I Would Prefer Not To

Illustration by Susan Coyne.

Celebrate Herman Melville’s 200th birthday with our conversation about Melville’s great story, “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” We talk to Jay Parini, Jenny Odell, Nikil Saval, Wyn Kelley, and Gerald Howard. Listen today at 2 pm on WBUR or anytime on our website.

The first thing to know about Bartleby, the law-office copyist of Melville’s story, is that he’s inscrutable. You’ll never perfectly interpret this character, who speaks mysteriously (and almost only) of his preference not to do things, and of little else. He bears no single meaning. Bartleby, like all of us, can’t be cleanly decoded.

In our conversations about Melville’s story, we realized this impossibility. A profusion of interpretations suggested themselves, some more directly linked to the text, others anchored firmly in the minds of Bartleby’s innumerable readers, the readers’ contexts, Melville’s contexts, and on and on and on.

Jay Parini gave us the biographer’s take; Jenny Odell gave us a close reading of one of the more famous lines in American literature, Bartleby’s famous “I would prefer not to,” along with her thoughts on applying his form of resistance to the realm of social media; n+1’s Nikil Saval gave us his brief history of the office — a context for our scrivener’s alienation—and Doubleday editor Gerry Howard reflected on Melville as a struggling writer, Melville as Bartleby.

Wyn Kelley outlined an English professor’s sense of Melville’s scope, of the many possible ways you might try to make sense of his fiction and of Bartleby in particular, whose story might thwart those efforts at making sense.

The OS team wore shirts appropriate for the occasion.

But you can’t just give up trying to interpret this story. Like the narrating lawyer of “Bartleby,” you can’t stop seeking to understand the scrivener, even if you’ll never succeed. And that’s the source of the story’s enduring appeal. “Bartleby, the Scrivener”activates the reader’s mind without giving that mind an easy point for deactivation.

Watch: Encounters at the End of the World

Antarctica (not from Herzog’s film).

Reflecting on “Bartleby,” you’ll continually find yourself thinking about his situation in his office, but also about everything else—we heard it called an existential story, basically. And one filmmaker who comes to mind at the mention of existential inscrutability is Werner Herzog. His Encounters at the End of the World gives us the landscape of Antarctica, glittering and horrifying and beautiful, and it includes one sorrowful scene about a Bartleby-like penguin, who, for reasons we cannot know, decides to run away from all other penguins, away from the water and into an icy wasteland, probably self-destructively.

Listen: James Mason reading Bartleby

Chris discovered the James Mason reading of the story, and Conor tracked it down from an album retailer online and made a digital copy from the vinyl. If you’re dying to hear more, send us a note.

Read: How to Do Nothing

Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy (from Melville House Books!) looks at life beset by commercialized social media. Odell considers how we might evade the most oppressive aspects of that life—how we might salvage our capacities for socially nourishing attention. She doesn’t call for rejecting social media, exactly. Instead, she summons figures such as Bartleby to imagine how we might reject the terms presented to us altogether, how we might refuse to respond according to a dominant social order’s terms.

How to Do Nothing links Bartleby with historical figures who similarly refused to participate in an oppressive social order —Henry David Thoreau, Rosa Parks, Diogenes, and more. It’s a wide-ranging book about the wide-ranging challenges with which we’re all, like Bartleby or his boss, stuck.

Read: Benito Cereno

“Bartleby, the Scrivener” has cosmic-scale philosophical and metaphorical resonances, but it’s also astutely focused on Wall Street office life in the nineteenth century. And that gives us a glimpse of the encyclopedic range of Herman Melville, whose fictions deal with so many aspects of nineteenth-century business, nineteenth-century life, and life in general.

Our conversation about Bartleby periodically brought us back to Benito Cereno, a mysterious Melville story of other pernicious social forces—particularly those of racism and slavery.

Benito Cereno’s mysterious slave-ship story is narrated from a racist point of view, as Toni Morrison observes. Yet “because the racist point of view of the narrator is hidden,” Morrison points out, “the watcher is forced to discover racism as the paramount theme, the axis upon which all the action turns.”

Melville’s narrators can often reveal insidious evil, some profoundly disturbing mode of thought—racism, obsessive cruelty, alienation—undergirding their perspective or the perspectives of characters, but it takes the reader to grasp the full reach of that evil. Benito Cereno and “Bartleby” obviously tell radically different stories. But they share the unsettling sense of perils at the core of nineteenth-century thought.

There’s a complicated, socially contagious kind of evil in Melville’s fiction, and almost everywhere in his stories. Melville told Nathaniel Hawthorne that Moby-Dick itself was a wicked book. Its secret motto, he wrote, was a line of Ahab’s: “Ego non baptizo te in nomine patris, sed in nomine diaboli” (“I baptise you not in the name of the Lord, but in the name of the devil”).

Read: The New York Times’ 1619 Project

The Times Magazine this week is dedicated to the launch of this ambitious project, an attempt, as editor Dean Baquet writes, “to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.” David Bromwich sends us this view from a Trump partisan.

Next Week: Desert Island Discs

The Brits started this game: a castaway picks eight musical recordings, a book and a luxury item to take to a desert island, never to return. We’re marooning the jazz deejay Tom Reney. Come along and send us your own DIDs!

It doesn’t get better than this!

9 year old Henry Frasca

Watch the video that goes along with this! Two hundred forty two thousand views and counting! This is a very special boy, who happens to be Chris Lydon’s grandson. The world needs more Henry Frasca’s!

This Week’s Ephemeral Library:

Here’s the best of our research file for this week’s show: Nikil Saval on office fiction; Jill Lepore on Melville at home in the Berkshires; Elizabeth Hardwick’s ode to Bartleby; John Updike on Melville’s withdrawl; Harold Bloom on Bartleby’s alienation; Toni Morrison on Moby-Dick.

That’s all for this week, folks. Patrons will discover an extended interview with Nikil Saval on office films and office lit. Follow, share, subscribe, tweet and donate, unless of course you’d prefer not to!

❤️ The OS Scriveners



An American conversation with global attitude, on the arts, humanities, and global affairs, hosted by Christopher Lydon. chris@radioopensource.org

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Radio Open Source

An American conversation with global attitude, on the arts, humanities, and global affairs, hosted by Christopher Lydon. chris@radioopensource.org