Mar 05 2010

The Bartelby Abides

Published by at 7:43 pm under Uncategorized

Don’t tell Bartelby what you think about him, Bartelby doesn’t care. Bartelby is lookin’ out for Bartelby. His outstandingly well-honed capacity of objection baffles all participants in the modern political system. He doesn’t just refuse, he abstains. Those three little words that become so dear (I’d-prefer-not) communicate agency of preference, declining to be pushed around in the shifty wall street world. He does what he wants, this is compelling and dangerous, and the lawyer is fascinated by the power of his objection. In the exegesis the lawyer lays himself out for us as essentially Bartelby’s polar opposite, which we can see once we get over the mystifying foreignness of Bartelby’s autonomic default response. The lawyer tells us,

Imprimis: I am a man who, from his youth upwards, has been filled with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best. Hence, though I belong to a profession proverbially energetic and nervous, even to turbulence, at times, yet nothing of that sort have I ever suffered to invade my peace. I am one of those unambitious lawyers who never addresses a jury, or in any way draws down public applause; but in the cool tranquillity of a snug retreat, do a snug business among rich men’s bonds and mortgages and title-deeds. All who know me, consider me an eminently safe man. The late John Jacob Astor, a personage little given to poetic enthusiasm, had no hesitation in pronouncing my first grand point to be prudence; my next, method. I do not speak it in vanity, but simply record the fact, that I was not unemployed in my profession by the late John Jacob Astor; a name which, I admit, I love to repeat, for it hath a rounded and orbicular sound to it, and rings like unto bullion. I will freely add, that I was not insensible to the late John Jacob Astor’s good opinion”

Read: I’m not going to fight, I’m going to take the easy way out. Dislikes: hard work, social subversion, liberals. Dislikes: Gold and compliments from rich men.

Okay so Melville is having a go with us, sarcastically (and possibly homoerotically? I kid… (do I?)) having the narrator drop a fat cat’s name as a point of huge personal pride. At the same time it is saying no small thing that he stakes so much of his self worth on the opinions of others. The narrator is a lazy old man who likes to be admired. His fascination with Bartelby is so encompassing because Bartelby seems sort of lazy too. He might be challenging the structural basis of our society, but he does so by staying mostly quiet, doing what he wants, and eating cake. This probably doesn’t sound so bad to the lawyer, he could coast by without having to go in to work to balance his two drunken employees. This does however require his giving up something that he can’t even conceive of giving up, his self-consciousness. He really cares about what other people think and it is unthinkable for him that Bartelby doesn’t. He is both attracted to the loose lifestyle, and flummoxed by the means. It’s the group mentality barrier to actualizing our independence that plagues the best of us, Melville illustrates with neat hilarity.

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