Law in Contemporary Society

What Would Bartleby Do?

-- By ScottThurman - 18 May 2009


That anti-anthem "I would prefer not to." I've spoken it to myself frequently; there are so many things I would prefer not to do! I would prefer not to work 80 hours a week at a firm. I would prefer not to re-collate thousand-page documents as slowly as I can. Perhaps less nobly, I would prefer not to study for my finals. I would prefer not to read poorly organized casebooks.

"Bartleby, The Scrivener" presents us with the disturbing power of negation. As seen in the story, it can be transformative. Through the pure power of saying no, an apparently enervated and feeble man is able to make his employer - a high-profile lawyer, a former master of the chancery, one of those seemingly unshakable minor satellites of the Establishment - move. While this may represent a small victory, Bartleby wins, because he wants nothing and cannot be bought with anything.

The ending of "Bartleby" complicates this power, by suggesting that Bartleby's indifference stems from a traumatic experience at the Dead Letters office. This presents interpretative questions that speak to the problem of negation: Is Bartleby's negative capacity a form of defeat? A sort of disease? Does the narrator invest the biography of Bartleby with such poignancy because it cabinets Bartleby's strange powers as aberrant or ill?

Negative capacity as freedom

As a preliminary matter, it's not quite accurate to say Bartleby wants nothing. He needs someplace to dwell, and his few positive actions seem motivated to secure for himself a roof. Only once Bartleby is safely sequestered within the confines of the narrator's office do we see the depths of his capacity for negation. Bartleby essentially refuses to do any work. He barely leaves the office, feeding on little ginger cakes and staring through a window at a brick wall. The outside world does not matter to Bartleby. The narrator promises material security and, in his most desperate entreaty to Bartleby, something of a human relationship: he asks Bartleby to come to his home as a guest, as a companion. But Bartleby remains uninterested. Nothing can buy him.

A constant theme of this semester has been the conditions that we feel imposed upon us. We want to be good people; we want to use our intelligence and our diligence to make the world better. But that desire always feels compromised, our good works contingent upon doing other things first - making the right grades, making law review, clerking, taking that Wall Street job to pay off our loans. Then we can be free. What seems powerful in Bartleby is his refusal to be disciplined by the world, his stubborn resistance to any force, no matter how alluring. He is unwavering in his self-determination. If we believe in a world as described by someone like Foucault or Adorno - and I do - we should like Bartleby resist the various ways that our energies are contained and channeled for others' purposes.

Yet we cannot overlook that Bartleby's stubbornness draws some of its strength from his simplicity. His desires are so small, the scope of his outward life so limited, that he can close himself off from everyone and everything else. He needs so little that he cannot be bought, but he wants so much less than almost any of us believe we need.

Negative capacity as defeat

Is Bartleby so easily satisfied because he is broken? The narrator's discoveries at the end of the story seem to point in this direction: Bartleby is a man so well-accustomed with death and with the frequency with which humans fail to connect that it is hardly surprising that he would erase himself.

Seen this way, Bartleby's negative capacity seems far less ideal. We could read "Bartleby" and conclude not so much that Bartleby is strong, but that he has chosen an easy battle to win. All Bartleby seems to want is a roof over his head, and he gets it. I don't mean to trivialize the anguish of the homeless or those on the edge of homelessness. But Bartleby's own desires are so small that they almost seem animalistic. He's as content in an office as he is in a jail. Indeed, as the narrator comments, Bartleby is everywhere "confined." The freedom Bartleby operates within is the freedom to make exactly one choice - nothing. But freedom that can be exercised only through exercising nothing seems vacuous, and Bartleby's fate - the world-renunciation so palpable in self-starvation - echoes his ultimate powerlessness.

Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!

If few of us are willing to take up Bartleby's extreme indifference to the world, what can we take from him?

First: we all have to establish where the line is that we ourselves will not cross, and we must do it now before we become too enmeshed in the machine of the legal system to remember who we are and what we initially wanted to be. The immediacy of Bartleby's own desires helps to limit his scope of interaction in the world. We, who seek larger, more social goals, must not lose track of who we are as we ponder the conditions and extractions others will ask of us.

Second: Maybe, if we cannot be completely indifferent to the entire exterior world, and if we cannot extinguish our own desires for it, we can, like Bartleby, remain indifferent to how we define success. Or, as Melville wrote in a different book, "God keep me from ever completing anything."

Bartleby does want something - a dwelling. But what makes him indifferent to the world is that he has the most abstract or idiosyncratic idea of what would satisfy him. To turn, somewhat more trivially, to the law: there is nothing wrong with hoping to succeed at law school. But if our concept of success gets too tangled up in others' definitions of it - achieving certain grades, winning certain awards, being included in certain societies - then we have diluted ourselves. That we must resist, or our power of negation will grow too slack.

  • It's an interpretation of what's going on in Bartleby, and given the theme of force and coercion that runs through the writing you've done this term, this strength through negation proposition undoubtedly makes some sense. Whether it is what Melville has in mind, I cannot say, though I have always myself seen something else in it. What seems most striking to me, in relation to your other essays, is the extent to which, even in imagining Bartleby as defeated rather than victorious (which apparently comes relatively hard to you), you still consider his asceticism to be a form of virtuous self-denial rather than a demonstration of illness. Because he is impassive, you consider him not to be in pain. Because he cannot accept, you consider that he does not want. And because he appears to be adamant, you assume that he is unitary. None of these seems obvious to me.


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r3 - 08 Jan 2010 - 22:43:25 - IanSullivan
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