John Pistelli

writer

What Is “Bartleby, the Scrivener” About?

In Rebecca Harding Davis’s great short story of 1861, “Life in the Iron Mills,” a mill owner’s son brings an entourage through the industrial inferno to observe the workers and the works. Soon, the men are startled by the figure of a woman emerging from the gloom; they discover that it is a sculpture, made from korl (the waste-product of iron works) by one of the workers, Wolfe. The sculpture, a portrait of a beseeching woman with a spiritual hunger in her face, prompts the men to a long dialogue on justice and inequality, labor and genius. The artist-worker, Wolfe, impoverished and illiterate, shares no language in which to communicate with these men except his gift for representation. His work of art unites the polis, however briefly, in shared contemplation. Davis allows that this salvific vision of art is inefficacious; the only thing shown to save anyone from poverty and despair by the story’s end is Christian charity. But Davis’s narrator (implicitly one of the men who had toured the mill, the intellectual of the group) ends with the statue’s “groping arm point[ing] through the broken cloud to the far East, where, in the flickering, nebulous crimson, God has set the promise of the Dawn.” In other words, art may not bring the needful millennium in which the last shall be first, but it points the way. Hailed as the first great realist fiction in American literature, “Life in the Iron Mills” is rather the end of Romanticism.

Melville’s 1853 “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” written almost a decade earlier than “Life in the Iron Mills,” treats the theme of class and labor toward the other end of the socioeconomic continuum. Narrated by an elderly lawyer who moves in moneyed circles on Wall Street, a man acquainted with John Jacob Astor, the story tells of a mysterious young copyist in the narrator’s office who refuses requests to work at anything but copying with the reply, “I would prefer not to.” Bartleby is eventually found to live at the office, and eventually “prefers not” to work at copying either; he simply haunts the office like a ghost, until the narrator moves out, leaving Bartleby to be jailed for vagrancy. He dies in prison, apparently by starving himself to death in an eerie premonition (along with the clerkly milieu) of Kafka. The story ends with the only information the narrator has been able to obtain about Bartleby: that before becoming a scrivener, he worked in a dead letter office, among the misbegotten missives, the check arrived too late, the declaration of love gone astray.

The main drama of the story is in the narrator’s increasingly obsessive contemplation of Bartleby, which he justifies to himself as evidence of his liberal temperament, a desire to help the poor man rather than turning him out. The narrator’s sympathetic benevolence (he calls himself “a man of peace”) is heightened by the story’s depiction of the other men who work under him in the office. Nippers, Turkey, and Ginger Nut make up a little gallery of grotesques borrowed from Dickens, as if to say that this is a Dickens story forced to swallow something it can’t digest, visited by an emissary from a world where laughter and tears lose their force as agents of social regeneration. Bartleby is a ghost from the future, indeed, but he draws the narrator not from greed to benevolence, as in A Christmas Carol, but from benevolence to puzzlement, frustration, bafflement. Scrooge is brought into society by his ghostly guests; the narrator is alienated by his, gathered into a mysterious world that his friends and colleagues cannot understand. The narrator is clearly aware of his own bad faith in seeking to increase his own sense of self-righteousness by helping Bartleby:

Here I can cheaply purchase a delicious self-approval. To befriend Bartleby; to humor him in his strange willfulness, will cost me little or nothing, while I lay up in my soul what will eventually prove a sweet morsel for my conscience.

The story’s rejection of nineteenth-century sentimentality is total.

So what is this strange story about? If, unlike “Life in the Iron Mills,” it is not about how Christian charity or Dickensian sympathy can help an exploited worker, might “Bartleby” not advance beyond Davis in advocating for revolution? This possibility is also pretty quickly dispatched:

“Bartleby,” said I, “Ginger Nut is away; just step round to the Post Office, won’t you? (it was but a three minutes walk,) and see if there is any thing for me.””I would prefer not to.”

“You will not?”

“I prefer not.”

Bartleby demurs at the suggestion of willful rebellion, offering “passive resistance” merely, in the narrator’s phrase. But even this paradoxical term, perhaps borrowed from Thoreau, is misleading: Bartleby is neither especially passive (he asserts his preferences) nor really resistive: when he meets a superior force, as with the police at the story’s end, he bows to it. He is permitted to do what he prefers only because the narrator is unwilling to use force to compel or punish him, and while this is probably how “passive resistance” of the Thoreau/Gandhi/King variety works in practice against liberal—and only liberal—authorities, Bartleby carries no banner, advocates for no cause, represents no class or collective, and has no goal. To see his actions as political seems absurd to me, unless you are willing to twist and turn the word “political” until it doesn’t mean anything anymore. Leftist commentators today do just that, basically because they want to hold on to the narrative shape of Marxism while disbelieving in its conclusion; for them, acts empty of political signification but still somehow “radical” point, like Davis’s statue at the end of “Life in the Iron Mills,” to the empty space in the future where the millennium might still be imagined. But Davis’s last-stand Christianity and contemporary theorists’ last-stand Marxism are, it seems to me, plainly inadequate as social thought, however beautifully expressed. It’s unpleasant, I know, but if your metaphysic is gone, you will probably have to adjust your politics.

