The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice (Shakespeare) by Joseph Suglia
A question that arises in the minds of readers of The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice is inescapably the following: “Why does Iago have a pathological hatred for Othello?” Well, why does anyone hate anyone? Why does anyone love anyone? The sources of hatred, as of love, are largely unconscious. Hatred and love are not the products of conscious agency. They are feelings that appear inexplicably in the mind. The unconscious sources of human behavior can be marked in literature, however. We are dealing here with a literary fabrication, a figure made of paper and ink, not a human being, and there might be textual clues that would explain Iago’s seething hatred for Othello.
There seem to be four hypotheses for the grounds of Iago’s vehement antipathy toward Othello:
- Iago resents Othello for choosing Michael Cassio as his lieutenant.
Othello passes over Iago for promotion to lieutenant and instead selects him as his ensign or “ancient.” He becomes someone who delivers Othello’s letters and carries his luggage. Iago inveighs against the election of Cassio, whom he considers someone who has a merely theoretical knowledge of the science of death, a “great arithmetician… [t]hat never set a squadron in the field / Nor the division of a battle knows / More than a spinster” [I:i]. And yet Othello does raise Iago to the lieutenancy in Act Three, Scene Three. Why, then, would Iago continue to hold a grudge?
- Iago abominates Othello because he suspects that Othello has slept with his wife, Emilia.
This is mere rumor, and Iago knows that the rumor is probably a canard: “I hate the Moor / And it is thought abroad that ’twixt my sheets / He’s done my office. I know not if’t be true, / But I for mere suspicion in that kind / Will do as if for surety” [I:iii]. Iago admits that he has no evidence to support this hypothesis, and it doesn’t matter to him one way or the other whether Othello has cuckolded him. Iago seizes upon the rumor as a pretext for his boundless negativity.
- Iago is sexually jealous of Othello. He is desirous of Desdemona, Othello’s wife.
This interpretation is not altogether without evidence, but it is not a comprehensive interpretation. If Iago is sexually possessive of Desdemona, why, then, would he offer her to Roderigo?: “[T]hou shalt enjoy her—therefore make money” [I:iii].
Iago makes his lust for Desdemona plain in the following lines: “Now I do love her too, / Not out of absolute lust—though peradventure / I stand accountant for as great a sin— / But partly led to diet my revenge, / For that I do suspect the lusty Moor / Hath leaped into my seat, the thought whereof / Doth like a poisonous mineral gnaw my inwards…” [II:i]. This passage makes it clear that “love,” for the immoralist Iago, is the mere scion of lust and that his desire for Desdemona is really the desire to screw Othello over. He cannot bear the thought that Othello has “leaped into his seat”—which is to say that Iago’s rivalrous-emulous identification with Othello takes precedence over his carnal interest in Desdemona.
- Iago despises Othello for his race.
It is true that Iago repeatedly calls Othello “the Moor.” Depriving someone of a proper name, and replacing that person’s proper name with a common noun, is a common way of depersonalizing someone. George W. Bush engaged in this linguistic practice quite often, renaming Vladimir Putin “Ostrich Legs,” Tony Blair “Landslide,” Silvio Berlusconi “Shoes,” and John Boehner “Boner.”
There is no question that Iago uses ugly racist language: Othello is nominated “an old black ram [that is] tupping [Brabantio’s] white ewe” [I:i]; he is “a Barbary horse” that covers his daughter; “you’ll have your nephews neigh to you, you’ll have courses for cousins and jennets for germans” [Ibid.]. Consider the audience to whom this language is addressed. Iago’s invective might be used for purely rhetorical purposes, in order to produce specific effects within Brabantio, Desdemona’s father. Brabantio is clearly a hardcore racist idiot who thinks that all North Africans are witches and warlocks and that Othello, therefore, could only win his daughter through ensorcellment: “Damned as thou art, thou hast enchanted her” [I:ii]. He makes this point with deadening repetitiousness. He cannot conceive of his daughter “fall[-ing] in love with what she feared to look on” and cannot comprehend why she would reject the wealthy “curled darlings” [I:iii] of the state in favor of the Moor.
