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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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A violence against reason: Bartleby versus human nature

2013/09/24 2 comments

As the readings for the seminar I am taking on the boundary between human and ani­mal nature have progressed beyond Plutarch, I have noticed an interesting trope used in several scholastic and Cartesian texts. After putting forward a position, the author condemns those who oppose it as being unable to rise above their imagination. This occurs in Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, Descartes’ Discourse on Method, and in Thomas Willis’ Two Discourses on the Souls of Brutes. (Of course, that it appears in these three readings, all part of the same seminar, indicates that it was likely widely used at the time.) All three texts at various points are concerned to distinguish what sets apart humans from the other animals.

The boundary, for each of them, is drawn along the boundary of reasoning: man has a rational soul, whereas the animal does not. In the case of Descartes’, this is shown by the uniqueness of language to humans. Willis’ treatise (at least the part I have read) is likewise concerned with the intellectual capabilities of the brutes, and finds them stopped short of proper reasoning. The power of rational judgment is denied to the animals. That is a faculty solely of the rational soul, which is unique to humans. What is granted to animals is imagination, a faculty incapable of reason. (Even Marin Cureau de la Chambre, who defends the thesis that animals reason, does so by arguing that the imagination has powers sufficient to be called reason—he nonetheless denies that animals have judgment.)

In this light, we can see that the accusation of being unable to rise above the imagination is an insult that cuts more deeply than is initially apparent. It is a denial of the ability to reason, and thus a denial of being fully human. It likens the accused to the animals, mute and arational.

Against this background, I want to look at the impact of Bartleby in Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener”. (I will use the Library of America volume containing Melville’s Piazza Tales; all page references are to this volume.) Specifically, I want to understand how Bartleby presents a violent affront to reason, and does so in a way that undermines the human/animal boundary.

Bartleby is, of course, the one who “would prefer not to”, and who in the course of the story progresses to the point of complete motionlessness. Bartleby’s sedateness, however, has tremendous, inflammatory effects on those around him. Indeed, as frequently as Bartleby is described as cold or “cadaverous”, the narrator describes himself as incensed, burning. How does Bartleby produce these effects?

To understand how Bartleby changes the humans around him, we must understand how they perceive him. One reason for this, which I hope to discuss further in a future post, is that there is something inherently idealist (metaphysically speaking) about Bartleby. This is seen in many ways; for instance, the first appearance of Bartleby at the law office of the narrator is described as his “advent” (636)—he does not exist before he is perceived. Furthermore, when he augments “I would prefer not to” with “I am not particular” (666-7), we can read a pun in the word “particular”: Bartleby is not a particular, physical object. Bartleby, in a sense, does not exist apart from being perceived.

What is most fascinating about how he is perceived, however, is that this perception is radically unstable. The narrator’s descriptions of Bartleby, his sense of who Bartleby is, never resolves itself, but instead cycles through a series of temporary, unsatisfactory resting places.

Perhaps most prominent among these is the sense that Bartleby is something inhuman. After the first instance of “I would prefer not to”, the narrator muses that he would have “violently dismissed him”, if only there had “been any thing ordinarily human about him” (643). Yet there is nothing human about him. This is shown starkly a few pages later when, after another instance of “I would prefer not to”, the narrator responds, “You will not?” and receives the reply, “I prefer not” (648). Bartleby does not will; he does something else, something strange: he prefers not. Yet we think to will is what is quintessentially human, the counterpart of reason. If Bartleby does not will, he is not human.

And indeed, Bartleby is described throughout as being many inhuman things. On two occasions, once by the narrator and once by Nippers (a copyist in the office), Bartleby is described as a mule. Yet another instance of Bartleby’s formula results in the narrator asking, “How? Surely you do not mean to persist in that mulish vagary?” (647), while Nippers more angrily yells, “I’d give him preferences, the stubborn mule!” (655). Here Bartleby is reduced to the animal; he is not human, but less than human. (This is, in part, because he is an affront to reason. I will return to this thought.)

Bartleby is also viewed as less than human in another way: he is “cadaverous” (cf. 650, but the word is rampant in the story), like a dead body. This stems from his paleness and sedateness: in both color and (lack of) motion he resembles a corpse (cf. also the “morbid moodiness” of 653). He is like a human body without a soul. Yet here there is an interesting contradiction. For the third inhuman way of perceiving Bartleby is precisely the opposite of the soulless body of a cadaver: he is the bodiless cadaver of a ghost. Upon being summoned, he appears “like a very ghost” (648), and, much later, he is seen “haunting the building generally” (666).

Lastly, there is also something divine about Bartleby, as is seen for instance when the narrator finds Bartleby in the office on a Sunday. Speculating about why he could be there, the narrator concludes, “Besides, it was Sunday; and there was something about Bartleby that forbade the supposition that he would by any secular occupation violate the proprieties of the day” (651). There is a sacred purity to Bartleby. Yet he is also devoid of divinity, likened to “the last column of some ruined temple” (658). He is not so much divine as a remnant of what was once divine, but has been abandoned by divinity. (He is even compared at one point to an “incubus”—663—though this sort of image of Bartleby occurs only once.)

