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Canadian Reviewof American Studies Volume 24, Number 1, Winter 1994, pp. 113-117 Bartleby is Dead Michael Zeitlin J. Hillis Miller. Versions of Pygmalion. Cambridge: Hatvard University Press, 1990. Pp. iii + 256. 113 The origins of this book are traceable to A. Bartlett Giamatti's "vigorous attack on literary theory written while he was still president of Yale University . He was of course implicitlycriticizingsome influential colleagues at Yale" (14). In response to Giamatti'scharge that deconstruction is radically incapable of situating the literary text within the social domain of ethics, Miller undertakes close readings of James's What Maisie Knew, Kleist's "Der Findling," Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener," Blanchot's L'arret de mort, and James's "The Last of the Valerii," in order "to exemplify... the claim that the rhetorical study of literature is indispensable to exploration of the so-called extrinsic relations of literature: the relations of literature to history , politics, and society, to personal and institutional relations" (13). In exploring "the extrinsic relations of literature," Miller's project, a continuation of that explicitlybegun in his Ethics of Reading (1987), is theoretically relevant to the discipline of American Studies and the cultural studies movement in general, for which literary texts participate in, represent, and mediate-often in extraordinarily complex ways--the material conditions and social contradictions of a surrounding culture. In practical terms, however , Miller's readings tend to reinscribe a gap or aporia between narrative and ethics, between literature and that social space one might designate, in the broadest sense, as history; accordingly, Versions of Pygmalion will do little to appease either the "liberal" or the "materialist" critics of deconstruction . 114 Canadian Review of American Studies Miller claims that deconstruction has always been interested in exploring "the relation between ethics and narrative" (13), but he also claims that narrative-whether one writes, reads, or teaches it-is never primarily relevant to ethics. For Miller, reading and literary analysis of narrative "would seem to be initially and perhaps primarily a matter of getting the meaning of what is read right, that is, a cognitive or epistemological matter, not an ethical matter having to do with conduct and responsibility" (14). Since this claim deeply informs Miller's reading practice, it may be worth assessing a critical example of his effort to "get the meaning of what is read right" -in this case, since it will be widely known by readers of this journal, "Bartleby the Scrivener," a story concerned with "conduct and responsibility" if ever there was one. The tenor of Miller's approach is announced in the title of the chapter he devotes to Melville's narrative, "Who is He?," by which he means to imply that we can never fully know. Echoing de Man's stress on the impossibility, finally, of ever reading any discourse without moments of telling blindness and repression, Miller's Bartleby is a reificationof the unknowable: '"er /asst sich nicht lesen'-it does not permit itself to be read" (to cite Poe's "The Man of the Crowd'} Hence, like the lawyer who narrates the story, facing Bartleby we are always paralysed at any potential moment of ethical truth or action. Since we are unable to know Bartleby's origins, his thoughts, his purposes, or his motives; we must fail to establish an ethical relation to him: "We cannot identify our ethical responsibility to a person we cannot identify , whose story we cannot tell. None of this is possible with Bartleby" (174-75). That is to say, Bartleby is an enigmatic literary sign before which the reader, along with the lawyer, is disabled, struck stiff: the sign of Bartleby "cannot be read. It demands an impossible task, and the reader remains paralysed by the text, called upon to act but unable to act" (175). Of course, stressing the unreadability of Bartleby is a potent way of privileging and sustaining the act of reading itself: the attempt to read and decipher, and the impossibility of ever "fully" doing so, thus becomes a basic substitute for moral, physical, and imaginative acts that might potentially follow from a more or less conclusive act of reading and interpretation. (Such a conclusive act of reading is not...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 113-117
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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