Last fall when reports of the encampment in Zuccotti Park first appeared in the newspapers, I thought of Bartleby. I had been thinking of him for a while. I had been seeing Bartleby-like figures, forlorn and silent, wandering the halls of the nursing home where a friend was dying. No one interfered with these quiet residents who existed on the periphery of the community. No one talked to them or seemed to think of them as human. It seemed to me that those who failed to recognize the humanity of these wraithlike men and women also failed to recognize their own. The news of the occupation of Zuccotti Park by humans seeking recognition seemed a chink of light in the ghostly darkness.
In the nineteenth century, before Xerox or electronic printing, important documents were copied by hand. The original Bartleby, in Herman Melville’s story Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street, is a copyist, or scrivener, in the offices of a Wall Street lawyer whose business it is to keep legal order in the financial affairs of his wealthy patrons. This lawyer is the narrator of Bartleby’s story. He describes himself as a safe and prudent man, proud to have been employed by John Jacob Astor, whose name, he says, “hath a rounded and orbicular sound to it, and rings like unto bullion.” Bartleby is the strangest scrivener he’s ever seen.
In answer to an ad, Bartleby appears at the narrator’s office door, “pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, and incurably forlorn.” At first he does a great deal of copying, as if he had been “famished” for something to write. He sits behind a screen, close to a window that looks out on a blank wall. One day the narrator summons him to check his copy with the other scriveners, and from behind his green screen, Bartleby declares, “I would prefer not to.”
Later, when asked to stop by the Post Office, Bartleby again announces that he prefers not to. He prefers not do any errands. Eventually, he prefers not to do any copying. One Sunday, the narrator discovers that Bartleby has been living in his offices, but, though he no longer does any work, he prefers, also, not to vacate the premises. Bartleby has occupied Wall Street.
Bartleby’s story is a story of Wall Street, that is, of the walls that form the edifice of nineteenth century capitalism. The narrator calls himself a man of assumptions. He means he assumes everyone else accepts his assumptions. Though he doesn’t suspect there are alternatives, he accepts the values of Wall Street. For him, John Jacob Astor, slum landlord, is a model of respectability. Orderly and safe, on Wall Street, respectability means climbing to the top of the financial heap.
But for Bartleby, Wall Street means the blank wall his window looks out onto. While Wall Street assumes that competition according to the rules leads to success, for Bartleby this assumption means merely copying. Bartleby is not a man of assumptions, but a man of preferences. No one else in this story of law and Wall Street has clear preferences with regard to human life beyond the assumptions of Wall Street.
Melville published Bartleby in 1853, nearly a hundred and sixty years before the events at Zuccotti Park. The present Occupation of Wall Street has sparked a larger movement in which thousands of people, who when they had work and a place to live accepted the assumptions of Wall Street, have now declared themselves the 99% who do not benefit from those assumptions and who would therefore prefer not to participate in the safe and orderly system that has spewed them out. And so they too have taken up residence on Wall Street—on Wall Street and in public spaces in cities throughout this country and in other countries as well. When they are dispersed, they insist they are, in some sense, not going anyplace.
Of the characters in Melville’s story, only Bartleby (and Wall Street) have names. The narrator is nameless. His three clerks have nicknames: Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut. The elderly and shabby Turkey is an alcoholic, no doubt his way of adjusting to what is required of him. Nippers, in spite of his nickname, is not an alcoholic, but without that anodyne, suffers from indigestion and discontent. The narrator interprets Nippers’ discontent as ambition and approves of his gentlemanly deportment. Ginger Nut is twelve years old and has been apprenticed to the narrator in order to learn to better himself. He runs errands.
In the nineteenth century, people who did not benefit from the assumptions of Wall Street sometimes rioted. In the twentieth century, the labor movement organized unions of working people who came together in strike actions and passive resistance. In the twenty-first century, we have the internet and social networking, and people come together to protest…in Egypt, in Libya, in Syria, on Wall Street. Perhaps the assumption among many who read about these revolutionary demonstrations is that the 99% want a fairer share of what the 1% controls. Bartleby’s passive resistance is entirely solitary. And the question of what he wants remains an enigma.