Iago, the reptilian-Machiavellian manipulator, might be playing on the racist sympathies of Brabantio in the way that a clever lawyer might stir up the racist antipathies of a jury without being a racist him- or herself. While it is possible that there is a racial element in Iago’s hatred for Othello, his hatred is not reducible to racism or racialized nationalism.
Iago’s hatred for Othello is an absolute hatred—a hatred absolved from qualification, from relation. A textual clue for the unconscious sources of his hatred is contained in the following lines: “Were I the Moor, I would not be Iago… I am not what I am” [I:i].
Were Iago the Moor, Iago would not be Iago: Am I alone in hearing in this line an unforgiving self-contempt and the desire to become Othello? Whenever a human being encounters a stranger, the question is always the same: “Who are you?” In other words: Who are you in relation to me? Are you similar to me? Are you different from me? To what degree are you different from me? How do I measure myself against you? In the case of the stalker Iago, there is, I suspect, the painful consciousness of his own inferiority vis-à-vis Othello and the painful desire to become Othello, which is an absolute impossibility. This is the meaning of the last line quoted: “I am not what I am.” Iago is not identical to himself because he identifies himself intimately and yet impossibly with Othello. If you are obsessed with someone, you desire to become the person with whom you are obsessed. This will never happen, but what will happen is that you will no longer be your own, you will no longer be yourself, for the object of your obsession will engulf you.
Iago’s rivalry with Othello embodies the dialectic of the self in relation to the other human being. There is, on the one hand, the self-assumption of the self–which is based on the differentiation of the self from the other human being–and, on the other hand, the becoming-other (Anderswerden) that Hegel describes in The Phenomenology of Spirit. In the lines cited above, Iago articulates how he imagines himself as other-than-himself–how he exteriorizes himself as Othello–and recuperates himself from this self-exteriorization.
Would Othello have murdered Desdemona even without Iago’s deceptions and interferences? This, of course, is a silly question from a philological point of view, since we only have the text and any speculation about “what would have happened” outside of the text is absurd. However, it is important to think through the necessity or the non-necessity of Iago in relation to the act of uxoricide that Othello performs.
Let me rephrase the question, then: How integral is Iago to the act of uxoricide that Othello performs?
My interpretation is that Iago plays a non-essential role in the murder of Desdemona. He externalizes a jealous rage that is already within Othello. Iago echoes prejudices and suspicions that are already seething inside of him. From the third scene of the third act:
OTHELLO: Was not that Cassio parted from my wife?
IAGO: Cassio, my lord? no, sure, I cannot think it / That he would steal away so guilty-like / Seeing you coming.
Notice that Iago is merely reflecting Othello’s suspicions. Iago is reactive, not active. It is Othello, not Iago, who questions Cassio’s honesty:
OTHELLO: Is [Cassio] not honest?
IAGO: Honest, my lord?
OTHELLO: Honest? Ay, honest.
IAGO: My lord, for aught I know.
OTHELLO: What does thou think?
IAGO: Think, my lord?
OTHELLO: Think, my lord! By heaven, thou echo’st me / As if there were some monster in thy thought / Too hideous to be shown. Thou dost mean something, / I heard thee say even now thou lik’st not that / When Cassio left my wife: what didst not like?
The monster does not dwell in Iago’s thought, but in Othello’s. Iago draws out the monstrous thoughts that have been devouring Othello for some time. It is Othello who does not like the way in which Cassio slinks away from Desdemona when her husband approaches. It is Othello who finds Cassio’s behavior suspect, not Iago. Iago eschews direct accusation and instead employs innuendo.
It is often said, as I discussed above, that Othello is a victim of racism and nationalism. One should not also forget that Othello has nationalist prejudices of his own, absorbing, as he does, the idea that all Venetian women are whores—hence, his rush to judge Desdemona as licentiously “liberal” as he inspects her hand: “This hand is moist, my lady… This argues fruitfulness and liberal heart: / Hot, hot, and moist. This hand of yours requires / A sequester from liberty, fasting and prayer, / Much castigation, exercise devout, / For here’s a young and sweating devil, here, / That commonly rebels. ’Tis a good hand, / A frank one” [III:iv].
