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Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” still inspires and unsettles writers

Chris from Chrisbookarama had to write to about Bartleby because “he keeps popping up in my life.” Anthony on Time’s Flow Stemmed was surprised by how “disquieting” he found Melville’s 1853 story. And for Ben Kafka, in Lapham’s Quarterly, the story is one of the “smartest inquiries into the psychopathology of paperwork” and forms part of Kafka’s own entertaining inquiry into diverse aspects of office work: Why, he wonders, is there no Norton Anthology of Paperwork?
My Norton Anthology of Paperwork would include some of the finest historical examples of boilerplate, alongside selections of letterhead, fill-in-the-blank forms, fine print, and the history of that wonderfully poetic instruction, “last name, first.” . . . Paperwork occupies us and preoccupies us, whether we are maritime lawyers or nail-salon owners, congressional aides or human-resource managers, college professors or freelance web designers.
Pondering paperwork leads Kafka to wonder why paperworkers “so often feel sorry for ourselves . . . while having so little sympathy for others.” And why “paperwork has so few heroes in mythology, literature, cinema, real life. There is no John Henry or Mighty Casey or Casey Jones or Rosie the Riveter inspiring us to work better or harder.” Such thinking leads to his appreciation of Melville’s treatment of “the physical and psychical consequences of office work” and, in particular, his portrayal of what the story’s narrator describes as "the interesting and somewhat singular set of men, of whom, as yet, nothing that I know of has ever been written—I mean the law copyists, or scriveners."

Scriveners, Kafka notes, used tools that “resembled those of a medieval monk in many ways, not least in the reliance on a quill pen, the steel nib still being relatively novel.” Even Melville’s narrator concedes that copying
is a very dull, wearisome, and lethargic affair. . . I can readily imagine that, to some sanguine temperament, 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 crimpy hand.
The problem of the story, Kafka writes, “is that Bartleby turns out to be no more willing to work than the mettlesome poet.” One day he simply refuses to copy. His mild “I would prefer not to,” the most memorable line in the story, could perhaps be considered the stifled rallying cry of legions of paperworkers ever since.

What explains the story’s enduring appeal? Kafka turns to a 1974 essay by psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas who found that “the story is more about the narrator than the narrated.” It is the lawyer’s sympathy, as much as the pitiful plight of the clerk, that moves us. And yet:
the narrator cannot quite transform this identification into a proper sense of solidarity. The thing he and his copyist have most profoundly in common, paperwork, is also what drives them apart. The copying has to get done, whether Bartleby prefers to or not. The story’s famous last lines, “Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!” express the narrator’s bad conscience, which should also be ours. What our fellow paperworkers need isn’t pity, but patience.
Related LOA works: Herman Melville: Pierre, Israel Potter, The Piazza Tales, The Confidence-Man, Billy Budd, Uncollected Prose (includes “Bartleby, the Scrivener”)

1 comment:

  1. It's one of those stories that you simply cannot get out of your head once you've read it; about ten years ago, L.A. novelist Bruce Wagner wrote a wonderful book, "Among the Dead", that was in many ways a modern-day adaptation of "Bartleby".


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