09 February 2013

Bartleby the Scrivener (Herman Melville)

Once again, I'm missing book club--just not up to snow-trudging, y'know? Sorry to miss a discussion of "Bartleby the Scrivener," the weirdest, trolling-est bit of classic lit ever. (This time around, I think maybe Bartleby's a ghost? Why not?) In lieu of new thoughts, I herewith present my favorite essay from my grad school days, entitled "Scrivening."

English 800
Dr. Brooks
(aw, Dr. Brooks, wearer of beer-and-pretzel socks)
6 December 2004

Plato, in his Phaedrus, asserts his mistrust of the written word and his preference for spoken dialectic. A book’s inert ideas, he argues, can only be rhetorically questioned, while a Socratic figure in the flesh can be poked, prodded, and cajoled and can poke, prod, and cajole in turn. Since the dialogue itself, however, comes down in manuscript form, Plato’s dislike for the method ultimately rings hollow, and modern scholars reverse his hierarchy. No texts, no literature, claim critics; they dismiss verbal rhetoric as merely a short-lived version of the enduring power of the pen. That even the great Shakespeare intended most of his words to be declaimed rather than printed fails to make a dent in the press’s primacy. Despite this nearly universal prejudice, Herman Melville’s darkly comic masterpiece “Bartleby the Scrivener” fiercely indicts its own endeavor by means of a dangerous theme: there is no such thing, the story concludes, as an original text. All stories become, as Nietzsche said of the readings of them, only interpretation.

“Bartleby” itself, however, defies interpretation. Stylistically, Melville "had great difficulties with control. His modes had been erratic mixtures of narrative, drama, sermon, oration, and lyric poetry. He had had trouble maintaining a consistent omniscient or first person narrator point of view; he had allowed himself digressions in his own voice. His tone had been erratic also, and not always in a functional way; contemplative, detached, satirical . . . lyric, bombastic, and personal" (Plumstead 85). “Bartleby”’s shuttling between mundane (the mind-numbing routine of a law office) and absurd (an attorney’s illogical unwillingness to remove an wayward employee), hilarious (Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut) and heartrending (Bartleby), certainly exemplifies its author’s lack of control—or, it could be easily argued, his immense control of a wide variety of styles. They amount to the same thing. In addition, “Bartleby” marked Melville’s first published foray into the short story—a genre favored by his idol Nathaniel Hawthorne and his contemporary Edgar Allan Poe—which meant “[h]e must now exercise tight control on wordiness and lyricism not pertinent to a single effect. He must not intrude with digressions” (Plumstead 86). Without further analyzing “Bartleby”’s structure and diction, the reader should remember Melville’s failure to achieve formal coherence and the many influences of his writings.

The work also lacks thematic coherence, to the point where few agree on what “Bartleby” is “about.” Here I must thank Henry A. Murray for, in the opening address of the Melville Society of America’s 1965 symposium on “Bartleby,” skillfully, thoroughly, and wittily collecting the wide-ranging opinions of the narrator, the psychologist, the author, the scrivener, the biographer, two dissenting critics, and the historian upon the narrative at hand, after asserting to begin with that “Bartleby per se is meaningless so long as no reader can either discover or drive a bit of sense in him” (3). In the same essay, he evinces a very Derrida-like sense of play as he riffs off of the word “I” in his title, “weav[ing] around this first person pronoun an entangling spider’s web of recondite allusions and insinuations” (Murray 3), suggesting that it may mean the narrator; Murray himself; Melville; punning on “I” as the organ of sight, "the Evil Eye? or, let us say, the Eye of History? or the Eye of Criticism? or maybe the Eye of some special cult or doctrine—theosophy, Marxism, Freudian infantology, Jungian archetypology, existentialism, Zen Buddhism—. . . . [or] the Documentary Eye, say, of the biographer, of the critic or historian" (Murray 4). A novella which allows for this kind of critical flexibility—dare I say, undecideability—contains very little that is fixed. As Lewis Leary puts it, “[this] small tale which might be thought to be about almost nothing at all has become a universal reflector” (14). While Bartleby’s silence and the wall at which he stares seem to represent stony permanence, the story containing them moves quickly and fluidly.

