Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Eerie, Most Enduring Tale

Betty just re-read Bartleby, the Scrivener, Herman Melville's 1853 novella and "Story of Wall Street".

Melville is a master of making America and its culture seem strange, and this tale could not be any richer in its provocations and many detailed symbols and allusions. But it's a quick and easy read, too. You kind of want to read it again as soon as you're done! It's easy to understand, yet really difficult to think about and derive meaning from. It is so open-ended, and yet it feels so claustrophobically compelling while you're reading it. I could feel myself get hot under the collar, the room feel suddenly stuffier, and everything in it a little creepier. I looked for an escape hatch. I needed the narrator's tone to keep me calm-ish. There are moments of social awkwardness and rule-defying in this tale as painful as anything from Curb Your Enthusiasm!

Above all, "Bartleby" is memorable -- it sticks on your brain like hot sealing wax on a letter. The style is chatty, funny, and confessional, but the story itself is anything but. This time, Betty thought it was about modernity and economy, but it is really about everything. Do yourself a favor, seize a couple of idle hours, and read it today.

...I closed the doors, and again advanced towards Bartleby. I felt additional incentives tempting me to my fate. I burned to be rebelled against again. I remembered that Bartleby never left the office.

“Bartleby,” said I, “Ginger Nut is away; just step round to the Post Office, won’t you? (it was but a three minutes walk,) and see if there is any thing for me.”

“I would prefer not to.”

“You will not?”

“I prefer not.”

I staggered to my desk, and sat there in a deep study. My blind inveteracy returned. Was there any other thing in which I could procure myself to be ignominiously repulsed by this lean, penniless wight?—my hired clerk? What added thing is there, perfectly reasonable, that he will be sure to refuse to do?


No answer.

“Bartleby,” in a louder tone.

No answer.

“Bartleby,” I roared.

Like a very ghost, agreeably to the laws of magical invocation, at the third summons, he appeared at the entrance of his hermitage.

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