Law in Contemporary Society

Bartleby—A Law Student's Analysis

This short piece addresses the reflection narrator sees of himself in Bartleby in Herman Melville's short story, "Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street."

Prior to Bartleby's entrance, the narrator describes himself as an experienced, self-possessed professional. He knows what he wants and he has acquired it. “I am a man who, from his youth upwards, has been filled with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best” (1). The narrator was recently appointed a Master in Chancery, for which he completes little arduous work and yet is compensated pleasantly. He approaches life from a distinctly self-interested point of view, and yet this self-interest occasionally compels him to help others. “Mere self-interest, then, if no better motive can be enlisted, should … prompt all beings to charity and philanthropy” (23). In contrast to his two copyists, who take turns flubbing their work according to the hour of the day, the narrator appears content and controlled. In short, the narrator appears to live a work life that many of us desire for ourselves. He is cool, collected, and well-paid.

Of course, this depiction contrasts with the image of the lawyer that we have been presented with this semester: the lawyer that seeks justice for his client. The narrator faces this unpleasant reality when his crafted appearance is betrayed by Bartleby's arrival.

The narrator sees himself reflected in Bartleby, and this drives an obsession with him. No history is provided about Bartleby until near the end of the story. This yields a blank canvas (or empty vessel) for the narrator to project himself onto as he starts to identify with Bartleby. The narrator's remark that he 'never feels so private as when he knows Bartleby is there' is palpable.

The narrator cannot rid himself of Bartleby, even though everything in the preceding description suggests that he should. He alternates between lashing out at Bartleby and coddling him. This irrational behavior from a self-styled cool, collected man may point to seeing something in Bartleby that the narrator dislikes about himself. The narrator's complacence to Bartleby's slow drop in work-ethic may be to criticize the routine and sterile world the lawyer lives in, doing "safe" but well-paid work on Wall Street. The narrator in the story has practiced for many years--he is in his early sixties--and is in a career for an 'eminently safe man.' Challenging Bartleby means challenging the decisions he has made for himself, something he is not willing to confront after practicing for so long.

Bartleby continues to challenge the ease and logic in the narrator's life, yet the narrator fails to rid himself of Bartleby every time. When Bartleby originally fails to complete his work, the narrator rationalizes his decision not to fire him by reasoning between logic and altruism. “Poor fellow! Thought I, he means no mischief…He is useful to me. I can get along with him.” When the narrator discovers that Bartleby lives in his office, without his permission, the narrator is unable to ask him to leave. He again rationalizes this decision. The narrator comments on the loneliness of Wall Street on nights and weekends, and empathizes for the lonely Bartleby.

When the narrator surrenders his office space to move to another location to "isolate him from sight" but not voice, the narrator is segregating the feelings inside him that Bartleby represents. The narrator reveals this internal conflict when he addresses the lawyer who moved into his old offices. The narrator pretends not to know Bartleby's name, and originally refuses to do anything about him. However, once the narrator finds a way to rationalize the interaction (by fearing his own exposure in the papers), he immediately runs off in his attempt to convince Bartleby to quit the premises.

This reading may have been assigned to drive this point: any lawyer worth his salt thinks before mindlessly entering a practice. A lawyer brings justice to her clients by thinking about the work she's doing and the career she is embarking on, not by pawning a license in a "safe" workplace.

This is the tragic story about the trap of looking back after a career in law and wondering how you missed the opportunity to make the world a more just place. Someday you or I may be the narrator, confronted with Bartleby, and not being able to admit to ourselves that a lifetime went by, and we missed it.

(AlexBuonocore, EbenMoglen, HarryKhanna, 27 Mar 2012)

I think developing empathy requires conscious practice and constant socialization. I always considered myself an empathetic person, and believed my parents taught me well how to place myself in somebody else's shoes before reaching a conclusion. This self-perception has been shattered during the first year of law school for three reasons 1) the stress of getting good grades as a 1L justified my abandonment of almost every aspect of my life other than studying 2) the isolation of the 1L experience further shielded me from the rest of the world and led me to believe this abandonment was ok and 3) reading about John Brown and Tharaud and listening to Professor Moglen's accounts of stories of injustice opened my eyes to how much I've been ignoring.