The inspection of Desdemona’s hand was Othello’s idea, not Iago’s. Othello impulsively believes Iago’s every word condemning Desdemona, for Othello has already condemned Desdemona in his mind. Just as Othello impulsively believes Iago’s every word condemning Desdemona, and denies Emilia’s every word defending her, Desdemona impulsively takes the side of Cassio, pledging to be his mediator until the end. Both Othello and Desdemona are impulsive, acting without evidence.
Nor is Desdemona entirely innocent in her own annihilation. When she falls in love with Othello, Desdemona falls in love with what she once and always has feared to look upon. She loves Othello because of his violence, not despite his violence. Desdemona is what psychologists call a “hybristophiliac”: someone who, like Rhianna or Bonnie Parker, is sexually attracted to violent criminals. She is originally drawn to Othello for his adventurous exoticism and his proximity to death. As Othello puts it in the first act of the play: “[Desdemona] loved me for the dangers I had passed” [I:iii]. Iago suggests to Roderigo that Desdemona will grow tired of Othello’s differentness and seek out another lover: “[Desdemona] must change for youth; when she is sated with [Othello’s] body she will find the error of her choice; she must have change, she must” [I:iii]. Is Iago wrong? As Rene Girard suggests in A Theatre of Envy, Othello could eventually be replaced by a younger version of himself, for, in marriage, what husband could escape the crushing banalizations of the everyday? The “extravagant and wheeling stranger” [I:i] would become a boring and bored husband like any other. Othello, if he does not solidify his role as the death-giving general, is doomed to disintegrate into a cuckold.
In a sense, Othello is never other than who he appears to be. By contrast, following Harold Bloom, Iago is engaged in a war against being. Iago is anti-being or nothingness: He is not what he is. When Iago says, “For I am nothing, if not critical” [II:i], this may be taken literally: He is divided against himself. Othello, on the other hand, is always only what he is. From the beginning of the play until its terrifying end, Othello is the violent warrior who loves death more than he loves love.
A review of Oblivion (David Foster Wallace) by Joseph Suglia
When I was in graduate school, I was (mis)taught Literature by a man who had no ear for poetic language and who had absolutely no interest in eloquence. I learned that he held an undergraduate degree in Physics and wondered, as he chattered on loudly and incessantly, why this strange man chose to study and teach Literature, a subject that obviously did not appeal to him very much. I think the same thing of David Foster Wallace, a writer who probably would have been happier as a mathematician (Mathematics is a subject that Wallace studied at Amherst College).
A collection of fictions published in 2004, Oblivion reads very much as if a mathematician were trying his hand at literature after having surfeited himself with Thomas Pynchon and John Barth–-not the best models to imitate or simulate, if you ask me.
The first fiction, “Mr. Squishy,” is by far the strongest. A consulting firm evaluates the responses of a focus group to a Ho-Hoesque chocolate confection. Wallace comes up with some delightful phraseologies: The product is a “domed cylinder of flourless maltilol-flavored sponge cake covered entirely in 2.4mm of a high-lecithin chocolate frosting,” the center of which is “packed with what amounted to a sucrotic whipped lard” . The external frosting’s “exposure to the air caused it to assume traditional icing’s hard-yet-deliquescent marzipan character” [Ibid.]. Written in a bureaucratized, mechanical language–this language, after all, is the dehumanized, anti-poetic language of corporate marketing firms, the object of Wallace’s satire–the text is a comparatively happy marriage of content and form.
Wallace gets himself into difficulty when he uses this same bureaucratic language in the next fiction, “The Soul is Not a Smithy,” which concerns a homicidal substitute teacher. I could see how a sterile, impersonal narrative could, by way of counterpoint, humanize the teacher, but the writing just left me cold. The title of the fiction simply reverses Stephen Dedalus’s statement in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: “I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”
Wallace never composed a sentence as beautiful as Joyce’s. Indeed, Wallace never composed a beautiful sentence.
“Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature” simply duplicates the title (!) of Richard Rorty’s misguided polemic against representationalism (the misconceived idea that language is capable of mirroring the essence of things). It concerns a son who accompanies his mother to a cosmetic-surgery procedure. The son, who is also the narrator, says: “[A]nyone observing the reality of life together since the second procedure would agree the reality is the other way around…” . The narrator might or might not be one of the deluded representationalists against whom Rorty polemicized. For Rorty, “the reality of life” is not something that we are capable of talking about with any degree of insight. Unfortunately, this is the only point in the text at which the philosophical problem of representation arises.
