Before the completion of Moby Dick in 1851, Melville suffered the traditional artists’ existential crisis: a lack of money coupled with being pulled this way and that by competing interests. Most of us who’ve chosen to pursue some degree of success in the arts have felt that Real Life frequently gets in the way. Melville wrote this in a letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne at that time.
“In a week or so, I go to New York, to bury myself in a third-story room, and work and slave on my “Whale” while it is driving through the press. That is the only way I can finish it now, — I am so pulled hither and thither by circumstances. The calm, the coolness, the silent grass-growing mood in which a man ought always to compose, — that, I fear, can seldom be mine. Dollars damn me; and the malicious Devil is forever grinning in upon me, holding the door ajar.“
It’s easy for struggling artists to become rather disdainful towards wealthy and those who have it and generate it, mianly because we’re not making any of it. How grimly ironic, then, that the writer of one of the all-time great novels – perhaps arguably the greatest of all novels composed in the English language – hardly saw any dollars and cents from it; it was a commercial flop and only became a success after his death upon reassessment by British critics later in the century.
So it’s not hard to see how some bitterness and covetousness may have crept into the writing of his novella Bartleby, The Scrivener in 1853. A more thorough examination of the runaway expansion of American enterprise was made in Moby Dick, but it isn’t an altogether pessimistic one. after all, Ishmael survives the encounter with the whale to tell the tale. The picture is bleaker in Bartleby. Melville moves inland, shunning the open ocean for the rapidly growing Wall Street. But as the walls of Wall Street grow, they don’t create more space, they close it down; compartmentalisation is the order of the day, taken to such extremes that the individual is lost in splendid isolation.
In some ways this is obvious. The wall is a potent political symbol. Jordan Peterson has said that the fundamental political question that is knocked about between the left and right is, essentially, should we have open borders? Or, in other words, how (un)fettered should the flow of information be? It became a cornerstone of Donald Trump’s 2016 US presidential election campaign, and it was symbolic of the divide between western liberal capitalist democracies and collectivist, uniform communism during the Cold War. The Nazi regime in particular is an example of orderliness run riot. In Genesis, Eden is a paradise. Tellingly, the original meaning of the word paradise is “walled garden” – that is, something that is protected from the outside world, but still requires a good deal of tending and work to keep it under control (and which still might be vulnerable to the odd serpent slipping inside). So the essential equation is: Wall = Order. Not enough Wall = not enough order. Too much Wall = too much order. Both scenarios are disastrous, as history shows. In Bartleby Melville shows us a dream-like prophecy of Too Much Wall.
Bartleby is a scrivener (a notary or copy-boy) who takes work at a lawyer’s office on Wall Street. But he is unlike the other workers in his office; he is someway separated from them, and seems hyper-aware of his situation in a piece of architecture that seems designed to make insentient worker bees of their inhabitants. Bartleby’s existence is one merely related to the walls that surround him and no more, much as Ahab’s existence is only related to the whale. When the lawyer initially employs Bartleby, the scrivener is segregated from the other workers by the “ground glass-ground doors”, which provide an impermanent wall behind which he exists. This area also affords him a dramatically increased proximity to the walls surrounding the office just across the way from his window; the significance of this becomes clear later on.
“I resolved to assign Bartleby a corner by the folding-doors, but on my side of them, so as to have the quiet man within easy call.. I placed his desk up to a small side window in that part of the room, a window which originally had afforded a lateral view of certain grimy back-yards and bricks, but which, owing to subsequent erections, commanded at present no view at all, though it did have some light. Within three feet of the panes was a wall, and the light came down from far above, between two lofty buildings, as from a very small opening in a dome.”
Melville describes this wall only ever as the “dead brick wall’ or the “dead-wall”. Other walls visible from the office are described, and with more colour; one is described as “a lofty brick wall black by age whilst the other is the white wall of the interior of spacious skylight shaft”. The wall closest to Bartleby is therefore intentionally blank, colourless, opaque, devoid of any life or vibrancy. It is a wall, a border, as its most fundamental symbolic representation. Why? Is it Bartleby’s singular perceptions that make the wall so blank because it’s that particular wall that hems him in; or is the wall objectively blank? Bartleby spends a lot of time looking at this wall, as if contemplating the answer.
This decolourisation is also a technique that Melville had used in Moby Dick when considering the qualities of the whale; Ishmael is aware of the problems that occur when humans project illusions upon these vast, blank beings. Hence the whale is white, a vast, deconceptualised canvas upon which Ahab paints all of his fears, desires and illusions towhich he’s inexorably bound. Thus does Bartleby become engrossed in his “dead-wall reveries”.
Melville tells us that the Dead Wall had not always been there. The lawyer makes a point that the window by Bartleby’s desk once had afforded a lateral view of grimy back-yards and bricks. Now even those bleak panoramas are shut off. There is only the dead-wall, and Bartleby cannot look away. It can act as perfect protector, but also perfect isolator. No information shall flow freely through it. It is a perfect symbol of the state. Bartleby’s repetition of his catchphrase, then – “I would prefer not to” – is a very small but determined resistance to this hemming in. With enough repetition he manages to shake the structure of a considerable section of the Wall Street community; he aggrieves the lawyer, the landlord, the police and “some fears are entertained of a mob” when Bartleby refuses to vacate the premises. Leo Marx says that Bartleby’s “fatal mistake” is his refusal to refrain from gazing upon the Dead Wall; or the refusal to tear his gaze away from death itself, a death of culture, a death of information flow, caused by the imposition of the Wall.
Bartleby is interred in prison, where the walls are once again create a cage, and where he dies. Bartleby accepts the wall and understands what it represents, and it provokes in him a certain nihilism. He has confronted the wall, as did Ahab. The difference is that Bartleby’s death is one of nihilistic acceptance of the crushing tyranny of the orderly state, whereas Ahab furiously and mistakenly rages against the wall in the futile hope of crushing it. In fact, he is in turn crushed and destroyed.