The narrator seems not without compassion. He tolerates Bartleby’s behavior as he tolerates Turkey’s drinking and Nippers’ bad temper. Among his fellow lawyers, he is embarrassed by Bartleby’s strange presence and by his own tolerance of it. He offers Bartleby money to relocate. In desperation, he invites Bartleby to live with him. Bartleby prefers not to make any change in his living arrangements. Finally, the narrator moves his offices and leaves Bartleby living in the stairwell. He is not without compassion, but for all his sympathy, Bartleby’s preferences are beyond his understanding.
Melville’s story has evoked a similar bewilderment among readers. A former student of mine, a non-traditional, older student, who had been through tough times and was trying to start his life anew, took pains to identify with the narrator. He, also, he wanted me to know, was a reasonable but compassionate man. He, too, would try to help Bartleby, but he knew the limits of his own effectiveness. Bartleby’s behavior was so seriously inappropriate, no doubt he needed psychiatric help.
This view of Bartleby is not entirely uncommon among scholars of American Literature. There is a long list of papers devoted to Bartleby’s clinical profile. That Bartleby was depressed is not difficult to see, but what did Melville have in mind when he created this melancholy portrait? Is Bartleby an aberration or is he somehow representative? Is Melville simply presenting us with an amusing blank wall, or is there something we might learn from Bartleby’s story? Another student, a nurse in her fifties, whose own life had been very difficult and who thought of herself as Wonder Woman, had no patience at all with Bartleby’s preferences. Her advice was to put him on Prozac and tell him to get on with it.
In Melville’s story, we see Bartleby only from the narrator’s point of view. If we pay close attention, though, we may see the narrator from Melville’s point of view. Melville is writing in the mid-nineteenth century, at a critical moment in the discussion of national ideals. He is a witness to the burgeoning of industrialism, with attendant questions about slavery. One interpretation of Bartleby’s story is that it is about the writer’s dilemma in an age of capitalism and conformity. Melville’s first novels, Typee and Omoo, both tales of the South Seas, had been popular successes, but neither Moby-Dick, published in 1851, nor Pierre, published in 1852, had met with approbation in the literary world. According to this reading, Bartleby is Melville’s response to this lack of interest in his original work. It is his declaration that he prefers not to be a copyist.
Yet this is the period of the flowering of classic American Literature. Melville is writing during what we now call the American Renaissance. Emerson and the Transcendentalists, Hawthorne, even Emily Dickinson are near, if also solitary, neighbors. Thoreau’s Walden was published in 1854, Whitman’s Leaves of Grass in 1855. The great works of this time and place all address the question of what values America will espouse and all are written from outside the arena of commercial success. While it is no doubt true that Melville suffered from the insensitivity of the public’s response to his mature work (and also that he was not as sanguine about it as Thoreau, who boasted he had a library of nine hundred books, seven hundred of which he had written himself), as an artist he is looking more and more deeply and more dispassionately. Surely, the questions he poses are larger than questions of celebrity and literary recognition.
As I write, New York police are once again clearing Zuccotti Park. This time, protestors are celebrating the six month anniversary of the first occupation of Wall Street. “We are the 99%,” they chant. “Take back government from the corporations! 1-2-3-4, we declare class war!” It is hard to imagine the cadaverous Bartleby among these demonstrators. And somehow, though Melville wrote about the Lowell paper mills and Thoreau spent a night in jail for refusing to pay his poll tax, I’m not sure I hear their voices, either, among the throng demanding economic justice.
When he was arrested, Thoreau was living at Walden Pond He had gone into town to see the cobbler about a pair of shoes. Writing about the experience in Civil Disobedience, he defines the responsibility of a citizen in a democracy, not as accepting the decision of a majority (less than 99%), but as acting according to a faculty he calls Conscience. Thoreau’s conscience will not allow him to “recognize,” he says, “that political organization as my government which is the slave’s government also.”
As for class warfare, one cannot imagine that spark igniting in Bartleby’s story, though there is a sort of working man’s solidarity among the other three clerks in the office and an awareness of fair labor practices in Nipper’s resentment at having to do Bartleby’s work without pay. But on the whole, everyone except Bartleby accepts the assumptions of Wall Street; conscience seems to be a communal effort, determined by those assumptions. The narrator, in fact, acknowledges in his happiest moments that his charitable treatment of Bartleby provides “a sweet morsel” for what he thinks of as his conscience.
