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Friday, November 18, 2016

Thinking About Bartleby: an election update

No Trump.  Not my President.  I’d prefer not.  There is something about this simple demurral that seems both appropriate and necessary under the circumstances.  Necessary because it may be the best (if not the only) response that many of us are capable of at present.  Besides I don’t think there’s any need for further explanation.  The U.S. electorate has shit the bed, and we should feel no compunction about simply declining the opportunity to roll around in it.

Against this backdrop, I’ve been thinking a lot about Bartleby the Scrivener.  I have the sense that this is a Bartleby moment for many of us.    If asked to express my feelings about the recent presidential election my response is simply thus:  I’d prefer not to.  I see no reason to cooperate or involve myself in any material way with what’s currently happening in American public life.  Bartleby’s dead-wall reverie seems like a completely rational response instead of watching the latest updates on the circus now in underway in Washington and at Trump Tower in New York.

Not watching television news or reading the papers since the night of November 8th  (which is when my self-imposed news blackout went into effect) has already provided a number of significant benefits.  My mood has improved immeasurably.  It has also given me lots of time to catch up on more worthwhile reading.  Yesterday I decided to go back to the source, as it were, and took the occasion to reread Melville’s classic story about the scrivener of Wall Street.  It made an indelible impression when I first read it more than 40 years ago, no matter how dimly I may have understood it at the time.  So if nothing else, I was curious to see how it holds up, particularly in light of its strong resonance with my current frame of mind.

And I was pleased to discover that it’s still a great read, even better than before.   Back in high school I remember thinking it was a relatively straightforward story – more a fable really – something simple enough for even a high school student to grasp; Bartleby being a symbolic figure much like Billy Budd, the namesake of the only other Melville story I remember reading in high school, I thought of him as the personification of long-suffering humanity.  Ah Bartleby.  Ah humanity!  That’s the note of pathos that stuck in my craw. 

But rereading provided an entirely fresh perspective.

First of all, it’s incredibly well written, rich in subtle irony.  Far from being a somber, or straightforward moral fable, it’s really social satire of the highest order, worthy of Dickens or Thackery.  The descriptions of Wall Street office life are laugh out loud funny as well as dead-on accurate in the portrayal of the spiritual vacuity at the heart of a commercial law practice -- as I know only too well from first hand experience.  Turkey and Nipper, Bartleby’s fellow scriveners, one of them a dipsomaniac the other dyspeptic; the squirrelly office clerk Nutter, who is always being sent out to fetch Ginger Nut cake; Melville provides a brief account of the absurdities of office life that is really second to none in American literature.  

And funniest of all is the sly portrayal of the unnamed narrator, Bartleby’s well-intentioned employer, the Wall Street lawyer (or Conveyancer) who alternates between feeling pity and rage at his inscrutable scrivener.  As the target of Melville’s sharpest satire – it’s the story of his moral obtuseness after all -- the narrator's tone perfectly captures the spirit of Wall Street pettifoggery, full of sanctimony, always ready to applaud himself for his good scruples and common sense, yet strangely ineffectual, impotent with his own clerks, particularly powerless in the face of Bartleby’s impassivity, and most of all craven in his fear lest anything should happen that would diminish his social or professional standing.  He is the embodiment of Wall Street’s then emergent commercial culture, which Melville skewers with precision, eloquence and irony.

And what of Bartleby, the cipher at the center of the story?  As I read it today, Bartleby doesn’t strike me as a symbol for pitiable humanity so much as a stand in for the author himself.  Intransigent in his dead wall reverie, Melville pulls this strange switcheroo by placing Bartleby, the impassive cipher and the narrator’s mysterious semi-doppelganger, at the moral and emotional center of his universe.  I prefer not to thus becomes much more than a reply to any particular unwanted task requested of the scrivener.  It’s Melville’s cri du coeur (however oddly impassive) and overall response to newly emergent social order -- the commercial and legal culture of Wall Street, typified by the “reasonable man” standard -- which was already well on its way to redefining social obligations in the US of A, very much in derogation of the country’s traditional Puritan heritage.

And it’s very much in that same spirit I offer up Bartleby as a potential role model for us today.  The problem we face is how to position ourselves as the certainties of the old neo-liberal political and social order slip away, and well before anything else has emerged to take its place.  What should we do in response to the rampant insecurity and instability in American public life?  Please make no mistake about it:  the problem is not Trump.  He is merely the most glaring symptom of deep systemic dysfunction that is the root cause of our distress.  Most of us realize that at all costs we must avoid acting in a way that would normalize what is in no way a normal situation.   But beyond that, it’s damn hard to know where to turn or look for guidance. 

Old walls are rapidly crumbling and the new one that Trump has promised we can only hope will never rise to take their place.   For the moment, then, dead wall reverie seems to be the best response that we can muster; far from appearing pitiable, Bartleby’s utter impassivity seems to be a very sensible course of action (or inaction) given the current state of our nation state, so utterly lacking in sound policy choices, leadership or grace.

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