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Postmodern Village
est. 1999
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"Bartleby" and the Colonized Mind: Interpolating "'Bartleby' and the Colonized Mime"
by E.W. Wilder

What Bartleby's behavior most closely resembles in Herman Melville's "Bartleby, the Scrivener" is a rational reaction to a colonized mind. Like, positively, Gandhi's peaceful movement to liberate India from its British oppressors or Africa's negative descent into chaos and political disarray, Bartleby's lack of resistance but insistence on inaction forces the narrator to question his values. At one and the same time, Bartleby mimics the outward appearance of humanity, his "flutelike" tone and consistent "prefer[ence] not to" relegating him to the realm of externalized Other. Unlike India, however, and just like Africa, Melville posits that capitalist culture is inherently hostile to passive resistance, revealing that it lacks conscience in a broader sense.

The narrator, a lawyer doing a "snug" business in the titles and deeds of rich men, goes out of his way to insist on his own peacefulness and that his motto is "the easiest way is the best." He insists that the "energetic and nervous" tendencies of his lawyerly profession he has "[n]ever trusted to invade [his] peace." Indeed, he tolerates much in traditional terms, putting up with the eccentricities of his law copyists despite Turkey's obvious drunkenness and Nippers's pre-meridian indigestion. He takes on a laboring-class boy, Ginger Nut, as an office assistant, showing at least outwardly a genuine interest in raising up a member of a lower socio-economic stratum by training him in paralegal functions. In this way, he represents us all: actors in a capitalist system, those going through with the motions, no matter how prudently, not those merely going through the motions for the notion's sake.

Outwardly, though, is how the narrator generally conducts himself, name-dropping John Jacob Astor as a client and attributing said personage with the appellation that our narrator is both prudent and methodical, in other words, a man of decorum and therefore to be trusted. The outward appearance of charity and propriety is also what causes our narrator to put up with Bartleby's own eccentricities and intransigence after the eponymous scrivener refuses to examine his own copy: "Yes. Here I can cheaply purchase a delicious self-approval. To befriend Bartleby; to humor him in his strange willfulness, will cost me little or nothing, while I lay up in my soul what will eventually prove a sweet morsel for my conscience." To emphasize the "cheap" and "cost nothing" parts of his statement reveals his true motive: to display, if only to himself, that he is a good person, as long as it does not cost him anything. And so the narrator too becomes mime, mimicking his station and trustworthiness. In turn Bartleby becomes unwitting satirist.

It is only when Bartleby's passive resistance starts to be a problem for the narrator's image and therefore reputation that he actively attempts to get rid of him, though prior to that he offers Bartleby $20 to take leave of him. This is a simple cost-benefit analysis on the part of the narrator. After Bartleby quits copying, the office no longer runs as smoothly, and the other copyists' morale is broken. The narrator begins to feel a genuine impingement on his cash flow and figures a $20 cost is reasonable to set the profit-making enterprise back to rights: "In plain fact, he had now become a millstone to me, not only useless as a necklace, but afflictive to bear." Yet Bartleby, like the Indians under Gandhi, refuses to go, preferring not even to "be a little reasonable" by quitting the office. Whether his eye ailment is real or feigned is immaterial when he quits copying; Bartleby, at this point, is in control of the situation. The use of the word "prefer" implies an awareness of his own choice in the matter, that his noncompliance is, in fact, an act of quiet insubordination. Bartleby here becomes the simulacrum of an office worker: present but not actually working, sitting at a desk or standing around, but the action, the follow through, is not there. He mimes for the sake of striking, though his demands are not monetary but in terms of values, his satire not for the sake of humor but for the very acts of life most stark.

The narrator's image problem is now compounded, however, as Bartleby's inaction is unaccountable, in a literal sense, to others in the lawyer's profession:

[S]ome deeply occupied legal gentleman present, Bartleby wholly unemployed, would request him to run around to his (the legal gentleman's) office and fetch some papers for him. Thereupon, Bartleby would tranquilly decline, and yet remain idle as before. Then the lawyer would give a great stare, and turn to me. And what could I say? At last I was made aware that all through the circle of my professional acquaintance, a whisper of wonder was running around, having reference to the strange creature I kept at my office.

The narrator's native morality is now challenged; it tells him to put up with Bartleby, to be literally his brother's keeper. But the expectations of the business world around him prove to be more powerful: capitalism thrives on images, of self, of product, of Other. It mimes itself as a course of daily business, in fact, knows no real distinction between the simulated and the real unless that distinction does no work or creates no value within the system. Bartleby's is a mummery that cannot be read by the semiology of capitalism. But the narrator must regain his symbolic value without causing a scene and therefore further eroding his reputation of prudence and method, thus: "Since he will not quit me, I must quit him." Bartleby is the 19th century parallel of the American industrial worker who is too costly to keep so the entire operation is shipped off to China, the colonized yet again willing to take on the worst of the colonizer, one set of colonized being played off against another. The narrator of "Bartleby," however, uses the excuse of extra business to seek new lodgings and vacates his old building, leaving Bartleby behind.

At this point, from the point of view of the colonized, Bartleby seems to have won. His needs are small -- he eats only ginger nuts, and they cost a few pennies a day -- and he has driven his colonizer from the land Bartleby has claimed as his own. But the logic of capitalism overrides even this kind of passive resistance. India acquired its independence because the forces at work were largely political: a weakened Britain could no longer sustain such a florid empire. Africa, likewise, fell out of the control of Europe due to Europe's own problems. But capitalism is fundamentally opportunistic: it seeks out every space that is not being actively defended and will enter it; if it sees any resources not already utilized, it will squander them. Capitalism follows through. The new tenants of the narrator's old office space practice this principle and are even less comprehending of Bartleby than the last: "When again I entered my office, lo, a note . . . . informed me that the writer had sent to the police and had Bartleby removed to the Tombs as a vagrant."