But Skylar, it does not follow: (1) that you were taught empathy, in the sense that you were taught how to ride a bike; (2) that you have lost more than a "perception" that you possess empathetic cognition; or indeed (3) that any cognitive change has taken place. You may have dissociated your empathetic personae, or stopped responding to perceptual stimulation from mirror neurons.

It wasn't pleasant to realize I was no longer the empathetic person I once considered myself to be, especially when I still have half a semester of law school, and a set of exams to get through. So I've been trying an experiment to help myself re-develop a sense of empathy. The experiment involves behavioral psychology and consists of three steps: 1) recognizing outward manifestations of when I am developing a strong (potentially unjustified) opinion and 2) consciously being alert to those physical manifestations manifesting themselves and 3) when I see that outward manifestation, I attempt to consciously interrupt and replace whatever unconscious opinion I was developing. I paid careful attention to myself, and other people's reactions to me during class and realized that whenever I experience a strong opinion about somebody/something I vigorously tap my foot or clench my jaw. Now when I notice I'm tapping my foot or clenching my jaw I instantly reflect on what I was thinking about/who I was interacting with/what I was reading about, figure out what opinion I was developing, and force myself to create a backstory in opposite to the original opinion I was developing about the person/situation. In this way whenever I am unconsciously judging somebody/something I bring it to my attention, and force myself to view the person/situation in a different light.

This technique requires self-reflection, consciousness, and figuring out a creative solution to change your mind. I think this technique could be applied to help us develop a sense for justice before our conscience dictates that we should. We need to learn to recognize the physical manifestations of our reactions to injustice, remain alert to when those physical manifestations are occurring, and consciously make an effort to change them.

This is a very interesting form of self-administered cognitive behavioral therapy. I think the report of your success in using it is both genuine and fascinating. But I'm not sure whether "forcing" yourself to think differently addresses the issues you want to address. Perhaps it modifies your behavior at the expense of the harm done by "forcing," rather than assisting you to change in ways that will reduce the purpose of the resort to force. Addressing, for example, the belief that law school success is assisted by social isolation or is primarily a matter of "more studying" might be more effective in the medium term, and more helpful in adding to self-knowledge above the behavioral level.

My interpretation of the above comment is: I am putting a band-aid on a gaping wound and what I need to do instead is re-grow the missing cells where the wound now sits. I am attempting to re-learn empathy instead of fixing the underlying problem. If this is what the above comment means (actually, regardless of whether this is what it means) I agree. It was hard for me to see this point, because I didn't want to see this point, because it's a deeper and harder problem to fix. Actually, I thought it was a deeper problem to fix. Now that I am very consciously thinking about it, maybe it's not so hard. I will re-focus the problem and change the method. If instead the underlying problem is my belief that social isolation and "more studying" is what I need to do well on the exam then I need to figure out why I think that. In attempting to answer this problem I will first engage in stream of consciousness, and then revist the problem later using Freud's concept of free association. I think isolation/more studying is the answer because it's an easy excuse to be very selfish during this time period and isolating myself feeds a hedonistic, self-centered viewpoint of the world which is very tempting for me to fall into. Additionally it prevents me from hating myself later. In the near future I will be able to look back and console myself that I dedicated all my time to studying and therefore I won't be able to punish myself later. But that's how I approached last semester and I am still punishing myself now. Why am I not learning from my mistake and why is my natural inclination to punish myself and berate myself. Maybe it's not that my natural inclination is to punish myself, but rather, that I feel uncomfortable without structure. It's a lot easier for me to punish myself and berate myself for the past because when looking at something retrospectively I can see the structure of the whole picture. I can see my behavior, and the results it led to. I hate thinking about the present and take a passive approach to the present because I am unsure of the results my present actions are going to cause. So if my problem is feeling unstructured, and having no result, then maybe the solution is to consciously create the future result [of my present behavior] in the present. I need to convince myself of the result that will come of my actions, instead of changing my actions to produce a different result.

