Melville in July (or the root of disobedience)

“I would prefer not to”. From a proposition so basic from the grammatical point of view and so devastating and radical from the moral point of view, starts, in my opinion, the literature of the absurd in the mid-nineteenth century by the hand of Melville. After originally failing as a novelist with his novel "Moby Dick", the New York writer opted for what at the time was considered a minor genre such as the short story -so minor that whoever writes it continues to cultivate it today- and tries in 1853 with “Bartleby te Scrivener: a Story of Wall Street”, an adventitious literary experiment of the later work of Kafka, Beckett, Camus or Borges himself. The plot is minimalist, if there is a plot at all: a self-indulgent New York lawyer hires a new clerk to make up for the lack of performance of his three employees. Facing a window from where he contemplates the construction of the megalopolis, the new employee begins to work. One fine day, he rejects the order of his boss to examine a document together, with the laconic reply “I would prefer not to”. From that moment on, the clerk, a man with no apparent memory or biography, refuses to accept the lawyer's new assignments, always repeating the same phrase. The lawyer, driven to the limits of reason by the attitude of his employee, decides to fire him, but Bartleby refuses to leave the office. Fleeing from the absurdity of the situation, the lawyer opts to move to new offices, but the clerk decides to stay in his office. Bartleby is apprehended by the police over his resistance to leaving the office he had made his home, and is eventually thrown in jail, where he starves to death. It is not a mere coincidence that in the other story written that year by Melville, "Cock-A-Doodle-Doo", the protagonist also ends up dying of malnutrition. “I would prefer not to”. 

Each character in this narrative fulfills a representative function, so it is interesting to describe the confrontation between the two main characters from their identity; a kind of duel between an accommodating and simple reality, bound to a logical order, and a new, alienated and disturbing reality, bound to question, even if it is by mere passive resistance, the perpetual balance of things. Thus, the lawyer presents himself, his narrative self, as a person with a past, with a bland and predictable personality, as an incarnation of what is expected in an ordered world: "I am a man who, since his youth, has been Imbued with a deep conviction that the best way of life is the simplest, that is why, although my job sometimes requires proverbial energy and nerve, bordering on madness, I have never allowed any of this to disturb My tranquility. I am one of those lawyers without ambitions who never addresses a jury, nor does he do it to attract the applause of the public. Undaunted, devoid of ambition, ataraxic in the strictest sense of the term, the lawyer represents security, certainty and prudence. There is nothing in him that invites rebellion or nonconformity. It is not in vain that he is a lawyer, it is not by chance that Melville attributed this condition to the narrative self, as a representative of law and proper order. On the contrary, Bartleby has no past, there is no biographical feature that accounts for his life, except at the end, in which, as a literary resource but also as a sketch and justification of life, it is discovered that he worked in the office of dead letters. , the unclaimed letters, in Washington DC We only know of him that he is "tall and pale", the closest thing in the reader's mind to a soul, a ghost, a mere line outlined on the mass of buildings on Wall Street . Abandonment as a solution, not as an active response, equates the letters that do not reach their destination with the man stranded in the impotence of a world that does not correspond to him and that causes alienation. Non-life, non-identity, oblivion. See the following dialogue between the boss and the clerk: 

“Would you like to tell me something about yourself? 
- I would prefer not to do it. 
"But what reasonable objection can you have to not speaking to me?" I have sympathy for him ... 
- What do you say, Bartleby? 
– For now, I prefer not to answer.  

The boss looks for a solution to this problem, an existential curse, and offers several solutions, from dismissal with a large compensation, to the possibility of the clerk going to live at home. The calm man, the man-system wages an internal battle to try to discover the reason for this singular behavior, of an anti-system man. And here I use the term in the genuine sense, and not as it is used in our troubled times, where “I'd rather not” becomes, by the fad of non-Breeds assimilating into avant-garde Breeds at a meteoric rate. , in a "I would prefer not to, but I am forced to." he is not the caso of the clerk, because Bartleby rejects any way out, does not accept charity or the logic of prevailing social behaviour, he simply says "no" because he has chosen "no" as an option, without this making us present the character as a tormented anti-hero. Quite the contrary, the one who loses his footing through radical rejection is the lawyer, who is plunging into a sea of ​​contradictions, repulsion and the search for a way out that allows him to flee from the problem, although he is overwhelmed and weakened by not finding a solution. coherent explanation, in a world of regulated justifications, for the antisocial and terminal behavior of your employee.  