What about art, though? For Davis leavened her Christian sentimentalism with the Schillerian suggestion that the work of art might unite the representative men and women of the community in a shared contemplation toward a shared end. This theory seems to me to have a lot more life in it than does Marxism, mock it how the Marxists (and postmodernists) will. Is there any indication in “Bartleby” of the Romantic possibility that art may re-knit the riven polis? Here we get closer to the heart of the story.

Melville rejects Romanticism and even the conventionally aesthetic, though. The law office in the story sits between two walls that its windows overlook, one white and one black with grime: in other words, the moneyed city is a space with nothing to see, neither decoration nor nature. This hardly bothers Bartleby, since he spends much of the story in “dead-wall reveries,” looking out on the blankness. His is not one of those men Thoreau writes about, lost in “quiet desperation” and in need of aesthetic regeneration through nature. Nor does he resent copying, at first; he has no Promethean ambition toward original composition, and the narrator contrasts him with Byron:

It is, of course, an indispensable part of a scrivener’s business to verify the accuracy of his copy, word by word. Where there are two or more scriveners in an office, they assist each other in this examination, one reading from the copy, the other holding the original. It is a very dull, wearisome, and lethargic affair. I can readily imagine that to some sanguine temperaments it would be altogether intolerable. For example, I cannot credit that the mettlesome poet Byron would have contentedly sat down with Bartleby to examine a law document of, say five hundred pages, closely written in a crimpy hand.

Finally, the narrator begins to construe Bartleby himself as man contemplating Romantic ruins, as if foreseeing the Ozymandian fragments in which Wall Street will eventually be dispersed, and which calls him to a sense of shared community across the sublime and menacing gulfs of time:

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 passage will eventually be undercut by the story: the narrator and Bartleby are not brothers. But it will also be undercut by a slight shift in the metaphor itself later in the text:

But he answered not a word; like the last column of some ruined temple, he remained standing mute and solitary in the middle of the otherwise deserted room.

While beholding a ruin may give one a fraternal feeling with the vanished men who built it, it can’t give one sympathy with the ruin itself. Bartleby is the ruin, an artifact, the other of the human in the direction not of nature but of artifice. And the affect Bartleby generates in the narrator is the affect generated by a very particular kind of artifact:

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.

Revolving all these things, and coupling them with the recently discovered fact that he made my office his constant abiding place and home, and not forgetful of his morbid moodiness; revolving all these things, a prudential feeling began to steal over me. My first emotions had been those of pure melancholy and sincerest pity; but just in proportion as the forlornness of Bartleby grew and grew to my imagination, did that same melancholy merge into fear, that pity into repulsion.

Pallid, austere, reserved, Bartleby generates awe and modulates the narrator’s emotions from pity to fear and repulsion. Later in the same scene, the narrator comments that Bartleby has made him unfit for churchgoing. But however much he repulses and alienates the narrator and the other men in the office, they become infected with his mode of expression, as the narrator notes that the word “prefer” has crept into his and the others’ vocabulary. Bartleby’s presence is changing them, even as he will not interact with them and will not explain himself. When the narrator interrogates Bartleby as to the reason for his eccentric behavior in refusing to copy any longer, Bartleby replies, “‘Do you not see the reason for yourself'”—the absent question mark is Melville’s doing—throwing the narrator back on his own interpretive resources.

Bartleby, I contend, is nothing less than a man who has made himself into a modern artwork, of the type being theorized in France around the time of Melville’s composition and which would enter exhibitions and galleries with modernism in all its blank-canvas glory from Whistler to Malevich. Having beheld in the dead-letter office the futility of representation and communication, Bartleby eschews representation and communication and merely persists “in the difficulty of what it is to be,” to quote Stevens.

But Bartleby in so doing does not resist capitalism, even though he is incommensurate with its standards for assigning value:

“What earthly right have you to stay here? do you pay any rent? Do you pay my taxes? Or is this property yours?”

He answered nothing.

Bartleby prefers not to quit the law office or Wall Street; like the modern artwork, he is a kind of flower grown in the soil of capitalism, the return of what it refuses (whatever exceeds what can be formalized as rights or properties). But however he may be the ghost of what Wall Street has killed, he does not come to bring the revolution but merely to provoke thought. The narrator, at Bartleby’s hunger-artist death, alludes to Job:

For now should I have lain still and been quiet, I should have slept: then had I been at rest, with kings and counsellers of the earth, which built desolate places for themselves

The modern artwork is the sign not of earthly salvation, immanent utopia: it is as if Melville can foresee the cunning with which Marxism appropriates art to itself and forecloses it. The modern artwork images rather death, where all earthly glory will be seen as desolate, as ruins, in the eternal sleep foreshadowed by the “dead-wall reverie” induced by musing on the blank canvas, Bartleby himself.

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