Episode: Ah Bartleby! Ah Humanity!


Open Source with Christopher Lydon Logo
Subscribe
Ah Bartleby! Ah Humanity!

Herman Melville, at his 200th birthday, is the American Shakespeare if only for his epic prose poem Moby Dick, or The Whale. That’s Maximum Melville; we’re celebrating, instead, his short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” It’s the perfect miniature of the same genius: the story of a rebel clerk on Wall Street. It opens with hints of comedy; it ends in tragedy and still today, it’s a mystery. “I would prefer not to” is Bartleby’s signature line, turning down office assignments. It’s almost all he can say, but where are those five words of refusal coming from? And for whom is this Bartleby speaking?

Herman Melville.

“I would prefer not to” is Bartleby’s slogan—as familiar on Herman Melville T-shirts as the words that open Melville’s Moby-Dick: “Call me Ishmael.” But how different is the short story, “Bartleby the Scrivener,” from the great American novel—except that they’re both perfect Melville, in his 200th-birthday season. Bartleby appeared two years after Moby-Dick, in 1853, from Melville, who was still young at 34. It’s 30 pages instead of 600, far removed from the high seas, and more nearly manageable in one radio hour. Bartleby is a cadaverous and solitary young copyist (pre-Xerox machines) in a claustrophobic Wall Street law office. He’s the white-collar drone who opts out, refusing orders. Meaning what? Do we take him as a victim of class oppression, or a figure of extreme and individual depression? We’re open to the argument this hour that Bartleby stands for black America in the nineteenth century, and also he’s modeling a way out of social media and the commercial capture of our attention, and also that he spoke for Melville himself, a prophetic artist facing the futility of his writing vocation which would bring him almost nothing in the way of money, praise, or readership in his lifetime.

 

The post Ah Bartleby! Ah Humanity! appeared first on Open Source with Christopher Lydon.



Open Source with Christopher Lydon
Users who viewed this episode also viewed...

Open Source with Christopher Lydon > The Reporter’s Reporter

Seymour Hersh, known as Sy, made a brilliant career, at his best, of exposing Official US, at its worst: the Army massacre at My Lai, in Vietnam. The sadistic prison management at Abu Ghraib in Iraq. The forbidden spying by the CIA on American citizens. Sy Hersh has been the scariest scoop artist in journalism for 50 years — he scared his editors, his readers, his news-business rivals and his targets: who else virtually declared that his job was to stop Dick Cheney from going to war on Iran, and prevailed...

Open Source with Christopher Lydon > The Tower and the Square

A conversation about Brexit, yellow vests, and the state of the European Union with Arthur Goldhammer, Vanessa Bee, Julian Bourg, and Alan Rusbridger. A nasty winter of discontent is in the air, blowing around old towers of power: Paris, London and of course Washington. Like everything else in the Digital Age, fear, anger and disruption travel together through an invisible network—from left-out villages to posh precincts in shiny rich capitals of France, Britain, the US...

Open Source with Christopher Lydon > Karl Ove Knausgaard on Art and Loneliness

Karl Ove Knausgaard wrote a 6-volume selfie that a lot of us can’t stop reading. My Struggle he called it, looking inward and talking to himself for thousands of pages. Autumn, his new book, is a relief for him and us: It looks outward, in short pieces, letters to a new daughter before she was born, about Stubble Fields, Telephones, Wellington boots, chimneys, the painter Vincent Van Gogh...
Comments (0)

Login or Sign up to leave a comment.

Log in
Sign up

Be the first to comment.