Similarly, Bartleby’s character resists classification. Murray’s cast of characters refer to him variously as “utterly misanthropic,” “Christ-like,” exhibiting symptoms of “catatonic schizophrenia,” and mirroring the author himself, counting “an enormous major difference and thirteen minor similarities between Melville and his scrivener” (10, 13, 24, 23). Other critics compare him to the heroes of Camus, Kafka, and Beckett, the latter having given up on Godot. To Maurice Friedman, Bartleby represents the Modern Exile, who “sees death as the final term of absurdity set to his own attempts at a meaningful existence” (78); whereas in William Bysshe Stein’s opinion, Melville “unobtrusively convert[s] Bartleby into the lawyer’s [Christian] conscience” (106). Rarely have so many contradictions arisen in the discussion of a single persona.

Yet all of these far-flung critical approaches fail to grasp the scope of Melville’s editorial project in “Bartleby.” The act around which the story centers—Bartleby’s repeated, ever-so-polite refusal to do his job—should be analyzed not in terms of symbol of style, but by what he actually refuses to do. The narrator describes it thus: "It is, of course, an indispensable part of a scrivener’s business to verify the accuracy of his copy, word by word. When there are two or more scriveners in an office, they assist each other in this examination, one reading from the copy, the other holding the original" (Melville Billy 114). Bartleby politely refuses to assist his boss in verifying his copy; that is, he refuses to establish that he has created an exact copy of the original document. Bartleby, and Melville (who, Murray’s biographer claims, preferred not to correct proofs) along with him, does not believe that such a copy can be made. It follows from this premise that, since even the first draft of a literary work is attempting to copy ideas in an author’s imagination, there are no original texts. All works of the mind cannot leave the mind without error creeping into the system.

Obviously, Melville’s assertion is shattering to his (and our) readership’s notions of reliable text. The lowest expectation a reader brings to a work is that of honesty; she trusts the author not to play her false. Inconsistencies, conventional slip-ups, and implausibilities break the contract between author and reader and cause the works containing these errors to be consigned to the dustbin. But what if, as Bartleby/Melville suggests, the author cannot tell the whole truth, no matter how much he wants to, simply because he cannot copy what is in his head? The contract becomes arbitrary; if all works are fallacious, shifts in verb tense or mixed metaphors seem less egregious. The gulf between “good” and “bad” writing narrows.

Besides its Nietzsche-like blurring of values, Melville’s allegation has other metaphysical implications. Stream-of-consciousness inventions such as “automatic writing” and the Beat drug culture’s poetry (both often consigned to the dustbin by unscholarly readers) perhaps come closest to reproducing the author’s original intent. But since thought consists of more than language, non-verbal images translate arbitrarily into proscribed arrangements of letters; if no word exists for a concept, it cannot be expressed. Thus many human experiences which cannot accurately be written down despair of reaching the literary canon. Communicable only in approximation, the immensely complicated emotions we call “fear” and “love,” the concepts designated by the signifiers “truth” and “good,” both resonate with all humanity and fall on deaf ears—both have universal weight and stubborn specificity.

That Melville should, however subtly, make so sweeping a statement about the nature of his art becomes less surprising given the place of the “original text” in his other works. “Benito Cereno,” for example, takes as its basis Amasa Delano’s 1790s Narrative; yet, after bothering to establish a provenance unfamiliar to most of his readers, Melville freely adjusts character and plot to his own designs. He “pruned” the title character, for instance, “to vein and flesh him with altruism and goodness. In life, he was a swindler, a liar, the scorn of his friends, the stabber of a helpless Negro slave” (Kaplan 61). He also tars Cereno’s opponent Babo with a far darker brush than recorded. Finally, the last section of “Cereno” consists of a series of legal documents, texts trusted above all others for truth. But, as many critics have pointed out, these texts merely obscure unpleasant truths revealed or implied in the preceding narrative; for example, Babo never gives testimony, omitting a vital perspective of the San Dominick’s tale. Melville “reads” Delano’s document in accordance with his own symbology, leaving the inviolable “original text” by the wayside.

