Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 9, No. 1, 2010
  Current Issue  
  Back Issues  
Robert J. Lewis
  Senior Editor
Mark Goldfarb
  Contributing Editors
Bernard Dubé
Sylvain Richard
David Solway
Marissa Consiglieri de Chackal
  Music Editors
Diane Gordon
Serge Gamache
  Arts Editor
Lydia Schrufer
Mady Bourdage
Marcel Dubois
Emanuel Pordes
  Past Contributors
  Noam Chomsky
Mark Kingwell
David Solway
Naomi Klein
Arundhati Roy
Evelyn Lau
Stephen Lewis
Robert Fisk
Margaret Somverville
Michael Moore
Julius Grey
Irshad Manji
Richard Rodriguez
Pico Iyer
Edward Said
Jean Baudrillard
Bill Moyers
Barbara Ehrenreich
Leon Wieseltier
Nayan Chanda
Charles Lewis
John Lavery
Tariq Ali
Michael Albert
Rochelle Gurstein
Alex Waterhouse-Hayward

a whale of an existentialist was Herman Melville's





Yahia Lababidi is the Egyptian-Lebanese author of Signposts to Elsewhere (Jane Street, 2008), selected byThe Independent (UK) as one of their 2008 Books of the Year. To date, Signposts has been translated into Arabic, with selections in Slovak and Swedish. His work has also appeared in Geary’s Guide to the World’s Great Aphorists, The Week, AGNI, Cimarron Review, Rain Taxi, and Philosophy Now. Lababidi’s poetry chapbook, Fever Dreams, is forthcoming from Crisis Chronicles Press in early 2010.


[Yahia Lababidi makes the case that one of the world's first existentialists, or proponents of the absurd, was in fact "Born in the USA." Which is to say, there may not have been a Joseph K. without Bartleby, and that the initial Notes From The Underground Man was not Dostoyevsky but Herman Melville] ed.

Herman Melville published his first short story Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street in 1853, anonymously. By that time, the author already had behind him seven years of novel writing, culminating in his great work of allegory: Moby Dick. Republished in 1856, under the author’s name and an abbreviated title, Bartleby is a miniature masterpiece, all the more captivating for its evocation of the uncanny. The enduring fascination it exerts is that of the cipher, as represented by the enigmatic character of the anti-hero, Bartleby, a strangely doomed figure of unfathomable depths lurking behind an inscrutable surface. As the story charts the gradual exasperation and emotional bafflement of his employer, our perception of Bartleby ever-so-faintly shifts, from strangely helpless to obscurely sinister.

The story begins well enough. The elderly narrator, an unambitious lawyer and Bartleby’s employer is keenly observant and sympathetically tolerant of the eccentricities of human nature as manifested by his law-copyists. He faithfully renders their idiosyncrasies in a loving and droll drawl, before lingering on the biography of Bartleby, “one of those beings of whom nothing is ascertainable.” One day, in answer to an advertisement, Bartleby appears at his office like an apparition: “pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn.” He soon proceeds to gorge himself on documents, only cheerlessly. By the third day however, in response to an ordinary request to examine a paper with his employer, Bartleby first utters his inexplicable (and soon to become maddening) mantra: I would prefer not to. Rallying his stunned faculties, our narrator finds he is incapable of responding to this bizarre reply delivered with such perfect comportment. He may as well be cross with his bust of Cicero, he reasons. A few days later, summoned to a similar request, Bartleby again mildly repeats his startling reply, and gently takes his leave. Yet, somehow, Bartleby’s dispassionate weirdness endears him to his employer, and he is left to retreat to his ‘hermitage,’ a high green folding screen in the corner of the room with a window facing onto a brick wall.

