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  • 8½ Times Bartleby
  • Stuart Burrows (bio)

“I have really nothing to say . . . but I want to say it anyway.”1 So says Federico Fellini’s Guido Anselmi, the film director whose inability to make movies makes up the movie . Guido’s confession can be read as a modern updating of what Gilles Deleuze calls Bartleby’s “formula”: Herman Melville’s creation prefers to do nothing; Fellini’s to say nothing.2 What motivates my comparison is the subject of this essay: Branka Arsić’s original and imaginative Passive Constitutions, or 7½ Times Bartleby. “Bartleby” has of course been the subject of well-known essays by Deleuze, Giorgio Agamben, and Jacques Rancière. Arsić’s work extends and revises this work, reading Melville’s story within a number of fascinating philosophical, aesthetic, and psychological contexts: British empiricism, J. M. W. Turner’s pre-impressionism, nineteenth-century understandings of melancholia. In the spirit of Arsić’s work I will be adding my own micro-reading of Bartleby to her 7½ analyses of Melville’s story. 8½ then. It’s time for some addition.

0. (I adopt Arsić’s idiosyncratic numbering of her chapters): “In Bartleby,” Arsić begins, “we witness the arrival of an original, of someone who comes from ‘without.’ If it is almost impossible to determine [End Page 19] anything about him, if he is forever lost, it is because the concepts of our familiar knowledge cannot comprehend him.”3 Melville’s “originals”—Arsić borrows the term from The Confidence Man—are not unique characters but events, interruptions not only of all the author (and the reader) knows but of all he or she imagines or feels. Bartleby, like Oedipus, Hamlet, Don Quixote, or Milton’s Satan, “announces the possibility of a new thinking” (10). Arsić’s name for this new form is depersonalization. A new way of thinking demands a new way of reading, hence Arsić promises that her eight chapters will “contradict or even negate one another, and often by reading the same paragraphs of the story” (10). Such a project seems to me in keeping with a Melvillean notion of character. At another moment in The Confidence Man Melville scorns fiction in which “every character can, by reason of its consistency, be comprehended at a glance.” Such fiction is untrue to reality, the narrator asserts, since character is as “incongruous in its parts, as the flying-squirrel, and, at different periods, as much at variance with itself as the butterfly is with the caterpillar into which it changes.”4 Only the writer who contradicts herself captures what it is that Melville means by character.

1. The attorney, confronted with the singular behavior of Bartleby, turns to Jonathan Edwards’s Freedom of the Will. This is why, Arsić insists, Melville’s readers must also turn to it. Edwards’s treatise tells us that “preference is power because, before choosing anything in particular and even by not choosing or preferring anything in particular, it prefers to prefer” (15). Bartleby’s “I would prefer not to” is thus “the act of preference for the undecided choice, the power of its affirmation” (15). But the attorney also reads, as Arsić does, Joseph Priestley’s Doctrine of Philosophical Necessity Illustrated, which dismantles Edwards’s system, replacing necessity with accident. Defining identity as nothing more than a series of disconnected singularities, Priestley “reveals that preference is possible as involuntary” (30). Reading what the attorney is reading becomes a way for Arsić to inhabit the inner space of the attorney much as Bartleby occupies his inner chambers. Her aim is to understand the attorney much as the attorney tries to understand Bartleby, being guided, just as she understands the attorney to be, by a charitable view of her object.

2. Why does the attorney forget his desire to rid himself of his other clerks (whose endless eating and drinking is itself a kind of madness) and focus his attention exclusively on Bartleby? If “there is no writing of the law” (43)—since none of the attorney’s copyists succeeds in [End Page 20] copying the law texts they are given—why is Bartleby’s refusal particularly disturbing? Bartleby disturbs, Arsić contends, because he occupies...


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