SELECTED ESSAYS AND SQUIBS by Joseph Suglia

 

SELECTED ESSAYS AND SQUIBS by Joseph Suglia

My novel TABLE 41

My Guide to English Usage

My YouTube Channel

Table of Contents

SQUIBS

I Renounce All My Early Books and Writings

Aphorisms on Modesty, Fashion, Libertarianism, Life, Criticism, Psychoanalysis, and Education

My Favorite Writers, My Favorite Music, My Favorite Films

The Most Important Video You Will Ever Watch

Three Aperçus: On DEADPOOL (2016), David Foster Wallace, and Beauty

Three Aperçus: THE NEON DEMON (2016) and Envy

On Bob Dylan Being Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016

The Red Pig Asian Kitchen

Happy Father’s Day: Or, Chopo Chicken

Analogy Blindness: I Invented a Linguistic Term

Polyptoton: Greg Gutfeld

Two Haiku

David Foster Wallace and Macaulay Culkin: Three Aperçus

On the Distinction between the flaneur and the boulevardier

Ordering a Pizza at the Standard Market Grill in Lincoln Park

PRIVATE: Jimmy Carter

THE NIETZSCHE COMMENTARIES

Commentary on HUMAN, ALL-TOO-HUMAN / MENSCHLICHES, ALLZUMENSCHLICHES: Was Nietzsche an Atheist? – Was Nietzsche a Misogynist? – Sam Harris’s Unspoken Indebtedness to Nietzsche

Commentary on Nietzsche’s DAYBREAK / MORGENRÖTHE: GEDANKEN ÜBER DIE MORALISCHEN VORURTHEILE

OVERESTIMATING / UNDERESTIMATING SHAKESPEARE

VOLUME ONE: THE COMEDIES AND PROBLEM PLAYS

THE TEMPEST

THE TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA

THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR

MEASURE FOR MEASURE

THE COMEDY OF ERRORS

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING

LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM

THE MERCHANT OF VENICE

AS YOU LIKE IT

THE TAMING OF THE SHREW

ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL

TWELFTH NIGHT, OR, WHAT YOU WILL

THE WINTER’S TALE

VOLUME TWO: THE TRAGEDIES

THE TRAGEDY OF OTHELLO, THE MOOR OF VENICE

PHILLIPICS

When Did Writing Stop Having to Do with Writing?: Mark Z. Danielewski’s THE HOUSE OF LEAVES

Quentin Tarantino Is an Anti-Black Racist

California Über Alles: Quentin Tarantino’s INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009)

Against “Bizarro” Fiction

On FIGHT CLUB by “Chuck” Palahniuk

On STRANGER THAN FICTION by “Chuck” Palahniuk

On RANT by “Chuck” Palahniuk

On SNUFF by “Chuck” Palahniuk

On TELL-ALL by “Chuck” Palahniuk

On DAMNED by “Chuck” Palahniuk

Fifty Shades of Error: “Chuck” Palahniuk’s BEAUTIFUL YOU

Slap Something Together: “Chuck” Palahniuk’s MAKE SOMETHING UP: STORIES YOU CAN’T UNREAD

On ONLY REVOLUTIONS by Mark Z. Danielewski

On THE HISTORY OF LOVE by Nicole Krauss

On THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST by Mel Gibson

On THE ROAD by Cormac McCarthy

On EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED by Jonathan Safran Foer

On EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE by Jonathan Safran Foer

On EATING ANIMALS by Jonathan Safran Foer

Writing with Scissors: Jonathan Safran Foer’s TREE OF CODES

On CHRONIC CITY by Jonathan Lethem

On BLINK by Malcolm Gladwell

On OUTLIERS by Malcolm Gladwell

On A HOLOGRAM FOR THE KING by Dave Eggers

On YOUR FATHERS, WHERE ARE THEY? AND YOUR PROPHETS, DO THEY LIVE FOREVER? by Dave Eggers

On MIN KAMP / MY STRUGGLE, Volume One by Karl Ove Knausgaard

On MIN KAMP / MY STRUGGLE, Volume Two by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Against the Writings of David Foster Wallace, Part One: OBLIVION

Against the Writings of David Foster Wallace, Part Two: A SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING THAT I WILL NEVER DO AGAIN