-- SkylarPolansky - 26 Mar 2012

Just thought I'd chime in with my two cents. After having read Bartleby, I can see where Eben is coming from in calling it a ghost story. I don’t see Bartleby as a ghost in the conventional sense - such as a spirit of a deceased person - but rather as an external manifestation of one of the pieces of the narrator’s subconscious soul, which has ‘split’ through the course of his struggle with cognitive dissonance in his Wall Street practice. To run with the Harry Potter analogy often evoked in class, Bartleby is to the narrator as a Horcrux is to Voldemort (or for the superstitious of you, He Who Must Not Be Named).

The narrator recognizes that he has taken on the “easiest way of life” and characterizes himself as an “unambitious lawyer [who does] a snug business among rich men’s bonds and mortgages and title deeds”. He is confined all day in an office, blissfully protected from knowledge of the trials of the outside world by a lack of view. Throughout his “safe” career serving the rich he has forgotten the injustices visited upon the poor. He has suppressed an underlying knowledge that these injustices exist in attempt to remain content and ‘snug’ in his comfortable life.

That is, however, until one day – unbeknownst to him- this persistent cognitive dissonance and detachment from the world below becomes too much to bear and his soul ‘splits’ – giving rise to young Bartleby and his austere 'preferences'. The narrator waffles between shock, confusion, acquiescence, rage, pity, repulsion, and empathy in his reactions to Bartleby’s passive resistance. Staggering in his “own plainest faith”, he seeks guidance from passion and reason (represented by either Turkey or Nippers, depending, of course, on the time of day). The counsel he receives, however, from such “disinterested persons” regarding how to deal with Bartleby’s intrusion on his mental and emotional sensibilities does not prove to be helpful in confronting his ghost. While the narrator has attempted to cognitively train himself to ignore injustice by erecting barriers to impede his view of it– such as a Wall Street office, a ‘viewless room’ and in Bartleby’s case, a screen, it remains ever pervasive and is “always there”. The presence of Bartleby symbolizes the piece of the narrator’s soul that acknowledges this – a piece that can no longer be suppressed and refuses to be ignored or dismissed. While I’m unsure of whether the narrator ever acquires sustained self-realization, he has a momentary break through on page 15 when “for the first time in [his] life a feeling of overpowering stinging melancholy seized [him].” The narrator feels the common bond of humanity and realizes that “happiness courts the light, so we deem the world is gay; but misery hides aloof, so we deem that misery there is none.” The narrator has perpetuated his own vision of a comfortable life by refusing to seek out the misery that hides aloof and looking only to the light.

While he briefly toys with feelings of repulsion, brought on by his perception that pity for Bartleby (and others facing injustice or misery) cannot lead to “effectual succor,” so “common sense bids the soul rid of it”, I do not think the narrator adheres to this view at the end of the piece. But I have trouble discerning whether he has undergone a metamorphosis in the end of it all. While he has certainly been “seriously affected…in a mental way” by Bartleby’s presence in his life, has he been freed from his cognitive dissonance? What will the long-term effect of this disturbance will be? What role will Bartleby’s ghost serve in re-defining the narrator’s future? Does Bartleby merely represent the Ghost of Christmas Past - the people or clients that the narrator could have helped had he chosen to abandon the snugness of his Wall Street office to witness the reality of injustice and misery on the streets? And if so, while it may be too late for the narrator to do justice for Bartleby, is it too late for him to change altogether? Or could Bartleby simultaneously serve as the Ghost of Christmas Future for the admittedly less Scrooge-y narrator, and inspire change in the face of self-realization and human awakening?

-- MeaganBurrows - 27 Mar 2012

While it definitely didn't jump out at me that this was a ghost story, I did find myself picking up on how Bartleby could be a projection of the narrator. I could not help but compare how the narrator finds ways to put himself in a position where he would "prefer not to." His weakness is obvious from the moment we find out that he puts up with Turkey and Nippers' crap. For a man that values procedure so much, the narrator allows his office to consist of two men who produce a combined one day's worth of work. The narrator convinces himself that he would prefer not to fire the men and that "this was a good natural arrangement under the circumstances." (5). We see this behavior most often when it comes to the back-and-forth with Bartleby. The narrator works himself up with anger and frustration at Bartleby's lack of cooperation but convinces himself, for various reasons such as "he is useful to me" or "he means no mischief," that he would prefer not to fire him (for a long time at least). After seeing how non-confrontational he is with Turkey and Nippers, it is hard to take the narrator seriously when he states that "with any other man I should have flown outright into a dreadful passion . . . and thrust him ignominiously from my presence." (9). The narrator repeatedly finds a reason to prefer not to take any serious action towards ridding himself of Bartleby. We see by the end that he would prefer not to lose Bartleby, the projection of himself, and tries to find ways to keep him around--as when he invites Bartleby to his home and when he visits the Tombs for the second time.