This scene cannot happen until propriety forces the narrator not just to quit Bartleby, abandoning him in his former office, a first denial of him as a person, but to deny him twice more: "'I am very sorry sir,' said I, with assumed tranquility but an inward tremor, 'but really, the man you allude to is nothing to me -- he is no relation or apprentice of mine, that you should hold me responsible for him.'" And later, this: "I answered nothing; but, effectually dodging every one by the suddenness and rapidity of my flight, rushed from the building, ran up Wall Street towards Broadway, and, jumping in the first omnibus, was soon removed from pursuit." The narrator further attempts to absolve himself of any responsibility for his colonized: "As soon as tranquility returned, I distinctly perceived that I had now done all that I possibly could, both in respect to the demands of the landlord and his tenants, and with regard to my own desire and sense of duty, to benefit Bartleby, and shield him from rude persecution," when in fact, he had merely run away. The narrator's is exactly the sort of dumbshow that the capitalist understands, however: a one-to-one representation of, a portrayal and betrayal of, the "true" feelings of the narrator. This contrasts with Bartleby's ersatz satire, his own reduction of self to his first principle, that of a human being.

While Gandhi strove for independence and away from the colonized mind, Bartleby has here reached the point at which he can no longer function as anything other than the colonized. He goes from dumbshow to merely dumb -- an empty vessel to be filled, a null-set defined only by the colonizer. The narrator absolves himself of responsibility, Pilate-like, openly revolving the commercial concerns (the landlord, the lawyers) and those of his native morality ("to benefit Bartleby"). His actions, though, are as much to protect himself as anything:

In vain I persisted that Bartleby was nothing to me -- no more than to anyone else. In vain -- I was the last person known to have anything to do with him, and they held me to the terrible account. Fearful, then, of being exposed in the papers (as one person present obscurely threatened), I considered the matter, and, at length, said that if the lawyer would give me a confidential interview with the scrivener . . . I would . . . strive my best to rid them of the nuisance they complained of.

Orwell might have said that the narrator was acing like a sahib and doing definite things. Melville exposes in this passage how the superficiality of capitalist values gives rise to positive cruelty and how the colonizer denies even the most basic of human capacities to the colonized. Thus the colonized begins to collapse in on itself, immobilized, unable even to feed and care for itself as its mind is overtaken by the primacy of its relationship to the colonizer and its status as an objectified Other. The mime now, bereft both of sound and of fury, signifies nothing.

In the Tombs, aptly named as our narrator notes, Bartleby refuses even to feed himself. His status as a colonized is internalized by the realization of his surroundings and that he is without the colonizer. Even though he is the recipient of outside aid, aid foreign to his new and unwarranted and now impossible to use sovereignty, as the narrator pays for his board of fare, Bartleby does not know to what purpose he could possibly put his sustenance. The narrator, his colonizer, could not suffer him to simply live without proving his worth to the hegemonic system. And now the mind of Bartleby cannot make sense of itself and merely shuts down. Here again we get the image not so much of the obstreperous India but of a defeated and chaotic Africa. The native cultures are so thoroughly destroyed and replaced by the dream-memory/mummery of colonial thought they become dysfunctional -- neither here nor there, neither tribal nor modern. Billions of dollars in literal foreign aid cannot ever make them whole again. What governments they have merely mime those of their oppressors while robbing the people and the land of what few resources and what little substance is left.

In the West, we try to explain this away as corruption or lack of organization or, at worst, an inherent inferiority. What we fail to see is that the colonized mind cannot stand on its own; the colonized mime collapses even before the imaginary wind against which it is pitted. Predictably, the narrator tries to explain away Bartleby's behavior, behavior incomprehensible to the capitalist mind, by noting the scrivener's previous employment in the Dead Letters Office: "Dead Letters! Does it not sound like dead men!" But the simple act of perusing and destroying the detritus of lost connections fails to explain such a deep-seated failure to thrive. Rather, as a colonized mind, Bartleby has no place on Wall Street without a colonizer to create a meaningful existence. The simplistic mindset of the markets and the utter ignorance of genuine human values and lives lived are only satisfied by the cruel calculus of owning and being owned. That Turkey and Nippers manage to be their own people at all owes itself to how little they work, not how much -- but then, too, that they do work some. Their half days define them as simultaneously playing the capitalist game but also insisting on being, at least in part, their own people. They tolerate the presence of the oppressor -- his factory on their shores -- in order to deny him the colony. They mime only half the time. Bartleby's meltdown is demarcated by his "extraordinary" amount of initial copying, his "day and night line." This is the act of colonization itself, the startled realization of the self-as-slave subject to -- object entirely of -- the logic of the colonizer. This is the practice for the dumbshow to come.

An air of inevitability seeps throughout "Bartleby the Scrivener," and therein lies the power of the colonizer. The narrator reads Jonathan Edwards' Freedom of the Will and the works of Joseph Priestly both of which argue, one from a Calvinist perspective and one from that of contemporary science respectively, that free will itself does not exist. And even to the narrator it does not: just as Bartleby is subject to the will of the colonizer, his employer the narrator is subject to the logic and the will of the market. In the end, it is capitalism that colonizes all; survival is a mere factor of the creation and salesmanship of surplus value, a value that mimes any human value and mines it at a penny for six or eight.