December 5, 2011

Illuminations for Bartleby the Scrivener: On preferring not to


Herman Melville believed in the power of "no."

With the release of The Duel x5 earlier this year, Melville House announced a new digital innovation, HybridBooks, which combines the concept of a digitally enhanced eBook with the printed book. For more information on HybridBooks please click here.

In addition to these first titles Melville House is retrofitting each novella in its celebrated Art of The Novella line as a HybridBook. This special reading experience involves specially created Illuminations for each title. Illuminations are additional readings available to both the ebook and print edition that expand the reader’s understanding of the book they have just read. Where better to begin the reissue of these newly “hybrid” Art of The Novella titles than with our flagship novella, Bartleby, The Scrivener by Herman Melville. Over the next week we will be sharing some of the readings and illustrations found in the new “hybrid” Bartleby, The Scrivener; A Story of Wall Street which publishes early this month.

Among the many interesting facets of the Occupy Wall Street movement is the inclusion of a pair of fictitious heroes as mascots. Guy Fawkes, or more specifically the fictionalized comic book version of Fawkes’ likeness celebrated in Alan Moore’s V For Vendetta, is of course the more celebrated of the pair. The mustached and implacable Halloween mask based on David Lloyd’s original comic book art has become symbolic of the movement, even finding representation on the cover of BusinessWeek’s article about the much more real “anti-leader” of Occupy, Melville House author David Graeber.

The rebellious narrative evoked by Fawkes’ likeness is easy to understand in correlation to OWS, as is the useful anonymity granted by a mask. But what of that other fictional hero? What of the equally implacable legal scrivener of Melville’s creation? The dubbing of Bartleby as the original Wall Street rebel is a remarkable aside of the OWS movement. Instead of a grim mask we have t-shirts (coming soon to MHP!) and tote bags quoting the obstinate copyist’s celebrated refrain: “I would prefer not to.”

The entire charm of Melville’s enigmatic novella is found in Bartleby’s eternally inscrutable resolution to seemingly do nothing. He has been hired as a scrivener in the Wall St. offices of a not-so-important lawyer and after a brief stretch of incredibly efficient work habits, good Bartleby simply ceases his professional efforts. Every inquiry, request and order given to the young scrivener is met with, well, nothing. Bartleby simply refuses to do what is asked. When questioned by his employer as to why he didn’t do what was asked of him Bartleby responds with some version of the previously mentioned declaration.

What of that declaration though? Is it a shiftless announcement of exactly nothing? Or is it a lazy decree of non-intention? And what is the difference between those two things? The question of just what Melville meant by creating this singular character and his unique mantra has entertained many theories over the years. Literary theorists have tried to link Melville’s reading life to books about Buddhism or any sort of transcendental Eastern thought, thus making the argument that Bartleby was a sort of enlightened being. Others have pointed to Bartleby, The Scrivener as Melville’s satirical response to the transcendentalists. In this theory Bartleby becomes a sort of slippery slope meant to lampoon Henry David Thoreau’s essay “Civil Disobedience.”

The reality is far more fascinating and in many ways more revolutionary. Cited by name within the text of Bartleby are two English theologists with decidedly political turns to their philosophical writings. One of them, Joseph Priestley, was an actual revolutionary whose writings and friendship with Benjamin Franklin influenced the likes of Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine. The other is the leading theologian of the first “Awakening,” Jonathan Edwards.

The nice thing about our Illuminations series is that it delivers readings from writers like Priestley and Edwards in a digestible manner. Readers can get a fascinating glimpse of what Melville was reading when the story began to form in his brain. Keeping in mind the language of Bartleby’s declaration, we find this passage from Edwards’ Freedom Of The Will:

If any one should say, there is no need that the indifference should be perfect; but although a former inclination and preference still remains, yet, if it be not very strong and violent, possibly the strength of the will may oppose and overcome it.

This is grossly absurd; for the strength of the will, let it be ever so great, does not at all enable it to act one way, and not the contrary way, both at the same time. It gives it no such sovereignty and command, as to cause itself to prefer and not to prefer at the same time, or to choose contrary to its own present choice.