Thus it seems clear that, whatever Bartleby is, he is not quite human. Wherever the boundaries of the human lie, Bartleby stands somewhere outside them. Yet the narrator cannot accept Bartleby as inhuman. Or, at least, he keeps returning to the attempt to treat Bartleby as human. After encountering Bartleby in the office in Sunday, and seeing this as an illustration of the “forlornness” of Bartleby, the narrator remarks, “The bond of a common humanity now drew me irresistibly to gloom” (652). This occurs again when Bartleby stops copying altogether, and the narrator is “touched” (656), an empathetic feeling.

This occurs even though the inhumanity of Bartleby is inescapable. Indeed, it is the very forlornness that evokes this common bond that, a page later, snaps it: “but just in proportion as the forlornness of Bartleby grew and grew to my imagination, did that same melancholy merge into fear, that pity into repulsion” (653). Despite this, the narrator cannot but treat Bartleby as reasonable.

And it must be stressed that to treat Bartleby as human and to treat him as reasonable are inseparable. Reason is the mark of the human, here. The attempt to treat Bartleby as human is often marked by the narrator’s attempt to reason with him. When the narrator is trying to be rid of Bartleby, he considers one strategy (that he has already tried and failed), then rejects it and “resolved to argue the matter over with him again” (660)—in short to reason with him. And later: “In a calm and serious tone, I commended the idea to his careful and mature consideration” (663)—again an attempt to reason.

If we look at what Bartleby is, however, what most characterizes him is that he is an affront to reason. Indeed, his very sedateness, his preferring not to, is “violently unreasonable” (645). This is the only accusation of violence leveled against motionless Bartleby: violence against reason. Needless to say, every attempt to reason with him, to treat him as human, fails. He is so offensive to reason that he even undermines the reasoning of those around him. In a telling passage, imagination and judgment are juxtaposed, when the narrator finds his judgment (i.e. his reason) incapable of understanding Bartleby’s “passive resistance” (646). The narrator instead leaves his imagination, his animal faculty, to dream up an explanation of Bartleby’s condition.

There is one charge that seems to stick to Bartleby: madness. He is a “demented man” (656), “a little deranged” (670). This charge I think accounts for all of the others, both his incredible inhumanity and the irresistibility of attempting to treat him as human. For if reason is what characterizes the human, then madness is something both human and not human. Plutarch, for instance, argues that dogs can reason on account of the existence of dogs that are deranged—one cannot be mad if one could not reason in the first place.

Yet in Bartleby his madness is even deeper than this. This comes out when we consider a passage in which the narrator commends himself on a brilliant plan to rid himself of Bartleby (it fails, needless to say). He says the plan must appear “masterly” to any “dispassionate thinker” (658). This is the standard image of reason: that it is dispassionate. Yet what has been emphasized, throughout the story, is that it is Bartleby who is dispassionate, and that this is just what sparks the passions of the narrator. In the narrator, reason and passion are inseparable, inextricably intertwined. In Bartleby, by contrast, he is perfectly dispassionate, the model of reasonableness. Yet he is mad. He exists at the point where madness and reason are no longer separable, where they run together, where the boundaries are blurred.

This is a function of Bartleby’s purity, and his purity shows up the impurity of everything human. Human boundaries are blurred not because pure madness and pure reason are inseparable (as in the case of Bartleby), but because what is human is inherently impure. The boundaries are blurred because everything is mixed up in everything else. One example will suffice to show this, though they can be multiplied. The narrator reflects on the commandment to love one’s fellow man, which he says “saved” him (661). He comments, “aside from higher considerations, charity often operates as a vastly wise and prudent principle […] Mere self-interest, then, if no better motive can be enlisted, should, especially with high-tempered men, prompt all beings to charity and philanthropy” (661). The divine foundation of human ethics is mixed up with “mere self-interest”, until one can no longer tell which is which.

With impurity, the boundaries are blurred; with purity they vanish. Such is the lesson of Bartleby.

Melville contra Plato: a brief note

A couple days ago, I wrote a long piece about “The Piazza”, the first story in Melville’s The Piazza Tales. In this briefer post, I want to explore a (possibly unconscious) response to Plato’s cave analogy in that same story. Once again, I am using the version in the Library of America volume (mentioned in the previous post), and page references are to that version.

A brief review of Plato’s famous image, to begin. In Book VII of Republic, Socrates asks his interlocutors to imagine a group of people who inhabit a cave, able only to look in a certain direction. Far above and behind them there is a fire, which creates shadows on the wall of the cave—it is these shadows that the inhabitants see, and only these shadows. Naturally, the inhabitants of the cave hold truth to be about these shadows, the shadows of artificial things.

Yet imagine, Socrates continues, what would happen if a man were dragged out of the cave, into the light. At first, his eyes would not be accustomed to the light, but gradually he would come to see things for what they truly are, and he would come to pity those in the cave. (Incidentally, this also functions as an apology for the uselessness of philosophy: philosophers’ eyes are simply no longer accustomed to the darkness of contingent, material things, and so of course they seem useless.) This leads to an image of teaching: the sight is there, yet is turned in the wrong direction, and it is the philosopher who may turn it around, make it face rightly, and so come to know. Let me emphasize the importance of sight as the sense that dominates Socrates’ conception of knowledge here.

