Monday, January 26, 2009

Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville

One of Roland Barthes’ ‘codes’ for understanding a work of literature was the hermeneutic, that enigma or puzzle which is, through narrative and character and theme and those various other devices of literary fiction, gradually revealed to the reader so that he or she finally comes to a state of awareness, a moment of cognition.

Over the years, the tyranny of plot and the overwhelming need for comprehension have become such that no mystery is ever really allowed to obtain at the end of a novel or a story: it is considered a failure unless every last strand is cleared up and unless the reader is satisfied in his or her understanding of it. Ambiguity is frowned upon. Readers become fixated on the material, not recognising that often it is only there as a symbol of the immaterial. Critics of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, for example, debate at length the reason for the apocalypse, as if that makes any difference. I remember once reading aloud one of my own stories to a group, and afterwards the first, baffled response was: ‘But why was the cat ginger?’ It is not necessary to have read the story to understand that the question is irrelevant. One amateur reviewer of Percival Everett’s social satire, American Desert, thought the book was spoiled because the author did not explain exactly how the main character came back to life after being decapitated. Talk about missing the point... Going back to Barthes’ codes, what such readers are hankering after is an end to mystery. What they want is an excess of signifiers from Barthes’ Proairetic code, all those sundry actions and behaviours and causes-and-effects that constitute a plot, neatly tied up and explained.

This is what happens when we read fiction as a commodity, in which the initial puzzle must ultimately defer to the great god plot. We treat the act of reading as a process of gaining knowledge rather than coming to understand. Fact rather than truth. And yet the two are entirely different things.

There is a shallowness in the former approach that informs much of the way people now approach reading. For such people, Herman Melville’s Barteleby the Scrivener must be the cause of virtual apoplexy. ‘Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!’ indeed, but what was the point of it all? Who was Bartleby? Indeed, what was he? Why did he behave like that? Why did he always ‘prefer not to’? It was an act of great bravery on Melville’s part to simply refuse to explain. As a consequence, the reader is on his or her own. Not surprisingly, therefore, Bartleby the Scriver has about as many explanations as it has readers. And what an entirely good thing that is.

The plot is brief to the point of non-existent. The narrator employs a new scrivener – a copier of legal documents – but over time the new man, Bartleby, withdraws from all useful interaction, saying that he ‘would prefer not to’ do whatever he is invited to. He ends up in prison, where he dies of starvation because, simply, he would prefer not to eat. And that’s it. But tied up in that bare, stark plot are questions of freedom, of conformity, of love, hope, selfishness, delusion, of all the grimy matter and emotion that makes us human.

Of course, one must remember the historical context in which the story is placed. It was written in the 1850s, in a period of great tension which would culminate in the Civil War of 1861. Therefore, it is not difficult to ascribe to the story some form of allegorical meaning: it is certainly possible to articulate a theme of freedom versus slavery in the actions and symbols of the story. And certainly that is part of it. But only part.

It can certainly be read as a condemnation of the sterility and conformity of modern business and modern society. Technological progress has always had a dual impact on the American psyche, channeling its energetic optimism but at the same time alarming its innate conservatism. The fact that it is set in Wall Street, that symbol of the ‘system’, would clearly seem to suggest such a reading is appropriate. Bartleby is employed in a role of total conformity - the work of a scrivener is simply to copy the words of others, not ever to initiate his own ideas – and he is taken on in the role precisely because he appears not to possess much in the way of character or free will. Thus, it is a complete paradox that, in doing nothing, Bartleby shows himself to be the ultimate non-conformist. And, for that reason, the story must be about more than mere conformity. The theme runs deeper than that: it is a part of the message, but not its whole.

The story can also be read as an analysis of nihilism, since Bartleby is the epitome of inaction. This, however, is to misunderstand both the text and nihilism. Bartleby, whatever he is, is no nihilist. On the contrary, it is clear that he believes in something: he has distinct preferences, even if they are usually voiced in the negative. It is simply that he prefers not to be led: this, then, could be construed as passivity (albeit to an extraordinary degree) but not, I would suggest, nihilism. There is nothing in Bartleby’s behaviour to suggest that his life, if he were to follow his preferences, is intrinsically purposeless. He is a deeper man than that.