When it is said that a man acts from mere will (though this is not common language) the word is never used in a strict metaphysical sense, or for will under the influence of no motive; but the meaning is, that in such a case a man acts from willfulness, or obstinacy, i.e. to resist the control of others; the motive being to show his liberty, and independence, which is far from being a case in which a man is supposed to act without any motive at all.

Within the HybridBook there is a slightly longer quoting of this passage, but instantly you can spy here the fascinating language of preferences. Here we have the roots of Bartleby’s will, for as Edwards observes there is yet will to be found in all preferences, even if they are not to do something. Add in the following passage from Joseph Priestley’s The Doctrine of Philosophical Necessity and you begin to see even further the core of Melville’s argument:

This, I will venture to say, is all that a man can possibly be conscious of, viz. that nothing hinders his choosing, or taking, whichever of the fruits appears to him more desirable, or his not making any choice at all, according as the one or the other shall appear to him preferable upon the whole. But there is always some reason for any object, or any conduct, appearing desirable or preferable; a reason existing either in a man’s own previous disposition of mind, or in his idea of the things proposed to him. In things of small consequence, or in a very quick succession of ideas, the reason may be forgotten, or even not explicitly attended to, but it did exist, and actually contributed to make the thing, or the conduct, appear desirable at the time.

As this is all that any man can be conscious of with respect to himself, so it is all that he can observe with respect to others. Agreeably to this, whenever we either reflect upon our own conduct, or speculate concerning that of others, we never fail to consider, or ask, what could be the motive of such or such a choice; always taking for granted that there must have been some motive or other for it; and we never suppose, in such cases, that any choice could be made without some motive, some apparent reason, or other.

When it is said that a man acts from mere will (though this is not common language) the word is never used in a strict metaphysical sense, or for will under the influence of no motive; but the meaning is, that in such a case a man acts from willfulness, or obstinacy, i.e. to resist the control of others; the motive being to show his liberty, and independence, which is far from being a case in which a man is supposed to act without any motive at all.

The consciousness of freedom, therefore, is an ambiguous expression, and cannot prove any thing in favor of philosophical or metaphysical liberty; but, when rightly understood, appears to decide in favour of the doctrine of necessity, or the necessary influence of motives to determine the choice.

Bartleby is not idle. Instead he is invoking what Melville believed to be the most powerful of stances: dissent. Bartleby is peacefully defying those that believe their will is stronger than his. Foolishly Bartleby’s boss relies upon the predetermined tenets of employment as though defiance of such a thing, and the penury that follows defiance is impossible to think of, let alone engage in. It is for this reason, for Bartleby’s ability to say “no” to everyone and anything he wishes not to engage, that Bartleby begins to hold a seemingly supernatural power over his employers and senior coworkers. By declaring his free will, Bartleby is instantly empowered beyond the pale of their knowledge.

As you can see, Bartleby thus becomes the ideal and most realistic patron-saint of a movement like Occupy, which strives above all things to say “no” to the assumed course of action.

Melville was obsessed with the power of “no.”  Nowhere is this conviction more elegantly voiced than in Bartleby, The Scrivener, but perhaps Melville is at his most powerfully negative in this letter, which is quoted in full within the Illuminations for our new “hybrid” Bartleby, The Scrivener:

There is a certain tragic phase of humanity which, in our opinion, was never more powerfully embodied than by Hawthorne. We mean the tragedy of human thought in its own unbiased, native, and profounder workings. We think that into no recorded mind has the intense feeling of the visible truth ever entered more deeply than into this man’s. By visible truth, we mean the apprehension of the absolute condition of present things as they strike the eye of the man who fears them not, though they do their worst to him…

There is the grand truth about Nathaniel Hawthorne. He says NO! in thunder; but the Devil himself cannot make him say yes. For all men who say yes, lie; and all men who say no,— why, they are in the happy condition of judicious, unencumbered travelers in Europe; they cross the frontiers into Eternity with nothing but a carpet-bag,—that is to say, the Ego.

—Herman Melville, from a April 16th, 1851 letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne. The letter was written in response to Hawthorne who had just presented Melville with a copy of his newly published novel, The House of the Seven Gables.

Paul Oliver is the marketing manager of Melville House. Previously he was co-owner of Wolfgang Books in Philadelphia.