Even so, increasingly, Bartleby’s passive resistance unnerves the narrator, who comes to doubt the virtue of his position and turns to his other clerks for validation. That they all assure him he’s right makes little difference except to restore confidence in the normal assumptions. Bartleby prefers not to be persuaded by their majority, and the others continue to work around his preferences. This personal insecurity is central to our understanding of the narrator, and it demonstrates, as well, Melville’s understanding of the basis for the competition and conformity that make capitalism possible. What Bartleby possesses and the narrator lacks is self-knowledge without reference to the judgment of others. Bartleby, frail as he is, is himself.
Bartleby’s melancholy depresses the narrator. He catches a glimpse of the falseness of the happiness Wall Street provides. Even as he observes “the bright silks and sparkling faces…swan-like sailing down the Mississippi of Broadway,” Bartleby’s gloom casts its shadow. “Ah, happiness courts the light,” says the narrator, “so we deem the world is gay; but misery hides aloof, so we deem that misery there is none.” When Bartleby first defies him, the narrator says that had there been anything human about Bartleby, he would have tossed him out. From the point of view of Wall Street, Bartleby is not human, though because of Bartleby, the narrator’s understanding of what is human begins to undergo changes.
The narrator is drawn to Bartleby for reasons he can’t understand. It is as if he is drawn to something in himself he had not recognized before, something his assumptions haven’t prepared him to face. Above all, he is horrified by Bartleby’s solitude. In contrast, for Thoreau at Walden Pond (Walled-In and yet the opposite of Wall Street) solitude is an important part of the project. Solitude is necessary if one is “to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.” It is this fronting the fact, without the evasions of sentimentality and fashion, that informs Thoreau’s conscience. No head-in-the-clouds undertaking, this strenuous exercise in discerning the good and the true, as if there were something in us that might recognize the good and true, requires, not only solitude, but faith, a belief that the cosmos has its reasons, or that, at any rate, we can align ourselves with the cosmos, that there is some absolute to discover which requires more of us than superficial agreements of the crowd.
Thoreau, of course, is sauntering all over New England. His facts are literal as well as spiritual; his faith finds reasons in the shape of a leaf, in language, in a seed. His attentive solitude and self-reliance touch a world outside himself. Bartleby is confined to a windowless alcove, or, more accurately, to a window looking at a blank wall. There is nothing on Wall Street to nourish his humanity, or his soul, as the narrator puts it. “I might give alms to his body;” he says, “but his body did not pain him; it was his soul that suffered, and his soul I could not reach.”
Is the soul, too, defined by its relation to society? Bartleby is alone, and on Wall Street it is terrible to be alone. The narrator is on his way to church, but Bartleby “has disqualified [him]…from church-going.” There is something in Bartleby, in the soul of Bartleby that has shaken all his belief. He comes to suspect that Bartleby has been sent to him by Providence, whose purpose, he admits, is beyond his understanding.
In his essay “Walking,” Thoreau says he wants to “regard man as an inhabitant, or part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society.” Of course the question is what he means by “society.” At the Walden cabin, Thoreau had, he said, three chairs, “one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.” As for that, surely friendship is a kind of society, though not society as defined by Wall Street. The book Thoreau actually wrote at Walden, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack River, is a memorial of a trip he took with his brother John in 1839. The two were close friends. When John died of tetanus in 1842, Henry grieved deeply. If Thoreau seems to lack a need for human society, we might think of his decision to “suck out all the marrow of life” as perhaps connected to the death of his brother.
Still, Thoreau’s obdurate conscience can seem a bit contemptuous of human needs and arrangements, and not only of Wall Street. His civil disobedience is thoroughgoing. Sometimes he sounds as if he might belong to the Tea Party. “That government is best which governs not at all,” he says. (CD 227) And, in case we think we have overestimated his self-interest, “I came into this world, not chiefly to make this a good place to live in, but to live in it, be it good or bad.” (CD 234)
Yet in Walden and Civil Disobedience, Thoreau’s main concern is with how we might live together. Deliberately, he might say, we must live together deliberately. He names the virtues and the necessities. His declaration of independence includes the material and the spiritual, as if there were no separation. His economy includes time and eternity. To live deliberately means to be oneself rather than a copy of someone else. “If a plant cannot live according to its nature,” he says, “it dies; and so a man.” (CD 239) Thoreau would understand Bartleby’s depression.