There have been many attempts to understand the psyche of Bartleby. He may be some form of autist, or a manic depressive, or a schizophrenic. He is even considered by some to be Christ himself, shunned by humanity, unable to communicate his vision to an incomprehending horde. Given Melville’s metaphysical bent there may be some mileage in this, but such a negative view of humanity seems unlikely in a man who once, in a letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne, wrote: ‘We mortals astonish Him as much as He us.’ Others suggest the narrator is, like Roquentin in Nausea, exhibiting the symptoms of an existential crisis. Again, there is some validity to this argument, although what such commentators usually mean is that negative, virtually nihilistic form of existentialism that is ascribed – more or less correctly – to Sartre and – quite incorrectly – to Camus. There is nothing of Camus’ depth here: this is not a Rambert, responding to his existential crisis by turning towards humanity and opting to help save the plague town of Oran.

In some respects, Bartleby is closer to the Underground Man in Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, albeit in a more passive, less self-hating way. Each shares a disconnection from the flux of society and an otherworldliness that may or may not be rational. But the comparison does not fully convince. Dostoevsky’s work is almost a polemic, and in his Underground Man he establishes essentially a straw-man, someone of such violently nihilistic and modernist views that he comes across as repulsive: he is created by his author in order to be knocked down. Bartleby, on the other hand, for all his blankness, for all his silence, is more real than the blustering Underground Man.

And so there is much debate on the pyschology of Bartleby and his relationship with the world, but none of it quite reaches a true understanding of him. Nonetheless, despite their relative failures to understand his character, these commentators are correct in supposing that the key to Bartleby the Scrivener lies not in the outside, in the wider world of commerce and progress, nor even in the small and stilted communication of that scriveners’ office. No, this is a story that looks inwards, a story of the mind, of the self. It is a story of complete and utter disconnection, the loss of contact of one human being with the mass of humanity. Bartleby is surrounded by walls. In a sense, of course, he is a wall himself. And at the story’s conclusion, imprisoned, he lies facing a wall, unseeing, in a very deliberate echo of those moments, throughout the story, in which he stands passively in the office in a ‘dead-wall reverie’. What he is doing is building walls around himself, for do we not all, to some extent, build walls around ourselves? It is a defence mechanism, a back-up should the binary options of fight-or-flight prove unattainable. And because Bartleby has built his walls so high and so thick there is no prospect of communication.

The narrator, in his own small-minded, utterly conformist way, is moved to pity for Bartleby but is constrained by his conception of propriety and fears for his status. Thus, Melville is telling us, it is possible to feel sympathy for another human being, as the narrator clearly does for Bartleby, but for that to still not be enough. It doesn’t save Bartleby, just as our human sympathy for people in distress, or enduring illness, or undergoing suffering, cannot do anything to impinge on that suffering. Meanwhile, the other scriveners, subsumed by their own ailments which leave them so disagreeable for half the day – one in the mornings and one in the afternoons – make no effort to understand him. Bartleby himself is incapable of compromise: to do so is not an option, he would ‘prefer not to’.

In this way freedom is lost. Freedom, that most precious gift of humanity, is gradually eroded, and it is impossible to say whether this is caused by society in general or by Bartleby himself – outside or inside. This is the ambiguity at the core of the story, and it is ambiguous because it must be: there is no answer, not in Bartleby the Scrivener nor in real life. What we have instead is a symbiotic relationship between the individual and society, between present and past and present and future, between ambition and need, between intention and ability. To each action and each moment there is an unknowable and unresolvable tension. We all of us want to be free; we want to be happy. Utilitarians speak simplisticaly of the moral worth of an action being determined only by its contribution to overall utility, and of happiness consisting in that which does the greatest good for the greatest number, but to say that is to look, once more, on the outside, not the inside – the general, not the personal. Bartleby the Scrivener shows what it is to be alive and to have one’s own hopes and aspirations, so deeply felt that they surpass even one’s own understanding, and so important that they cannot adequately be communicated. It is a tension that cannot be resolved. Rousseau has it right – we could only attain that freedom by reverting to a state of complete innocence, and innocence is not something that can be regained. Therefore, if it cannot be resolved the biggest challenge facing us as a society is to at least begin to understand it.

That is what Bartleby the Scrivener is trying to teach us: it shows us a way to succeed by showing us failure. Life is full of mystery, and more so, of course, is death. We understand less than we realise. That is why the literary novel, in its current form, with its insistence on explication and understanding, its focus on Barthes’ hermeneutic code to the detriment of all else, fails to engage with the central strangeness of our existence. Bartleby the Scrivener defies easy answers. I don’t know what Melville meant. I don’t know what this story really means. But I know what it means to me, and that meaning shifts every time I think about it. That is the mark of great writing. It has been implanted in my head: the outside has forced its way inside.


Anonymous said...


Tom Conoboy said...

Thank you. Glad you liked it.