The eponymous fiction “Oblivion” and the self-reflexive “The Suffering Channel” (which concerns a man whose excreta are considered works of art) are inelegantly and ineloquently written.
After laboring through such verbal dross, I can only conclude that David Foster Wallace was afraid of being read and thus attempted to bore his readers to a teary death. His noli me legere also applies to himself. It is impossible to escape the impression that he was afraid of reading and revising any of the festering sentences that he churned out. Because he likely never read his own sentences, he likely never knew how awkward they sounded. Infinite Jest was written hastily and unreflectively, without serious editing or revision, it appears. It is merely because of the boggling bigness of Infinite Jest that the book has surfaced in the consciousness of mainstream America at all (hipsterism is a vicissitude of mainstream America). We, the Americanized, are fascinated by bigness. To quote Erich Fromm: “The world is one great object for our appetite, a big apple, a big bottle, a big breast; we are the sucklers…”
Speech is irreversible; writing is reversible. If you accept this premise of my argument (and any intelligent person would), must it not be said that responsible writers ought ALWAYS to recite and revise their own sentences? And does it EVER seem that Wallace did so?
The prose of Oblivion is blearily, drearily, eye-wateringly tedious. The hipsters will, of course, claim in advance that the grueling, hellish tedium of Wallace’s prose was carefully choreographed, that every infelicity was intentional, and thus obviate any possible criticism of their deity, a deity who, like all deities, has grown more powerful in death. That is, after all, precisely what they say of the Three Jonathans, the sacred triptych of hipsterdom: Foer, Franzen, and Lethem, the most lethal of them all.
One thing that even the hipsters cannot contest: David Foster Wallace did not write fictionally for his own pleasure. Unlike Kafka, he certainly did not write books that he ever wanted to read.
A valediction: The early death of David Foster Wallace is terrible and should be mourned. He was a coruscatingly intelligent man. My intention here is not to defame the dead. I recommend that the reader spend time with Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and leave his other writings alone. As I suggested above, he probably didn’t want his prose to be read, anyway.
An Analysis of A Year of Magical Thinking (Joan Didion) by Dr. Joseph Suglia
Dedicated to Lux Interior (1948-2009)
What is one to say when the beloved dies? There is nothing to say. None of the platitudes of bereavement, none of the polite formulae seems adequate. My husband was sitting on that chair, alive, and now he is dead. “John was talking, then he wasn’t” (10). What else is there to say? There are no words that could properly express the banality of mortality.
A Year of Magical Thinking (2005) is Joan Didion’s attempt to craft a language that would make meaningful the death of her husband, John Greg Dunne. It is a language that, at times, seems almost glaciated. After all, she doesn’t offer any of the customary symptoms of bereavement (simulated tears, screaming, protests of denial, etc.). The social worker who ministers to Didion says of the author: “She’s a pretty cool customer” (15).
Didion: “I wondered what an uncool customer would be allowed to do. Break down? Require sedation? Scream?” (16).
Superficial readers, predictably, mistake her seeming sangfroid for indifference. Yet Didion is hardly apathetic. She takes words too seriously to lapse into maudlin kitsch. If she refuses sentimentalism, it is because she knows that the language of sentimentalism isn’t precise enough. If she refuses to be emotionally effusive, it is because she knows how easily an access of emotion–however genuine–can deteriorate into cliché. If she avoids hysteria, it is because she knows that abreaction is incommunicative. Her sentences are blissfully free of fossilized phrases, vapid slogans that could never do justice to the workings of grief.
Of course, the opposite reaction would bring about censure, as well. Had Didion expressed her grief in histrionic terms, American readers would have asked, rhetorically, “Why can’t she just get over it.” (I deliberately omitted the question mark.) The appropriate response to the death of the beloved is temperate mourning and cool-headedness: “Grieve for a month and then forget about the man with whom you spent nearly forty years of your life! Don’t talk about it anymore after that fixed period; we don’t want to hear about it.”
Philippe Aries in Western Attitudes Toward Death: “A single person is missing for you, and the whole world is empty. But one no longer has the right to say so aloud.”
