Creative Writing Rant: On Alienation and Bartleby and Stuff in General

There is a kind of story in which a narrator’s regard for another character is the focus, the primary reason for the narrative to exist. Some of you read The Great Gatsby in high school. Remember how mysterious, how intriguing Gatsby seemed to the narrator, the young guy who happened to rent a small house next door to Gatsby’s gaudy mansion? Can you see the parallel to the narrator/boss’s regard for Bartleby? There are many stories that take such a basic form. Many love stories have a similar dynamic; a mysterious “other” is often the focus of stories across the genres and sub-genres (even “superhero” stories). My point here is that if you (consciously or unconsciously) begin to conceive of a story in which such a dynamic is at play, “Bartleby the Scrivener” should echo through the dark chambers of your noggin!

It’s a tough read if you’re not used to devouring early 19thCentury prose, but structurally and tonally it’s practically flawless (the “Dead Letter” thingy at the end has vexed readers for almost two centuries; folks have found it to seem tacked on, not organic to the story, a bit of awkward editorializing uncharacteristic of a masterpiece, though I actually like it). But here’s the deal: Melville created a character that transcended his time, that embodied the zeitgeist not so much of his era, but of an era to come, the modern era, the era of Modernism, the essence of which is alienation, a sense of not belonging, of radical loneliness, a sense of the world as having become complex beyond any individual’s ability to comprehend it. Contemplating the theme of alienation, I’m reminded (you’ve heard me babble this Zen parable at least a couple of times in class) of the proverbial baby fish asking the mama fish, “What’s the ocean?”

Alienation is the modern/postmodern ocean in which almost all relevant art of the 20thCentury-to-the-present has existed, and Bartleby embodies that condition as powerfully, as saliently as any character in all of literature. I’m not suggesting that alienation hasn’t been a powerful cultural theme from the beginning of recorded history; of course it has: My goodness, Adam and his Better Half are ejected from Paradise! The Myth of Sisyphus has the poor shmuck schlepping a boulder up one side of a hill, only to watch it roll down the other side compelling him to push it to the top again, etc., etc.  Jesus on the Cross says, “Father, why do you forsake me?” Odysseus on the island of Ogygia, where Calypso kept him and his men for seven years, is characterized as being in a state of alienation (not to mention Penelope at home holding off the suiters). Alienation is a universal, timeless theme in all art forms, but it is particularly relevant to what we think of as the modern period. The Industrial Revolution(s), World Wars, massive paradigm shifts in the sciences (particularly in quantum physics and astrophysics, and in the social and clinical sciences), altered the nature and quality of life, from the late 19thCentury into the 20thand unto the present time, such that many of the best and brightest, especially, came to perceive a fundamental breach in human consciousness. 

Bartleby embodies that breach, that sense of a consciousness defined not by connection to others but by a fundamental disconnection. And he embodied it decades, almost a century before alienation, as such, became (and I hate to put it this way) fashionable.

“Antihero” doesn’t mean the villain, the Bad Guy. It simply (well, not so simply) means that the individual’s heroism plays out not in terms of action, but rather in terms of interiority, inwardness, inaction.

Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground was published around 1860, translated into English not until around 1918, I think, and in world literature its protagonist is probably the prototype of the modern, alienated person, but “Bartleby…” was published I think a good decade before Notes…, and reflects, I’d argue, a uniquely American context, but its Americanness is in some sense beside the point. Viewing Bartleby through the eyes of our narrator, we observe a human being asserting his freedom with an aggressive passivity that a few decades later indeed would be called passive-aggressive behavior. 

When a modern reader wades through the 19thCentury period style, one that luxuriates in detail to a greater extent than most of us have patience for, s/he regards a character that seems utterly absurd, silly, even, and some no-nonsense readers may even find him ridiculous, so atypical as to seem utterly divorced from what is at all probable. Yet I believe that most of us have witnessed—shall we say—milder versions of Bartleby. As an academic, I can tell you that I’ve known many aging professors (such as myself!) who, in the twilight of their careers, begin to “dial it in,” as the saying goes. In the military they speak of someone being “short,” or close to retirement, or close at least to “getting out”; such folks become dead weight, so to speak.

But Bartleby’s an extreme example of someone checking out while still ostensibly in a position of some responsibility within an organization.

And it’s really that, an individual’s relation to an organization, which the story explores. If your brother-in-law loses his job more or less on purpose and then lies around the house doing nothing he’s a lazy bastard. If he pulls a Bartleby, well, he probably won’t last long at the workplace, but Bartleby does last quite a while , not because the narrator doesn’t possess the authority to have Bartleby hauled off at any moment he may wish to, but because the narrator is intrigued; Bartleby indeed fires the narrator’s imagination, and also tests his humanity, his values of Christian decency. 

In fact, we learn very little about Bartleby’s inner life, his thoughts and feelings. We see only his radical passivity and resolve to be still, do almost nothing. The traditional hero is a “man of action” (an action hero!); an antihero is paralyzed, in a sense, “does” practically nothing of consequence; his/her heroism occurs internally. In the case of Dostoevsky’s underground man, the reader has access to a person’s interiority in all of its moral ambiguity and pervasive alienation; in the case of Bartleby, the reader has access only to the image of a frail, quiet young man who is defined by an expression of radical freedom that takes the form of aggressive inaction. 

Is he nuts? Yeah, probably, but I think his mental health is somehow beside the point. He’s free, paradoxically, perhaps, but free nonetheless. Is the narrator free? Do you think that Bartleby, if nothing else, compels him to question his own freedom? Does Bartleby compel you to question yours, at least a little?