In “The Piazza”, there is a cottage, not a cave, but there are shadows and a fiery light, as well as interesting discussion of going outside. The narrator has arrived at Marianna’s cottage and is discussing with her her desire to see the house down in the field—the narrator’s house. She says, “You should see it in a sunset” (631), to which he replies, “No doubt the sunset gilds it finely; but not more than the sunrise does this house, perhaps.” Her response is to call the sun “a good sun”, but to say that it does not grace her: instead, it burns, blinds, sets wasps and flies astir, scorches, and rots.

We can begin to see some divergences in the Platonic and Melvillean pictures. For Plato, the sun, once you are accustomed to it, is a source of light, but for Melville’s Marianna, though she is certainly accustomed to it, as she is generally accustomed to her situation in the cottage, the sun is instead a source of intense discomfort, is no friend.

She does, however, have friends: the shadows. After the discussion described above reaches a lull, the narrator notes “a broad shadow stealing on” (631). With unsettling prescience, Marianna, without looking up from her work, says, “You watch the cloud.” Then, further, she knows when the shadow leaves and Tray, the dog, returns, all while her “eyes rest but on your work.” (632) The narrator is, naturally, flummoxed, and tries to work out an explanation:

“Have you, then, so long sat at this mountain-window, where but clouds and vapors pass, that, to you shadows are as things, though you speak of them as of phantoms; that by familiar knowledge, working like a second sight, you can, without looking for them, tell just where they are, though, as having mice-like feet, they creep about, and come and go; that, to you, these lifeless shadows are as living friends, who, though out of sight, are not out of mind, even in their faces—is it so?” (632)

This is a very Platonic way of thinking: she comes to take the shadows for things, knowing only her cave. Marianna’s response to this is astounding. She says, “That I way I never thought of it,” as if granting to his explanation a certain legitimacy—but then she goes on as if she absorbed nothing he said but a single word, ‘friend’. She does not deny his explanation, but in what follows disregards it. Her next sentence begins, “but the friendliest one…” With this, she continues thinking as she had; she is non-plussed with his version of things. She showed a similar attitude earlier, when, in response to his accusation that she has strange fancies, she claimed that her strange fancies reflect the things.

Now that these we have seen this exchange, we can go back and notice a crucial ambiguity in an earlier phrase. The narrator has just remarked, “The invading shadow gone, the invaded one returns. But I do not see what casts it” (632), which earns the responses, “For that, you must go without.” At first this response seems perfectly straightforward: in order to see what casts the shadow, he must go outside and look. This is a Platonic response, and it doesn’t seem to fit Marianna—to make it fit, we must imagine it said in a tossed off tone that does not accord with her general tone. But there is a second sense of going without, in which it not so much an activity as a forgoing of something: to go without meat for Lent, for instance.

This second sense is hidden: “going outside” is the most immediate interpretation, given the context and given our usual thought about knowledge. Beneath it sits the more subversive sense, which I take it is the one Marianna intends. Marianna goes without: she does not hear birds, does not see children picking berries, has no company (now that her brother has died): she simply sits and does her “dull woman’s work—sitting, sitting, restless sitting” (633), work that is inseparable from her weary wakefulness, and hence from the wheel of thinking she cannot stop from turning.

But why should we think this sense is the dominant one, even if subterranean and hidden? In the remark that prompts the narrator’s attempt at explanation quoted above, Marianna says, “ ‘Tray looks at you,’ still without glancing up; ‘this is his hour; I see him.’ “ (632) Though her eyes remain trained on her work, she says she sees him, and this is prefaced by the claim that “this is his hour”. Marianna is in touch with a natural order of which the narrator has no knowledge (which of course does not prevent him from attempting to explain it). Moreover, the narrator has no knowledge despite having come from without. What good would going without, i.e. outside, do him? How could it possibly be sufficient? That cannot be what Marianna means.

After having just critiqued the narrator for his presumption in trying to explain what Marianna knows, and for doing so hopelessly misguidedly, I will behave somewhat as a hypocrite and offer an explanation of my own. How does she know the sun? Not by its revealing light, but by its power to scorch, rot, and blind—she knows it viscerally. She knows when the shadow of a cloud dusks her work, which is, as said, intimately tied to her thought. She is in direct touch with the world as it relates to her work and thought. She says she sees Tray, but she might more accurately say she feels him—she has a much more intimate knowledge than is gained by sight, by going outside and looking. The knowledge she has, confined to her cottage, exceeds anything conceivable within Platonic dreams of going without.

The Haunting of Language

2013/06/06 1 comment

After reading Deleuze’s essay on Melville, and writing about it, I decided I should make a return voyage to Melville’s prose. Thus far, I have merely read (and re-read, and again) the first story in The Piazza Tales, “The Piazza”. This post is my attempt to make sense of the story at a broad, structural level, tracing its movements and understanding the nature of its composition. (I am using the Library of America volume: Pierre, Israel Potter, The Confidence-Man, Tales, & Billy Budd. All page references are to this volume.)