Thoreau’s sojourn in the woods was an experiment in self-reliance. That is to say, it was a scientific study, the documentation of which is the book we know as Walden. This experiment was both personal and political; if Thoreau were to advise men about how they might live, he had first to define himself. For Thoreau this solitary retreat was a happy interlude. He was no more bound by Walden than he was by the custom of the town. He left the woods, having, he said, “several more lives to lead.” (W 217)
Is such individual independence and self-knowledge possible outside the solitary life, among a community of humans, who are, as they live now, insecure, afraid, competitive? Even Emerson, whose thought Thoreau made literal, was unwilling when invited, to join the Utopians at Brook Farm. He declines, he says, echoing Bartleby’s statement of preferences, “to remove from my present prison to a prison a little larger.”
The Occupy Wall Street Movement does not wish to define its goals beyond experimenting with how society might be organized if somehow Wall Street were disempowered. There is no Utopian vision of how we might live and what we might live for. I did read a profile in The New Yorker (George Packer, Dec.5, 2011) about a lonely man who found friends and a feeling of belonging when he joined the OWS encampment in New York. And it is clear that some of the organizers view the movement as a counterculture and hope to change values. Michael Greenberg, writing in the New York Review of Books (Feb. 9, 2012, 47) found that the “experience of undergoing a personal crisis of meaning, both political and of the soul, seemed deeply shared.” But for the most part, the human face of the movement has received less attention than its economic demands and its peculiar political structure.
While some demonstrators think of themselves as anarchists, there is an organizing principle: horizontalism. Theoretically, there are no leaders, no vertical structure of command. Horizontalism employs a form of communication that is oddly reminiscent of the process of checking copies in Bartleby’s office. Mattathias Schwartz in an early article in The New Yorker about the origins of Occupy Wall Street (Nov.28, 2011) writes:
At times, horizontalism [leaderlessness] can feel like utopian theater. Its greatest invention is the “people’s mike,” which starts when someone shouts, “Mike check!” Then the crowd shouts, “Mike check!,” and then phrases (phrases!) are transmitted (are transmitted!) through mass chanting (through mass chanting!). In the same way that poker ritualizes capitalism and North Korea’s mass games ritualize totalitarianism, the people’s mike ritualizes horizontalism.
Are humans, then, horizontalists or copyists by nature? Even in Bartleby’s office, where there is deference to leaders (verticalism), the other clerks, even the narrator, find themselves using Bartleby’s word…preference, though of course its meaning escapes them.
Thoreau had such a horror of unthinking conformity, it is impossible to think of him participating in the people’s mike. He wants no government, horizontal or not, just as he wants no standing army. Insofar as they worked against slavery, both Thoreau and Emerson were politically active, but Thoreau’s resistance is passive. He will not try to eradicate evil; he simply won’t support it. It’s a matter of time, of spent life. “A man has not everything to do,” he says, “but something.” (CD 234)
What is this something? What has Thoreau to do? What has Bartleby to do? Whatever it is they feel they must do, neither Thoreau nor Bartleby will compromise. “Who would be a man must be a nonconformist….Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind,” says Emerson in Self-Reliance. (261)
“The Soul,” says Emily Dickinson, “selects her own Society.” Strangely, we keep arguing about who she meant by this Society instead of wondering what she meansby the next lines: “The Soul selects her own Society – / Then – shuts the Door – / To her divine Majority – / Present no more –”
What is this “divine Majority”? And how does it differ from the majority neither Thoreau (nor Emerson) nor Bartleby respects? Thoreau respects his conscience and Bartleby his preferences. Each selects his own society and shuts the door. Dickinson’s business, she says is circumference. Circumference, like Thoreau’s conscience, implies something to be in orbit around.
Those left behind in the profane majority seem to need stories to understand these others, to place them within their own conventions. The narrator offers the one bit of information he has heard about Bartleby’s life. That Bartleby may have worked in a dead letter office explains his despair. Thoreau, we say, lived rent free on Emerson’s land and took his laundry home to his mother, as if this proves his experiment was a sham. Unlike Bartleby and Thoreau, Dickinson in her solitude seems to us to be a romantic figure. Lovers invent stories about her of unrequited or inappropriate love. Scholars argue about who her lover was, but also about her psychopathological profile…agoraphobia? epilepsy? They speculate about some trauma in her life. Incest, maybe? Or maybe she was a lesbian, in love with her sister-in-law. For the most part, we assume, however, that Dickinson’s assumptions were the assumptions of her time and place. She saw New Englandly. Therefore, we tell ordinary stories about her that explain her strange behavior. Or, to put that another way, we read her poems according to our own assumptions.
