War Scars/Bartleby and Bontshe

Yesterday I had a meeting with two people whom I knew, but not that well. One of them had had cancer and would always ask me, in routine e-mail correspondence, how I was doing. I would always ask her about her former cancer and she wouldn't answer. But yesterday we started talking about our cancers, comparing acupuncturists and port scars and oncologists. She told me about misdiagnoses and general mishandling of her disease at Central University Hospital, we'll call it. She had a rare form of cancer that only men in their sixties and seventies are supposed to get. She was quite ready to talk about her treatment. Now it's been six years and she's out of the danger zone, apparently. I had a student who had breast cancer, ran a marathon a few years later and then a year later (this year) I heard she was dying. I sent her a card. I was too uneasy to call. I was afraid it would be awkward. I haven't heard how she's doing. I check the obits on line every so often, to see if her name comes up. It hasn't, so far.

So we go on. I went to my acupuncturist today and he did the routine needling and cupping. I taught my last short story class at Intellectual University. We had student reports and student work and didn't have time to talk about Bartleby, the Scrivener. This is something I hadn't thought of: "He just dies ever so passively, ever so politely, passing into the next world leaving no blood on anyone’s hands." He is a gentleman down to the end. I don't think that's the essence of the story, though. I think the essence is how a man can be so beaten down by the system, by the walls (as it has been pointed out) bearing in on his office window, by the impersonality of industrial capitalism (in that way, no blood on any specific person's hands). But if you do examine his politeness and passivity (which is not the same as passive-aggressiveness or passive resistance), you might be reminded of I.L. Peretz' Bontshe the Silent, who asked for nothing on earth, and when he dies and goes to heaven, asks for nothing more than a hot roll and butter every day. The heavenly beings rebuke him for his modest request. In one translation from the Yiddish: "...slowly the judge and the angels bend their heads in shame at this unending meekness they have created on earth."

In one sense, Bartleby wasn't meek. He wanted to be passive, he wanted to do nothing, he wanted to live in his employer's office, he wanted to refuse. He was able to live as he wanted (according to his own narrow concept of desire, or simply his concept of what was possible) up until a point. His employer let him live as he liked, until the employer was embarrassed, until others were outraged. But Bartleby was meek in his desires. He had stopped desiring as others did, and required only the bare necessities. His desire had dried up so much that it could express itself only as a preference "not to." He could only respond. He could not utter that most elemental phrase that babies learn instinctively: "I want."

2 comments:

Jonah said...

Bartleby was autistic and that's really all that there is to Bartleby the scrivener.
It annoys me sometimes that people think that people with bizarre behaviors necessarily have the same thought patterns and emotional patterns as others do and just were affected by their lives and came out differently for that reason.
When I read Bartleby the Scrivener in seventh grade, I said to myself, autistic folk like me have been around awhile, haven't we? Cool.

Anonymous said...

It's not that useful to try to apply modern diagnoses to a fictional character. Bartleby is as Melville described him. To try to "diagnose" him is to miss the profound critique of economic and social relationships that Melvile forwards in his story.