-- MatthewVillar - 28 Mar 2012

Since this whole assignment of reading Bartleby comes, I assume, as a supplement to the Something Split chapter of Lawyerland, I tried to infer a bit about when Joseph would want to analogize the lives Wylie, Urquat, Jansen and Voorhees to Melville’s short story. As those who posted before me noted, the narrator in Bartleby takes the easiest route in life—he’s content in his business and accepts his employees as they are. As he grows more and more exposed to Bartleby’s unusual behavior, the narrator begins to open up feel sadness, fear and guilt just by the silent presence of the unknowable man. While the narrator can be distinguished from Bartleby in many ways (mostly because as readers we get access to the emotions running rampant in his mind), the two are also the same. Bartleby is representative of all humanity in some way. Most people with a shred of integrity recognize that sometimes there are things that they would “prefer not to” do, even if they are too scared to resist. Like others said, Bartleby also provides an inescapable representation of the downtrodden, especially when he is removed as a vagrant. The narrator recognizes and sympathizes with Bartleby’s plight and uses what he considers to be all his power, to convince others that he is nothing like a vagrant.

The character in Something Split who discusses Bartleby is Ms. Urquart. She, like Melville’s narrator, experiences Bartleby’s stoic character and undergoes an emotional change. Joseph’s Lawyerland features caricatures left and right, not unlike the characters Turkey, Nippers and Gingernut, and, as we discussed in class, Urquart wants to distinguish herself from her peers. She uses Bartleby’s “I would prefer not to” as an inspiration for her own refusal to complete a task for an attorney who was “a fake…a hack…a real asshole.” Of course, as she says, it didn’t stop him from making partner, but the experience still meant something for Urquart.

I think the thing is that the characters of Urquart, Jansen and Voorhees realize the system of corporate law in which they work is sometimes corrupt. They don’t want their careers to depend on brain dead babies. They see Bartleby, but they sometimes might be able to ignore him. Bartleby doesn’t necessarily haunt their office space—at least not perversely enough for them to do anything about it. The narrator is Bartleby constantly fears guilt and tries to escape it by ignoring Bartleby only to realize he feels all the more remorseful after abandoning him. Urquart sees the lawyers around her, and herself, following pools of money wherever they collect, and the way Joseph writes her contemplative character, she seems to feel guilty about it, or at least ashamed. But like we also mentioned in class, none of the attorneys in the Something Split chapter are strong enough (like Robinson) to be resolute and control their careers entirely. Melville’s narrator is the same way—he is content in his job but he is clearly split between taking the easiest route (attaching to the money pool) and recognizing his impact (taking care of Bartleby).

Perhaps the moral of both stories is to search for inner resolution. To decide what you’d prefer not to do and, so you don’t end up a ghost, what you’d prefer to do.

-- AnneFox - 28 Mar 2012

I agree with most of you that Bartleby seems to be some sort of projection of the narrator. But I also believe that Nippers and Turkey can be seen as projections of the narrator as well. I see the narrator as the type of lawyer that Eben would like us NOT to be. Nippers, with his chronic indigestion and irritability, and Turkey, with his alcoholism, are two of the things Eben has hinted at regarding common traits among Biglaw associates. The dynamic of them taking turns just to get through one day of work is emblematic of the struggle that many young associates have just making it through the day doing work that they would prefer not to do, but have to do just to make it to the next bonus check. They go between scarfing down the free seamlessweb food at their desks, to getting drunk at happy hour and firm events, all in an effort to reward themselves for the hours they have to put in.

The introduction of Bartleby to the office, especially when he begins his "I would prefer not to" phase, represents to me the moment that something clicks in the mind of an associate, and he finally realizes that he would really prefer not to do ANY of this work that is constantly being thrust at him. The problem is, however, that he doesn't leave the office; in fact, he lives there secretly. The narrator can't do anything to get rid of him, so he just lets him sit around and gets Nippers and Turkey to pick up his slack. This can be analogized to the associate working on auto-pilot, completing the work that is given without having his heart in it, but with Bartleby still in the back of his mind, not really wanting to do anything.