In time, the narrator comes to pity Bartleby’s ascetic existence, living as a monk of an unnamed order, never dining, never leaving the office, and concludes that his eccentricities must be involuntary. He fears that if he were to turn him away Bartleby would surely find a less indulgent employer, and keeping him becomes a question of conscience. Thus, in his superhuman effort to humour Bartleby’s perverse willfulness, his employee comes to enjoy strange privileges and exemptions. Yet there are times when, prey to an all-too-human need for a reaction, any reaction, our narrator is irritated by his employee’s “unalterableness of demeanor” and “great stillness.” Early for church one Sunday he decides to pass by his office only to find that Bartleby, in an unusual state of tattered dishabille, would “prefer not to” let him enter as he is “deeply engaged.” Not without a certain impotent rebellion, the narrator slinks away from his own door. He returns later, out of curiosity, to discover (from belongings left behind) that Bartleby has been living in his office. Contemplating the sheer friendlessness and solitude this implies, he is overcome by a ‘fraternal melancholy’ for the “pallid copyist.” Yet by the mystery of emotions and the magic of moods, a deeper meditation on Bartleby’s morbid condition causes melancholy to recoil into fear, and pity to slip into revulsion. Registering this new-found visceral understanding, the narrator decides to dismiss his unwholesome employee. But, first he must master his own superstitions at forsaking this “forlornest of mankind.”

At some point in the story, Bartleby decides to take up the indefensible position of blankly declining to do any more writing, indulging only in his ‘dead wall revelry’ all day, with dull glazed eyes. The narrator, desperately, provides him with the excuse that his eyes must be ailing and exempts him from working for some days, only to have his employee confirm to him that he has permanently given up copying. Nevertheless, Bartleby stays on “useless as a necklace, but afflictive to bear,” not unlike Coleridge’s albatross in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and invested with the same allegorical gravitas and sense of foreboding. “A bit of a wreck in the mid Atlantic” the narrator helplessly notes of Bartleby. By now though, his compassion is laced with a deep unease and he issues a six day ultimatum during which time Bartleby must unconditionally leave the office. And, yet, peeping behind the screen on the sixth day, there was Bartleby. “You must go,” repeats the narrator, good-naturedly offering him $20 and inviting him to write if he should need anything, “I would prefer not to” is his employee’s only reply, standing in silence “like the last column of some ruined temple.”

The next morning, following frantic conjecture as to whether or not Bartleby has finally vacated the premises, the narrator returns to his office. “Not yet, I’m occupied,” comes the familiar voice from within. Submitting to the scrivener’s “wondrous ascendancy,” he retreats with a mixture of perplexity and nervous resentment. But pity triumphs and as a result of his spiritual readings and temperament, our narrator experiences a sublimely ridiculous epiphany. He must accept Bartleby as predestined from eternity, and his mission in life to furnish him with office room. This generosity of spirit, alas, is fated not to last. Whispers of wonder over the strange creature he keeps abound among his professional acquaintances and spark his own dark anticipation to overthrow the “intolerable incubus.” The only way to rid himself of this “ghost” he decides is to change offices, which he does, albeit in terror that Bartleby might return to haunt him. Instead, it is the incensed landlord and tenants of his abandoned place of business who pay him a visit. They urge him to reason with Bartleby, who sits perched on the stair banisters by day and sleeps in the entrance hall by night, to everyone’s consternation. Relenting to a thinly-veiled threat of public scandal, the narrator returns to present Bartleby with this necessary life choice: “Either you must do something, or something must be done to you.” “No, I would prefer not to make any change,” offers Bartleby, and our narrator flees the scene and town.

Upon his return, he finds a note. Bartleby has been removed by the police as a vagrant, taken to a prison known as the Tombs, and the narrator is summoned to make a statement. In prison, he finds Bartleby alone in a quiet yard facing a high wall, and their exchange is strained, defensive on the narrator’s side and accusatory on Bartleby’s. Before leaving, the narrator requests that particular attention be extended to his ex-employee (the best dinner . . . ) but Bartleby does not dine at all. When the narrator returns a few days later he finds him huddled at the base of the wall, in a kind of fetal position, and dead. Before parting with the reader, the narrator volunteers that if this tale should stir curiosity as to Bartleby’s past, he shares in it. Ultimately, he must profess ignorance of this “man by nature and misfortune prone to pallid hopelessness.”

