Home > Emerson R. W., Literature, Melville H., Philosophy, Prose > Skepticism at the Margins III: Bartleby, the Scrivener

Skepticism at the Margins III: Bartleby, the Scrivener

I have already looked somewhat at the reasons for thinking Melville’s Bartleby to be a member of some idealist reality more properly than of physical reality. This is seen when his appearance at the law office is described as his “advent” (636), as literally his coming into being. The unresolvability of what he is, the fact that he seems to take on distinct identities (divinity, animal, human, ghost, corpse) depending on how he is perceived, also speaks to this idealist character of Bartleby. And finally, we should remember that in Emerson idealism as a metaphysical doctrine and idealism as loyalty to unpolluted ideals are impossible to pull apart. They are as well in the case of Bartleby, who throughout the text is emphasized to possess a purity that cannot be tainted, a purity that reveals the depths of the impurity of the world—of its reasons, of its passions, of its ethics.

Bartleby, then, is an emissary from the ideal, in the Emersonian sense of ideal. I want now to look at Bartleby as a skeptical rejoinder to Emerson. This continues the theme of my first post on Skepticism at the Margins (read the beginning of that post for discussion of the origin of this theme). For Emerson, contact with the ideal, grasping ideal truth, is the source of human creativity, the height of human existence. Human existence is not ideal, not pure—Emerson consistently remarks that there has never been a complete man—but it may momentarily grasp the ideal. This grasp is always precarious, always in danger of being lost, but it is possible. Indeed, the very fact that it is precarious is in a certain sense what makes it possible in the first place, for it is recognition that there has never been a complete man that prevents us from idol worship, from looking up too much to the accomplishments of others—the anti-thesis of Emersonian self-reliance.

Bartleby scuttles this view. Where the ideal is the locus of the divine, for Emerson, Bartleby represents an ideal world devoid of the divine. He is at times described in religious terms—indeed, “advent” is a word for the second coming of Christ—but it is clear that he is at best a warped Christ figure. For Christ is supposed to bring hope (Emerson connects idealism with hope as well), yet Bartleby is (perceived as) forlorn and hopeless, and causes hopelessness in those around him. That Bartleby is a ruin of religion—not opposed to religion, not the devil, but what is left when the edifice crumbles—is made explicit when he is likened to “the last column of some ruined temple” (658). Bartleby is what is left of the divine, ideal world when divinity has left it.

For Melville, then, coming into contact with the ideal is not coming into contact with the divine. So there is a first opposition to Emerson. A second opposition comes in looking at the effects of Bartleby. When people come into contact with him, they are not momentarily pure; instead their impurity is highlighted. Utterly dispassionate Bartleby, the über-Stoic, inflames the passions of those around him, drives them mad. Demented, deranged Bartleby—who nonetheless offers an unassailable reason for his inaction, that he would “prefer not to”—ruins the reason of those who meet him. And forlorn, absolutely solitary Bartleby thwarts merely human ethics, shows its basis in self-interest, its willingness to settle for what is merely “good enough”.

In each case, then, the purity of Bartleby drives impure humans to further impurity. To come into contact with the ideal is not to become ideal oneself, however briefly. It is to become even more impure, even paltrier, even more all too human. It is the most thoroughgoing skeptical response to Emerson I know.

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