When the narrator ends up switching offices instead of getting rid of Bartleby, this may be compared to the associate switching to another firm, or even another department with the same firm. Instead of attacking the real problem - getting rid of the feeling of not wanting to do this work - the associate merely switches the location of his misery, but Bartleby doesn't go anywhere. He still stays in the same office and doesn't eat or sleep. The problem of unhappiness at work is still present. This is where I think Eben's hint at this being a ghost story comes from. Bartleby is like a dead part of the narrator, and he is haunting the narrator's office, until he is finally put into the Tombs and laid to final rest.

I also believe that the "dead letter office" that Bartleby worked in before joining the narrator's office is symbolic of law school. A dead letter office is basically where undeliverable mail goes to die. This can be compared to what happens to many of us when we come to law school, in that the hopes, dreams, aspirations that we come in with are stifled and left unfulfilled. As the narrator hints, this prior occupation was the likely source of Bartleby's disposition.

Overall, I think the moral of this story is that we should try to get the Bartleby out of our "office" as soon as he appears.

-- JasonPyke - 28 Mar 2012

I would not have realized this was a ghost story if not previously prompted. But I agree with Matthew that upon knowing that, I find it a ghost story of alternative sorts. In addition to being a reflection of the narrator, I think Bartleby is supposed to be a reflection of everyone in the building. Everyone hides there nothingness in an excess of busy work that doesn't actually produce anything. Bartleby tries to fit into that mold but slowly but surely drops the pretense. While unclear it does not seem that the narrator's business suffers from Bartleby's sudden refusal to do work, furthering the idea that the work never really had to be done to begin to start. The way that he makes everyone feel uncomfortable when he haunts the building to the point of almost starting a mob, shows that he affects people. Generally things that make people the most uncomfortable are things that tap something personal. Discomfort is a haunting in its own way of our mind.

-- YvetteFerrer - 28 Mar 2012

Bartleby accomplishes an extraordinary thing with a simple phrase "I would prefer not to." This simple phrase dismantles the narrator's business. Bartleby eventually stops working completely, adds no value, scares clients away and eventually forces the narrator to move. Additionally all the tenants are unable to operate their businesses and hound to narrator to get rid of Bartleby. Bartleby's "I would prefer not to" shows the power of simply being unwilling to play along. Bartleby does not flat out refuse or take positive measures. Simply by stating a preference to not participate, the whole structure begins to crumble. This is certainly exemplified by Urquart's use of the phrase in her one encounter with the abrasive Mallorn. She passively resists and stands her ground. (This seemed to have been a victory for her, but unfortunately it also seems like one of her few attempts to resist the system (besides golf). She is certainly a rounder character than Jensen and Voorhees, but covets prestigious and power as well. Perhaps Urquart's preference not to speaks for her rejection of male hierarchy, not a rejection of corporate greed in general.)

Bartleby's gentle refusal renders the narrator powerless. The narrator's odd sense of generosity allows him to rationalize away the uncooperative Bartleby. The narrator constantly readjusts his understanding of the situation to allow Bartleby to continue doing nothing, rationalizing his lack of control and avoidance of action as charity to Bartleby. But more than anything, it is the simple refusal to comply with norms that is so frightening for the narrator and so damaging. At one point Bartleby occupies the whole office and the narrator is locked out. His key does not work until Bartleby's "work" inside is done. What is most frightening is the spread of the natural and irresistible spread of preference (as opposed to duty): "He did not in the least roguishly accent the word prefer. It was plain that it involuntarily rolled form his tongued. I thought to myself, surely I must get rid of a demented man, who already has in some degree turned the tongues, if not the heads of myself and clerks. But I thought it prudent not to break the dismission at once" (18). Bartleby is a ghost story because it shows the ease of crushing the corporate, Wall St. monolith. Not playing along, not accepting the culture, is dangerous and contagious. If left unchecked, as here unchecked by the narrator, it threatens the entire business structure. The only solution is to take action and lock the menace up.