“All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks… if man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? The white whale is that wall, shoved near to me.”
Ahab is only half-correct; the whale is a wall, the Dead Wall, colourless and infinite, too vast for mankind to understand, let alone penetrate and dominate. The wall and the whale are almost prototypes of more existential metaphors developed in later literature, such as the Great Old Ones in Lovecraft. Man may seek to strike through the mask, but in doing so simply awakens or discovers more vastness on the other side. Philosophy does not always clip the wings of angels, as Keats said. Perhaps it simply wakes them up and drives the striker mad, which happened to Lovecraft’s protagonists more often than not.
Neither Ahab nor Bartleby have the wherewithal to deal with the existential crises they encounter. Ahab has his doubts, but cannot escape.
“I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming in on myself all the time… Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God. or who that lifts this arm? But if the great sun move not of himself, but is as an errand-boy in heaven… By heaven, man, we are turned round and around in this world, like yonder windlass, and Fate is the handspike. Aye, toil we how we may, we all sleep at last on the field.”
Bartleby is incarcerated as a result of his forlorn reverie, but he too cannot rip himself away, and meekly accepts his fate. “I know where I am,” he says as he gazes at the prison’s “high” wall.
“Being under no disgraceful charge.. they had permitted him freely to wander about the prison, and especially in the inclosed grass-platted yards thereof. And so I found him there, standing all alone in the quietest of yards, his face toward a high wall.”
Is Bartleby a harbinger of doom, a symbol of humanity’s subjugation beneath a future of untrammelled Orderliness (Nietzsche would probably say so)? Or does he become just another brick in the wall himself?
I had a sweep of the internet, naturally, before putting this together, and was surprised to find that nobody had written anything of note comparing Bartleby to Pink Floyd’s magnum opus album The Wall. I guess I’ll have lay the brickwork myself. In the 1979 album the eponymous, metaphorical Wall is erected by the main character Pink to isolate himself from what he feels is an oppressive society, but the wall is composed entirely of those members of society: his coddling, Oedipal mother, his cruel teacher, his nagging girlfriend/wife; in the end he traps himself within the very thing he wished to escape.
“All in all it was all just bricks in the wall.
All all you it was just another brick in the wall.”
Maybe Roger Waters was consciously channeling Bartleby; there’s a certain fatalism in Pink’s and Bartleby’s fate; they become “hyper bricks”, subsumed by the walls they are, in their small or large ways, responsible for erecting. Pink becomes fascistic, disgusted at the nonconformity evident even among his very own fans:
“Are there any queers in the theater tonight?
Get them up against the wall!
There’s one in the spotlight, he don’t look right to me,
Get him up against the wall!
That one looks Jewish!
And that one’s a coon!
Who let all of this riff-raff into the room?
There’s one smoking a joint,
And another with spots!
If I had my way,
I’d have all of you shot!”
The hyper brick becomes the wall, a hard, all-consuming mechanism that crunches anything that cannot be assimilated into its shape under its great weight. Alan Parker’s famous movie of the album drives this message home by employing hyper-orderly, fascistic images of marching hammers, echoing the uniform tramp of Nazi or Communist jackboots. In Melville’s day, the early throes of capitalism, it may well have seemed that individualism was being crushed by the forward march of progress, and the relentless grind of the worker’s existence to produce capital. This was certainly Marx’s thinking.
How ironic, then, that as the next hundred years manifested themselves, it was the anti-capitalist movements of Marxism-Leninism and the anti-Weimar National Socialists that so crushed the notion of the individual in favour of a monstrous Borg-like programme of assimilation / annihilation, while capitalism, for all its faults, brought about hitherto unheard of levels of individual liberties, and even birthed libertarianism, a sort of hyper individualism, as a political movement. How absurd that those two positions should be reversed, and yet, how logical. In a totalitarian society, everyone who supports the tyranny (or who does not overtly oppose the tyranny and prefers a strategy of quiet acceptance) a hyper brick in the wall; Viktor Frankl knew that in Nazi Germany under fascism, and Alexandr Solzhenitsyn certainly knew that in the Soviet Union under communism. But Solzhenitsyn also knew that one person who told the truth abut the wall could bring it down.
How ironic that the wall, a symbol of compartmentalisation, which so typifies the orderliness that underpins much conservative thinking, was torn down to symbolise a victory for conservative-capitalist individualism at the end of the Cold War in Berlin? Roger Waters famously performed The Wall in Berlin in 1990, culminating in the climactic chants of:
“Tear down the wall!
Tear down the wall!
Tear down the wall!”
A victory in the story of the The Wall is Pink’s reconciliation with society; a free exchange of information, if you like, with healthy boundaries put in place. In reality, the tearing down of the Berlin Wall signalled the end of communism as a serious political theory (or, at least, it should have; the spectre does not seem to have entirely dissipated just yet).
In Bartleby his co-workers gradually begin to accommodate Bartleby’s catchphrase “I would prefer not to” into their own speech without realising it. Have they picked up Bartleby’s subtle resistance against subjugation, or are they fated too to be crushed beneath it like Bartleby?
It’s tempting to be bleak about it – and maybe Melville was bleak, given that he had not become the success story he perhaps had envisaged or deserved – but I think Bartleby’s quiet indomitability strikes a note of optimism. He has, at least, woken up the lawyer and his colleagues. Melville offered a gentle warning that the walls may well overcome all, but they don’t have to, if we quietly resist the untrammeled progress of huge structures, be they the state itself, or certain ideologies. Do we have to have the walls closing in? We would prefer not to.