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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.

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