The character of Bartleby, I think does not go any further than a literary symbol to show the weakness of the corporate culture and the power of noncooperation. He does not exemplify the solution and his preference not to do anything obviously goes too far as he presumably starves to death from preferring not to eat. The eating motif figures prominently in the story. The first description of Bartleby's eating habits is actually in terms of the work he does: "At first Bartleby did an extraordinary quantity of writing. As if famishing for something to copy, he seemed to gorge himself on my documents. There was no pause for digestion" (7). Bartleby seems to sustain himself on work rather than anything else - his diet of ginger nuts cannot be enough, or so the narrator contemplates: "he never eats even vegetables, he eats nothing but ginger-nuts. My mind then ran on in reveries concerning the probable effects upon the human constitution of living entirely on ginger-nuts" (10). The view that the poor live off doing work certainly would accord with upper level labor managers of the time. Does this suggest that Bartleby's stoppage of work is what ultimately causes his death, namely that his attitude not to cooperate within the system is the same thing that takes away his only real source of sustenance? Perhaps. It would be a way to subtly reaffirm the values of the Wall St. class. Ghost stories are didactic tales that reaffirm a value system by showing the dreadful results of abandoning that system. Supernatural elements have to used of course because the rational, sensible world could never undermine the system. For Bartleby to be a ghost story, it must a ghost story by the executive class to scare itself in maintaining the status quo. Bartleby cannot be hero. He must die at the end.

-- AlexWang - 29 Mar 2012

I agree with everything that has been said regarding Bartleby functioning as a literary symbol to elucidate the inherent flaws in the corporate culture. I totally agree with you Alex, that Bartleby is at its core a ghost story that shows the ease of crushing the Wall Street monolith through non-cooperation. Bartleby's apathy, his 'preference' not to comply with any of the narrator's requests, strikingly illuminated for me the pseudo-urgency of Wall Street and left me with a distaste for the meaninglessness of it all. When I was reading, I thought of Bartleby as a stand-in for the infinite faceless cogs in the corporate machine (the narrator included), trapped in the endless monotony of this machine (in this case, literally trapped in the confines of the four walls of this office). Unsettlingly, most of these cogs are likely unaware of their entrapment.

Overall my main takeaway in reflecting on Bartleby was similar to Jason's - that we should try to get our own Bartleby's out of our respective "offices" as soon as they appear, rather than rationalizing them away. I think it is interesting to reflect on the notion of "charity" as the narrator conceived of it, and more specifically, to reflect on how that conception colored his interactions with Bartleby. I had difficulty figuring out whether the narrator ever really developed any sort of empathy for Bartleby. While he ostensibly displayed generosity towards Bartleby, the narrator's reasons for doing so seemed entirely self-interested, as he goes so far as to declare that helping Bartleby is "a sweet morsel to his conscience". I saw the narrator as a prime example of one of those faceless cogs who does not realize the extent of his entrapment in the materialistic confines of the monotonous corporate machine. Even his 'generosity' and 'sympathy' toward Bartleby is defined in material terms. He tries to use what he deems 'charity' to buy or trade for a clear conscience rather than meaningfully reflecting on or actually dealing with Bartleby's refusals to cooperate with his requests. It seems that his rationalizations function to suppress the cognitive dissonance that Bartleby's presence arouses.

And so the next issue I began to ponder is how to assure we are not haunted similarly; how to identify our own Bartleby's if confronted with them rather than rationalizing their presence away, whether by "charity" to clear our consciences, or by other means. I suppose a starting point might be to at least strive to become conscious and aware if/when "something splits" in ourselves. Ultimately I think coming to inner resolution, avoiding a life haunted by a Bartleby-esque projection of yourself, is first identifying that you're being haunted, and subsequently committing to using that revelation to "inspire change in the face of self-realization and human awakening" as Meagan suggests. So Meagan, I guess I'm not entirely sure whether Bartleby catalyzed a metamorphosis in the narrator, but I am at least hopeful that Bartleby has the capacity to serve as a ghost of Christmas future, if the person he is haunting is able to recognize that he is being haunted.