“I would prefer not to”. It is an alembic, mannerist expression, because instead of pronouncing a categorical refusal, a resounding “no”, it introduces a noisy solemnity with its “prefer”, a superb and dismissive expression, “polite” in the most Anglo-Saxon meaning of the term. It is an expression to the point intolerable because it is immeasurable, incomprehensible because it is absurd, impossible because it is inaudible in a society that expels any type that does not adhere to the established rules. Let me break the expression into two parts. On the one hand, from an etymological point of view, “prefer” comes from the Latin “praefero”, where “prae” means “before” and “fero” means to suffer. Thus, Bartleby could use denial as an alleged formula to endure suffering, a genetic drive to avoid pain in a world that is not given to him and that he does not understand. On the other hand, the ending "not to" being grammatically correct, is still a radical expression, a linguistic function that places the reader on the edge, making the rhetoric of solemnity the biggest heartbreaking cry against reality as it is. it is conceived in a society in deep transformation like the one that seethed in the North America of the East in the middle of the XNUMXth century.  

One of the peculiarities of our character is that he is not a tragic hero, nor a convinced nihilist, nor a decadent. It just isn't. And since it is not, unlike those who now say they are not to become one day the glamor of being, it does not react against anything or anyone. Not even against himself. There is no ideal, no action, no reaction. There is nothing. Bartleby spends long periods of the story leaning out of the window, overlooking a blank brick wall. Non-vision, non-activity, non-life, non-identity. A man without attributes as in Musil's work. Is it possible to understand that total denial is a form of absolute domination of our characters? I doubt it and I don't feel up to giving an opinion, when Melville himself leaves Bartleby at the mercy of his pale gaze, since he only feels and suffers the narrative self of the lawyer.  
The representation of this tragedy of the “no” at the center of a Wall Street that will become the center of the world over time is not a trivial figuration. Plato's cave can be recognized in the iron and concrete blocks that are erected in the metropolis, this is how the scribe observes reality in the “walled streets”. And that is where Bartleby faces an unrecognizable, impossible, irreconcilable world with an "I" that assumes "no", perhaps as a victory rather than a defeat. The clerk does not want to belong to that society, simple as that, and he is fully aware of it when he utters the phrase "I know where I am" almost at the end. And since every society is ordered under legal and moral rules, it is not by chance that the employer is a lawyer, the one to whom the application and interpretation of the law corresponds. Bartleby rebels against the law, but not in a reactionary and belligerent way. Essentially, he denies the law. The law becomes an unapproachable excess for a trace of life that, in his clearest consciousness, ends in abandonment. This law that is presented to us as a categorical imperative, as a sign of the imposition of wills, runs into the greatest possible calamity: that a subject opts for the most irrational of possible options, which is to break the order. The non-subject reminds me of that photograph of an anonymous citizen stopping a tank in Moscow. But there is a big difference, and that is that Bartleby would prefer not to stop any tank, because he does not react physically even against barbarism. He is not a nihilist, because he cannot even be. And the most serious thing, or perhaps the most hopeful thing, is that "the preference for no" has a contagion effect, and is inoculated involuntarily in more individuals, as in fact also happens in the story of Melville where the rest of the employees start to also use the expression “prefer”. “I would prefer not to”. It's time to finish this entry, although he would rather not.

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Melville in July (or the root of disobedience)

About the Author

Mario Garces Sanagustin

Mario Garces Sanagustin

Auditor and Auditor of the State. State Treasury Inspector. Member of the Academic Council of Fide.

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