Stand Your Ground {Two}

Anders Clausen

“Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance.”

Next in the line-up of Revolutiuonary Literature is Herman Melville’s marvelous novella, “Bartleby, The Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street.” It is immediately remarkable, as you will discover. Melville pulls us into the office of legal copyists in Wall Street circa ohhh 1830’s! You will never, in all your days, forget the character of Bartleby; the young martyr without an apparant cause, the silent rebel who’d had enough, the original Wall-Street occupier who stood his ground to the very end.

“I would prefer not to” Bartelby says like a mantra and he resolutely ‘prefers not to’ do anything. Bartelby literally stands his ground, giving no other explanation, much to the perplexity of the Wall Street lawyers that have to step around him and his good-natured employer (our expressive narrator). The stocks are soaring, day after day, a corporate circus swirls around Bartelby and the stakes are raised – how long will he persist in this vagrancy and at what costs? This is a theme of critical importance: Sovereignty, because it is a revolutionary quality in itself. It doesn’t matter what le raison d’etre [reason to be] is, Bartelby has made up his mind and there is no external factor which can influence him one way or the other; not by sympathy, bribery, or threat of force – his resolve remains unchanged, his features blank. There is something very zen about this, no? It is instantly admirable, and what we admire so much about Bartelby is that he is incorruptible, he simply won’t be manipulated. He sticks out precisely for standing up and he’s unforgettable because he remains unswayed. Consider your own ‘Soveriegnty’ reader? Are you so resolute as to inspire, perplex, or frighten others?

The prose is luscious, Melville at his keenest, entwining plenty of playful humor with dramatic gravity. The effect is a clean narrative that charms, that challenges, and endures…

“But he [Bartelby] seemed alone, absolutely alone in the universe. A bit of wreck in the mid Atlantic. At length, necessities connected with my business tyrannized over all other considerations. Decently as I could, I told Bartelby that in six days’ time he must unconditionally leave the office.”

Note Melville’s adroit transitions: from that image of existential remoteness, he abruptly pulls us back from the edge, lyrically addresses the present and mundane, then follows with a firm eviction notice. Don’t blame the employer too harshly, for Bartelby is a puzzle to his own earnesty, and acts as a kind of grinding-stone to open the narrator’s compassion…

“His poverty is great; but his solitude, how horrible!… For the first time in my life a feeling of overpowering stinging melancholy seized me. Before, I had never experienced aught but a not-unpleasing sadness. The bond of a common humanity now drew me irresistibly to gloom.”

How true, how true, that “the bond of common humanity” draws us “irresistibly to gloom.” Empathy can be such a demanding dictator of the emotions, and in this case, the narrator is willing to offer anything to appease Bartelby… but the man stands, locked firm in his devout, somewhat saintly, abandonment of convictions. “But he answered not a word; like the last column of some ruined temple, he remained standing mute and solitary in the middle of the otherwise deserted room.”

Everything has become pointless to poor Bartelby. Is he a victim or is a protestor? Is he both, and if he protests then what is his message? There are no overt judgments or condemnations of capitalism, there is no cry for socialist reform. Therefore, is it a protest for the sake of protest? Don’t beat your head on a brick wall trying to solve it… Bartelby focuses mostly on the window in the office, which shows the brick wall of the adjacent building. It’s a thematic image, one that is common enough for our age, but if you consider the era in which this was written – the blossoming of America’s Industrial Age – then you can imagine that the novelty of brick walls may have been paired with an ominous, impending sense of spiritual containment – what Bartelby may as well be gazing at is a reflection: the oppresive nature of industrialization sprawled out with him in the inescapable center of it all (Wall Street).

At the end of the story (SPOLER ALERT), Bartelby is incarcerated in Sing Sing, and spends all of his time in the yard, alone in a corner, regarding the brick wall. The narrator visits him and implors Bartleby “this should not be so vile a place. Nothing reproachful attaches to you by being here. And see, it is not so sad a place as one might think. Look, there is the sky, and here is the grass.” But Bartelby is having none of it… “I know where I am” he says and continues to stare at the walls which imprison him. Is this a state of ‘infused contemplation’ in which Bartelby has already transcended this prison? He’s not too far gone that he doesn’t notice where he is, but he also seems to be somewhere else. The narrator’s final visit to the prison, finds Bartelby lying dead with his eyes open. Death does not make Bartelby ‘Free’, it’s easy for anyone to see that his perspective has already him ‘Free’, and that his Death is merely a kind of sleeping. The final lines of the story alludes to this theme that Bartelby was ‘dying in life’ but ‘dreaming in paradise’.

“Won’t he dine to-day? Or does he live without dining?”

“Lives without dining,” said I and closed his eyes.

“Eh! – He’s asleep, ain’t he?”

“With kings and counselors,” murmured I.

Consider the value of your own soveriegnty. Try to imagine a world in which everyone acted as Bartelby did, unwavering in their convictions (or lack thereof). How would the governments assume to control everything if every individual was as resolute and incorruptible as Bartelby? Is there more virtue in ‘making a stand’ or in ‘being another brick in the wall?’ If you were to make a list, what are some things to you would ‘prefer not to’ do? Be careful, y’see…

Very dangerous thinking, indeed.

One response

  1. Cody-
    Excellent piece on Bartleby! I love your argument for passive resistance and hadn’t though of that until you first brought it up in class. I wonder…have you ever thought that there may be an argument for Bartleby being a ghost? This idea was recently brought up to me by another English major…

    11/19/2013 at 16:48

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