-- CourtneyDoak - 29 Mar 2012

I found Jason and Courtney's perceptions that the narrator needs to get rid of Bartleby interesting because I had an opposite reaction to Bartleby. I felt the lesson learned from the story was that the narrator would never be rid of Bartleby, and instead he had to learn to incorporate Bartleby comfortably into the Narrator's office and soul. My first interpretation of Bartleby was that he represented the narrator's Freudian "id". Bartleby would simply prefer not to do real work. He wants to live in the office and subsist off of his co-workers, and store away money for use later. Turkey (who has a proclivity for drinking) believes Bartleby just needs to drink more. Other lawyers and professionals (perhaps representing the "super-ego") are disturbed by Barleby's presence; they are disturbed when confronted with the true desire of the narrator - somebody who prefers and chooses not to do work yet collects their money and ferrets it away in his desk. I felt like in order to restore cognitive peace, the narrator needed to stop shielding Bartleby behind a screeen, not make excuses for him (i.e. his eyes were ruined) and instead accept Bartleby for what he was - a naked manifestation of the narrator's true desires. Instead of running away from him the narrator needs to incorporate Bartleby into his office, and if he finds it too unbearable to be presented with such a figure, then he needs to change his id.

-- SkylarPolansky - 29 Mar 2012

Skylar, I think that's a really interesting perspective that I hadn't fully considered in terms of restoring cognitive peace, so thank you for helping me be more precise in my thoughts. Like you, I saw Bartleby as a projection or a manifestation of the narrator's "id", and had the same idea that the narrator needed to stop shielding himself from Bartleby's presence, literally and metaphorically. I actually don't think our views on what the ideal next step is (i.e. get rid of Bartleby or incorporate him) necessarily conflict. What I was trying to articulate above was that after one recognizes the presence of Bartleby as a haunting force in their "office", they should strive to use that recognition to transform and become cognitively whole rather than rationalizing it away. Restoring that cognitive 'whole-ness' very well may mean incorporating Bartleby comfortably into one's soul, and before reading your post, I saw incorporation as synonymous with 'ridding oneself' of their Bartleby. Essentially in my post above I defined self restoration as the evisceration of the haunting force (whether through incorporating it or undertaking some other type of behavioral change). However, I appreciate you shedding light on the distinction between 'getting rid of' Bartleby (which I think I equated with incorporating Bartleby) and instead, in your words, "accept[ing] Bartleby for what he [is]", which is really a more accurate way to capture what incorporation really entails.

-- CourtneyDoak - 29 Mar 2012

Skylar and Courtney, I think your interpretation of the incorporation/restoration of Bartleby as necessary for the narrator's cognitive peace is enlightening. Like Courtney, I found Melville's description of charity to be interesting. The narrator says, "No man that I ever heard of, ever committed a diabolical murder for sweet charity's sake." He reasons that "mere self-interest, then," is a sufficient, even influential, motivation for men to act charitably. I find this reminiscent of our class discussions on justice and working on the right side of law come two in the morning. The discussions generally take one of two paths: focusing on the clients we should aid in an effort to cure injustice, or focusing on ourselves, with the goal of not ending up in an unhappy job, divorced and drunk.

I wonder though, is self-interest sufficient a motivation for charitable work? For finding a meaningful job in the legal arena? Looking back on my own behavior I find that self-interest has been a powerful motivator in any "charitable" works or deeds I have done. Not self-interest in terms of furtherance of any individual goals, but self-interest in terms of "feel good" moments, instances when I can congratulate myself on being so "giving." So a Saturday spent mentoring, a drive to work allowing furious LA drivers to cut in front of me, or finishing a coworker's project for the hell of it all amount to making me feel better about myself. But how far does this extend? I doubt much farther than a days work, not to mention a lifetime of serving justice. But then again, Melville seems to think self-interest a powerful counterweight to murder so maybe it is a useful tool in shaping the behavior of humanity, even the most selfish (self-interested) members. Perhaps after our class discussions, each of our desires not to end up empty vessels helping the highest socioeconomic class make more money will be enough of a motivation to aid us in finding noble work; helping clients who actually need it, not necessarily because of our pity or empathy, but because I for one, don't want to end up alone, drunk and unhappy at two in the morning.

