Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The strange Bartleby

In this entry I will look at three passages from Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Mellville. I am trying to unpack the figurative language in the passages, and hopefully get a deeper understanding of the character that has intrigued critical literature since its inception in 1853. Although, some theories suggest that Mellville wrote this as a comment on his own situation as an author, as he was one of those who had to fight while alive, gaining a massive reputation post-mortem - I mean, who hasn't heard of Moby Dick? Melville struggled a bit at the time, and it was not until he inherited a bit of money that he could write full time. So the possibility that Bartleby the scrivener is a comment on his own life is definitely present. However, I will not look at this from that angle.
           Figurative language is how we relate to the world, and how we relate to literature. And this is the angle from which I will search for a deeper understanding of Bartleby the Scrivener. 

The story is one with hardly any action. It mostly takes place in an office, and the lack of action is intriguing, and this kind of passiveness in the story adds suspense. 
            Bartleby the Scrivener is about an elderly lawyer who owns an unambitious law-practice, in his own words, on Wall Street, New York. It was written in 1853, and the slowness of the time is reflected in the words. But we are in a rising capitalist society, and the need to make money is hovering in the back as a growing burden. 
           The Lawyer is employing law-copyists, or scriveners, to write copies, or written records, of his cases. These records were incredibly important, and to make sure each copy was the same, they had to not just write the copies, but check them after they have been written. The Lawyer has two scriveners Turkey and Nippers, and a young errand boy called Ginger Nut. And as his business gets busier he sees the need for another scrivener. It is in this capacity he encounters, and employs Bartleby.
Bartleby stands out as a kind of a puzzle from the start; to begin with he is, somewhat surprisingly, hard working, and almost the epitome of a conscientious employee. But the moment he is asked to proofread his work; do something other than write; he refuses with a passive defensive ‘I prefer not to.’
            I will mainly focus this short essay on the death-metaphor through the tropes related, and opposite to ‘pale’ and ‘pallid’
Bartleby is almost a phantom through the entire story. He hardly eats, and he tries to live on the margins of the people he has his own kind of interaction with. 

‘I can see it now – pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn! It was Bartleby.’ (Mellville, as cited by Roof. 2005:30)

The Lawyer is accessing, and visualising his memories of Bartleby. He can see him in his mind, but it is also likely that ‘seeing’ is pointing to The Lawyer’s deeper understanding of The Scrivener.
            Bartleby is ‘Pallidly neat’, and pallid can be a way of describing the actual colour of Bartleby’s skin, or the colours of his clothes. But it is functioning both at an actual and a metaphorical level, as his colourless spirit is as ‘loud’ as his pallid presence is ‘dull’. His actions are uninspired, and he seems lifeless. ‘Pallid’ is not only a metaphor for death, but it also points to a flaw in Bartleby’s mental health. 
            Pairing ‘pallid’ with ‘neat, that can mean (among other things) nice, clean, elegant, smart or proper, Mellville is creating tension in his description of Bartleby with an unusual dichotomy.
            The Lawyer has compassion, empathy and sympathy for the ‘incurably forlorn’ character, and he recognises the ‘otherness’ in Bartleby. And it is through this feeble attempt of respectability that Bartleby’s tragic flaw is disclosed. Bartleby can no longer relate to, or function in the society he is trying to be a part of. He is ‘forlorn’, ‘lost’, failing to ‘fit in’ with the unspoken rules of society. Such rules act like language, that according to Nietzsche present ‘truth’ as metaphors that have been in the language for so long that any ambiguity is lost – as Bennett and Royle say (2009:81).
            Or, is Bartleby simply a way for The Lawyer to explain a particularly dark side of himself, placing Bartleby in the corner of his subconscious mind, facing a brick wall? 

‘I remembered the bright silks and sparkling faces I had seen that day, in gala trim, swan-like sailing down the Mississippi of Broadway; and I contrasted them with the pallid copyist, and thought to myself, Ah happiness courts the light, so we deem the world is gay; but misery hides aloof, so we deem that misery is none.’ (Mellville. 2005: 37)