In place of a tragedy, Didion gives us a sober account of bereavement. What is it like to be bereaved? You will never know until it happens to you. Didion discovers vortices everywhere–centers of gravitation that pull her toward the abyss left by her husband’s death. A new Alcestis, willing to die in the place of her husband, she calls forth his presence, and yet each of these pleas for his presence reinforces the perpetual silence that separates her from him. Self-pity, of course, is inescapable. She becomes “she-whose-husband-has-died.” She defines herself in relation to the absent beloved. When John was alive, she was a younger woman, since she saw herself exclusively through her husband’s eyes. Now that John is dead, she sees herself, for the first time since she was very young, through the eyes of others. Now that John is dead, she no longer knows who she is.
Every one of us is irreplaceable, which is why death is an irretrievable, irreversible, irrecoverable, infinite loss. When the beloved dies, an impassible divide is placed between the survivor and the absent beloved. Didion hears her husband’s voice, and yet this voice is really her own voice resonating within her–a voice that nonetheless makes her own voice possible. Nothing remains for the survivor to do but to turn the dead beloved into dead meat, to substitute for his living presence a tangible object (whether it is a photograph or any form of funerary architecture), to resign oneself to the dead beloved’s non-being. She must accept the transformation of being into nothingness, the movement from everything to nothing, the withering of fullness into boundless emptiness. Writing is one way to fashion an image of the dead man and thus bring to completion the work of mourning. The failure of objectification, according to Freudian psychoanalysis, will lead to melancholia, the infinitization of the Trauerarbeit.
Let them become the photograph on the table.
Let them become the name in the trust accounts.
Let go of them in the water (226).
This is minimalism, of course, but Joan Didion’s minimalism is minimalism in the genuine sense of the word, not the kind of infantilism that most other American writers practice today and which goes by the name of “minimalism.” They confuse scaled-down writing with simplicity; they externalize everything. They write their intentions explicitly on the surface of the page. Didion, on the other hand, attends to the cadences and pregnant silences inherent to the rhythms of speech. She is attuned to the interstices that punctuate articulated speech, that articulate speech, that make speech communicable. What is unsaid is weightier, for Didion, than what is said. She does not express matters directly; she indicates, she points. There is a kind of veering-away from naked being here, a swerving-away from the nullity of death. Joan Didion is far too dignified, far too noble to pretend to bring death to language.
An Analysis of A SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING THAT I WILL NEVER DO AGAIN (David Foster Wallace) by Joseph Suglia
I have written it before, and I will write it again: Writing fictionally was not one of David Foster Wallace’s gifts. His métier was, perhaps, mathematics. David Foster Wallace was a talented theorist of mathematics, it is possible (I am unqualified to judge one’s talents in the field of mathematics), but an absolutely dreadful writer of ponderous fictions (I am qualified to judge one’s talents in the field of literature).
Wallace’s essay aggregate A Supposedly Fun Thing that I Will Never Do Again (1997) is worth reading, if one is an undiscriminating reader, but it also contains a number of vexing difficulties that should be addressed. I will focus here upon the two essays to which I was most attracted: “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” and “David Lynch Keeps His Head,” a conspectus on the director’s cinema from Eraserhead (1977) until Lost Highway (1997). Wallace seems unaware of Lynch’s work before 1977.
In “E Unibus Pluram,” Wallace warmly defends the Glass Teat in the way that only an American can. He sees very little wrong with television, other than the fact that it can become, in his words, a “malignant addiction,” which does not imply, as Wallace takes pains to remind us, that it is “evil” or “hypnotizing” (38). Perish the thought!
Wallace exhorts American writers to watch television. Not merely should those who write WATCH television, Wallace contends; they should ABSORB television. Here is Wallace’s inaugural argument (I will attempt to imitate his prose):
1.) Writers of fiction are creepy oglers.
2.) Television allows creepy, ogling fiction writers to spy on Americans and draw material from what they see.
3.) Americans who appear on television know that they are being seen, so this is scopophilia, but not voyeurism in the classical sense. [Apparently, one is spying on average Americans when one watches actors and actresses on American television.]
4.) For this reason, writers can spy without feeling uncomfortable and without feeling that what they’re doing is morally problematic.