“This World,” she says, “is not Conclusion. / A Species stands beyond –” For a moment she seems to share the “Dimity convictions” of the gentlewomen around her about Heaven and God. But look again. The assertion stands alone. Even the punctuation expresses finality, a rare period instead of a dash. “This World is not Conclusion.” And yet there is nothing we can know beyond this world, however we try to fill the void. “Sagacity” can’t solve the puzzle, nor can “Much Gesture, from the Pulpit – ” reassure us. Dickinson’s doubt is profound.
Narcotics cannot still the Tooth
That nibbles at the soul –
Yet there are some things she is certain about. She knows her own mind and is not comfortable with assumptions.
I cannot live with You –
It would be Life –
And Life is over there –
Behind the Shelf
The Sexton keeps the Key to –
Because we are more interested in who this You is (Charles Wadsworth, a married Clergyman Dickinson met in Philadelphia?) than we are in what she means by “Life,” we hardly notice what a momentous distinction she has made. Emily Dickinson, some believe, had no knowledge of the world. She knew, however, the difference between the world of facts she faced and life over there behind the shelf of conventional morality.
Emerson was important to her. And she resembles the idealist in his essay “The Transcendentalist,” who, in contrast to the sense bound materialist , has a metaphysical measure and believes, “Everything real is self-existent….let the soul be erect, and all things will go well.” (195-196) Idealists, as Emerson describes them, resemble both Dickinson and Bartleby in that they “repel influences” and “incline to shut themselves in their chamber in the house.” (200) They are lonely, but, according to Emerson, not melancholy. They “feel the disproportion between their faculties and the work offered them.” (199) In other words, like Thoreau, they prefer not to “live what… [is] not life.” (W 65)
One thinks of our narrator and his admiration for John Jacob Astor. He believes in the solidity of his life and in the work of Wall Street. Yet Emerson’s description of how easily the “sturdy capitalist” can be shaken might apply to him:
… no matter how deep and square on blocks of Quincy granite he lays the foundations of his banking-house or Exchange, [he] must set it, at last, not on a cube corresponding to the angles of his structure, but on a mass of unknown materials and solidity, red-hot or white-hot, perhaps at the core, which rounds off to an almost perfect sphericity, and lies floating in soft air, and goes spinning away, dragging bank and banker with it at a rate of thousands of miles the hour, he knows not wither,—a bit of bullet, now glimmering, now darkling through a small cubic space on the edge of an unimaginable pit of emptiness.
It is into this pit that Dickinson dares to look. This was the something she had to do.
Sometimes, although she lived at home, always among family, her loneliness seems immeasurable. To her mentor Thomas Wentworth Higginson, she writes: “Would you have time to be the ‘friend’ you should think I need? I have a little shape—it would not crowd your Desk—nor make much Racket as the Mouse, that dents your Galleries—(174). And yet she is not drawn to conventional solutions for loneliness, spiritual or otherwise. She has stopped going to Church. As she says, she keeps the Sabbath,
….staying at Home –
With a Bobolink for a Chorister –
And an Orchard, for a Dome –
This seems self-assured, even fey, but there are other poems that convey a sense of what courage it took to live in uncertainty, to trust the integrity of her own soul.
If I’m lost – now
That I was found –
Shall still my transport be –
That once – on me – those Jasper Gates
Blazed open – suddenly –
That in my awkward – gazing – face –
The Angels – softly peered –
And touched me with their fleeces,
Almost as if they cared –
I’m banished – now – you know it –
How foreign that can be –
You’ll know – Sir – when the Savior’s face
Turns so – away from you –
Dickinson does not flinch at the touch of those angelic fleeces, yet she refuses all false comfort.
