connected to human deepest misery. Perhaps, the work at the notary’s office and the duplication of documents is Bartleby’s attempt to ensure that writing is not lost, a response to the obliteration characterizing his previous work. Bartleby may be desperately attempting to redeem himself, working his way from obliteration to restoration. In this perspective, the refusal to perform the basic scrivener’s tasks could be the sign that his rescue failed, or that no rescue was actually being undertaken. In the end, Bartleby worked with his eyes lost in a void.
My answer is derived from these hypotheses. The scrivener had a vocation for the job he did – he was ‘called’ by the letters he read in his first job and copied in his second. This call was so strong that letters still charmed him even in his desperate days. The letters that had destroyed his life and made him sense life’s devasting nature called him and he quietly answered. Bartleby was fired from his first job, he did not quit. When he was sent away, when life steered away from the path traced by his vocation, Bartleby tried to convert that call by establishing a new relationship with the letters. In his mind, the tasks of copying and transcribing the letters may have been the exact opposite of his previous work. We tried to help Bartleby through reason and mercy, but perhaps the greatest help was the paid work at our office. So what do we make of his ‘I would prefer not’ and his subsequent refusal of work?
In his comment to Bartleby’s story, Slavoj Zizek focused on the formula ‘I would prefer not to’. Zizek notes that Melville opens a third way as opposed to the dichotomy between the ‘wanting to do’ and ‘not wanting to do’, namely the ‘wanting not to do’. Bartleby was not refusing the additional tasks proposed to him, such as rechecking the writings or sending a registered letter. He was not rejecting the hand that we had all held out to him several times as an offer of help. Bartleby was rather affirming another type of reality and choice. He was affirming a universe of meaning almost inaccessible to those who had not received the same vocation and which we can only glimpse in his ‘I would prefer not’. In this reality, the great human warmth revealed is welcomed with ‘indifference’ (Melville’s word), precisely because it is not different from ordinary tasks. He was only concentrated in his work, in which his relationship with the letters materialized. We tried everything, “meanwhile Bartleby sat in his hermitage, oblivious to every thing but his own peculiar business there”.
I like to think that Bartleby experienced the profoundly secular infinity of life while copying and transcribing the documents at the notary’s office, just as he had experienced the tragic finitude of life in reading the dead letters. Melville’s most beautiful pages are not to be found among Bartleby’s final ones, his death or the rumour about his work. Much life and meaning can be discovered in the first pages of the short story, along with the simple description of Bartleby’s work as a scrivener. Melville knew it well, inasmuch as he decides to reveal everything in the title of the short story: a scrivener, a story of Wall Street. Maybe, when writing the short story, Melville came up with titles such as ‘I would prefer not to’ or ‘The Dead Letters’, but then he changed his mind, as it often happens. Perhaps it was Bartleby himself, who quietly said to Melville ‘I’d prefer not to’ after reading the alternative titles.
This is my circle in Bartleby and Melville’s line. At some point, however, like all vocations and calls, the letters become silent, the voice of his work disappears, or perhaps the one of the previous job becomes far too loud. Thus Bartleby no longer works, he stops writing and transcribing. He preferred not, as well as I do. Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!