Wallace: “If we want to know what American normality is – i.e. what Americans want to regard as normal – we can trust television… [W]riters can have faith in television” (22).
“Trust what is familiar!” in other words. “Embrace what is in front of you!” to paraphrase. Most contemporary American writers grew up in the lambent glow of the cathode-ray tube, and in their sentences the reader can hear the jangle and buzz of television. David Foster Wallace was wrong. No, writers should NOT trust television. No, they should NOT have faith in the televisual eye, the eye that is seen but does not see. The language of television has long since colonized the minds of contemporary American writers, which is likely why David Foster Wallace, Chuck Klosterman, and Jonathan Safran Foer cannot focus on a single point for more than a paragraph, why Thomas Pynchon’s clownish, jokey dialogue sounds as if it were culled from Gilligan’s Island, and why Don DeLillo’s portentous, pathos-glutted dialogue sounds as if it were siphoned from Dragnet.
There are scattershot arguments here, the most salient one being that postmodern fiction canalizes televisual waste. That is my phrasing, not Wallace’s. Wallace writes, simply and benevolently, that television and postmodern fiction “share roots” (65). He appears to be suggesting that they both sprang up at exactly the same time. They did not, of course. One cannot accept Wallace’s argument without qualification. To revise his thesis: Postmodern fiction–in particular, the writings of Leyner, DeLillo, Pynchon, Barth, Apple, Barthelme, and David Foster Wallace–is inconceivable outside of a relation to television. But what would the ontogenesis of postmodern fiction matter, given that these fictions are anemic, execrably written, sickeningly smarmy, cloyingly self-conscious, and/or forgettable?
It did matter to Wallace, since he was a postmodernist fictionist. Let me enlarge an earlier statement. Wallace is suggesting (this is my interpretation of his words): “Embrace popular culture, or be embraced by popular culture!” The first pose is that of a hipster; the second pose is that of the Deluded Consumer. It would be otiose to claim that Wallace was not a hipster, when we are (mis)treated by so many hipsterisms, such as: “So then why do I get the in-joke? Because I, the viewer, outside the glass with the rest of the Audience, am IN on the in-joke” (32). Or, in a paragraph in which he nods fraternally to the “campus hipsters” (76) who read him and read (past tense) Leyner: “We can resolve the problem [of being trapped in the televisual aura] by celebrating it. Transcend feelings of mass-defined angst [sic] by genuflecting to them. We can be reverently ironic” (Ibid.). Again, he appears to be implying: “Embrace popular culture, or be embraced by popular culture!” That is your false dilemma. If you want others to think that you are special (every hipster’s secret desire), watch television with a REVERENT IRONY. Wallace’s hipper-than-thou sanctimoniousness is smeared over every page.
Now let me turn to the Lynch essay, the strongest in the collection. There are several insightful remarks here, particularly Wallace’s observation that Lynch’s cinema has a “clear relation” (197) to Abstract Expressionism and the cinema of German Expressionism. There are some serious weaknesses and imprecisions, as well.
Wallace: “Except now for Richard Pryor, has there ever been even like ONE black person in a David Lynch movie? … I.e. why are Lynch’s movies all so white? … The likely answer is that Lynch’s movies are essentially apolitical” (189).
To write that there are no black people in Lynch’s gentrified neighborhood is to display one’s ignorance. The truth is that at least one African-American appeared in the Lynchian universe before Lost Highway: Gregg Dandridge, who is very much an African-American, played Bobbie Ray Lemon in Wild at Heart (1990). Did Wallace never see this film? How could Wallace have forgotten the opening cataclysm, the cataclysmic opening of Wild at Heart? Who could forget Sailor Ripley slamming Bobbie Ray Lemon’s head against a staircase railing and then against a floor until his head bursts, splattering like a splitting pomegranate?
To say that Lynch’s films are apolitical is to display one’s innocence. No work of art is apolitical, because all art is political. How could Wallace have missed Lynch’s heartlandish downhomeness? How could he have failed to notice Lynch’s repulsed fascination with the muck and the slime, with the louche underworld that lies beneath the well-trimmed lawns that line Lynch’s suburban streets? And how could he have failed to draw a political conclusion, a political inference, from this repulsed fascination, from this fascinated repulsion?