The something she had to do meant Dickinson would not lead the life that was expected of her. She takes her place outside, observing with wicked wit “What Soft – Cherubic Creatures – / These Gentlewomen are – “(401) On the other hand, she is one of them, if not a soft Cherubic Creature, still a woman, whose feelings are profound. The question is what will she do with these feelings.
“My Husband” – women say –
Stroking the Melody –
Is this – the way?
She makes a deliberate choice and her choice requires a breathtaking bravery. “I’m ceded –” she says, “I’ve stopped being Theirs –”
My second Rank – too small the first –
Crowned – Crowing – on my Father’s breast –
A half unconscious Queen –
But this time – Adequate – Erect,
With Will to choose, or to reject,
And I choose, just a Crown –
We don’t know what happened to Emily Dickinson to make her realize she had the will to choose, any more than we know what happened to Bartleby. Maybe she fell in love, maybe she experienced an absolute lack of faith in anything outside of herself. She is like one of those characters who has had a near death experience, and is never the same after. Whatever it was, it touched a part of her consciousness that had not been awakened before, so that like Whitman, she knew that the historical Emily Dickinson was not the person she now saw, the Me Myself. I think that was the horror she speaks of, that she felt herself splitting away from her ego, the small self and the larger unknowable self, a dizzying revelation to which she devoted the rest of her life.
Recently, I heard someone say Dickinson took the easy way. She stayed at home and didn’t try to change the world. It reminded me of a professor who wrote a recommendation for me in which he pointed out how comforting it would have been for Emily Dickinson if someone had helped her to go back to school, to go out into the world. This way of thinking is like giving the 99% what the 1% have stolen and calling it even. Or it is like offering Bartleby an opportunity to go to law school. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, the Occupy Movement set up several igloos and two yurts in a parking lot. Inside the meeting hall itself protestors wore “garlands of fake hundred-dollar bills” and displayed a fussball table where the game was between the rich and the poor and was, of course, tilted in favor of the rich (March 5th New Yorker)
If Emily Dickinson is Bartleby’s twin, the room she called “freedom,” is the opposite of Bartleby’s dim chamber. He is living in the world, the world of Wall Street and of the World Economic Forum, but he can’t look out from his blank window onto human life, as she can from her corner room. Of course, Bartleby claims his own kind of sad freedom, but one cannot say of him, “let the soul be erect, and all things will go well.” Melville is no Transcendentalist.
Dickinson survives. In spite of doubt about Self, about Mortality or Immortality, about Consciousness itself, her integrity is unwavering. She realizes that to mindlessly accept the assumptions of the community about death, about what life is and how to live it, and especially about what poetry is, is to play at Paste.
We play at Paste –
Till qualified, for Pearl –
Then, drop the Paste –
And deem ourself a fool –
The Shapes – though – were similar –
And our new Hands
Learned Gem – Tactics –
Practicing Sands –
The real poem is not a mere ornament, but confronts the real facts. One imagines what Dickinson must have come to see as the intricacy of her art – of language. Shakespeare, for instance, made her feel what words were, not truth or feeling, which were as unknown as Eternity, but words, which she could learn to use.
Sometimes she says, my business is Love. We think of her as a mad recluse, but it was not that she felt nothing for others…she felt too deeply to dissemble. Towards the end, her letters are so often letters of bereavement. She mourns her dog Carlo, her father, her mother, her Philadelphia friend, her late love Otis Lord, her nephew… She felt deeply, personally, the moment of difference that death is, but also the loss of profound connection with other souls.
Emily Dickinson lived what is life and confronted these facts. She was incapable of turning to available comforts, to god and heaven, or to conformity and achievement. As a poet, she was incapable of embroidering expected consolations. She was incapable of the sane behavior of ordinary women. The truth she sees from her window is not the truth of the life of Emily Dickinson, not the truth of social justice or injustice, but the truth of what it means to be human, as experienced, without outside interference, by Emily Dickinson. It is her orbit around the Consciousness that’s out there and to which the self can merely tune in, without hope of understanding, which is the only Truth that can be told.
Unlike Dickinson, Bartleby lived in a world walled-in by human proprieties and the conventions governing competition. And yet Bartleby’s orbit still exerts its peculiar force. Everyone has a Bartleby, someone to whom one responds for no reason the ego understands, as our narrator does to his unreasonable scrivener. What can a former advisor to John Jacob Astor see in this no-account clerk? Perhaps he responds to the truth about us as it appears in Bartleby, stripped bare of any pretensions, solitary and mortal. Perhaps it is the narrator’s soul that recognizes itself reflected in Bartleby.