Against the Writings of David Foster Wallace, Part Three: BOTH FLESH AND NOT

Against the Writings of David Foster Wallace, Part Four: CONSIDER THE LOBSTER

Against the Writings of David Foster Wallace, Part Five: INFINITE JEST

On THE FIFTY-YEAR SWORD by Mark Z. Danielewski

On FREEDOM by Jonathan Franzen

On WHY YOU SHOULD READ KAFKA BEFORE YOU WASTE YOUR LIFE by James Hawes

On THE LOVELY BONES by Alice Sebold

On DERMAPHORIA by Craig Clevenger

On THE CONTORTIONIST’S HANDBOOK by Craig Clevenger

Girl Gone Rogue: Concerning Sarah Palin

MORE LITERARY AND CINEMATIC CRITICISM

Corregidora / Corrigenda

I Prefer Not to Misinterpret: Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street”

So Long, Planet Earth!: Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind”

Keats and the Power of the Negative: On “La Belle Dame sans Merci”

On “Eveline” by James Joyce

On “The Horse Dealer’s Daughter” by D.H. Lawrence

Why I Can’t Stand Georges Bataille

On WOMEN by Charles Bukowski

On FAT GIRL / A MA SOEUR by Catherine Breillat

On NOSFERATU by Werner Herzog

On CORREGIDORA by Gayl Jones

On ROBERTE CE SOIR and THE REVOCATION OF THE EDICT OF NANTES by Pierre Klossowski

Escape from Utopia: Bret Easton Ellis

On GILES GOAT-BOY by John Barth

On LIPSTICK JUNGLE by Candace Bushnell

On IRREVERSIBLE by Gaspar Noe

On IN MEMORIAM TO IDENTITY by Kathy Acker

On O, DEMOCRACY! by Kathleen Rooney

On STUCK by Steve Balderson

On THE CASSEROLE CLUB by Steve Balderson

On THE YELLOW WALLPAPER by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

The Trace of the Father

On VICTOR/VICTORIA by Blake Edwards

On STEPS by Jerzy Kosinski

On EVEN COWGIRLS GET THE BLUES by Tom Robbins

On V. by Thomas Pynchon

On A SPY IN THE HOUSE OF LOVE by Anaïs Nin

On MAO II by Don DeLillo

On ROBINSON ALONE by Kathleen Rooney

Dennis Cooper and the Demystification of Love

On THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY by Erik Larson

On EVEN DWARFS STARTED SMALL by Werner Herzog

On CRASH by J.G. Ballard

On A YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING by Joan Didion

Slap Something Together: Sixteen Bad Sentences from Chuck Palahniuk’s MAKE SOMETHING UP: STORIES YOU CAN’T UNREAD

 

Slap Something Together: Sixteen Bad Sentences from Chuck Palahniuk’s MAKE SOMETHING UP: STORIES YOU CAN’T UNREAD
by Joseph Suglia

1.) MAKE SOMETHING UP: STORIES YOU CAN’T UNREAD

Every work of fiction is, by definition, something that is “made up.” The word fiction is derived from the Latin fictio, which means “to fashion,” “to craft.” If psychoanalysis has taught us anything, its lesson is that nothing that has been read can be unread. The title of the book contains a redundancy and a statement of the obvious. Or a statement that would be obvious to even a slightly educated person. The book would have been better titled SLAP SOMETHING TOGETHER: STORIES NO THINKING PERSON SHOULD EVER READ.

2.) “My old man, he makes everything into a Big Joke” [1].

Elementary-school children learn that double subjects are bad grammar. chuckpalahniuk, who is fifty-three years old as I write these words, is still unaware of this fact. There is nothing wrong with appositives, but this is not an appositive: “My old man, he” is a double subject. The use of the double subject is not merely ungrammatical; it is irritating and unnecessary. And why capitalize “big joke,” if it is preceded by an indefinite article?

3.) “Me, I didn’t get it” [2].

No literate person begins a sentence with a double subject. Nor does he or she begin sentences with objective pronouns.

4.) “Me, my teachers still haven’t covered long division and all the multiple-cation tables so it’s not my old man’s fault I don’t know what’s ‘c**’” [3].