I’ll begin with the close: The narrator returns to his house and paces the piazza, haunted by what he has just described. This is bound to seem an unsatisfying ending, on a surface view. Probably the only lesson I remember from taking a course on creative writing in high school is that good writers show rather than tell—it is remembered, of course, because it is the only lesson that is repeated, incessantly, everywhere. And here Melville seems to flaunt it: the narrator tells us that he is haunted, and there the story ends. Could not Melville write five more pages and show us this haunting? This appearance of unsatisfactoriness is my jumping off point: in seeing why it is a false appearance, an illusion, we can come to better understand the structure of the story as a whole, and appreciate its richness.

If the ending is successful, it must not be the mere telling it seems to be, but must rather be something more like an invitation: go look further, and you may find this haunting. It must, in other words, be a signpost, a guide into the story, rather than a summation and ending of it. The reason it seems that it can’t play this role is that there is no story that follows it. Now we must reflect on the structure of the story at the broadest level: the narrator is recounting an event that happened to him, i.e. in the past. The story is written from the perspective of someone who has already had the haunting experience. Thus, in the a sense, the entire story (that is, the composition of it) takes place after this experience, so, if there is to be evidence of it, it should lie in the way the story is retold. The retelling itself should bear the marks of the experience retold.

This is all cryptic, however, since I have not mentioned what it is that he experienced and that he claims haunts him. To understand that, we need to dive deeper into the general movement of the story, both in terms of the plot and in terms of the changing imagery employed.

In broadest outlines, the story is about a man (the narrator) who moves to a house in the country, on the north side of which he builds a piazza. From this piazza, he spots a strange sight, a newly shingled cottage on one of the mountains. (He infers that it is a newly shingled cottage from the way the light reflects off of it. He does not see this directly.) He imagines it to be a fairy-land, and goes to visit (getting there is no easy voyage). There he converses with the lonely young woman who lives in the cottage—it is this experience that haunts him.

When he first sees the cottage, before going in, he gives it a very interesting description: “Truly, a small abode—mere palanquin, set down on the summit, in a pass between two worlds, participant of neither.” (629) What strikes me here is the phrase “between two worlds, participant of neither”—what are the two worlds? Why does the cottage participate in neither? There are several possible answers: between freedom and coziness, between this world and the other/after world, between the piazza and the regal mountain Greylock. To understand these we need to return to the beginning of the story.

In the very first paragraph, the narrator sings the praises of piazzas: somehow, they combine “the coziness of in-doors with the freedom of out-doors” (621), a phrase that immediately invites us to understand piazzas as getting “the best of both worlds.” The cottage, on the other hand, is anything but cozy, and its inhabitant is anything but free. We might, then, think of the cottage as strung between the two, participating in neither the coziness of a piazza nor the freedom of nature. Perhaps this seems dismal, but I think it will emerge that it is the piazza, purporting to get the best of both worlds, that is revealed to be truly dismal.

In describing the building of the piazza, with a nice bit of wordplay, the narrator writes, “No sooner was ground broken, than all the neighborhood, neighbor Dives, in particular, broke, too—into a laugh.” (623) Here we see the world of petty squabbles and neighborly jealousies, which is also the world of berry picking, of painting, and of law and judgment, of kings. Against this world is commonly set the other world, or the after world, the world were you go, for good or for ill, when you die. In recounting his journey to the cottage, the narrator relates two interesting episodes. In the first, a “wigged old Aries… came snuffing up”, wanting to lead the narrator down his “astral path” (627)—i.e. a path to some other, heavenly world. Shortly after resisting this temptation, there is a related encounter, this time with “Eve’s apples; seek-no-furthers” (628), in which his horse “tasted one, I another; it tasted of the ground.” Here is a definitive rejection of the other world: not just in eating of the apple, but in the fact that they tasted “of the ground.” We are dealing here with this world, and only this world. The journey to the cottage is not a journey to another world. And yet, the cottage, while not participating in that other world, neither seems to participate in ours: it is not a place for petty squabbles, and no boys come to pick berries there. It is strung between the two, participating in neither. It is nothing not of this world, yet it is, nonetheless, not of this world.

The story actually goes much further than I detailed above in showing how the cottage and its inhabitant are not quite of this world, but of another world within it, in a sense. To understand this, we need to understand Melville’s use of imagery in characterizing nature, to my mind one of the greatest triumphs of the story. We can start, however, with a bit of cartography. The reason the narrator’s neighbors scoffed at him is that he built his piazza on the north side of his house. “Piazza to the north! Winter piazza! Wants, of winter midnights, to watch the Aurora Borealis, I suppose; hope he’s laid in a good store of Polar muffs and mittens.” (623) Why does he build his piazza to the north? He canvases the view in each other direction, but finds all wanting. Not intrinsically wanting—the views to the east, south, and west are, respectively, a “goodly sight,” “very fine” and “sweet, indeed” (622-623)—but wanting in relation to what lies to the north, “nothing less than Greylock, with all his hills about him, like Charlemagne among his peers” (621). Greylock, the king, had the casting vote, and so “he carried it.” (623) The cottage is seen from the piazza, on one of the hills about Greylock. It thus lies between the piazza and Greylock in a purely physical sense.