Both souls are languishing, unrecognized in the world of law and commerce, but might there not be some arrangement that nourishes our humanity as Wall Street does not? Does the self-determination of the soul require that we shut the door on the frivolities of our society? Or can the soul reform the world? Emerson, who twice hosted the abolitionist John Brown in his Concord home, made an argument for Brown’s insanity after the raid on Harpers Ferry: “He is therefore precisely what lawyers call crazy, being governed by ideas, & not by external circumstance.” (Allen 590) For himself, Emerson observed the distinction: “I know that the world I converse with in the city and in the farms, is not the world I think….One day, I shall know the value and law of this discrepance. But I have not found that much was gained by manipular attempts to realize the world of thought.” (Experience 492) “Let us treat the men and women well:” he says, “treat them as if they were real: perhaps they are.” (Experience 479)
A few weeks ago, in London, protestors comparing themselves to Jesus chasing the moneylenders out of the temple occupied the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral. When they were swept off the steps, an Anglican Bishop resigned. Meanwhile, closer to home, Ben and Jerry of Vermont ice cream fame are trying to raise money so that the Occupy movement can have meetings instead of encampments. They have enlisted the aid of representatives of the 1% who would like to help the 99%. Ben Cohen is trying to come up with an ice cream flavor that captures the flavor of the movement.
According to the historian Howard Zinn, about every fifty years when economic disparity grows too blatant, there is a movement to change things, which produces only enough change to placate the 99% until another fifty years pass and the cycle repeats itself. Still, it is invigorating to see people gathering, energized by the belief that our politics, the way we live together, might reflect our best nature, or even that the human imagination and not blind power might be the force that inspires us.
In 1964, the novelist Ken Kesey and his friends the Merry Pranksters, drove across the country on the bus Further. “Don’t you know we’re all one?” Kesey asks, looking back on that trip. There had been a vision, then, of a new way things might be, a vision of a world where we’re all one. But the mistake the Merry Pranksters made, according to Kesey, was thinking they were going to win. “We developed vested interests in the victory to come….We begin to parcel off into little groups, whether it’s feminism, or politics, money, or religion, whatever it is, everyone is jumping up and down in front of it. Until nobody can see it clear anymore.”
No, Kesey says, “we’re meant to lose every time…. throughout history there have been these divine losers that just take a deep breath and go ahead knowing that society is not going to understand it, and not even caring because they’re having a good time..”
“Much Madness is divinest Sense –” to Dickinson’s discerning eye. But if Bartleby is a divine loser, he is not having a good time. The new tenants of the Wall Street offices the narrator has vacated do not tolerate Bartleby’s presence in the stairwell. He is arrested and taken to the infamous prison called the Tombs. When the narrator visits him there, Bartleby refuses to speak to him. “I know you,” he says, “and I want nothing to say to you.” When the narrator says the Tombs is not so sad a place, that there is sky and grass, Bartleby replies, “I know where I am.”
Like Dickinson, Bartleby does always know where he is. In life, she chooses her Crown. Bartleby dies, starving, huddled against a wall. He seems to be asleep. “With kings and counsellors,” says the narrator. Does he mean death is the final level playing field? or has he seen the regal nature of Bartleby’s preferences?
And do the narrator’s last words refer to the rumor of Bartleby’s work with dead letters or to his own deeper identification with the forlorn scrivener?
“Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!”
Allen, Gay Wilson. Waldo Emerson. New York: Penguin, 1982.
Dickinson, Emily. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. Thomas H. Johnson. Boston: Little, Brown, 1960.
Dickinson, Emily. Selected Letters. Ed. Thomas H. Johnson. Cambridge: Harvard, 1986.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Essays & Lectures. Ed. Joel Porte. New York: Library of America, 1983.
Magic Trip. A documentary by Alison Ellwood and Alex Gibney, based on Ken Kesey’s 16mm. films of the Merry Pranksters’ 1964 road trip on the bus Further. Magnolia Pictures, 2011. 107 min.
Thoreau, Henry D. Walden, Civil Disobedience and Other Writings. Ed. William Rossi. New York: Norton, 2008.