One might claim that the narrator is a child and would not know the proper spelling of multiplication, but the narrator is identified as a “grown-up son” on the fourth page.

5.) “This Stage Four cancer guy forces himself to laugh nonstop at Abbott and Costello and Laurel and Hardy and those Marx brothers, and he gets healed by the end-orphans [sic] and oxy-generated [sic] blood” [4].

Even though the misspellings are purposeful, only someone with brain damage would write in such a manner. There are purposeful misspellings in the writing of Anita Loos, but none is witless. chuckpalahniuk is capable of nothing but witlessisms.

6.) “The bartender smiles so nice and says, ‘What? You don’t like Michelob no more?’” [5].

That should read “so nicely,” of course; the Chuckies and the Chuckettes have the tendency to confuse adverbs and adjectives. “So nice” is chuckpalahniuk’s ham-fisted way of trying to make his narrator (and himself) appear charming. Unhappily, chuckpalahniuk is not merely charmless; he is uncharmable. This sentence, incidentally, occurs toward the end of a rape joke. I would defend to the death the right of writers to describe whatever they please, but anyone who finds rape amusing is either a sociopath or a psychopath. The unenviable readers of BEAUTIFUL YOU already know that chuckpalahniuk finds rape a fit subject for humor. chuckpalahniuk’s approach to the sexual violation of women is both slapdash and slaphappy. It is a distasteful quality in the writer and not a little insane.

7.) “The old man’s gasping his big toothless mouth like he can’t get enough air, crying big tears down the wrinkles of both cheeks, just soaking his pillow” [6].

While it is the case that to gasp may be a transitive verb, the mouth is what is doing the gasping. People might gasp, but they do not “gasp their mouths.” “Like” is used conjunctionally, and the sentence is a non-parallel construction. A less analphabetic way of writing the sentence would be: “The old man is gasping through his big toothless mouth, as if he couldn’t get enough air, crying big tears that stream down the wrinkles of both cheeks and soak his pillow.”

8.) “And he’s STILL dying, the old man’s leaving me not knowing the answer to anything. He’s abandoning me while I’m still so f***ing stupid” [7].

Ignorance is not stupidity. Ignorance is the absence of knowledge, whereas stupidity is the inability to process ideas. chuckpalahniuk thinks that stupidity and ignorance are interchangeable and that “stupidity” comes and goes. In the case of chuckpalahniuk, however, stupidity is a chronic condition.

9.) “The old goobers stop chewing on their tobacco” [8].

Educated people know that to chew means “to bite on” and that “to chew on” is therefore an analphabetism. The sentence should read: “The old goobers [if one must use that idiotic pseudo-word] stop chewing their tobacco.”

10.) “And finally one old barbershop codger, he says in barely a tobacco whisper, so soft you can hardly hear him, he asks, ‘Who’s there?’” [9].

While it is true that smoking can degrade the vocal system, “tobacco whisper” is an asinine coinage. Perhaps one of chuckpalahniuk’s disciples could write a teleplay entitled TOBACCO WHISPERER, modeled on the Jennifer Love Hewitt vehicle GHOST WHISPERER. Notice that two subjects are not enough for the pseudo-author chuckpalahniuk. He adds a third.

11.) “In grocery stores or department stores, Monkey offered cubes of sausage skewered with toothpicks” [18].

To whom, precisely, did Monkey offer cubes of sausages skewered with toothpicks? Does the narrator not know in which realms Monkey offered cubes of sausages skewered with toothpicks? The phrase should read, “grocery stores AND department stores,” not “grocery stores OR department stores,” unless the narrator is unaware of the kind of spaces in which Monkey offered cubes of sausages skewered with toothpicks.

12.) “Monkey offered dollops of apple pie served in tiny paper cups, or paper napkins cradling sample bites of tofu” [Ibid.].

This is a railway accident of a sentence. A dollop is a small amount of soft food, and yet the crust of apple pie, as every infant knows, is hard. Commas should not be used to separate dependent clauses, and “sample bites” is tautological.

13.) “Monkey hadn’t noticed at first, perhaps her nose had been blunted by selling perfume and cigarettes, but the cheese smelled disgusting” [20].