This physical relation is deeply significant, as emerges when you pay close attention to the imagery the narrator uses to describe nature. There are four dominant images: nature as a picture-gallery, full of paintings; nature as a kingdom; nature as a monastery; and nature as a sea or ocean. These interact in complex ways. We have already seen nature as a kingdom, with Greylock as its Charlemagne. There is also a recurrence of the color purple, suggesting royalty, and the narrator, before building his piazza, speaks of sitting in a “royal lounge of turf.” (622) At the same time, nature is described as a picture-gallery: “for what but picture-galleries are the marble halls of these same limestone hills?—galleries hung, month after month anew, with pictures ever fading into pictures ever fresh.” (622) (The context is a comparison between nature without a piazza to a picture-gallery without a bench.) Likewise, “the country round about was such a picture” (621), and the “hermit-sun” is said to “just steadily paint one small, round, strawberry mole upon the wan cheek of northwester hills.” (625)

These two images are, we will see, allied, and allied specifically in their opposition to the other two images, nature as monastery/sea. Nature first appears as a monastery in same paragraph as the narrator speaks of his royal lounge of turf. He writes:

Very majestical lounge, indeed. So much so, that here, as with the reclining majesty of Denmark in his orchard, a sly ear-ache invaded me. But, if damps abound at times in Westminster Abbey, because it is so old, why not within this monastery of mountains, which is older? (622)

The reference is to Hamlet, specifically to Hamlet’s father being murdered when Claudius poured poison in his ear. Nature the monastery is thus immediately set in opposition to nature the kingdom: nature the monastery is a king killer. It is this event that drives the narrator to build his piazza—the next paragraph is a single emphatic sentence, “A piazza must be had.” (622) This opposition continues later, when the narrator arrives at the cottage, and finds it “capped, nun-like, with a peaked roof.” (628) One side of this roof, that facing the piazza, is newly shingled—recall from above. The other slope, the northern slope, is “deeply weather-stained” and “no doubt the snail-monks founded mossy priories there.” (628) The side facing Greylock, the king of nature as kingdom, is old and rotting, and it is that side that is like a monastery. The cottage presents its “bad” side (we can question just how bad it really is) to the king: a direct affront. It is also worth noting that his first sighting of the cottage is preceded by his seeing two sportsmen crossing a field, who seem to him “guilty Macbeth and foreboding Banquo” (624)—certainly a threatening image for kings.

Nature conceived as a sea also stands in contrast to nature conceived as a kingdom. Standing on the piazza in winter, the narrator imagines himself pacing “the sleety deck, weathering Cape Horn” (623), and “In summer, too, Canute-like, sitting here, one is often reminded of the sea.” The reference to Canute, the over-ambitious king who thought his dominion extended even over the sea, emphasizes nature as a king-killer. The voyage to the cottage is likewise conceived (at least at times) as a sea voyage, as, for instance, when the narrator declares his intention to visit: “No more; I’ll launch my yawl—ho, cheerly, heart! And push away for fairy-land.” (626) These two images of monastery and sea are less directly opposed to the picture-gallery image, but there is one indication that the opposition exists: the cottage, on its north side, is described as “innocent of paint” (628)—particularly striking is the word “innocent”, as if here, in this place, to be painted is to be guilty of something. In this way, we are led to read all of the images of nature as a picture-gallery as imbued with this guilt, a guilt that is, to my eyes, closely allied with the notions of judgment and law implicated in conceiving nature as a kingdom. (Shades of Deleuze.) The physical location of the cottage between Greylock, the king, and the piazza, the picture-gallery bench, suggests, then, that it is strung between judgment and law on the one side, and the guilt of painting on the other.

In these three ways, then, the cottage is strung between two worlds, participating in neither. Yet it does have its own world, in which it does participate. As we have seen, it must be this-worldly, not other-worldly, and yet not this-worldly in the way we have seen it, characterized by judgment, law, painting, berry-picking, and petty squabbles. What sort of world is it, then? Running through the story is a “how we’ve fallen” narrative. Why does nature the picture-gallery need a bench at all? Because we have fallen from reverence to indolence, and so, “in these times of failing faith and feeble knees” (622) instead of religion we have the pews, and instead of standing and adoring, we have piazzas. Further, in giving a brief history of his new house, the narrator mentions that it used to be in a forest, but that now, “of that knit wood, but one survivor stands—an elm, lonely through steadfastness.” (621) Only later did the house come to be situated in a picture-gallery—and now we know, perhaps, why paint is associated with guilt.

Thus the world within this world but not quite of this world in which the cottage is located may be expected to be associated with this World We Have Lost. For reasons I will make clear, I think this lost world should be associated with wakefulness, and this world with languidness. In coming into contact with this world, in being forced to be located within it, the world of wakefulness becomes, not languid, but weary. The difference between languidness and weariness is crucial to the story.

In his journey to the cottage, the narrator comes across “a lone and languid region” (627) in which “drowsy cattle […] less waked than stirred by day, seemed to walk in sleep.” Languidness, then, is a sort of walking sleep: directed movement that is nonetheless not quite awake. It is “drowsy”—I take it we all know the feeling. Against this image of languidness and drowsiness, there is the term ‘weary’, which appears in the first words the inhabitant of the cottage, Marianna, says to the narrator:

“You must find this view very pleasant,” said I, at last.

