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  • "Bartleby the Scrivener":An Allegory of Reading
  • Massimo Verdicchio

Herman Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street" has challenged many readers over the years with its title character's inscrutability and refusal to undertake any action with his categorical statement, "I would prefer not to." Unlike most stories that seem to generate interest solely with literary critics, Melville's story has attracted the attention of many philosophers who have been seduced by Bartleby's firm resistance and opposition to anything that the lawyer-narrator has asked him to do. However, these philosophers are not concerned with the story of Bartleby per se: who he is or what he did or did not do. Their only concern is with what Giorgio Agamben has called the "formula": "I would prefer not to,"1 which they take as the starting point for developing their philosophical analysis. For Agamben, who has devoted another essay, "Bartleby, or On Contingency," to the novella, the formula is an example of how authority, sovereignty, and law can be resisted passively and effectively. Other philosophers, such as Gilles Deleuze, believed that "Bartleby is the new Christ or the brother to us all" (90), a view also shared by Jacques Rancière. Slavoj Žižek added that "Bartleby could not hurt a fly, which is what makes his presence so unbearable" (385). Michel Foucault, Maurice Blanchot, George Bataille, Jean-Luc Nancy, Alan Badiou, and Jacques Derrida also deserve mention among the many philosophers, too many to be listed here, who have commented on Bartleby's strange case. Even Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri refer to Bartleby in Empire as a figure of ontological resistance to Empire. He is said to be a beautiful soul whose being "in its [End Page 438] absolute purity hangs on the edge of an abyss" (204).

A similar reading comes from Peggy Kamuf who, under the aegis of Jacques Derrida, proposes an essay with the alluring title "Bartleby, or Decision: A Note on Allegory." At issue is the notion of the possibility or "im-possibility" of decision. Kamuf situates the ordeal of the experience of the im-possible, which for Derrida is another name for deconstruction, with the lawyer-narrator of the story, as a result of Bartleby's "passive immobilism" (35). The story of Bartleby can thus be understood as an allegory, but not in the common sense of a representation of "abstract qualities," she claims, but as "an allegorical configuration of the deconstructive analysis of the deciding subject" (35).

Literary critics have been more demanding of "Bartleby." Their interests are not limited to the formula, but extend to the entire narrative: plot, characters, narrative development, meaning, and so on. From this perspective, Bartleby does not satisfy because the story does not provide the reader with all the elements that are usually found in typical short stories or novellas. We know very little of Bartleby, where he came from, his family, his hopes, or his desires. The reader's frustration is similar to that of the lawyer in the story, who asks: "In mercy's name, who is he?" ("Bartleby" 124). Attempts over the years to answer this question have been many, and not very satisfactory. Critics are like the lawyer-narrator in the story who tries to befriend Bartleby and to help him as much as he humanly can, but with no results. Critics have identified Bartleby as everything from a Christ figure to a new Ishmael, or to an artist figure reminiscent of Kafka's Hunger Artist. Suffice it to say that these readings do not exhaust all interpretive possibilities, and none of them provide a satisfactory enough answer not to warrant further readings.2

This is also the case with a recent reading by Nicholas Royle, who proposes a new theory of literature as "veering," defined as "a sort of pivot for thinking about literature and its relation to the world" (168). For Royle, the story of Bartleby is "about the essential relation between writing and law, and between law and literature" (158), and, more specifically, it is a story about "justice, homelessness and vagrancy" (158), or about "veering." Royle calls Bartleby a "veerer," which he defines as...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1913-9659
Print ISSN
0319-051X
Pages
pp. 438-448
Launched on MUSE
2018-11-27
Open Access
No
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