If Monkey’s actual nose had been blunted, this could mean that Monkey had an aquiline nose that had been flattened in the act of selling perfume and cigarettes.

14.) “Yet all night Monkey lay awake in bed, listening to Rabbit doing it with Mink in the next motel room, and fretting that, despite her advanced degree in Communications, she’d be stuck below a glass ceiling, getting sniffed by Moose for the rest of her career” [21].

Though I suppose it is possible that rabbit couple with mink, it seems unlikely, given that rabbit are lagomorphs and mink belong to the weasel family. Do I really need to point out that “glass ceiling” is a mind-deflating cliché?

15.) “In Miss Chen’s English class, we learned, ‘To be or not to be…’ but there’s a big gray area in between. Maybe in Shakespeare times people only had two options” [29].

chuckpalahniuk appears to have stumbled into someone else’s interesting idea that being is not an absolute concept. Indeed, transitional forms between being and nonbeing are thinkable. Perhaps holograms and other forms of virtualization exist between being and nonbeing. After this ill-worded yet provocative suggestion, chuckpalahniuk, predictably, writes about something entirely different: “Griffin Wilson, he knew that the SATs were just the gateway to a big lifetime of b*******.” chuckpalahniuk is like a stupefied bumpkin who gapes at an idea that is too profound for him and then quickly diverts his attention to the Chick-fil-A across the street. “Shakespeare” is a dolt’s only reference point to “the past,” as “Hitler” is a dolt’s only reference point to “evil.” chuckpalahniuk’s condescension is astounding. The difference between chuckpalahniuk and Shakespeare is analogous to the difference between a puddle of fermented wolverine urine and the Atlantic Ocean.

16.) “The problem with being Talented And Gifted is sometimes you get ***too smart***” [29].

To unmuddle some of the confusions of this utterance: “Talented” and “gifted” should not be separated, and there is absolutely no reason to capitalize “and.” In the squalid wastelands of Mr. Palahniuk’s Planet, intelligence is regarded as a vice and stupidity is regarded as a virtue. This explains the writer’s appeal to high-school stoners of all ages.

17.) Every book by chuckpalahniuk is a frognado of idiocy.

Dr. Joseph Suglia

David Foster Wallace Is a Bad Writer: Part One: OBLIVION

A review of Oblivion by David Foster Wallace

When I was in graduate school, I was (mis-)taught literature by a man who had no ear for poetic language and 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” [6]. 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 — but 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 inA 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” takes its title from Richard Rorty’s misguided polemic against representationalism (the 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…” [183]. 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 never read his own sentences, he never knew how awkward they sounded. Infinite Jest was written hastily and unreflectively, without serious editing or revision. 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, must it not be said that responsible writers ought to ALWAYS 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.

Dr. Joseph Suglia

My entire novel TABLE 41 is available on this Web page

My entire novel Table 41 is available on this Web page.

Here is a Table of Contents for Table 41.

Dedication and Acknowledgements

Table One

Table Two

Table Three

Table Four

Table Five

Table Six

Table Seven

Table Eight

Table Nine

Table Ten

Table Eleven

Table Twelve

Table Thirteen

Table Fourteen

Table Fifteen

Table Sixteen

Table Seventeen

Table Eighteen

Table Nineteen

Table Twenty

Table Twenty-One

Table Twenty-Two

Table Twenty-Three

Table Twenty-Four

Table Twenty-Five

Table Twenty-Six

Table Twenty-Seven

Table Twenty-Eight

Table Twenty-Nine

Table Thirty

Table Thirty-One

Table Thirty-Two

Table Thirty-Three

Table Thirty-Four

Table Thirty-Five

Table Thirty-Six

Table Thirty-Seven

Table Thirty-Eight

Table Thirty-Nine

Table Forty

Table Forty-One

I PREFER NOT TO MISINTERPRET / Dr. Joseph Suglia on “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” by Herman Melville

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. 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 a “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. Soon, his keyword prefer spreads throughout the office like 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 placidity and robs him of his virility (the lawyer is “unmanned” 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 Bartleby were a raging lunatic (think of “The Lightning-Rod Man”), he 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. 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” 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, but the Americanism of Thomas Paine and the other Founding Fathers, not the Americanism of 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