Let me commend these essays to the undiscriminating reader, as unconvincing as they are. Everything collected here is nothing if not badly written, especially “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All,” a hipsterish pamphlet about Midwestern state fairs that would not have existed were it not for David Byrne’s True Stories (1986), both the film and the book. It is my hope that David Foster Wallace will someday be remembered as the talented mathematician he perhaps was and not as the brilliant fictioneer he certainly was not.
I PREFER NOT TO MISINTERPRET Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street”
by Dr. Joseph Suglia
One of the most common misinterpretations of Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” is that it is a story about writing. (See Leo Marx’s unjustly influential 1953 essay “Melville’s Parable of the Walls.”) Bartleby, according to this falsification, is a figure for the Writer. Whatever Bartleby experiences, then, would be whatever the Writer experiences.
Those who set forth this erroneous interpretation must answer the following: If Bartleby is a figure for the Writer, why does he never actually write? Only a watery understanding of the word writing would encompass what Bartleby does. He copies; he does not write. He does not produce anything original; he is a replicator. He is no more a genuine writer than a Subway sandwich artist is a genuine artist.
Not only does Bartleby never write. He does not even seem to read. The lawyer says of Bartleby: “I had never seen him read—no, not even a newspaper.”
And why would Bartleby be a figure for the Writer and not the other copyists in the office? Why would Turkey not be the symbolic expression of the Writer in the story? Why not Nippers? Turkey and Nippers do the same thing that Bartleby does: They copy contracts and deeds for pay.
One might rejoin that Bartleby represents all poetic writers. There are indeed references to poeticism in the text. John Jacob Astor, the lawyer’s symbolic father, is said to be “a personage little given to poetic enthusiasm”; Byron is called “mettlesome” by the anti-poetic lawyer; the view from within the artless lawyer’s office is described as “deficient in what landscape painters call ‘life,'” and so forth. To say that Bartleby represents all poetic writers—and not every writer in the world—would be to engage in the “No True Scotsman” fallacy, but we can put that aside for the moment.
There is a more urgent problem with this argument: If Bartleby represents all poetic writers and the ostracism and martyrdom of all poetic writers, why does he stop copying in the third act of the story? Surely, a poetic writer is someone who never ceases to write poetically, someone who turns every experience into a writable experience.
“Bartleby, the Scrivener,” then, is not a parable about the Writer or about Writing. What is the story about?
“Bartleby, the Scrivener,” in the first place, is the story of a copyist at a lawyer’s office who reproduces documents, but resists, with gentle dignity, doing anything other than reproducing documents.
Too many readers have overlooked the fact that Bartleby is the ideal employee. He does exactly what he is paid to do. Indeed, he does his work with excessive dedication and never seems to step outside of the office (before his forcible eviction): “I observed that he never went to dinner; indeed, that he never went anywhere… he was always there.” He works to the limit: “He ran a day and night line, copying by sun-light and by candle-light.” He does not do anything, however, that he is not paid to do. This is why Bartleby is disinclined–prefers not–to examine his own copies, why he is disinclined to bring letters to the post office, why he is disinclined to fetch Nippers, etc. Whenever the lawyer asks him to do anything other than copy contracts and deeds, the response is always the same: “I prefer not to” or “I would prefer not to.” Whenever impressed upon to perform even the simplest of errands, Bartleby states his non-preference—passively, reactively—from a place of hidden privilege and gentle condescension. The literalization of his job description, Bartleby resists performing duties outside of his job description with a painful politeness.
One must be careful not to read the slogan “I prefer not to” / “I would prefer not to” as a refusal or declination. Bartleby’s slogan is not a “No”-saying. It is a form of “passive resistance.” It is a slippery slogan. It is a way of hovering over the categories of “Yes” and “No”–a linguistic trapeze act.