“Oh, sir,” tears starting in her eyes, “the first time I looked out of this window, I said ‘never, never shall I weary of this.’ “

“And what wearies you of it now?”

“I don’t know,” while a tear fell; “but it is not the view, it is Marianna.” (630)

Later, Marianna diagnoses the source of her “strange thoughts” (633) as lying in “this weariness and wakefulness together.” And again: “Thinking, thinking—a wheel I cannot stop; pure want of sleep it is that turns it.” (633) Unlike the cattle, which move in sleep, she cannot sleep, though she is weary: she is cursed with wakefulness. There is a further difference: the cattle move. Against this, hers is “dull woman’s work—sitting, sitting, restless sitting.” (633)

The narrator thinks he knows a cure for this wakeful weariness—prayer and a fresh pillow—but this is a cure from the world of languidness, a world that does not know either wakefulness or weariness, indeed cannot know the latter, because to be weary at all, one must be awake.

(Recalling my post on Deleuze on Melville, we can see his offer of a cure as an offer of charity instead of confidence, and indeed Marianna cuts him off as he tries to give the advice.)

Interestingly, the first appearance of the word ‘weary’ in the story is earlier. After having seen the cottage, the narrator falls ill. His next sighting of the cottage comes during his “weary convalescence” (626), and it is this self-diagnosed weariness that leads him to visit the cottage, for he expects that he will find the queen of fairies, or “at any rate, some glad mountain-girl; it will do me good, it will cure this weariness, to look on her.” Needless to say, this hope is not granted, for she is not at all a glad mountain-girl—at least she is not glad. She expresses a parallel wish to be cured of her wakeful weariness by viewing the happy inhabitant of the house in the meadow (the narrator’s house, of course). The narrator does not spoil the illusion, does not reveal himself as the unhappy inhabitant. Before, he might have called himself happy, but now he cannot, after what he has seen.

Now, finally, we can see how the narrator is haunted by his visit to the cottage. Recall that the story leaves off with him pacing on his piazza, claiming to be haunted. Recall also my suggestion that any evidence of the haunting should lie in the composition of his tale. In his conversation with Marianna, she uses certain key terms: ‘weary’, ‘lone’/’lonesome’/’lonely’, ‘wakeful(ness)’. In reading the story again, after having read the end, it becomes apparent just how much the language used is informed by this visit. Why does he call his convalescence weary? Why else than because he recognizes later that the condition awakened within him is the same as Marianna’s condition? Why does he describe the cows as drowsy and languid? Precisely because they are not in this same condition. Why is the one surviving elm from the old forest “lonely”? Because it partakes in Marianna’s loneliness. Even the imagery of nature as a kingdom has its roots in this conversation: when Marianna expresses her admiration of the narrator’s house (not knowing that it is the narrator’s), he looks out the window and finds, “the mirage haze made it appear less a farm-house than King Charming’s palace.” (630)

Thus we can how the very language of the story—the conflict between monasteries/seas and kings/paintings, the weariness and loneliness, the events selected for recounting—all of it is infused with the remnants of his visit. The very language is haunted. The ending of the story, then, is indeed an invitation: “Look closer!”

Deleuze’s American Dream

2013/05/31 2 comments

Most of my more philosophical posts have been aimed at defending my approach to art and interpretation. Yesterday, however, I read Gilles Deleuze’s essays on Whitman and Melville (in Essays Critical and Clinical), and I want to engage in a bit of pure exegesis here in order to get a better grip on them. In these two essays, Deleuze refers to the “American Dream”, which he elucidates in his own terminology, but which he finds to be shared between the two authors. His analysis of Melville especially reveals how literary acts can effect this dream, helping to draw the reader toward it. My aim is to trace out the shape of Deleuze’s version of the American Dream. I don’t want to evaluate it for faithfulness to Whitman or Melville (though I do think much of his Melville exegesis is excellent). Nor do I wish to touch on the connection Deleuze draws between this and his views on psychoanalysis (a connection made in the very title of the essay collection). I am simply not competent to evaluate that. I am interested, instead, in the picture of human flourishing that emerges, what Deleuze calls the “American Dream”. (I will also draw implicitly on the essays Literature and Life and To Have Done With Judgment, both in the same collection, but I will not emphasize them or focus on them specifically.)

The two essays, Whitman and Bartleby; or, the Formula (henceforth Bartleby), arrive at the same vision by different routes. In the former, Deleuze sets out a metaphysics of relations, exploring the ways relations between objects may be built up and destroyed. In the latter, Deleuze again develops a metaphysics, this time of lawless primary nature and lawful secondary nature. Here, unlike in the Whitman essay, Deleuze analyzes in depth how Melville’s characters and language relate to these two natures, so I will mostly focus on Bartleby. I will begin, however, with Whitman, which introduces some core ideas that will recur later.

Deleuze makes a useful contrast between two images, which provides a good entry point into the metaphysics of Whitman. Deleuze juxtaposes the image of an endless wall of stones heaped upon one another to the image of a wall of stones cemented together. In the latter case, there is a clear totality, and fixed relations: the stones do not move in relation to one another. In the former, however, relations are not fixed. The balance is precarious, and may be upset, but when, say, a portion of the wall falls down, it may be put back up, stone upon stone. The new arrangement will not be identical to the old, of course, and this is just the point. We can imagine a ceaseless cycle of stones falling and being replaced: ever shifting relations. There is no stable, constant wall, no overarching totality. The wall is in a constant state of becoming. The totality of the wall is located in the external relations of a given moment, which are always shifting.

