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  • Tongue-Tied1: Blanchot, Melville, Des Forêts
  • Ann Smock

1. Liability

Let me begin by reminding you of Bartleby, Bartleby the scrivener, that quiet man who came to a standstill one summer morning in a law office on Wall Street, and just stayed there, gazing out the window at the wall outside. He seemed to be a copyist, and the proprietor of the office (the narrator of Melville’s novella) gamely tried to employ him in that capacity, but bit by bit Bartleby indicated that he would prefer not to perform any of the ordinary duties of a copyist in a law office. However, he was not really inclined to leave the place either—or, for that matter, to say anything at all by way of explanation. Politely he set aside his would-be employer’s suggestion that he seek some other kind of job more congenial to him. He preferred not to try working as a bartender, he said, but the idea of traveling through the country collecting bills for the merchants did not appeal to him either—though, he quietly added, mild as always, “I am not particular.” 2

Soon all the lawyer’s associates began urging their colleague to do something about Bartleby. Indeed, everyone who stopped by the Wall Street chambers on business or for any other reason and came upon the colorless scrivener just standing there (or sitting, behind his green screen) and learned that he’d in fact made his home in the office where, though he did no work or anything whatsoever to justify or “give a coloring” to his presence” (33), he persisted in staying not only every day of the week, but at nights, too, and on Sundays—everyone who happened to become aware of this situation advised the [End Page 1037] lawyer rather urgently to “settle” Bartleby at once. As if the pallid copyist were a debt long outstanding: a responsibility the lawyer had yet to discharge or an obligation for which he was still accountable. It didn’t seem to matter that Bartleby was already only too settled. He wouldn’t move on, he’d become a “fixture!” (29). That was the whole problem. Nonetheless, everyone urged the lawyer to settle him. You are responsible, they said; you must do something. And if you don’t, then we will: we’ll settle him for you (38-39).

Granted, there was nothing left to do: Bartleby was settled already, once and for all. But what an unsettling settlement! It’s as though a question answered unexpectedly, way too soon, all of a sudden just hung there, waiting for someone to answer. Indeed, the Wall Street lawyer felt bound to respond.

But he could no more employ Bartleby than dismiss him—no more take him on than get rid of him. If the strange scrivener really was a debt of some kind, or some sort of obligation, he was an odd kind no easier to shoulder than to discharge—as hard to incur (or assume) as to settle. Before such an odd responsibility (a fellow-human as unreachable as he was inescapable), fellow-feeling in the lawyer tended to flag. His dutiful reminders to himself about “common humanity” fell flat. Nevertheless under these circumstances, there being nothing any longer that a competent and responsible person such as himself could do, he was liable to respond. Everything contributed to reminding him of this. He was bound, in other words, bound and obliged to do something other than anything he, or anyone, ever could do; he was liable to do something beyond the realm of possibility.

I use the word “liable” here, and the expression “liable to respond,” for the sake of the ambiguity they introduce, and in order to suggest that not only is this lawyer summoned somehow to a responsibility way out of proportion with human capacities—summoned to do more than anyone possibly can—but also that he may be only too likely to succeed. Liable to respond: by way of this expression I mean to render a little more explicit an uncertainty which seems to me to hover about the situation in the office Bartleby settles in: is...

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