Saturday, September 28, 2013

"Bartleby the Scrivener"

Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” (1853) is one of those tantalizing stories that invite multiple fascinating interpretations:

Bartleby is an eccentric individualist who refuses to conform to social norms.  Society wins.

Bartleby is a mentally ill homeless man who becomes one of society’s disposables.

Bartleby is H D Thoreau, passively resisting authority and paying the price.

Bartleby represents all the victims of greedy capitalism.

Bartleby is a victim of the mindless, mechanical work of industrial society.

Bartleby represents natural human rights (to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?) in conflict with the property rights of capitalist, industrial society.

Bartleby is a Christ-figure or, at least, “one of the least of these” that Christians are commanded to treat as if they were Christ.  His fate illustrates the incompatibility of capitalist, industrial society and Christian values.

Bartleby is the trial sent by God to test the state of the lawyer’s soul as one of the Elect or one of the damned.

Bartleby represents the dehumanization of those caught in the capitalist machine.

Bartleby is a projection of the lawyer’s own dehumanization and his powerlessness to save himself.

Bartleby represents the extreme exercise of free will, allowing him complete freedom, though it leads to his death.

Bartleby represents the universal human condition of the individual in conflict with society.


Well, some are more fascinating than others.

 It’s important to note that the full title of the story is “Bartleby the Scrivener, A Story of Wall Street.”  It’s hard not to infer that Melville intends to comment on the financial center of capitalism.  Nor is it unreasonable to expect the reader to interpret it as such.  The first-person narrator, the lawyer, has found himself a safe, comfortable, and lucrative niche protecting the property rights of capitalists on Wall Street.  The lawyer’s office is tucked between two walls, one white, transparent and well lit and the other black, opaque, and dark.  Bartleby spends much of his time staring out the second blank wall.  Is Melville suggesting that the work of Wall Street walls us off from each other? That the capitalists enjoy the view of a bright wall while the workers’ outlook is dark? That the lawyer is comfortably located between the two, earning a good living in service of the capitalists supported by the labor of his office workers.  Do the walls represent the divisions between economic classes in a capitalist society? 

And what of the work that the office workers perform?  A scrivener is a human Xerox machine, literally copying documents by hand and then laboriously checking the copies for accuracy as the lawyer reads the original aloud.  This mechanical, mindless work is paralleled by the predictable behavior of the workers, who themselves seem somehow “programmed.”  The elderly Turkey is mild-mannered and productive in the morning but turns erratic, and error-prone in the afternoon.  The young Nippers, on the other hand, is restless and nervous in the morning but settles down in the afternoon.  Does their robotic behavior reflect the mind-numbing nature of industrial work under capitalism?

Into this Pavlovian world enters Bartleby, who starts out as a reliable copier but refuses to participate in the checking of the documents, simply replying “I prefer not to” when called to work by the lawyer.  He then begins to reply in the same manner when asked to run an errand.  Eventually, he refuses to work at all and simply stares at the window at the dark, blank wall.  Unlike the lawyer, who fits comfortably into the world of Wall Street, Bartleby asserts his free will in the extreme, using “passive resistance” to defy the lawyer and his world. 

The lawyer, to his credit, tries every means of persuasion to win Bartleby’s cooperation before finally firing him.  Bartleby, however, refuses to leave the premises.  It seems he has been living there all along.  Rather than resort to calling the police or forcibly removing Bartleby himself, the lawyer takes the extreme measure of moving his office to another site.  But, this action, similar perhaps to Pilate washing his hands of final judgment on Jesus Christ, merely enables the lawyer to avoid taking any responsibility for the man.  When the new occupant of the lawyer’s old office space shows up to insist “you are responsible for the man you left there,” the lawyer, like Peter denying Christ, responds, “the man you allude to is nothing to me…no relation or apprentice of mine that you should hold me responsible for him.”

If these comparisons to Christ seem to be a bit of a stretch, consider that, at one point when the lawyer is debating what to do about Bartleby, he overhears a conversation, which he believes at first is about his indecision but then realizes is actually about the mayoral election being held that day.  In Melville’s day, “election” would have a religious as well as a political meaning.  In the Calvinist theology in which Melville was steeped ( one was predestined to be one of Elect (preordained by God for salvation) or one of the damned.  Is Bartleby a test of the state of the lawyer’s soul?  Is the lawyer one of the Elect or is he damned?  According to Matthew 25: 31-42 Christ will return on Judgment Day and determine who goes to heaven and who to hell based on whether one has treated those in need as if they were Christ himself. 

In the end the lawyer visits Bartleby in prison, where he is found facing a “high wall” among “murderers and thieves.”  Is it significant that Christ was crucified between two thieves?  Is it significant that when the lawyer returns to find Bartleby dead he makes a reference to him being at rest “With kings and counselors” (Job 3:14)? 

For all the compassion that the lawyer feels toward Bartleby, in the end he does not take responsibility for this “least of these” (Matthew 25: 40).  From a realistic perspective, we might say that the lawyer went far beyond what was reasonable to expect by not calling the police on Bartleby or throwing him out forcibly.  Yet, from a Christian perspective, we might say the lawyer utterly failed to meet the test that Christ set for salvation.  Is Melville questioning whether a capitalist society can also be a Christian society?  Or is he questioning whether Christian ethics is realistic and reasonable in the human realm?

