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“Bartleby,” Empson, and Pastoral Pleasures
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Casting about, some years ago, for help in focusing my conviction that “Bartleby, the Scrivener” has a complex relation to literary pastoral, I opened William Empson’s Some Versions of Pastoral (1935) and read this:

The feeling that life is essentially inadequate to the human spirit, and yet that a good life must avoid saying so, is naturally at home with most versions of pastoral; in pastoral you take a limited life and pretend it is the full and normal one, and a suggestion that one must do this with all life, because the normal is itself limited, is easily put into the trick though not necessary to its power. Conversely any expression of the idea that all life is limited may be regarded as only a trick of pastoral, perhaps chiefly intended to hold all our attention and sympathy for some limited life, though again this is not necessary to it either on grounds of truth or beauty; in fact the suggestion of pastoral may be only a protection for the idea which must at last be taken alone. The business of interpretation is obviously very complicated. Literary uses of the problem of free-will and necessity, for example, may be noticed to give curiously bad arguments and I should think get their strength from keeping you in doubt between the two methods. Thus Hardy is fond of showing us an unusually stupid person subjected to very unusually bad luck, and then a moral is drawn, not merely by inference but by solemn assertion, that we are all in the same boat as this person whose story is striking precisely because it is unusual. The effect may be very grand, but to make an otherwise logical reader accept the process must depend on giving him obscure reasons for wishing it so. It is clear at any rate that this grand notion of the inadequacy of life, so various in its means of expression, needs to be counted as a possible territory of the pastoral.

I laughed aloud when I read this (the Hardy part). And I scratched my head: Empson both asserts and demonstrates that “the business of interpretation is obviously very complicated” (actually, I laughed at that, too). I thought first: well, this speaks directly to the central ethical-interpretive problem posed by Melville’s story, namely, the extent to which we are being asked to take a limited life (Bartleby’s) and see the human condition in it. But there was something in the tone here, or the mix of tones, that also seemed to resonate with the enigma of Melville’s story, and that made the more surface-level appositeness of Empson’s discussion seem unusually compelling. Empson’s tone gave pleasure, as the tone of “Bartleby” gives pleasure. It’s a complicated tone, certainly, rueful and humorous by turns, making room both for no-nonsense analysis of semantic effects and the blinkered wishfulness that so often embraces such effects. Such a complicated tone produces complicated pleasure, and it is such pleasure’s relation to the practice and conclusions of interpretation, that I wish to track here.

We are suspicious of such pleasure, for the most part; we treat it as an index of unreflectiveness, or of lingering investments in demystified ideological categories (such as “humanity,” the last word of “Bartleby”). By tabling or quarantining our pleasure, we also forget the processual nature of literary experience; we take the text as an object that might be “unpacked” or “placed” in an appropriate context, when in fact it is a record of attempts to make meaning, full of lucky hits and dead ends, a foray into deep water. Empson’s project—and I will argue that it is Melville’s project in “Bartleby” too—is essayistic, in the sense of undertaking trials, experiments, answering the “tricks” of the text now with skepticism, wry or scornful, now with awe, admiring or shaken. Everything is leavened, when you read Empson, by the sense that the text is ineluctably given, and yet could have been—could still possibly be—otherwise. The necessary and contingent are not philosophical categories here but aspects of a mood, components of a complex pleasure. In...

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