parts in Putnam’s magazine, November and December 1853.
Page count: 64
First line: I am a rather elderly man.
A century and a half after his first appearance, Melville’s reticent legal clerk Bartleby has had something of a millennial ‘moment’. First, in 1997, he lent his name to the online electronic text archive Bartleby.com; then, in 2004, Melville House released his story as the first in this series, The Art of the Novella, subsequently adapting his laconic/nihilist/pathological catchphrase “I would prefer not to” as a motto for tote bags, t-shirts, and coffee mugs; and the same year saw the English-language translation of Enrique Vila-Matas’s anti-novel Bartleby & Co..
For Vila-Matas, Bartleby is an emblem of the modernist writer’s retreat into silence; for the literary types and hipsters sipping and toting, he is, I surmise, something of a contemporary anti-hero, for his passive resistance in the face of the kind of brain-numbing office job that many of us have had to suffer; but I think Bartleby.com’s Steven H. van Leeuwen may have it best.
After all, Van Leeuwen’s Bartleby is the ideal copyist: his website has reproduced, by now, over a billion pages of classic literature and reference for readers – on demand, without fault and and without complaint. Melville’s Bartleby was good – he did “an extraordinary amount of writing. As if long famished for something to copy, he seemed to gorge himself on my documents,” his employer admits – but he wasn’t that good.
Nor is there any reason given in Melville’s story for Bartleby’s decision – if decision it is – to refuse to do what he’s told, something that passes by the likes of The New Republic when they call him a “slacktivist” and a “patron saint for Occupy Wall Street”. Frankly, I have a problem with this idea of Bartleby as a slacker idol. In the story – which is told by the comically self-regarding owner of a law firm where he works – Bartleby at first does his copying work assiduously, while unaccountably refusing to do any of the other allied tasks someone in his position would be expected to do. Eventually he declines to even do the copying, and takes to staring blankly out of a window that looks onto nothing but a brick wall. Although his employer does try to help him, he will not be helped, and in the end, unable to move Bartleby, the company itself moves out.
This boss is no Scrooge; he really does want to help Bartleby. He tries to draw him out, asking if he has any family; he offers him first financial assistance, and then lodgings in his own house. Above all, he reaches out with sympathy: “he seemed alone, absolutely alone in the universe,” he says of his employee. You might say the man is the very face of compassionate capitalism.
It is almost the reverse of the situation in Kafka’s novels: there, the individual is faced with an incomprehensible and inhumane system bent on blocking his or her every move; here, the system is faced with an individual that refuses to play by any of the rules. And yet it was Bartleby who turned up to work in the office in the first place. Nobody forced him to. And if his job is dull (and it is), then it seems to be the only thing in life that he relishes, until he doesn’t.
There is something pitiable about Bartleby, but also something rather ghastly. The man is a zombie. If he is the emblem of something, it is not quiet anti-corporate rebellion; it is acedia, the philosophical term for a form of lassitude and torpor so severe that one cares neither about anyone or anything in the world, nor about oneself. In the entry on acedia in The Dictionary of Untranslatables, José Miguel Marinas points to Seneca, who differentiated it from three other types of sadness: pirgitia (laziness), tristitia (sadness proper) and taedium (boredom).
Monks used to suffer from it: it was considered a sin. Monks, like legal clerks (and many office and non-office-bound workers), have dull, regimented lives – but workers are theoretically offered the opportunity to find meaning outside their 9-5, which is where monks are at risk. If you give over your entire life to God, and then find life with only God in it unbearable, then you’ve made a very bad mistake, and you should get out.
What Bartleby prefers not to do, in the end, is live, and it seems unfair to blame the system for his decision. As displayed by Bartleby, acedia looks rather like a kind of moral abrogation of one’s own humanity. Or else you might medicalise it, and diagnose Bartleby with clinical depression. Either way, his case is far too tragic to hold him up as some kind of hero. Bartleby The Scrivener may be a straightforward read (nothing so daunting as Moby-Dick), but it is a disturbing and haunting one nonetheless. Reading it, you watch a man slide to his doom, for no apparent reason – there is no tragic flaw it on. You want to lean in to the page and give him a shake.
And as a novella? Well, it certainly couldn’t be much longer, without having to bring in some backstory, or else develop the situation of the legal office (think of the way that tedium and bureaucracy bloats the pages of Joseph Heller‘s brilliant, merciless Something Happened). It does feel like a short story that’s been extended beyond its natural length – but effectively so, unnaturally so. It’s like a spring tugged out of true, that will never return to its original state. A flat coil dragged downwards until it becomes a spiral.