If the lawyer, who seems to allow circumstances to determine his actions,  represents the Calvinist belief in predestination (absence of free will), does Bartleby represent the Transcendentalist belief in free will and individual responsibility?  If so, do the two characters represent the extremes to which the two positions can be taken?  Is it fair to condemn the lawyer for failing to meet Christ’s high standard for salvation?  Is it fair to glorify Bartleby for his (selfish?) insistence on individual “preference”?  Is Melville, like Hawthorne (see previous posts Oct. 2012 & May 2013), using Puritan Calvinism to critique romantic Transcendentalism and vice versa? 

For that matter, is Bartleby truly a victim of capitalism or society in general?  Or is he a victim of his own willfulness? 

I find myself intrigued, though, by the idea of Bartleby as a projection of the narrator’s own psyche.  To what extent has the narrator been dehumanized by his acquiescence to his social and economic circumstances? To what extent is it dehumanizing to deny the power of free will to individuals?  Does Bartleby represent the lawyer’s own dehumanization on one hand and his repressed desire to rebel and assert himself on the other?  If Bartleby is a fantastic version of the lawyer’s own psyche, does he take such an extreme form because the lawyer himself is so extremely passive, non-confrontational, and powerless? 

In any case, the story raises profound questions regarding social organization, material vs. spiritual well-being, religion, individualism, ethics, and our responsibility to each other as fellow human beings.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Breaking the Spell I

My Unitarian Universalist Adult Religious Education group is reading Daniel Dennett’s 2006 study of religion *Breaking the Spell.*  The plan is to discuss small chunks every two weeks or so through next May.  Therefore my plan is to post a series of commentaries, one chunk at a time, allowing for much more depth than most of my blog posts.  This post covers chapter 1, “Breaking Which Spell?” 

Dennett proposes to break the taboo against studying religion scientifically “as a natural phenomenon” even at the risk of breaking the spell, the “enchantment,” of religion itself.   I found it puzzling that he would spend so much time defending this proposal since I was under the impression that historians, social scientists, psychologists, etc., had been studying religion and religious experience long before 2006.  As a student at a Disciples of Christ sponsored college in the late 1960s, I was required to take two semesters of religion.  Both courses were scholarly studies of the Bible based on historical, textual, and linguistic evidence.  Jerry Falwell studied under the same professor as I did, and, according to the professor, he objected strongly and vocally to this approach to Biblical study.  The taboo was apparently real for Falwell (no surprise there), but the professor defended his approach on academic grounds and no students, faculty, or administrators that I knew ever objected.

Having been raised as a Southern Baptist I will confess that my college religion classes did break what little was left of the “spell” that my religious upbringing had cast over me.  That spell, however, had already been put in question by high school biology (we studied evolution) and my own rational thinking.  Ironically, it was my formal and informal study of literature, poetry, metaphor, symbolism, mythology, world religion, philosophy, astronomy, and physics that recast the spell in much more sophisticated, figurative, abstract, and, yes, scientific terms. 

My reading of *The Housewife and the Professor* (see previous post) reminded me of my early fascination with Platonism, which I studied in college philosophy classes and which could be considered a religious world view.

And like many of my friends, who consider themselves “religious” or “spiritual,” I welcome the study of religion and the opportunity to expand my understanding of this aspect of my experience and understanding of the world.  I wonder why Dennett has not been exposed to more of us for whom religion, responsible scholarship, rational thinking, and scientific study are not necessarily at odds.

Related to this question is the second bone I have to pick with Dennett’s first chapter.  Why does he define religion so narrowly?  Here’s his “tentative” definition:  religions are “social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought.”  I understand the value of distinguishing between organized religion (“social systems”) and private religious or “spiritual” experience or belief.  But why must religion be limited to belief in a “supernatural agent  or agents whose approval is to be sought”?  Dennett seems to restrict religion to belief in an anthropomorphic “god” or “gods” with the power to pass judgment on us.  He seems to take the anthropomorphic language of traditional religion literally, without allowing for the capacity of believers to use the language metaphorically.

In other words, he seems to propose to subject fundamentalist, literalistic religious belief (such as that of Jerry Falwell) to an exhaustive scientific study but not the kind of religion that itself takes into account science and rationality or the kind that resists claims of certainty but simply maintains a mindset that is open to exploring the possibility of a supernatural reality (not necessarily a being or “agent”) or dimension in the universe. 

Finally, by Dennett’s definition, my own religious denomination of Unitarian Universalism, though it qualifies as a social system, would not meet his definition, and would therefore be considered a form of religious fraud, illegitimately taking advantage of the 501c3 tax exemption for religious organizations. 

I wonder if his “tentative” definition will undergo any loosening or broadening as his study continues to unfold.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Housekeeper and the Professor

I would love to see a mathematician find a complicated mathematical system in this 2003 novel by Japanese writer Yoko Agawa.  I am certain it must be there, but finding it is above my pay grade.

