I had one of those moments last night where my literary stars seemed to align, or at least cross-reference each other. While reading “Rites of Passage: The Politics and Poetics of Public Space”, a collection of essays, I came across an in-depth discussion of Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener in Mark Kingwell’s essay “Masters of Chancery: The Gift of Public Space”. As we know, Bartleby is referenced in Agamben’s “The Coming Community” in the chapter titled “Bartleby”. But it is a brief reference, one that Keith had to expound upon during our discussion for those of us in the group who are less well-read, myself included. Having yet to read the original Melville work, Bartleby remains an intriguing, yet enigmatic, character.
In Kingwell’s piece, Bartleby is described as a paragon that subsequent authors, following Melville, have employed for their own varying thought pieces. He mentions the Agamben passage as one of several Bartlebys– the “mystical-anarchist Bartleby”, as opposed to Slavoj Žižek’s “ruthless-authoritarian Bartleby” or Elizabeth Harwick’s “exhausted-anti-consumer Bartleby”. Kingwell himself presents Bartleby in opposition to the flâneur, the romanticized hero of the nineteenth century: “In his speeding up to a standstill, he is already a much more disturbing and baffling figure than the flâneur, whose strolling leisure can all too easily be assimilated and commodified in the form of the mall-bound shopper. In his refusal of all motion, Bartleby is, instead, a new figure altogether, a singular instance of the anti-flâneur. He rejects the demands of the world of work, Wall Street’s logic, but not in favor of the world of leisure; both realms are, for him, impossible” (11).
Kingwell notes that Bartleby’s actions are not deliberately political–he is no revolutionary figure. Yet, in Agamben’s terms, Bartleby is “the extreme image of [an] angel” whose “‘perfect act of writing’ becomes a ‘pure act’ of ever potentially not-writing”. According to Kingwell, Bartleby’s “action outlines a figure of purity, a violent gesture free of determinant content” (14-15). And yet, Barteby’s actions, translated into a normative role, appear to lead only toward anti-political nihilism. By opting out of both bourgeois-capitalism and “the ironies of public space structured by consumption”, Bartleby chooses to loiter “because he has nowhere else to go…He prefers not to move on. He prefers not to be reasonable. His preferences, so far from being moves or claims in a larger game of justification and negotiation, stand as insults, undigested remainders. Result: confinement, starvation, death” (14). Should Bartleby’s actions guide our actions? If so, how? I, for one, don’t want to die.
The fact that Bartleby is a not only a multi-dimensional paragon but perhaps the only, or perhaps most fitting, literary reference for certain paragons of modern life strikes me as odd (or maybe Melville was just that good?). Likewise, like all canonical literary characters, Bartleby is paradoxically highly contextualized within a particular time and place, but also is in many ways timelessly modern, a character who remains relevant as long as the fight against Wall Street continues, as it certainly does to this day.