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Being as Refusal: Melville’s Bartleby as Heideggerian Anti-Hero

Louise Sundararajan

Melville’s “Bartleby, the scrivener: A story of Wall-Street” ( Berthoff, 1966) has a simple and straightforward story line: A former clerk in the Dead Letter office at Washington, by the name of Bartleby, was hired as a copyist at a law office in Wall Street. Much to the dismay of his employer, Bartleby refused to comply (“I would prefer not to”) with certain routine obligations at work, such as proofreading manuscripts and running errands, and when eventually fired, refused to leave the office, which he had made into his domicile. After all attempts had failed to evict Bartleby, his employer moved the law office to another location, abandoning Bartleby to the landlord, who subsequently called the police and had Bartleby removed to the common jail, where he perished from not eating.

This paper attempts a Heideggerian reading of the story with a special focus on three themes: Bartleby as mental patient, Bartleby as “standing reserve,” and Being as refusal -- themes that intertwine to paint a scenario of postmodern transcendence.

Bartleby as Mental Patient

Throughout the story, there are indications, subtle as well as explicit, that Bartleby might have a condition of mental illness. A random list of tell-tale signs would include his “pallid hopelessness” (p. 73), his “dead-wall reveries”( P. 56): “g periods he would stand looking out, at his pale window behind the screen, upon the dead brick wall” (pp. 55-56); his motionlessness (p. 56), his “morbid moodiness” (p. 56), and his social isolation, signs that led to the conclusion of his co-workers that “the scrivener was the victim of innate and incurable disorder” (p. 56), and again, “I think he is a little deranged” (p.72).

Although a case can probably be made of schizophrenia with depressive features, to pin down a psychiatric diagnosis would miss the allegorical intent of the story. Metaphorically, it suffices to say that Bartleby is the prototypal “madman.” Especially revealing in this respect is his association with the Dead Letter Office. Dead letters are messages that cannot be delivered, messages akin to “speech without response” (Foucault, 1965b, p. 251), a perpetual monologue that Foucault attributes to “madness”:

All those words deprived of language whose muffled rumbling, for an attentive ear, rises up from the depths of history, the obstinate murmur of a language which speaks by itself, uttered by no one and answered by no one, a language which stifles itself, sticks in the throat, collapses before having attained formulation, and returns without incident to the silence from which it had never been freed-- the charred root of meaning. (1965a, p. 285)

To the above scenario Bartleby adds an interesting twist: With his “I would prefer not to,” he turned all commands into dead letters, or as Foucault puts it, into "a monologue in a language which exhausted itself in the silence of others" (1965b, p. 261). As prototypal “madman,” Bartleby is the Other, whose silence renders all speech a perpetual monologue.

Bartleby as “Standing reserve”

As the subtitle, “A story of Wall-Street,” suggests, the story of Bartleby can be read as a parable of the contemporary post-industrial society, which, according to Heidegger, is dominated by the “standing reserve” mentality. According to Heidegger, “The coming to presence of technology threatens revealing, threatens it with the possibility that all revealing will be consumed in ordering and that everything will present itself only in the unconcealedness of standing-reserve” (1977, p. 33). More specifically, he writes, “That revealing concerns Nature, above all, as the chief storehouse of the standing energy reserve” (ibid., p. 21).

In the following paragraphs, I examine two particular manifestations of “standing reserve”: utilitarianism and method. To begin with, Bartleby was hired on the basis of the qualities that served utilitarianism well. Consider, for instance, his industriousness: “He ran a day and night line, copying by sunlight and by candle-light. . ..he wrote on silently, palely, mechanically”( p. 46). Note also his productivity in copying the law documents, or more precisely his reproductivity with high fidelity, a quality highly valued in this postmodern age of information.

Utilitarianism goes hand in hand with instrumentality, the goal of which is to make sure that, as the Czech philosopher Patocka puts it, “All and every one is set to a certain task, arranged for and placed on order. All and every one becomes a mere resource available for possible and actual orders” (1989, p. 330). Thus the narrator, Bartleby’s employer, took great pride in his (the narrator’s) “method.” For instance, through ingenious use of folding doors and a screen, he attempted to convert Bartleby into the Heideggerian “standing reserve,” a resource of ready accessibility, or as he puts is, “to have this quiet man within easy call”:

I resolved to assign Bartleby a corner by the folding-doors, but on my side of them, so as to have this quiet man within easy call . . . . Still further to a satisfactory arrangement, I procured a high green folding screen, which might entirely isolate Bartleby from my sight, though not remove him from my voice. (p. 46)

The narrator’s dismissal of Bartleby was likewise elegantly engineered:

Decently as I could, I told Bartleby that in six days’ time he must unconditionally leave the office. I warned him to take measures, in the interval, for procuring some other abode. I offered to assist him in his endeavor, if he himself would but take the first step towards a removal.(p. 60)

When Bartleby was found to be in the office at the expiration date, the narrator left extra money on the table, told him firmly he “must” leave, bid him farewell, then left the office. Again, the narrator was proud of his own methodic approach to things:

I could not but highly plume myself on my masterly management in getting rid of Bartleby. Masterly I call it, and such it must appear to any dispassionate thinker. The beauty of my procedure seemed to consist in its perfect quietness. There was no vulgar bullying, no bravado of any sort, no choleric hectoring, and striding to and fro across the apartment, jerking out vehement commands for Bartleby to bundle himself off with his beggarly traps. Nothing of the kind. (p. 61)

What happens when methods fail? As we can see in the following quotation, the narrator’s reflections on Bartleby’s condition expose the inherent violence of a method turned impotent:

My first emotions had been those of melancholy and sincerest pity; but just in proportion as the forlornness of Bartleby grew and grew to my imagination, did that same melancholy merge into fear, that pity into repulsion. . . . They err who would assert that invariably this is owing to the inherent selfishness of the human heart. It rather proceeds from a certain hopelessness of remedying excessive and organic ill. To a sensitive being, pity is not seldom pain. And when at last it is perceived that such pity cannot lead to effectual succor, common sense bids the soul be rid of it. (p. 56)

Exposed here is the intrinsic violence of utilitarianism, which accepts suffering only so far as it is a problem that can be fixed. A problem beyond remedy has no place in the utilitarian society. It is against the backdrop of this utilitarian approach to suffering that we can appreciate the significance of Heidegger’s contemplations on the broken hammer, of which Bartleby, as we shall see, serves as an excellent illustration.

Being as Refusal

If we do not hasten to fix or throw out a broken hammer, Heidegger suggests that we may come to see it in a new light. Ordinarily, when a hammer works well, its being is masked by its use, such that only when it breaks down do we notice its “thingness” sticking out like a sore thumb (see Macomber, 1967). As being without the justification of “serviceability” (Heidegger, 1962, p. 109), the broken hammer discloses the questionableness of our being. These Heideggerian contemplations of the broken hammer find an eloquent expression in the story of Bartleby.

First of all, the dead letters invite similar reflections. The dead letters accumulate, but serve no purpose of “standing reserve.” They fail/refuse to deliver promises, or solve problems. Melville gives a litany of such refusals, which culminate in the characteristically Heideggerian theme of mortality:

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. (pp. 73-74)

In an age of utilitarianism, this refusal of being invariably courts violence, as evidenced by the speedy death of the dead letters: “For by the cart-load they are annually burned,” writes Melville (p. 73). But Heidegger has more to say on this subject.

Contrary to the conventional preoccupation with presence in Western metaphysics, Heidegger focuses on Being’s concealment, on its refusal to be disclosed. His root metaphor for Being is the “earth,” which is “that which is by nature undisclosable, that which shrinks from every disclosure and constantly keeps itself closed up” (1971, p. 47). This observation seems to describe word for word Bartleby, who “had declined telling who he was, or whence he came, or whether he had any relatives in the world” (p. 56). It is ironic that the screen which was meant to facilitate the ready accessibility of Bartleby turned out to be a means of concealment, behind which Bartleby “sat in his hermitage, oblivious to everything but his own peculiar business there” (p. 50). His employer was finally convinced of Bartleby’s infinite inaccessibility : “I might give alms to his body; but his body did not pain him; it was his soul that suffered, and his soul I could not reach” (p. 56).

As Heidegger points out, what invariably follows on the heals of Being’s refusal is destruction. “Earth,” writes Heidegger, “shatters every attempt to penetrate into it. It causes every merely calculating importunity upon it to turn into a destruction” (1971, p. 47). He uses as illustration a piece of chalk:

What does the interior of the chalk look like? Let us see. We break it into two pieces. Are we now at the interior? Exactly as before we are again outside. . . . The moment we want to open the chalk by breaking it, to grasp the interior, it had enclosed itself again. We could continue this action until the piece of chalk had become a little pile of powder. (1969, p. 19)

In Bartleby, the story of the chalk is repeated to its last detail.

After many a futile attempt at unveiling, Bartleby’s employer decided to probe gently one more time, before taking drastic measures:

Finally, I resolved upon this -- I would put certain calm questions to him the next morning, touching his history, etc., and if he declined to answer them openly and unreservedly (and I supposed he would prefer not), then to give him a twenty dollar bill over and above whatever I might owe him, and tell him his services were no longer required. . . (pp. 56-57)

Here was the gentle probe:

“Will you tell me, Bartleby, where you were born?”
“I would prefer not to.”
“Will you tell me anything about yourself?”
“I would prefer not to.” (ibid.)

