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