What I can attest to is how the novel demonstrates that, like mathematics, art can transcend the disorder of lived experience and bring order out of chaos.

The Housekeeper is the daughter of a single mother who was abandoned by the father, and the Housekeeper is in turn a single mother raising her son alone, having been abandoned by the father.  The Professor is suffering from memory loss since a traffic accident in 1975.  He can remember nothing after that date except in 80-minute segments.  The Professor’s sister-in-law, now widowed, allows him to live in a cottage near her house and hires the Housekeeper to make his meals and clean for him, but she seemingly wants to have nothing to do with either of them—no visits, no phone calls, no communication whatsoever.

The characters represent broken lives, broken relationships, and broken memories.  Of course their identities are affected and perhaps that is why we never learn their real names.  But mathematics, the Professor’s field of study, becomes the unlikely means by which memory loss is transcended, new bonds and new identities are formed, and a new family is made.

The Professor has not forgotten his numbers, his equations, or his mathematical theories.  He spends his days working on (and winning) mathematics contests, and he uses math to relate to every character.  Every day when the Housekeeper arrives, he greets her as if they have never met before and asks her birthdate, which he then uses to espouse the meaning of the numbers and how they fit into a mathematical system.

He delights in teaching the Housekeeper and later her son, challenging them with mathematical problems and puzzles.  Though the Professor does not remember the Housekeeper or her son more than 80 minutes at a time, he relates to them, not only at the level of math, but at a human level, discontinuous though it may be.

When he learns the Housekeeper has a son who must wait at home every day for his mother to return from work, the Professor insists she allow her son to come to his house after school.  When Root, as the Professor nicknames the son, accidentally cuts his hand with a knife the Professor is overwrought with worry and fear for the boy’s well-being.  The two bond over a love of baseball, although the Professor thinks the players and teams are pre-1975.  While Root carefully and cheerfully indulges the Professor in his pre-1975 memories, they are able to combine baseball and mathematics in their study of statistics.

Eventually the three characters begin to act like a family, the Professor becoming like the father that Root never had, the Housekeeper looking after him as she might care for her own aging and unknown father.

Mathematics is the means by which they transcend not only their own personal brokenness, but also the social disconnections of class, age, and gender.  The Professor is a highly educated man of professional class, while the Housekeeper works at a menial job as a domestic.  The older Professor could be her father and her son’s grandfather, but neither class nor age differences prevent them from forming a meaningful relationship.  The Professor’s love of mathematics transcends any bias against a working-class woman and her son being able to understand sophisticated mathematical theory. 

It might be possible to read some kind of erotic attraction into the relationship of the Professor and his Housekeeper.  A certain domestic intimacy develops and even a degree of personal intimacy as the Housekeeper cares for the professor’s physical needs when he develops a fever.  Certainly the sister-in-law becomes suspicious when the Housekeeper and her son spend the night at the Professor’s cottage during his illness and goes so far to have the Housekeeper fired.  Later we learn of a past romantic relationship between the sister-in-law and the Professor.  Could she have been jealous of the closeness between him and the Housekeeper?

In any case, once again it is mathematics that transcends the enmity between the sister-in-law and the Housekeeper, restores the domestic arrangement, and eventually leads to the formation of a larger circle of all four characters when the Professor is moved to a care facility and receives regular visits from his sister-in-law, the Housekeeper, and her son.  It is a mysterious mathematical equation, with special meaning between the Professor and his sister-in-law, that leads to the final resolution and the expanded circle of relationship.

The Professor believes that numbers existed before humans and that a mathematical order exists independently of the natural universe and the human realm.  His faith in an invisible order comes to sustain the Housekeeper as well as himself.  “Eternal truths are ultimately invisible,” he says, “and you won’t find them in material things or natural phenomena, or even in human emotions.  Mathematics, however, can illuminate them, can give them expression—in fact nothing can prevent it from doing so.”

This Platonic conception of an abstract reality transcending that which we can know with our senses becomes a source of reassurance and peace to the Housekeeper as she contemplates the Professor’s explanation of a “true line” extending “infinitely in either direction”:


                …I realized how much I needed this eternal truth that the Professor had described. I needed the sense that this invisible world was somehow propping up the visible one, that this one, true line extended infinitely, without width or area, confidently piercing through the shadows.  Somehow this line would help me find peace.

Thus does this seemingly simple but remarkable story of a domestic arrangement that evolves into a family circle suggest a much larger significance, with philosophical, even theological, implications.

As for a mathematical order in the story, it is perhaps notable that there are 11 chapters in the novel and that the central chapter, number six, contains the crucial crisis point when the Professor develops a fever, when the Housekeeper with her son spends the night to watch over and care for him, and when the sister-in-law, having observed this breach of what she considers the Housekeeper’s appropriate role, has her fired.  The first five chapters lead up to this crisis, and the last five unravel the resulting tangle of confusion and disruption to arrive at a final resolution.  This kind of symmetry is commonly found in art, and, like the mathematical system it is based on, brings order out of the chaos of lived human experience.