Friday, September 27, 2002

Morning with Melville: "The `Gees" and "I and my Chimney" were the selections, neither of which I fell in love with, although the longer latter story was better than the former. Melville needs room to move about in and his shorter short stories don't appeal to me much.

I am preparing for a Tuesday meeting of my book club, which meets bi-monthly at Tree of Life Temple in Columbia. Every meeting we deal with a different story or book, each led by a different member. This time around the discussion is on "Bartleby" and I'm the discussion leader. I tend to look forward to meetings where I have to run the show because it lets you really submerge deeply into a work. In the past I've done The Tempest, A Doll's House, Where Angels Fear to Tread, Lolita, and A Passage to India, and some others I don't recall right off. My usual method is to spend the advance time reading the book over and over and trying to come up to speed as well as possible on the author's life, which is usually neccessary at some level to keep the book in its proper focus. I started reading the Robertson-Lorant bio of Melville, which is superb but I likely won't finish it in time. At least there's Elizabeth Hardwick's little Penguin Lives book as a back-up.

Knowing the work, though, is the main thing, so I spend a lot of time reading and re-reading that and supplementing it with some other stories and poetry -- try to submerge myself not just in the story but in Melville's vast rolling prose.

"Bartleby" is one of those stories that grows and grows the more you read it; it keeps deepening in all its little particulars. It's a story about a bourgeois Wall Street lawyer who hires a dapper but depressing guy named Bartleby as a copyist. Bartleby starts off great guns, but within days refuses to work any longer; "I prefer not to," he announces. The normal response of any employer would be to fire him on the spot, as the lawyer acknowledges; but instead, he is rather confused by Bartleby's sudden change, and isn't quite sure what to do. Bartleby doesn't make things easier for him, as he refuses to do even the simplest task; refuses not with hostility but with a quiet and frustratingly obdurate resolve. "Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance," the lawyer tells us.

Getting rid of him becomes impossible -- Bartleby virtually takes up residence in the office, doing nothing. He isn't lazy; he's what most of us would call "burned out," but the great thing about the story is that it escapes any such easy answer. The sickness of Bartleby, the lawyer discovers, has more to do with his soul -- life no longer seems to have value to him, and the drudgery of copying dull legal documents only underscores the point. Is Bartleby in need of a career change, or career counseling? Again, Melville doesn't let us off the hook, as Bartleby grows in dimension from a man refusing to do his job to a human being turning his face to fate and the universe and saying "No, I won't do it."

I won't, in other words, assume my designated role. My role, my job, will take a different path: that of the man who stands up and says, against all reason, "Nothing doing." It's not a question of finding the right job -- this becomes his job.

The lawyer is befuddled; he himself is a purely superficial sort who has made a comfortable living on the bureaucratic side of his profession, one free of any challenges, anything that upsets his routine: "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." Up to the events of the story, the only thing that had upset his plans toward this end had been the termination of the office of Master of Chancery, "inasmuch as I had counted upon a life-lease of the profits, whereas I only received those of a few short years."

Bartleby of course is something else altogether. Bartleby, by sitting in his chair day in, day out, staring into space, confuses him, shakes the lawyer up, as he would most of us: Bartleby rattles his convictions as to what it means to be alive and human, and what the limits of comfort really are. Bartleby is this clinging shadow to his life, the problem that literally won't go away; even after the lawyer finally brings himself to fire Bartleby -- begging him to the end to give him a reason not to -- Bartleby won't leave the office. He sticks to his "job" to the end; the lawyer has to find a new office, leaving Bartleby behind. The new, much less sympathetic occupants of the office send Bartleby to jail, where he dies.

It isn't until later that the lawyer learns that Bartleby, like himself, had seen a job come to an end -- a post as a clerk with the Dead Letter office in Washinton:

Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men? Conceive a man by nature and misfortune prone to a pallid hopelessness, can any business seem more fitted to heighten it than that of continually handling these dead letters and assorting them for the flames? For by the cart-load they are annually burned. Sometimes from out the folded paper the pale clerk takes a ring:—the finger it was meant for, perhaps, moulders in the grave; a bank-note sent in swiftest charity:—he whom it would relieve, nor eats nor hungers any 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.

Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!

This is not a lawyer much given to considering the human condition -- it took a soul-sick employee to do that, to force him to look outside his closed-in, social-climbing, money-grubbing path of least resistance; to ponder, as he never has before, just what life and purpose really mean.

Welcome, as Bob Dylan would put it, to the land of the living dead.

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