-- AlexandraRex - 29 Mar 2012

I am not sure if "Bartleby" is necessarily a fable about corporate structures. Like Eben pointed out during class, the Wall Street in this story is not the Wall Street we know now. I find it difficult to see Bartleby as a corporate cog when I look at the context of the story, although it is definitely a good analogy when we look at it from our perspective now.

I think "Bartleby" is about the salvation of all of our souls, lawyer or not. I am probably (definitely) projecting (but that's the beauty of literature), but I think that Bartleby is depressed - and Bartleby is a part of the narrator that he tried to suppress/cut off from himself. I mean, if you knew a person that acted like Bartleby, you'd be very concerned, think he was depressed, and try to get him some emotional help. Many people go along with life, while a part of them is thinking "Does my life have any meaning as I am leading it?" and many people suppress/cut off their depression/anxiety whether with the help with psychiatric drugs or no. But I also think that part of us is where our humanity, and the ability to be happy and find meaning, lies. I think that is why the story ends with the line, "Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!" The way I see it, the narrator finally lost his humanity (or a bit of it) when Bartleby died. Like Skylar and Courtney have pointed out, I think Bartleby is that part of us that would be easier to be rid of, but need very much, in order to be whole.

-- AgnesPetrucione - 30 Mar 2012

I think this is a story about the impact of the walls/barriers people erect in their lives. Bartleby, for all his desire to disengage from the bleakness of the corporate world (albeit a different Wall Street than we know today), cannot do more than say no to others. In preferring not to comply with the narrator’s demands, Bartleby has not said anything about who he is, but only about who he will not be. He manages to do little more with the time he’s gained from saying no than stand and stare at the walls around him. The nihilism Bartleby embraces is important in that it draws attention to the existence of these walls, but is an incomplete response in that it cannot break them down. This might echo what Eben said in class a bit, but I think this reveals the fact that saying no to others does not equate to saying yes to oneself.

Whatever the limitations of merely saying no (and they clearly exist), Bartleby’s nihilism serves an important function in this story in that it provides the narrator’s first exposure to the possibility of rebelling against the safe world he’s created. As he opens himself to Bartleby, he begins to develop what seems like an addiction to/obsession with Bartleby’s mantra and “burns to be rebelled against again.” Though that obsession begins to pick at the foundation of the narrator’s walls, the narrator is unable to embrace Bartleby and cannot fully internalize what he stands for. Unwilling to topple the eminently safe, unambitious, snug life he has created for himself, the narrator directs his efforts at building those walls back up. He does so by constantly attempting to rationalize Bartleby’s behavior (as he does with everything/everyone else around him). This rationalization serves to buttress the narrator’s walls, but does not fully rid him of Bartleby’s influence. Though the narrator writes about Bartleby as if a closed chapter in his life, Bartleby’s nihilism continues to haunt the narrator. I’d like to think (perhaps because I hope there is still time for me to knock down some of my own walls) that his continued engagement with Bartleby’s peculiarity has left open the door for the narrator to pursue a life that is less safe.

Throughout writing this, I’ve been struck by the frequency with which I’ve felt the need to say things like “even though” and “despite this” in describing the narrator’s interaction with Bartleby. In thinking about my use of those words, I began to realize that my reaction to this class has been quite similar to the narrator’s reaction to Bartleby. Even though this class has repeatedly exposed me to the fact that I will be unhappy in a firm, I continue to tell myself that maybe this is an unhappiness I will have to be okay with. Despite Eben’s insistence that it is possible to good and simultaneously do well, I continue to tell myself that, in reality, I will have to pick one or the other. I’ve probably spent more time trying to rationalize my tendency to deflect this advice than I have trying to figure out how to have a career that matters. I think for a lot of us Eben is probably correct when he says that, despite being told how soul-crushing a firm job can be, we’re going to do it anyway. I think that likely has something to do with the fact that we may be unwilling to follow the advice of one person when many other forces are pushing us in the opposite direction. Perhaps Columbia has failed us in this regard by focusing on jobs that are “very pleasantly remunerative”, or our imaginations have in pretending that’s the only goal, or both. Perhaps I’ll win the lottery tonight and those forces pushing me towards a firm job will cease to exist...

-- ElizabethSullivan - 30 Mar 2012


Webs Webs

r20 - 22 Jan 2013 - 18:07:52 - IanSullivan
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