The “Sunday episode” is the crux of the story. One Sunday morning, the lawyer goes to Trinity Church to hear a “celebrated preacher.” Arriving rather early, he decides to kill time before the sermon starts by walking to his office. Unable to open the door, he struggles with the lock. The door opens, and Bartleby appears, his lean visage thrusting at the lawyer. The lawyer slinks away, servilely accepting the apparition of Bartleby (the term “apparition” is used, evoking the spectral character of Bartleby). One of the effects of this episode is evidence that there is absolutely no division between the private and the professional for Bartleby. This point—the erasure of the distinction between the private and the professional—is reinforced later in the text, when the lawyer invites Bartleby to stay with him at the former’s home.
Bartleby destabilizes the office by being the perfect employee. He hyper-agrees with the terms of the office. He over-adheres to the policies of the office. Soon, his keyword prefer spreads throughout the office as if it were a vicious linguistic virus. Every adult in the office—the lawyer, Nippers, Turkey—soon finds himself using the word prefer.
Bartleby is the perfect copyist—and this is what unsettles the lawyer’s once-imperturbable placidity and is what robs the lawyer of his virility (the lawyer is “unmanned” by Bartleby, de-manified by Bartleby). Bartleby perfectly identifies with his professional role as a duplicator—and thus subverts the profession with which he perfectly identifies. He copies the office and thus undermines the office.
The point to be made is that Bartleby over-agrees with his job description. He exaggerates and affirms his position to the point of absurdity, throwing the office into chaos and driving his employer to madness. The logic of hyper-agreement is why Kierkegaard is an enemy of Christianity. Kierkegaard was such a hyper-Christian, endorsing Christianity with such fervidness, that he made being a Christian a nearly impossible state of being. Kierkegaard’s hyper-agreement with Christianity, his fervid endorsement of Christianity, means the undoing of Christianity for many readers. Nietzsche, on the other hand, who ferociously hammered Christianity, is, paradoxically, Christianity’s friend.
This is not to say that Bartleby endorses the ideology of the office. Bartleby is a rebel, to be sure, but he is a quiet rebel. If he were a raging lunatic (think of “The Lightning-Rod Man”), Bartleby would be dismissible. His commanding calmness is the reason that the lawyer is overthrown by his employee: “Indeed, it was his wonderful mildness chiefly, which not only disarmed me, but unmanned me as it were.” Bartleby is a quiet rebel whose quiet rebellion takes the form of relentless passivity. At the core of his passivity is an active dimension. He is actively passive, pushing the terms active and passive beyond their usual significations. His weakness is an unconquerable strength, to channel Duras. He is emblematic of “passive resistance”–and in these words, one should hear resonating the words of that other great American, Henry David Thoreau: “civil disobedience.”
What, then, is “Bartleby, the Scrivener” actually about?
The work is a critique of Evil America in the nineteenth century–an America in which too much of everything is dehumanizing Business. Bartleby is a Christ within the world of nineteenth-century American capitalism, but he is not a self-negating Christ. [Note: Much in the way that Peter denies Jesus, the lawyer denies Bartleby.] The “I” is the most important word in the slogan, “I prefer not to” / “I would prefer not to.” (Deleuze’s word is “formula.”) “I prefer not to” is the assertion of subjectivity against the impersonal and anonymous space of the office, the imposition of subjectivity on the desubjectified world of exchange.
Reading “Bartleby, the Scrivener” in twenty-first-century America is a defamiliarizing experience. These days, any employee who asserted, “I prefer not to” would be sent to Human Resources for immediate termination. We live in a culture of compliance and submission, of obeisance to managerial authority (compliance is a word that is used in the text: “natural expectancy of immediate compliance”). Now, Bartleby does, in fact, participate in the capitalist world of nineteenth-century America, yet his compliance is a kind of conditional compliance, his submission to authority is submission on his own terms, his acceptance of the world of exchange is a conditional acceptance. His patrician passive-aggressive preferences-not-to are ways of saying, “I will do whatever I please, but nothing other than what I please.” This is Americanism, to be sure, but the Americanism of Thomas Paine and the other Founding Fathers, not the Americanism of the bureaucrats.
Bartleby exists on the boundary of capitalism. A Christ in Evil America, he is deathly, from the other side of life, former and current employee of the Dead Letter Office in Washington. This is why Bartleby is iteratively described as “cadaverous” in this text (three times), an “apparition” (twice), and a “ghost” (twice). He is dead and yet present; he is in the capitalist world and yet not of the capitalist world.
Dr. Joseph Suglia