At this point, several questions pose themselves. Why is this man by nature and misfortune prone to hopelessness? Is he a casualty of the workplace, assaulted by pointlessness, or does he take refuge in the wearisome or lethargic to drain himself of some inner poison? Meaning, who introduced the hopelessness, Bartleby or the Office? And, what does he mean by his confounding mantra: I would prefer not to? Prefer not to what exactly? And, prefer to do what, instead? Existentially, what does this position entail: to do nothing and prefer not to make any change? To approach these questions, we may try to reconstruct an imaginary past to account for this unaccountable life: its quiet despair, its irrefutable sorrow, its ambiguous pain. In short, we must discover what went wrong, what wound it expressed, what injury not to be healed. “What had the man had, to make him by the loss of it so bleed, and yet live?” These words are from a short story by Henry James, The Beast in the Jungle. They occur to the protagonist as he passes a stranger in a cemetery, and they serve to frame our inquiry of the living-death that is Bartleby, with his entombed spirit, undying and unliving, wandering in the land of shades.

If existentially speaking, life may be likened to standing before a blank canvas, and living as filling that space, then what can be made of the proposition of refusing to engage? Or, to put it differently, if in response to our thrownness-into-being (Heidegger’s words) we decide not to get up, walk or walk away? To resolutely shrug off the responsibility to participate, is to reject life itself. It is the nihilist impulse personified, the very embodiment of negation. For, in actively rejecting everything, is it not Nothing that is passively sought? “Nothing is more real than nothing,” offers Beckett, a literary Bartleby given to his own endgames, and condemned to life in his way. The narrator of Beckett’s The End may well be speaking for Bartleby when he describes himself as, “without the courage to end or the strength to go on.” Something of this nothingness infiltrates Bartleby, saps his strength and is at the heart of his inertia. For, with despair as with night-vision, the eyes soon grow accustomed to the dark.

Greek poet, Constantine Cavafy, is another example of an artist with such night-vision. In one poem, Walls, we find him imperceptibly walled-in and in another, The Windows, he is shutting out the “new tyranny of the light.” His poem The City -- with its hissing hopelessness, paralysis of will, early surrender and ashen gloom -- is not unlike the mental space inhabited by Bartleby:

New lands you will not find, you will not find other seas.
The city will follow you. You will roam the same
streets. And you will age in the same neighborhoods;
in these same houses you will grow gray.
Always you will arrive in this city. To another land -- do not hope --
there is no ship for you, there is no road.
As you have ruined your life here
in this little corner, you have destroyed it in the whole world.

This bleak world view of life as inescapable sentence is also suggested in Rilke’s poem, The Panther:

His vision, from the constantly passing bars, has grown so weary
that it cannot hold anything else.

It seems to him there are a thousand bars; and behind the bars,
no world.

As he paces in cramped circles, over and over, the movement of his
powerful soft strides is like a ritual dance around a center in which
a mighty will stands paralyzed.

Returning to Bartleby, pacing in cramped circles around a center in which his will stands paralyzed, we must again ask why this is so. Is his will spoilt by misuse, disuse or abuse? Is it ravaged by a savage boredom? Is his imagination starved, his mind malnourished? Rilke’s answer to this corrosive paralysis is the opposite of Bartleby’s, namely, affirmation:

Whoever does not affirm at some time or other with a definite resolve -- yes, jubilate at -- the terribleness of life, never takes possession of the unutterable powers of our existence; he merely walks at the edge; and when the decision is made eventually, he will have been neither one of the living nor one of the dead.

And in fact if it is the work that has depleted Bartleby’s resources, then why does he stay? Why do people stay in occupations, relations, and spaces (inner and outer landscapes) that cease to nourish and sustain, or worse, never did? Stuck in their own mud, their wheels vainly spinning, why do people form spiritually deadening habits, what proves their undoing: which loss, what slight, what cumulative weariness or disenchantment? These are questions tied up with what is deep and unreasoning, questions of self-worth, or perhaps some perceived and invisible crime that is being atoned for.

Philip Larkin, a poet of bittersweet defeat, much of whose energy was drained (by his own admission) running a university library for decades, is in a position to answer some of these questions. In his poem, Toads, he sardonically interrogates himself:

Why should I let the toad work
Squat on my life?
Can’t I use my wit as a pitchfork
And drive the brute off?

. . .
For something sufficiently toad-like
Squats in me, too;
Its hunkers are heavy as hard luck,
And cold as snow,

. . .
I don’t say, one bodies the other
One’s spiritual truth;
But I do say it’s hard to lose either,
When you have both.

