ON DOING NOTHING: A Physical Presence
If you ask poets, with or without the central nervous system capable of remembering the conversation, they will all indicate, in one way or another, their lack of care beyond little more than self or group gratifications. And the whole of these jinxed organisms seems remarkably two dimensional, when seen from above, given over to the succeeding generation: city lights, energy fields, networks. Experience, the “emotional center,” the organ, is important, and all there is worth living for, perhaps, this is true; but to hear of the outcomes, and how it got there. What dislodges it from this simple (though by no means simplistic) structure must be something stripping lives of consequence and value to the greater reason and quality of things. A thing dead already, though it eats and breathes and enjoys itself, though possibly not. The mountainside of ponderosa went up and, whether prepared or not, each was prepared for a great conflagration which, one day, would ruin all it “had” built without
knowing or expecting it, a painful shower (one can only assume) to finally hatch the predestinated, biologically programmed, though by no means guaranteed, seeds of the future it otherwise had
to the diets of sparrows and rabbits
Torched. Or so it seemed at the times I have scribbled this, incidentally, in back of a book by Thoreau, and it is, in fact, worthwhile to wonder, without any quibbling, grating reaching “after fact or reason,” that nature of a “human” experience, for a hYoo-mun may say with the regularity of his bowels that he was motivated by what was commonly understood to be a “greater good.”
And so it is a curious fact that one of the greatest voices ever penned in the English tongue is that of Bartleby. For he barely speaks. I have had the privilege of presenting this peculiar account of a scrivener, a copier of legal documents (who near his birth in death reminds the Tombs’ grubman of a forger, someone else), to the future of the earth’s people, in the form of today’s American student. They say he’s “weird”; “obviously depressed”; “boring”; “ungrateful”; “pathetic”; “hilarious.” For myself, I cannot understand these people, they sound like B’s narrator itself, like any neighbor I’d ever known, as if life and observation and reading were one vast couch near the window in the afternoon being dazzled and comforted in the memory of oneself, but where one cannot remember to take stock minutes later of some drool upon the pillow. Perhaps this is because no normalized dog is ever really comfortable sleeping around its master. In any event it is obvious that what each expresses, with distinct manners, is that neither they nor any role model they’ve “known,” who are in touch with the vital heat, may understand or comprehend just what this curious character of Melville’s is, and I find it equally remarkable the extent to which they never quite seem to think of intoning the author’s Christian name, even if I have specifically asked them to reject the notion.
At any rate, it’s obvious to any reader with a modicum of the common sense that Bartleby is neither what we are supposed to see, nor what we are even given to see. It is a curious fact of Bartleby the copyist that he does less and less until, under scrutiny, finally, he does absolutely nothing. Even Bartleby’s preference is merely conditional: he “would prefer not to [emphasis mine].” This confusing attitude accorded this apparition of the flesh, as reflected in Melville’s several references to Rome and to ruin (utterly peaceful), would “turn the tongues” of his fellow scriveners. It is indeed a tragedy: of the three employed workers, the one who manages impeccable performance must be the one to stump his employer—a lawyer who narrates Bartleby, a closet writer of memoir who, so it seems, would forget to name himself, and who also would seem unaware that, as B would do less and less, this hack’s invisible confidence could never snub the charitable sophisticate who’d tolerate the obscure pain of dealing with it since, by ultimately doing nothing, there wasn’t much to object to. Even so, however boring and peaceful, this hired hand’s physical presence was, like poor light in a scriptorium, what the denizens of the office would increasingly feel the need to confront. I have known one caged being who in most passive respects resembles in this life poor Bartleby, and it was to my wife’s chagrin when I explained we would commit several weeks’ pay to relocate him to a welcoming home of 15,000 souls.
The narrator, feeling responsible for pathetic Bartleby, who won’t work, thus finds himself in a pickle: if he is to get along with this decidedly ambitionless charge, who is obviously unfit even to preserve his body, then he (the unnamed) will have no choice but to sacrifice the professional decorum of his office. Though money never seemed to be the issue, nonetheless: “At length, necessities connected with my business tyrannized over all other considerations.” Which is to say, we finally know, as B must have, the false intent of the narrator’s “charity.” And though he dwells on the matter for some paragraphs, where money never was the issue, he misses the real obstacle to getting on with the vagrant: himself. Bartleby fades into a pure reflection of Bartleby’s boss, inverting him, twisted in knots, and this is what was all along untenable, why the lawyer fails at every chance to solve the “problem” of B, why the one who does nothing (truly) in this “Story of Wall-street” must eventually perish. For it is impossible, really, to inspire the dispirited—especially when such a flawless worker clearly behaved, even before being asked, as if he wouldn’t be needing the management’s “help.” It’s too bad. I tell my (obviously attracted) students how important it is to remember that the whitest whale ever pursued was not a mortal thing, totally not there, something genuinely unconcerned with them (until somehow threatened), and that the colossal end of the Pequod (of course, the Pequot) was the mere chance of the spirited craft’s continued life, the end of unforgettable experiences whose memory dominates their narrator’s assumption of a name. Like a bought (caught) and sold beast, chewed up and spit out by something else, a beginning can be saved and, ironically, set adrift, aboard the concluding coffin.