When I first read this I absolutely fell in love with the use of language, and how he paints a picture. What I saw was groups of people, dressed in gala-outfits, happily gliding like swans down the river-like Broadway is a deep contrast to the colourless, pale, quiet, and lonely Bartleby. They are both equally distanced from life and the real, but the reverse anthropomorphism makes the happy human group seem like swans gliding down the concrete river. The thing is, not a single place in this passage does he mention the word 'people'. I just assumed. And that is how figurative language works. It places us in a recognisable environment, even if it is an out of the ordinary colloquialism. In fact, a language without recognisability will make no sense. We need figures and tropes to maneuver in the world. And this is what Nietzsche talked about, I think, that we relate to the world through what we recognise. 
Broadway can be more than just the street in New York; it can be the opposite of the narrow road, or the path less travelled. Broadway will then be the road the majority of people choose, and this is again pointing to the ‘otherness’ of Bartleby, as he is not likely to ‘skip’ down Broadway. This is also in a time before the 'limelight' of Broadway. The novel was written in 1853, musicals came later. Even though, the street has always been a place for people to gather, and it was, as it still is, a place where money talked, and people would dress up nicely to show off, then as now.
Happiness courts the light’ suggests that darkness, as the opposite of light, will be courted by ‘sadness’. Bartleby’s mental state is stuck in the darkness. ‘Misery is none’, Bartleby is slowly erasing his reasons to BE. He puts on a mask of humanity, but eventually it falls off. The language in this passage is de-familiarising Bartleby from the rest of the world. He is an outsider.
            Bright, sparkling, close, happy, light, paired with misery, hiding, pale (pallid), distanced and nothingness are powerful out of the ordinary contradictions or opposites in this passage. They are almost deconstructed colloquialisms. The fact that the opposites are not the normal colloquialisms we relate to, when making a linguistic point, portrait them as quite scary, fractured and ‘uncanny’, strengthening the ‘otherness’ of the Bartleby character.
            Mellville places Bartleby on the margins of an early capitalist society; making use of contradictions and opposites maintains Bartleby’s marginalisation. The Lawyer visits his memories to support his current thoughts on Bartleby’s otherness. Memories can change, and every time a memory is ‘remembered’ what you remember is the last time it was accessed, meaning that contradictions can grow over time, eventually overshadowing what really happened.
            All of his colleagues have nicknames and in this way they are immediately familiarised to the reader. Bartleby is even more marginalised and further distanced with being referred to only by his surname, but this is Bartleby’s own choice, as it is the only name he disclosed. It is clear there is no warm relationship when he is only addressed by his last name. However, the name presents a contradiction as well, because the Lawyer feels an unexplained kind of compassion, or pity, towards Bartleby. This makes Bartleby a pairing of contradictions by just being present in the story. He is hard working, but he refuses to work, he is a part of the team, but follows his own code, he is present, but he is ‘gone’, he is polite, but he is rude, he is alive, but he is dead.

‘On errands of life, these letters speed to death.
Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!’ (Mellville. 2005:52)

Rather than having Bartleby removed from his office by force, when he ‘prefers not to go’, The Lawyer decides, in what can be described as a comic twist, to move office. Bartleby stays put, and this is his ‘one way ticket’ to prison. The prison is called ‘The Tombs’, a name that is a direct reference to silence and death, as it is another name for grave.
            Even though Bartleby seems lucid in his choices, for example not to eat when in prison, it is likely that he is in the final stages of untreated clinical depression. The consequence of his choice is starvation, and finally he is absolved from the burdens of life.
            The Lawyer sinks back into memory wondering whether Bartleby’s previous job as a ‘reader’ in the ‘Dead Letter Office’ had something to do with his apathy against life. Through these memories, The Lawyer addresses his mortality, as well as Bartleby’s. He is speeding to his death; probably realising he forgot to live. He has avoided conflict his entire life, and Bartleby’s passive resistance baffled him from the first ‘I prefer not to’ to the last.
            The dead letters sounded like the echoes of men, and that is what Bartleby probably realised they were. When working in ‘The Dead Letter Office’, he witnessed the destruction of the important written word; he witnessed people hanging on to the dead’s treasures. His colleagues would steal a ring, or a cheque, and then they would auction off the rest. The dead letters were stories never told, lives never lived, and it shattered Bartleby, as it shattered The Lawyer thinking about it. Also it points to the fact that this is an untold story in Bartleby’s life, as The Lawyer is simply guessing at this point. But he realises that they both ended up on a journey speeding them to the end.
            Considering ‘The humanity’, The Lawyer is ‘incurably forlorn, pitiably respectable, and pallidly neat’, continuing his life hiding behind his life lie.

To sum up
Bartleby’s pale and distanced presence, even when he is not present, his passive resistance, and his darkened mind, makes him an ambivalent character. His colourless look on life, and his will to fight for this pallid existence, refusing all offers of help, is fascinating. Is he the antagonist? Is he the protagonist? Is he a part of the protagonist’s mind?
With the language, Melville is creating a character that forces the reader to interact. He does this mixing the known and the unknown. The metaphors and comparisons are a little distorted, making them, as Bartleby, uncanny, and marginalised.

Bartleby is hardly saying a word throughout the entire short story, and he is fighting to stay in his gloomy state. I claim he's a philosopher, and I believe he is in terms of making other people think. His passive resistance is making The Lawyer think about why he is resisting. The Lawyer is thinking about why Bartleby is resisting change so hard. The Lawyer is puzzled at his own reaction to this resistance. Bartleby is a kind of a wake up call to The Lawyer. And what he wakes up to is not really optimistic for his future. This is, of course, only speculations, but the thoughts set in motion by Bartleby are fundamentally devastating. 
I also call him an anti-capitalist soldier, and the connotations to soldier mostly involve violence. But it could also be a link to soldiers on the peace side of the equation. The Salvation Army are called soldiers and they do not fight with weapons, but with words. Bartleby is fighting to remain the same. He might not be well enough to make that decision, but that does not mean he is not going to fight for it. In doing so he becomes a soldier. So Bartleby is everything from philosopher, where he makes people think with his almost non-verbal communication, to anti-capitalist soldier, and maybe he actually was just a figure of speech, a metaphor for protest and individuality in an increasingly uniform society?

Bennett, Andrew, and Royle, Nicholas. 2009. Literature, Criticism and Theory. Harlow. Fourth Edition.

Mellville, Herman. 2005. ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’ in Understanding Fiction. Judith Roof (ed.) Boston. Houghington Mifflin. Print