Moby-Dick opens with Melville’s rattling off a Who’s Who of quotes about whales, from sources as diverse as Job (“Leviathan maketh a path to shine after him;/ One would think the deep to be hoary.”), Hamlet (“Very like a whale.”), and Darwin (“On one occasion I saw two of these monsters [whales] probably male and female”) (2, 3, 11). The book, although it seems to center on Ahab’s pursuit of the White Whale, digresses early and often into non-literary chatter; the Table of Contents lists chapters called “The Whiteness of the Whale,” “Jonah Historically Regarded,” and “Measurement of the Whale’s Skeleton,” none of which advance the epic, much-praised plot at all, though the section on dissecting the whale’s carcass has been called the best technical writing ever put on paper. Why, then, did Melville include these quotes and chapters in the book? What seems his attempt to “inform” the reader is rather gentle non-mocking play. “See,” he says, “I have dressed up my fanciful story in good scientific clothes. You can trust me to tell the truth about Ahab because I’ve backed it up with the Hebrew for ‘whale,’ because I’ve told the truth about its skeleton.” But he knows all the time that none of these texts can be trusted, that all stories are equally fallacious—ah, yes, but conversely, equally true. Ahab’s mad chase takes place on the same level of reality—and, at the same time, unreality—as the “fact” of “the Hanoverian flag[’s] bearing the one figure of a snow-white charger” (Melville Moby-Dick 163).

Bartleby’s bold assertion, so quietly and neatly put, colors Melville’s entire opus. Does Melville, then, jettison all literary significance? Do all texts, in his opinion, best resemble the “dead letters” Bartleby once worked with, Friedman’s symbol of “the entire hopeless attempt at human dialogue and communication” (79)? From these tragic missives "the pale clerk takes a ring—the finger it was meant for, perhaps, molders in the grave; a bank note sent in swiftest charity—he whom it would relieve nor eats nor hungers no more; pardon for those who died despairing; hope for those who died unhoping; good tidings for those who died stifled by unrelieved calamities. On errands of life, these letters speed to death" (Melville Billy 143). In this stark reading the author’s task proves futile, and Bartleby himself imitates a reproduced text, Xeroxed into pallid insignificance; he is the hero run off a thousand times, so that only a smudge remains.

But since Melville, like Plato, made extensive use of the written word, he could hardly haven taken such a masochistic position. Instead, with his lack of formal and thematic coherence and his playful use of other’s words, Melville creates texts whose meanings—prefiguring the modern era—may exist in a wide variety of places, but not in the author’s original intent, since this intent cannot possibly reach the reader. Unlike the meaningless and miserable dead letters—texts with no context—Melville’s works fit a multiplicity of contexts; their symbolism (unlike that of Hawthorne) challenges all permanent codification. Each rereading of “Bartleby” thus rewrites him anew—according to the audience’s preference.

Works Cited
  • Friedman, Maurice. “Bartleby and the Modern Exile.” Vincent 64-81.
  • Kaplan, Sidney. “Herman Melville and the American National Sin: The Meaning of ‘Benito Cereno.’” Contexts for Criticism. Ed. Donald Keesey. Fourth edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003.
  • Leary, Lewis. “B is for Bartleby.” Introduction. Bartleby the Inscrutable. Ed. M. Thomas Inge. Hamden, CT: Archon, 1979.
  • Melville, Herman. Billy Budd and Other Tales. New York: Signet, 1998.
  • ---. Moby-Dick. New York: Norton, 1967.
  • Murray, Henry A. “Bartleby and I.” Vincent 3-24.
  • Plumstead, A.W. “Melville’s Venture Into a New Genre.” Vincent 82-93.
  • Stein, William Bysshe. “Bartleby: The Christian Conscience.” Vincent 104-112.
  • Vincent, Howard P., ed. Melville Annual 1965, A Symposium: Bartleby the Scrivener. Kent, Ohio: Kent State UP, 1966.

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