These stones are meant to represent what Deleuze elsewhere in the essay calls “fragments”—he frequently refers to American literature as a fragmentary literature. Fragments have existence in themselves, but they also have relations to other fragments, relations which are, as above, constantly shifting. Deleuze labels two processes that effect this shifting. On the one side is Nature/History, and on the other side is War. (I will use capital letters to indicate Deleuze’s terms of art, since they are not meant to be identified with the physical realities that provide the metaphors.) Nature (for simplicity I’ll ignore any differences between Nature and History) builds up relations between fragments, while War tears them down.

The view of human flourishing that Deleuze develops is one where people ally themselves with Nature, which he finds in Whitman to be a Society of Comrades, where the dominant relationship is Camaraderie. Here he deploys another image: that of wounded soldiers in the hospital. The soldiers in the hospital are isolated from one another, are fragments stripped of their relations by War. The individual who is allied with Nature, then, must go to each soldier individually and establish a relation of Camaraderie with him. A slow, diligent process of building back up relations that War has stripped away. Here, then, in brief, we have the notion of human flourishing that Deleuze wants to develop. But what is War that it would strip away such relations? And what is Camaraderie that it can build them back up? For answers, we need to turn to the essay on Melville.

Bartleby begins as an analysis of the famous formula of “Bartleby, the Scrivener”, before becoming Deleuze’s analysis of all of Melville, and then Deleuze’s analysis of all of life. In that short story, Bartleby, when asked to do various tasks, inevitably replies, “I would prefer not to.” Deleuze begins his analysis by looking in depth at the language of this formula.

When confronted with a request (“will you do this”) or even an order (“do this”), Bartleby says he would prefer not to. Deleuze notes that this doesn’t amount either to a clear negation (“I don’t want to”) or a clear affirmation (“Instead of X, as you suggest/request, I prefer Y”). Bartleby’s task in the office is, at first, copying, which he does quite efficiently. When asked to do something else, he of course would prefer not to. What Deleuze notes (this is ingenious) is that, because of this, Bartleby cannot go on copying as he had before. For to go on copying would be to express a positive preference, to prefer copying to this other task, and that is just what the formula is meant to exclude.

In order to understand the effects this works on Bartleby, I need to introduce some more of Deleuze’s metaphysical machinery. (He presents it as Melville’s metaphysical machinery.) Deleuze finds in Melville a distinction between Primary Nature, which is “original”, “oceanic”, and “lawless”, and which carries out its irrational aims through innately depraved beings. It is supersensible nature. Opposed to this is ordinary, sensible, Secondary Nature, which is governed by laws, regularities, reason. This sets up a fourfold distinction of types of people. (Deleuze only lists three types, but there is an implicit fourth type.)

First, and second, we have Monomaniacs and Hypochondriacs. Monomaniacs are characters like Ahab of Moby-Dick, driven by an insane bloodlust. (Claggart, from Billy Budd, Sailor, is another Monomaniac.) What defines Monomaniacs is that their bloodlust, their great will to nothingness, forces them to make a “monstrous choice”. Whaling culture prohibits whalers from choosing among whales: they must go after simply those whales they come across. Ahab’s relentless search for Moby-Dick, then, is in defiance of this culture, of this “law”. This defiance of the law makes Ahab a creature of primary nature—more on this shortly. Opposed to the Monomaniacs are the Hypochondriacs, of which Bartleby and Billy Budd are prime examples. Hypochondriacs have not a will to nothingness but a nothingness in their will: they get their satisfaction in suspension of judgment, of choosing, of preferring. Where Monomaniacs are thundering, Hypochondriacs are petrified. Where Monomaniacs are beyond all punishment, Hypochondriacs are beyond all responsibility. Hypochondriacs are thus, in the opposite way, equally “against” the law. Bartleby, for his job, must choose, must have a preference. And yet: “I’d prefer not to.” His abdication of preference is just as opposed to the lawfulness of secondary nature as Ahab’s terrible preference.

Third, we have Prophets—and, implicitly, fourth, we have everyone else. Prophets are creatures of secondary nature, endowed with special sensitivity that lets them “see” the other two types. Ishmael of Moby-Dick is a prophet; so is Captain Vere of Billy Budd. The Prophets are significantly impotent: they are unable to ward off the demons, the Monomaniacs, which are too quick and too strong for the law. Likewise, they are unable to save the innocent Hypochondriacs, which are immolated in the name of the law: Captain Vere has Billy Budd executed for killing Claggart, and Bartleby ends up thrown in a prison, preferring not to to the end. What do they do, then? In the wake of what they’ve seen, they try to put back together the law that has been so violently disrupted. As for everyone else, they are creatures of secondary nature not endowed with special sensitivity—in Moby-Dick, at least, they all die, with only Ishmael left standing.

