Bartleby and The Black Cat

I had a conversation a few days ago with somebody who was reading a Melville book at a coffee shop, it suffice to say that it did not end well. Bartleby is a big deal to me, as I don’t want every book out there to be tainted by liberalism: Bartleby is a victim, he was ‘oppressed’, Melville was prophetic — being smart enough, in those dark times apparently, to anticipate modern, more tolerant attitudes, Bartleby was weak and needed to be take care of, that the lawyer was too ‘judgmental’, that he categorized people, that he was prejudiced.

The most banal bullshit in the world, and of course completely wrong, but in calmer moments, I can admit that it’s not altogether easy avoiding such an understanding if one isn’t used to paying attention to the story. It basically skips over reading the text entirely in order to reflect vaguely on the ending — ‘But somebody died! They must have been a victim of oppression. All he wanted to do was be left alone with his skittles — er, cakes, what have you.’ But I do admit, in calmer times, that reading isn’t altogether trivial — it takes some practice to read dialectically, to cease reading on assumptions on what the text *must have* wanted to do.

If we were to return to the text, however, we would remember that the lawyer was *overwhelmingly* generous with Bartleby — to the point that the lawyer himself seems to be insane one. And he was — he was haunted, something about Bartleby appealed to him in a highly personal, inexplicable way. The story was not about a violation of basic human rights but rather about why the lawyer *didn’t* get rid of him on the first day, why the lawyer kept him around for as long as he did — parting with him only when it began to negatively affect his business, and even then, dragging up his entire office rather than forcibly ejecting him. And Bartleby was not at all a victim, innocent, stupid, and passive, a far cry from being a buddhist — this is a good thing — his last words were, ‘I know where I am’, and ‘I know you, and I want nothing to say to you’.

Bartleby can be linked to the long chain of what we’ve been concerned with, maybe we can call it ‘psychotic literature’: Sleepaway Camp, Psycho, The Black Cat, and others. The story is in some sense very similar to The Black Cat, it speaks, in the first person, of the defeat of my best laid out plans by methods which are entirely too simple. It might actually be an interesting and useful exercise to simply draw one-to-one mappings between the two stories, and if we were to do so, we would certainly come across some very interesting incongruences that are not at all accidental but seem to reflect a further thinking about the same problem. Bartleby is the cat. The lawyer is the murderer, or the psycho killer. Except, of course, he isn’t — be he does run a law firm, the practice of which can be considered criminal — not in the sense that lawyers are evil but in the sense that all forms of holism should be considered criminal, to be human is to be criminal, it is, on some level, seeing what we can get away with, seeing what we can pass ourselves off as.

Bartleby, likewise, is a deeper sort of psychopath. His intelligence and *aggression* shoudn’t be overlooked — albeit, this aggression is towards the human criminal rather than towards any particular human being. And his own stance is undoubtedly criminal, in the sense I use it here, of making something out of nothing, or rather, of giving a holism or unity to mere negative possibilities. That is, he doesn’t offer a better way to live.

What Bartleby is establish another way of living that is really merely a possibility — it is entirely negative, but that’s not saying much, since everything is negative. But this text is about him living this out and in some way, trying to *bring together*, to unify within himself all this negativity.

I mean, by negativity, the idea of the psychotic undermining — cheating the welfare system, you can think. But the welfare system is already cheating in that it was designed to give us some noble effort to work towards and be done with — and perhaps avoid facing any real troubles. We can think of it as the lawyer who thinks to himself (something to the effect of) ‘I have done all that I can, I have spared no kindness, withheld no oppurtunity, etc., in treating this Bartleby affair, and now I can part ways with this ghost, guilt free, at least by social standards’. The point, of course, is not that he should have been even more kind than he was, but rather that he had misunderstood — or rather, had misstated — the intention of Bartelby, which was aggressive and accusatory, political rather than passive.

But yes, as we were saying, cheating the system. The system was designed — and this is why I call it ‘criminal’ — not with some central project or purpose but to reject cheating, or more obvious forms of cheating, to allow certain forms of cheating and not others. The issue in Bartleby, as we had pointed out, is not so much the success at cheating; rather, Bartleby requires some help from us in order to understand him.

The dead letters office is interesting. Letters are a way of reaching someone directly, of bypassing the system, since a letter is heart to heart. A dead letter is one that never reaches its destination, they are sort of like failed crimes designed to overcome other, more successful crimes. And so Bartleby, as the nexus of these letters, seemed to have taken it upon himself to *be* the success that all those letters sought, I mean, his very existence is an undeniable success. He is ‘not particular’, which means that he is not really, you know, tailoring his behavior towards evoking the emotions of a particular human. But nonetheless, he *is* negational, but in a much more general sense, towards all humanity in some sense.

Now, that which is excluded by the system is precisely that which lacks the *spirit* of the system. The system is like a mafia. There is a line in Heart of Darkness that goes, ‘there is something after all in the world allowing one man to steal a horse while another must not look at a halter.’ This spirit is based on the ‘serious’ understanding of words, on the humanism of words. What Bartleby does is base his life on the *holism* of psychotic intention *underneath* the level of the word.

Tbc

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