Then came the ineluctable destruction that Heidegger’s thought experiment of the chalk was a presentiment of:

On the appointed day I engaged carts and men, proceeded to my chambers, and, having but little furniture, everything was removed in a few hours. Throughout, the scrivener remained standing behind the screen, which I directed to be removed the last thing. It was withdrawn; and, being folded up like a huge folio, left him the motionless occupant of a naked room. (p. 67)

This violent unveiling seems to be the logical consequence of “forgetting the refusal” of Being, a tendency characteristic of the “standing reserve” mentality of modern technology, in the words of the translators of The piety of thinking (Heidegger, 1976), Hart and Maraldo: the “epochal sway of modern technology” lies in a particular kind of revealing/disclosure, which consists in “calling out and making demands on the earth to yield a secure world; refusing world-withdrawal and forgetting the refusal. . .”(p. 161).

Transcendence in the Postmodern World

To recapitulate, we have examined Bartleby from three angles: a. as mental patient, b. as “standing reserve,” and c. as illustration of the Heideggerian notion of Being as refusal. The first two perspectives, the medical model (a), and utilitarianism (b), are intimately related, the former is part and parcel of the latter’s “method,” its social engineering. Note how Bartleby’s eccentricities were tolerated until he stopped being “productive,” i.e., when he gave up copying. Thus the medical model simply reinforces the nihilistic forces of utilitarianism, in which Being is masked and absorbed by use, as Lovitt points out, regarding “standing reserve”: “things are not even regarded as objects, because their only important quality has become their readiness for use” (Heidegger, 1977, p. xxix).

In sharp contrast is the Heideggerian approach to the broken hammer, an approach which, by allowing the de-coupling of being and use, reclaims our openness to Being. This openness to Being, however, is reclaimed in a way characteristically post-modern. The postmodern age is usually associated with loss of openness to Being, in other words, with a lack of transcendence as symbolized by the “death of God.” According to Patocka, the "death of God" sent the postmodern (wo)man "limping." "The limping pilgrim," writes Patocka, "wishes for God, but in His absence turns to his limitation, his finitude, to open the way to transcendence" (1989, p. 79).

This decidedly postmodern turn takes place, in Melville’s story, one Sunday morning, when the narrator found out about the depth and dimension of Bartleby’s destitution:

Upon more closely examining the place, I surmised that for an indefinite period Bartleby must have ate, dressed, and slept in my office, and that too without plate, mirror, or bed. . . . What miserable friendlessness and loneliness are here revealed! His poverty is great; but his solitude, how horrible! Think of it. Of a Sunday, Wall Street is deserted as Petra; and every night of every day it is an emptiness. This building, too, which of weekdays hums with industry and life, at nightfall echoes with sheer vacancy, and all through Sunday is forlorn. And here Bartleby makes his home . (pp. 54-55)

The narrator did not go to church that Sunday: “I did not accomplish the purpose of going to Trinity Church that morning. Somehow, the things I had seen disqualified me for the time from church-going” (p. 56). This postmodern turn from God to humanity, from infinity to finitude, also comes with its moment of revelation. Our prototype “limping pilgrim,” the narrator, has this to say:

For the first time in my life a feeling of overpowering stinging melancholy seized me. . . . I remembered the bright silks and sparkling faces I had seen that day, in gala trim, swan-like sailing down the Mississippi of Broadway; and I contrasted them with the pallid copyist, and thought to myself, Ah, happiness courts the light, so we deem the world is gay; but misery hides aloof, so we deem that misery there is none. (55)

What is the connection between the narrator’s insight into the concealment of Being and his strange attraction toward Bartleby, the inscrutable scrivener, whom he was utterly incapable of rendering accessible, intelligible, reasonable, let alone “manageable”? The beginning of an answer can be found in Heidegger’s conceptualizations of the human being as a "sign."

According to Heidegger, what is essential to human nature is not to reveal, unveil, or render accessible to direct observation what is hidden, so much as to be drawn toward what is concealed. This tendency of the human to be drawn towards the withdrawn is referred to by Heidegger as "a sign":

. . . drawn into what withdraws, drawing toward it and thus pointing into the withdrawal, man first is man. His essential nature lies in being such a pointer. Something which in itself, by its essential nature, is pointing, we call a sign. . . . man is a sign. (1968, p. 9).

Is it possible that transcendence in the postmodern world consists in our being a “sign,” that points, or bears witness to the refusal of Being? Is that why we experience a simultaneous anguish and serenity, as we contemplate the concluding line of Melville’s story: “Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!” (p. 74)?


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