Resolved to read a book every two weeks in 2022, as I have not done since completing my undergraduate degree four years ago, I checked out a short text this week to start me off on the right path. To start a positive trend line, so to speak. A friend recommended at dinner last night that I read Melville’s Bartleby, The Scrivener, which I have never done, as I studied political science, history, and computer science in school, rather than the old and odd stories composed by the failed author of Moby-Dick (which I have just read and both love and despise).
I shudder, as the narrator in Bartleby does, to think that the scrivener has so impacted my mind over the course of so short an encounter. The story is but some 14,000 words, which I read at the library in a little over an hour. But it is my personality to mirror those I interact with, and probably due to my novice writing ability, to mimic the authors I read. In re-reading the prose of this short review I think it’s obvious I was impacted by Bartleby even if I did not particularly enjoy it.
Bartleby is well-set and thoroughly imagined, the hallmark’s of Melville’s style. But it is also terribly boring at times. “That’s the point,” a friend told me. And I guess that’s right; Melville was potentially influenced in writing this story by Emerson’s essay The Transcendentalist, which would have supposed positive value for the scrivener’s life even if he was a bad worker, had no family, and was an overall unproductive member of society. (Bartleby often refuses to do work, saying repeatedly “I would prefer not to,” and is so impoverished that he lives in the offices of the lawyer for which he clerks, and later refuses to leave upon being fired and dies in the courthouse of the jail he is sent to.)
I think it is unfair of us to judge Bartleby harshly because of his passivity. We do not know what so impacted him earlier in life to make him so stalwartly passive in his objections to do most work, even the most rudimentary. The narrator, the scrivener’s boss, repeats rumors that he may have been scarred from an earlier career burning the letters of dead people. If Bartleby is an analysis of clinical depression, I think it is a masterpiece. We would all like to be so valued, I assumed, as Bartleby is, when we are stuck in a rut.
Some critical essays suggest Melville’s story shows us what it is like to be truly free. Untethered to the world, by virtue of owing no rent or mortgage, not being responsible to any family members, and having a boss who will not forcible remove him from the property after being fired (indeed, the narrator moves his offices to a different building instead of calling the police on Bartleby), the scrivener practices absolute free will. That would be romantic if it weren’t so hopeless; Bartleby spends much of his time staring out the office window at a poorly lit brick wall of the adjacent building.
Accordingly, I took from Bartleby that free will without purpose is not rewarding. A lack of purpose can drive depression, even when one is employed by a generous man who has tried to bestow him purpose. I am happy I have this blog to give me something to do. I also have a wife, a nice family, and a good job. (But they don’t get me like you do.)
Perhaps if Bartleby had just made it his mission to read two books a month, he would have been better off. Alas, I suppose he would have preferred not to. As I’m sure I will at some point later this year.