Bartleby and Bartleby and Co.

I took time out, whilst reading Bartleby & Co., to re-read Melville’s Bartleby and remind myself what it is actually about. As it happens, it seems to be largely about motivation and management theory – but leaving that for a moment to one side and concentrating instead of the character of Bartleby: it is about a man who seems to become increasingly uninterested any longer in involving himself in life or interacting in any way with his fellow man; and it is suggested that this is due to some sort of dislocation brought on by losing his previous job and a sense of life’s worthlessness in the face of death.

Bartleby works as a copyist (in modern parlance, he is a photocopying machine); he is not a writer; and it is not so easy to make the equation between Bartleby as copyist and “the writer” – or even with Melville the writer. The profession of copyist seems often to be used by writers of the period for the tedium and drudgery of office existence (see, for instance, Svevo’s A Life). It is perhaps notable that, although the narrator hedges around it, two of his other copyists are alcoholics. Nor is copying (non sc. writing) the thing Bartleby would “prefer not” to do: first, he refuses to proofread other people’s copying (sc. reading / literary criticism?), then he “prefers not” to proofread (sc. edit?) his own work, then he “prefers not” to do all kinds of menial tasks or even answer any questions about himself – all the while continuing to do one thing and one thing only, which is to work industriously as a copyist. Eventually, even this he gives up and merely sits there etc. etc. In our enlightened days, we might suggest Bartleby’s is a case of clinical depression, brought on by the worthlessness of modern living.

So much for the story Bartleby; – what of the narrator of Bartleby & Co.‘s search for Bartlebys in the world of literature? – I would like to suggest the following cavilling point: that the narrator here mistakes literature for life (this apparently fits a very common Vila-Matas theme): that where Bartleby gives up on living, in Bartleby & Co. the writers he speaks of merely give up on writing – living, they seemingly have no problem with – indeed, some of them even turn to it from writing. Moreover, the narrator of Bartleby & Co. specifically avoids including artists who have given up on living (even while, naturally, actually including them):

There won’t be much room in this book for suicide Bartlebys, I’m not too interested in them, since I think that taking one’s own life lacks the nuances, the subtle inventions of other artists – the game, in short, which is always more imaginative than a shot in the head – when called on to justify their silence.

A quotation which, interestingly, seems to suggest artists are “making up” all these reasons why they’ve stopped creating art.

The narrator intends his books as an investigation into “the disease endemic to contemporary letters, the negative impulse or attraction towards nothingness that means that certain creators, while possessing a very demanding literary conscience … never manage to write: either they write one or two books and then stop altogether or, working on a project, seemingly without problems, one day they become literally paralysed for good.”

One reason, perhaps, why this book shouldn’t be taken as an essay on the “literature of the No” is that all it subsequently amounts to is a collection of anecdotes about writers who have for various reasons (disinterest, public reaction, a sense of the inexpressibility of everything, a thirst for adventure beyond writing, a lack of ideas, putting a bullet through their heads) given up writing. There is no conclusion given which attempts to make a generalisation about these stories, simply – I would hazard – because the stories themselves – the reasons for giving up writing – are so disparate as to militate against any possible generalisation. The narrator ends up with all too many reasons (which may even, as per the above example, be in truth themselves fictions); in contrast of course to Bartleby himself, who gave none.

As with the story Bartleby itself, however, perhaps the heart of the story is not its apparent subject, but the narrator himself. If writers who give up writing aren’t exactly Bartlebys (for the most part, at least), what about the searcher after Bartlebys? – Scott Esposito has already perceptively noted that there’s something of the depressive about the narrator. At the beginning of the book, he works in an office, but has given up going there. For a while they put him on sick leave (on the basis of his “depression”, no less), but eventually even that is stopped. – Does any of this sound familiar? – And what of the reasons he gives for giving up literature: are we meant, for instance, to believe he’s done so because his father had him pen a dedication to his mother against his will to his only novel, and he found it unbearable to discover himself a “copyist”? – Is this work not really, perhaps, a work about how writers tell such lies to themselves?

Next week: Aren’t some of these writers actually just made up by Vila-Matas?


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