In another poem of his, tellingly entitled Poetry of Departures, the fifth-hand news of the “audacious, purifying elemental move” of someone who “chucked up everything and just cleared off” suffices to help Larkin stay on, albeit with envious resignation. Undoubtedly, there is a deep-seated fear at bottom of this great unwillingness to engage, change, leave and start again. Kafka, who in his letters to fiancé Milena, agrees that he “may sometimes look like a bribed defender of [his] fear,” is another connoisseur of things he would “prefer not to do.” A law clerk throughout his life, and writer by night, he sums up his existence in his diaries as “a hesitation before birth.” Yet in another letter, this time to friend Max Brod, he is capable of seeing his situation with more clarity and courage. Speaking of a hypothetical writer, Kafka says: “. . . he has a terrible fear of dying because he has not yet lived . . . what is essential to life is only to forgo complacency, to move into the house instead of admiring it and hanging garlands around it.” This recognition of complacency and moving into life’s house is precisely what Bartleby seems incapable of.

In the course of the story, the complacency of Melville’s scrivener becomes complete, monumental. He had arrived already half-wasted, a guardian of some obscure pain, and dangerously flirting with non-being. His “great stillness,” which alternately fascinated and rattled his employer, may hold the key to the mystery.

After reading Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, author Paul Lanzky decided to seek out the philosopher who was living in complete isolation in Italy. Despite being struck by his humaneness and amiability, Lanzky notes: “Nietzsche’s being displayed so much naiveté . . . so much wise devotion to the most modest and world-remote life, that to me the catastrophe [his madness] seemed unavoidable . . . this longing for stillness, indeed this temporary reveling in the idyllic, suddenly seemed . . . like a weariness of soul . . . ”

Analyzing Gogol’s genius in The Overcoat, writer Vladimir Nabokov also touches on some of the themes that pertain to Bartleby. “The absurd,” he writes, “has as many shades and degrees as the tragic . . . You cannot place a man in an absurd situation if the whole world he lives in is absurd.” The real “message” of the story, he tells us, is that “something is very wrong and all men are mild lunatics engaged in pursuits that seem to them very important while an absurdly logical force keeps them at their futile jobs.” Speaking of the hero of The Overcoat, Nabokov comes close to summarizing Melville’s anti-hero when he says: “[He] is absurd because he is pathetic, because he is human . . . that meek little clerk, a ghost, a visitor from some tragic depths who by chance happened to assume the disguise of a petty official.” After reading Gogol, Nabokov admits that one’s eyes may become “gogolized” with fragments of Gogol’s world surfacing in unforeseen places.

Yet, Bartleby’s ancestors and heirs are not merely literary, nor is he the exclusive property of a select band of eccentrics. Rather, he is the patron saint of the civil servant, the dispirited automatons of an absurd workplace, the insulted and injured of the world. In other words, all who “measure out their lives in coffee spoons” (Prufrock’s famous phrasing) in demoralizing circumstances, performing tedious tasks that, quite frankly, they would prefer not to. In this sense, Bartleby may be read as a cautionary tale concerning the perils of passive resistance and spiritual stagnation; the dust, rust or moss that gathers from staying in place. “The man who never alters his opinion / Is like standing water/ And breeds reptiles of the mind,” writes William Blake. Resentment, bitterness, complacency, paralysis, or hopelessness are such examples. In that sense, Bartleby may be said to exist in everyone, in various concentrations and various combinations. Ah Bartleby, Ah humanity!

Also by Yahia Lababidi:
The Art of Fasting
On Susan Sontag
Michael Jackson: The Awe and the Aw
Notes On Silence



Email Address
(not required) = shared webhosting, dedicated servers, development/consulting, no down time/top security, exceptional prices
Film Ratings Page of Sylvain Richard, film critic at Arts & Opinion - Montreal
Montreal World Film Festival
Festival Nouveau Cinema de Montreal, Oct. 10-21st, (514) 844-2172
CINEMANIA(Montreal) - festival de films francophone 1-11 novembre, Cinema Imperial info@514-878-0082: featuring Bernard Tavernier
Montreal Jazz Festival
Listing + Ratings of films from festivals, art houses, indie
Armand Vaillancourt: sculptor
Available Ad Space
Valid HTML 4.01!
Privacy Statement Contact Info
Copyright 2002 Robert J. Lewis