One last distinction: Originals vs. Particulars. The Hypochondriacs and Monomaniacs are creatures of primary nature, which work in secondary nature and influence its course—it is Prophets who recognize this influence, who see its source. Originals exceed any applicable form; they are solitary and unfathomable. They are neither general types, Aristotelian categories under which particulars may be subsumed, nor themselves particulars, influencing other particulars in accordance with general laws. They are, I suppose, singularities.

Now we can see how Bartleby’s formula works. Deleuze lays out a tripartite scheme. First, a formless trait of expression opposes particular images and expressed form. Bartleby, the scrivener is a particular, but the application of his formula gradually divests him of any particular characteristics. Because his preferring not to is neither negation nor affirmation, his preferring not to adopt some new particular characteristic means he can no longer keep his old characteristics without expressing a positive preference. In short, it makes his particular characteristics impossible to keep. This is the first stage, in which a particular loses his particularity (without thereby becoming a general type).

What happens next involves Deleuze’s concept of a Zone of Proximity. Particulars often engage in mimesis, in the attempt to imitate or conform to some privileged image. This involves a subject trying to shape itself in particular ways. But the subject, the particular, has been effaced, and so mimesis is impossible. Instead, Bartleby enters into a Zone of Proximity to the Hypochondriac BARTLEBY (all caps simply to make the difference obvious). What this means is that Bartleby is no longer distinguishable from BARTLEBY, where BARTLEBY is an Original, a creature of Primary Nature. Here the connection between Primary and Secondary Nature is established. Importantly, BARTLEBY is not some preexistent reality that Bartleby becomes indistinguishable from. Rather, Bartleby, by applying his formula, creates and then becomes BARTLEBY. The lawless irrationality of Primary Nature comes to disrupt the lawfulness and reason of Secondary Nature. We witness, for instance, his boss behaving more and more as if he is mad, as his attempts to force Bartleby to behave reasonably fail. Bartleby becomes a locus around which the “everyone else” of Secondary Nature finds life disrupted. (In Moby-Dick, recall, everyone around Ahab—except Ishmael—dies.)

This brings us to the third and final stage in the process. We have, with the intrusion of Primary Nature into Secondary Nature, a disruption of law, which Deleuze conceives as a paternal function: you shall do/believe/be this (for your own good!). There are two responses to this intrusion. One is the response of the Prophets: attempting to patch over the disruption, to clean up in the wake of the intrusion, to rebuild and reinstate the law. But the other is to replace the paternal function of law with a function of universal fraternity—this is the equivalent of the Society of Comrades, of brothers, that emerged in the analysis of Whitman. (Here, in the contrast between the paternal function of law/Secondary Nature and the fraternal function of Primary Nature, is a place where fruitful connections can be drawn to the more straightforwardly clinical work of e.g. Anti-Oedipus. Again, I am not competent to comment in depth on this; I simply note that it exists.)

Now we’re in a position to answer the two questions I raised at the end of considering Whitman: what is War, that it strips away relations? what is Camaraderie, that it builds them back up?

War is, roughly, the judgment of law, of Secondary Nature. This is discussed at length in To Have Done With Judgment, but it involves any fixed criteria of evaluation, which is repressive to what is new. This is why it matters that BARTLEBY (and other Originals) is not preexistent: the non-preexistence of Originals means that we simply do not have criteria developed to assess them, and so they defy and disrupt established criteria, which come out as repressive. War is also found in, of all places, charity and philanthropy, and these cases are quite instructive. Charity and philanthropy involve helping another by placing oneself in a higher position, by acting as a benevolent figure who decides what is good for another and does it. War, in these guises, functions to strip away relations by saying what something or someone must be, what relations it may and must have, and by condemning those relations it has built up for itself.

Camaraderie involves, on the other hand, meeting others as siblings, as equals: no charity, no attempt to “save souls”. (The Christian evangelist who believes he knows what your soul needs for its salvation is engaged in War, for Deleuze.) One last new concept: what defines Camaraderie is not belief in another, better world, in some saving doctrine, but Confidence in one’s fellows. Deleuze analyzes Bartleby’s application of his formula, after he ceased working altogether, as a request for Confidence. His boss, with increasing frustration and madness, however, offers him only charity: well here are other jobs you might be suited for, etc. The result is that Bartleby is left, at the end, in a prison. (No metaphor: a literal prison.) The Hypochondriac again sacrificed to the law.

Against this sacrifice lies the American Dream, the tripartite sequence: (1) A formless trait of expression divests the particular of its particularity, ends the mimetic subject. à (2) The particular, thus unburdened, enters a Zone of Proximity to an Original, a creature of Primary Nature, and opposes the law. à (3) This disruption of the law is the disruption of paternalism and War more generally, and makes possible the establishment of a Society of Comrades.

I will let Deleuze have the last word, with a beautiful passage in which he describes the sort of social relationship he champions:

Yet, what remains of souls once they are no longer attached to particularities, what keeps them from melting into a whole? What remains is precisely their ‘originality’, that is, a sound that each one produces, like a ritornello at the limit of language, but that it produces only when it takes to the open road (or to the open sea) with its body, when it leads its life without seeking salvation, when it embarks upon its incarnate voyage, without any particular aim, and then encounters other voyagers, whom it recognizes by their sound.